Monday, November 12, 2012

Enduring Endurance


I am a barefoot runner. 

Why yes, I am wearing shoes.

OK, let me explain.

So I don't run around in my bare feet while snobbishly staring down all the poor sods with their shod feet, spouting out random indictments of the conspiracy of big brand shoe companies that have enslaved the masses in their over engineered torture apparatuses. (No, it's not apparati, regardless of how cool that would sound.) 

I do occasionally run in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers for some shorter runs, usually 5km or less. I get a kick out of the strange looks and stranger comments, although, the things I hear from kids is the best. (My battery commander's son used to call them "foot gloves")

More often than not, though, I have a pair of modest minimal shoes, with a pair of socks, and I rarely stand out in the crowd.

My journey to minimal running has been fraught with hard learned lessons and painful injuries, and spans my entire running career all the way back to a slightly chunky 5th grader sweating it out with his dad on a dirt trail.

Perhaps a little history of my running career is called for.

I was about 11 years old when my father first took me out running. He was a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army, and as such, was expected to maintain a pretty high level of fitness. I had always been a skinny kid, played a lot of baseball (badly) and soccer (worse), but puberty was setting in and seemed to have other ideas for my metabolism. My father decided that my brother and I needed to learn some good personal fitness habits and started taking us out to the dirt trail to run laps with him.

Through middle school and high school I participated heavily in both track and cross-country. Let's face it; I had no skills when it came to any other sport (they cut me from the soccer team two years in a row) and how hard is it to run in a straight line, or around a track. And they let pretty much anyone come out for the track and cross-country teams, regardless of ability. I was never the fast kid, but I enjoyed the camaraderie and have always had a special penchant for suffering. Training was pretty simple; go out and run as far and as fast as you can. I had one coach that put us through various workouts of differing distances and intensities, but the premise was the same. Run hard and you will succeed. Run slow and it'll take you longer to finish. Oh, sure, he espoused other more intellectual and technical lessons for running, but I was a teenager and quite literally, everything went in one ear and out the other side with a slight whistling vibration as it passed through. No, I didn't need someone to teach me how to run. It should come naturally to each of us, right? I mean, come one, my caveman ancestors had to run away from all lions and tigers and bears just to stay alive, didn't they?

I endured ankle strains, knee pain, hip pain, and countless shin splints. It seemed that I was always hurting somewhere on my body. But I was a runner, and runners were supposed to be in pain. Running was an honorable sport, and as with all honorable pursuits, glory is only achieved through prolonged and legendary suffering.

I graduated in 2000 and college changed all that. It was a time of beer, cigarettes, and more coffee and hard liquor than a human should probably consume in half a lifetime. I gave up running and took up a more self-indulgent lifestyle.

Smiling during a 5k, what's wrong with this guy?

A year after graduation I enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves and started running again. Pounds that had slowly built up through my epicurean college years started to fade away. Between the increased mileage and the fervor of the Drill Sergeants, I was able to drop back under 200 pounds. I continued to train for the next few years, and in 2008, I successfully completed my first half marathon.

While training, I was starting to notice something. I was falling into a pattern that had become all too familiar during high school, the cycle of train-injury-recovery. At the time, I accepted this as a natural course of an amateur runner. Much of the literature available, and much of this from sports medicine professionals, dictated that most runners would be injured, and the only solution was to stop running, recover, and then resume training, albeit at a lower level of intensity.

I continued this pattern while also increasing my mileage. My goal was to run my first full marathon in the fall of 2009. By now, I was living in El Paso, TX, and had discovered what I thought was a secret weapon in the battle against running injuries. A local shoe company, Spira footwear, had developed a unique running shoe that used proprietary spring technology to negate the effects of shock on the body during a heel-toe foot strike. For the first 6 months of use, I believed them. My knee pains went away, my ankle pains disappeared, and I almost forgot what a shin splint was. As I piled on the miles, the injuries slowly crept back into my world. Research told me that it was the shoes breaking down over time, that I just needed to replace them more often. So, after putting on roughly 250 miles, I bought a new pair, thinking my problems were solved through the tactical application of newer equipment. This time it lasted for about three months before the pain returned. I realized I was back in the vicious cycle of train-injury-recovery all over again, only now I was also forking over a hundred bucks at a time to fend off the injuries. There had to be some way to train consistently without breaking the bank and tearing my body slowly apart. Even with the most cutting edge and revolutionary shoes on my feet, I was taking days to recover from a long run, and a good race could have me sidelined for a week. The shoes weren't cutting it, so what was I to do?

Somehow, I found myself watching a morning news show, talking heads interviewing some middle-aged, average looking joe about a super human running tribe in Mexico. They had discovered the secret to everlasting life and limitless endurance potential, or something like that. He had written a book that all but promised to share these secrets through his personal journey of self-discovery and exploration. By now I was becoming desperate to solve my running dilemma and all but begged my wife for an early birthday gift.

I received two books for my birthday in 2009, Chi Running and Born to Run. I read both books, cover to cover. While Chi Running was a more technical look at improving individual running form, and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in injury free running, I was most affected by Chris McDougall's book about the Tarahumara tribe and his personal exploration into the world of ultra distance running. Here were human beings that not only could train for and run distances far exceeding my humble marathon goals, but they did so injury free and for decades beyond the normal career expectancy of your average western runner.

I had always been taught that becoming a better runner meant sacrifice and suffering. That running was painful was par for the course and must simply be endured. But here was an entirely different paradigm of running and training. To run not only injury free, but pain free.

I was sold. I became a barefoot runner. I enlisted in the cult of the barefoot tribe, jumped straight onto the bandwagon of followers that held McDougall's Born to Run as their bible, and started espousing the virtues of a minimalist philosophy that I didn't even fully understand. Yet.

OK, so I didn't just take my shoes off and jog Kenyan style into the Mexican sunset. I tossed my Spira, stabilizing, spring cushioned, state of the art, long distance running shoes into the trash and went to the outlet store and bought a $10 pair of New Balance tennies.

(On a side note. My dad used to own a pair of gray New Balance tennies. This was back before New Balance got into the high-end technical sports apparel and equipment market and was commonly regarded as poorly produced, cheap and simple footwear for everyday use. No professional athlete would have been caught dead in their shoes. But my father continued to buy and wear the same running shoes for his entire military career. Probably still does. So, in my mind, they were the cheapest shoes with the least amount of technical devices to interfere with my form that I could think of.)

The wife and I started studying. We would both go out for runs around the neighborhood and take turns analyzing each other’s style and form. We studied the wear patterns on the bottoms of our shoes to determine foot strike. We watched clips of distance runners online, became avid followers of every barefoot running blogger we could find. We became running form Nazis. Any discussion of running form would elicit immediate criticism or commentary from either of us. We were self-anointed priests of the New World Order of Running. With just enough education to make us dangerous we set out to educate the world, or at least, those of our friends and coworkers that had the misfortune of uttering the words "pronation" or "stability" during a barbecue.

The wife and I started taking trips to the running track where we'd doff our shoes and tenderly prance around the track to toughen our soles and calves. I bought my first pair of Vibram Five Fingers in 2010, followed shortly by a pair of Merrel Barefoot trail shoes for use during Physical Training. (The U.S. Army still does not allow "toe shoes" while in uniform or conducting organized PT.) My first short run in the Five Fingers ended about three quarters of a mile in, with me limping back home, pride left out on the track and my calves so sore I couldn't run for three days.

It all sounded so simple. Read a book, do some barefoot laps, buy some neat looking shoes and all your problems are solved. But it wasn't that easy. I still battled injuries and had to learn, the hard way usually, that it's less about the shoes and more about the form of the runner. It's been a long process, sometimes painful and slow, to develop my running style. Thankfully, I have a wife that was willing to follow me down the proverbial rabbit hole into the world of barefoot/minimal running. Together, we were able to set aside our mindless passion for the barefoot world and allow time and experience to evolve our passion for running.

There have been setbacks. I irritated my iliotibial band during a marathon in 2011 and couldn't run for over a month. But gone are the endless incessant injuries that would sideline me for weeks or months at a time.

As my running form continued to mature, I began to truly understand the point of Born to Run and the minimalist movement. It wasn't about shedding footwear to run faster or longer. It was about learning how to read your body, to understand the signs and symptoms that lead to injury. I learned how to run in a relaxed state, self-aware and constantly adjusting my stride, my posture and my foot strike depending on the terrain and distance I was covering. I no longer preach about the McDougall and Tarahumara stories as if they are the messiahs of running. Rather, their lesson is one of self-awareness and experimentation, not through trial and error, but through a constant state of self-evaluating and relaxed and less determined way of running.

Running has become less of a painful enterprise with occasional flashes of euphoria. Now, an entire run can be a beatific experience. I run free from the mask of "endurance" I once placed on my body to hide from the pain or running poorly or injured. You might say, I am unshod in that I don't hide from the sensations of pain, but use them to identify what is wrong and correct it before I suffer injury.

So, yeah, I'm a barefoot runner. I just like to wear shoes and socks while I'm barefoot.