In January 2010 I attended a local bird-watching workshop and noticed some of the attendees were shoeless. Fascinated (and puzzled as to why anyone would want to go barefoot in winter), I returned home to research. What I found littering the rocky landscape of the interweb convinced me to try barefoot running as a way to (finally?!) overcome my nemesis: chronic left knee pain dating back to a 20-mile trail race in 2004.
Seven years later, the knee pain is long gone. I have a really long braid. My grandkids don’t always wear shoes (even in winter).
I’m taking early retirement at the end of this semester to write and hike barefoot even more than I already do.
To celebrate all the good weirdness that losing my shoes has brought into my life, I came up with the highly original idea to make a list of seven barefoot-related lessons, one for each year of fun. (Warning: I am neither doctor, psychologist, nor orca trainer. Implement these lessons at your own risk.)
There is more to life than following conventional wisdom.
Stiff shoes, high boots: neither are necessary to enjoy trail running, hiking, or back packing–even six-day adventures up and down steep, rocky Grand Canyon trails.
As with other muscle groups, strong feet/ankles develop via use, not immobilization (hiking boots = ankle girdles/foot coffins).
Throughout years of getting strong via many hours of shoeless trail time, my capable feet have enjoyed the following Grand Canyon adventures (mostly shoeless, but some in lightweight sandals when I’m being paid to backpack with a group as WFR): four rim-to-rims; week-long backpacking trips to Havasu Falls, Boucher Creek, and Thunder River; and quite a few “short” overnight trips to Bright Angel Camp and Cottonwood Camp (each seven miles below the rim of the Canyon).
Question: what other areas of our lives do we need to question conventional wisdom? If Big Phalanges (shoe/boot companies) are wrong about the need for shoes to enjoy trails, where else might we have reason to speculate/hyperventilate about conspiracies to keep us consuming unnecessary shizz?
Many fellow hikers/runners/bikers out on the trails feel compelled to say something about my lack of footwear.
Question: why the huge need to state, “You’re barefoot.”? As if:
a) I don’t know this and/or
b) Their verbalization will somehow change the situation to something they can wrap their Big-Phalanges-brainwashed mind around.
Recently I’ve heard more than a few “How do you do that? I can’t even go barefoot in my living room.”
Bonus question: is it difficult for me not to launch into a diatribe when I hear this.
Answer: Yes. Yes, it is. (But I don’t, these days, having learned over the last seven years that folks really don’t want me to reply with a sermon-on-the-mountain; they just need a safe space to verbalize their dismay at my unconventional lifestyle/shoestyle choice.)
Barefoot running offers no guaranty for curing or preventing running injuries.
My physical therapy doctor can vouch for this during any one of my many regular visits to play whack-a-mole with my owie-du-jour.
Q: How was your barefoot trail running going before your stress fracture last October?
A: Pretty darn good. Best in my 57-year existence.
Even when injured (that pesky lower right fibula stress fracture being the most recent and by far the worst so far), limping along on a trail barefoot is better than doing most anything with shoes on.
Q: Are you back to barefoot trail running again?
A: Yep. [Cue “Still Crazy After All These Years“] I continue to inter-web my brains out looking for the magic key to unlock they mystery of my chronic running/life aches and pains, and I continue to be fascinated by the connections of not only gait mechanics, but psychological/mind-body factors in chronic pain. (And I thank God I can trail run barefoot again!)
Barefoot trail running can lead one down a slippery slope that has nothing to do with mud and everything to do with life changes inspired by discovering the power of shoelessness.
Q: What the heck does that mean?
A: I have let go of haircuts, sleeping-with-a-pillow, mouth-breathing, some-but-not-all carbs, etc.
Smiling is unavoidable when trail running with a long braid.
While I still wear sandals (the same ones I backpack in) to eat out, work, go to church, etc, it’s getting more and more difficult to keep them on once at table, desk, or pew.
Q: Why don’t you stop wearing footwear altogether, then?
A: After seven years, am I still hung up on “conventional wisdom” that says only crazy people go out and about in public without shoes? How fun is it to answer a question with a question?
A: Almost as fun as traveling trails with happy, free toes.
Happy Trails . . . seven times seven!
To celebrate both my return to running (after suffering a lower right fibula stress fracture back in October) as well as all the fabulous end-of-year rain here in So Cal, I decided to film a sequel to “I Like Mud (and barefoot running)” (which has had 21,000+ YouTube views in the last three years . . . yikes . . .).
Here it is . . . a much-shorter version of the same plot: crazy old lady goes for a run in the mud and reverts to her childhood.
This time my hair looks a bit wilder, bringing to mind the good old CSN&Y song: “I wonder why/ I feel like letting my freak flag fly.”
May mud (and other simple pleasures of God’s good creation) enrich your life in 2017!
My daughter and I had a fun Christmas Eve afternoon stroll around Irvine Regional Park, during which she used her photography super-powers to make my feet feel like celebrities:
And, of course, having a camera pointed in my direction definitely inspired me to show off–as much as my still-healing-stress-fractured-lower-right-fibula would allow:
It was a stellar day, all puffy clouds and chilly sunshine and 60-mile views of the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains:
(In case you missed it: Look! Snow!)
For weeks, I’ve been trying and trying to work up to more than a few seconds of easy jogging, but the pain keeps reminding me, “Wait! We’ve got a bit more healing to do!”
Sigh. Here’s me “pretending” to run. (None of the rocks were fooled.)
As the above photo shows (and all the above photos were by my talented daughter! Thanks!) the trails were luscious with damp dirt and vivid new growth–in Southern California the winter rains bring LIFE to the wild lands (inspiring a poem):
After December rain
a blessing of green
fringes the trail:
plump, glow, unfurl, leap–
all our damp feet
are glad for the springing
of chaparral winter
and the promise
of wild February
So the wildflowers are on their way . . . just like Scarlett O’Hara reminds us: “Tomorrow is another day.”
And my own personal “tomorrow” finally happened today: I was able to ascend the mile+ trail back to the top of Barham Ridge where the views of the Pacific Ocean were just as amazing as I remembered.
That is correct: on December 29, 2016, at 3:45 pm, I finally RAN (slowly) for many minutes! Up and down hills! In running shorts! (It was over 70 degrees today! How many exclamation points can we get away with here?!)
So that’s pretty much the end of my barefoot running in 2016; with two days of rain in the forecast, our county park trails will be closed again, and I’ll sulk around the house until my next (2017!) adventure in the wild Orange County foothills that are habitat and home to so much shoe-less life . . . including . . . you-know-who . . .
Happy New Year! Happy Trails!
It’s December, the month Christians around the world celebrate teen pregnancy, as the ancient story is retold of the virgin Mary giving birth to Baby Jesus, a story I–sort of–identify with every time this season rolls around.
Sort of: I, too, was a young mom. Definitely not of the virginal persuasion, however . . . just an unhappy teen whom the centuries will not celebrate . . . just an angsty 15-year-old who must not have paid attention during the awkward junior high PE class films on all things female . . . just a last-of-seven-siblings goof-off whose exhausted parents never quite got around to paying enough attention to figure out anything was amiss until that damp June 1975 evening when my baby-daddy (a handy 21st-century term that had not quite entered the vernacular in 1975) and I dropped the P-bomb on the fam.
It’s December, 1975. My now-husband and I are official high school drop-outs; fading September wedding photos show that we look even younger than our ages (16, 17), but it’s Christmas time, and with my big belly I feel as conspicuous as Mary.
It’s December, 2016. I just googled “barefoot and pregnant” to see if there was any link between my being an early adopter of motherhood and my current barefoot state.
The ladies of the “Mumsnet” discussion group seem to agree that the “barefoot” part of this quote is definitely negative: “[She] can’t leave because she has no shoes to walk in and [is] pregnant and vulnerable.”
Then there’s good ol’ Wikipedia: “A common assumption is that the expression relates to housewives not leaving the home, and thus not needing shoes.”
One more bit from WikiP: “Barefoot And Pregnant is a phrase that pokes fun at chauvinists who want their women barefoot (so that they are unable to socialize) and pregnant (helpless). This follows the general image of society in which women are merely objects.”
Hmm. According to “society” (whatever that is), no shoes = homebound helplessness.
Not my shoe-less experience at all; in fact, learning to adapt to hiking/running barefoot for hours on rocky, muddy, dusty, steepy trails for the last six years has made me feel . . . has made me feel . . . had made me feel like the middle-aged embodiment of all 26 synonyms for “able” (thanks to the lovely Thesaurus.com): adept, adequate, adroit, agile, alert, apt, bright, capable, competent, cunning, deft, dexterous, easy, effortless, endowed, equipped, facile, fitted, good, intelligent, knowing, powerful, ready, smart, strong, worthy.
As Homer Simpson would say, “Woo hoo!”
The “. . . and pregnant” half of the equation hits home, though: this is definitely a vulnerable state of being, whether or not you’re 16. 18. 22. (The ages I delivered babies.) How crazy it seems–looking back from my 40-some-years-later perch of perspective–that I was able to muddle through these chapters of life with our three kids: Oopsie, Uh-oh, and Not Again.
Or was it only “our” kids? (Spoiler alert: nope.)
It wasn’t just me and Baby-daddy; we had lots of help along the way, including the love-and-presence of God as well as our big ol’ extended families . . . once they got over the hilarity of “Thea’s pregnant? That tomboy? Didn’t she hate playing with dolls and now she’s got a baby to take care of 24/7/365? That’s the most ironic thing I’ve ever heard of. I think I just snorted Fresca out my nose.” (Fresca = popular 70s soda pop brand.)
So it’s December again, and these annual musings twinkle like background Christmas music that you’d like to put an end to, but worry that it might be considered symptomatic of a mental unhingement to rip the tinny speakers out of the grocery store ceiling, so you hum along.
And plot your next barefoot trail adventure.
This morning’s sermon title: “The Way of Gratitude.”
Walking the Willow Trail a few hours ago at sunset in a November drizzle: as the trail got harder to see, my other senses kicked in and I felt scents: acrid moist dirt. Sharp-leafed musk of mule fat.
Fuzzy fruity yerba santa. Tangy, soft pillows of horse manure.
How to deal with things that fade:
Willow green leaf-shine,
this last rainy afternoon
light; my enthusiasm for life-
without-running. Then night.
It’s raining! Once again my hat brim drips. The knee-ward side of my pants gets soaked. Mud clumps up on the soles of my feet.
Maybe the stress fracture is feeling less stressed today? I try two gentle steps of jogging. Ouch. But I am able to walk for a couple of dusty (muddy?!) miles again.
Yesterday I spent in Hemet (what lovely mountain views) at a relative’s 70th birthday celebration: just recovering from hip surgery, she can hardly totter along behind her two-wheeled flimsy aluminum walker.
Absorbing Bach’s “Magnificat” (c. 1733) at my Lutheran church-from-birth this evening: pipe organ, orchestra with trumpets and timpani, choir in five parts. All Latin. “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” young Mary sang when she found out she was going to be great with child. When I was 15, I was not quite as pleased to discover I was pregnant. Mary and I shared Christmas-time due dates, making the holidays awkward for both of us (and our families).
Tonight, under our recently remodeled c.1914 neo-gothic sanctuary’s hundreds of too-bright, too-blue LED lights, I had difficulty seeing the choir members faces clearly from my usual spot in the back of the balcony. Earlier this afternoon my sister told me she was ready to schedule her cataract surgery.
I have been sitting up here for 57 years. “Did you hear about the religious skunk? He went to church every Sunday and sat in his own pew.” One of my favorite “balcony jokes.”
The anticipatory chaos of an orchestra tuning . . . and then the pause . . . and the baton and opening notes crash down together.
Who was listening to what on this sagebrush-covered flood plain in 1730?
The music and instruments of Europe continue to sound here, but not the native songs of this place.
That pall, the pull of “what happened here” . . . not always audible/sensory/logical, but still “real”?
A church friend came up to me before the start of the Bach concert to tell me he was taking his grandkids–our kids went to elementary school together here–to Grand Canyon’s South Rim this Friday on the Polar Express Christmas Train out of Williams, AZ.
Earlier today, after morning service, a middle-aged lady–who babysat my kids when she was a teenager–walked over to say “hi” to my visiting daughter (“I thought you were your mom!”) and to tell me she enjoyed following my Grand Canyon adventures on Facebook.
My late teens/early 20s were an adventure in: diaper sniffing, diaper changing, diaper rinsing, diaper hanging-out-to-dry on the clothesline . . . I was a stay-at-home mom-of-three cliche, except I was always at least ten years younger than most of my PTA peers. Ongoing awkwardness then, maybe some good stories now. “When I was your age (16, 18, 22), I had (1, 2, 3) kids and a mortgage.” Husband, too, who is still good for a few laughs 41 years later.
Smelling like a soggy grandma, driving home from the trailhead at 5:30 this evening: wet Chapman Ave. reflects headlights, tail-lights on the way down El Modena Grade. There are memories that cannot be driven away when you’ve lived in the. Same. Place. All your life.
As I’ve written many times before, the willows along Santiago Creek just west of Irvine Park are cracking, falling, fragmenting in the drought, sometimes blocking the trail until chainsaw crews do something about it. The willow forest is a jumble of trunks and limbs.
It is full-fledged fall in The Willows–leaves yellow, drift, get soaked like me as I listen in the blessed rain. I hold still, hold my breath, and there is it, it is there, it’s here: leaf-drip percussion under a mitigated sycamore. (Planted here as if that would offset habitat lost to x-hundred/y-thousand houses elsewhere in Orange County.)
Walking walking walking. This place is so close to the edge of the continent you can hardly head west. I never learned to yodel, but it feels like time to try.
This morning’s sermon title: “The Way of Gratitude.”
I like to think this alligator lizard was pleased to see me back on the trails surrounding Irvine Regional Park; at least he paused long enough for this foot-selfie before wiggling off into the sagebrush.
The first-sunset-since-we-lost-Daylight-Savings was noticeably early; the shortening days of winter’s approach are upon us.
But the light was ever-changing and lovely as it lit the near-leafless sycamore trees . . . they slowly morphed into silhouettes while the taffy layers of cirrus stretched out and changed colors as well (how could a camera, or words, ever hope to transfer this drama?)
The shattered willow forest (all the trees have been slowly self-destructing, shedding limb after limb as the drought continues) echoed with a syncopated cricket chorus that almost, but not quite, drowned out the nearby traffic rush on busy Santiago Canyon Road, where canyon-cruising motorcycles rumble and roar through their gears all weekend long.
The trail through the willow forest is creatively named: The Willows Trail. I did not discover these peaceful paths until just a few years ago; now it’s one of my favorite places to begin or end a run. Or, since my stress fracture three weeks ago, a walk. (And yes, I stepped in that pile. It’s soft and cushy. For a moving picture of my feet & horse poo, click away
It seemed odd that only a few willow are shedding their furry fruit capsules right now; have they all given up?
Another fuzzy bloomer going cra-cra-crazy: coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis).
Not in bloom, but so striking in the low light, is one of my favorite coastal sage scrub shrubs, thick-leaved yerba santa: fragrant like a fruity popsicle, nicely chewable, much-used medicinally by earlier (smarter?) people. I like it so much, I bought one and planted it in my back yard years ago. It didn’t take long for it to return the love and attempt to take over the well-watered vegetable garden with vigorous underground runners.
Now we only meet away from home.
Even though I haven’t been patrolling “my trails” for the last three weeks of stress-fractured inactivity, there wasn’t a whole lot of trash today. But of course, there’s always someone who thinks it’s a good idea to peel the label off their single-use resource-intensive petro-chemical plastic water bottle and chuck such label into the air, where it will either a) magically disappear; or b) land next to the trail where it will remain until a hungry coyote mistakes it for food, or a hiker with half-a-brain picks it up.
We had a couple light rains in October . . . just enough to send the non-native annual grasses springing into action. It did feel nice to my sensation-seeking feet (read that any way you want 🙂 ). Here’s the lower fibula stress fracture showing a marked decrease in swelling. Thanks be to God!
Even if I can’t run for hours any more, I can walk for minutes, and that makes me appreciate all those miles of free running in the past couple of years.
Happy recuperating trails!
October is a lovely month to be barefoot at Grand Canyon; last year I celebrated with not one, but two shoeless rim-to-rim crossings: the 21-mile South Kaibab to North Kaibab trek with a group from Glendale Community College on Oct. 10, and then a solo R2R in the opposite direction (North Kaibab to South Kaibab) on Oct. 26.
This October, however, I’m no longer on sabbatical, and even one trip to Grand Canyon was not to be–a bit of a downer, but my recent miles of strong, pain-free, barefoot running on local trails have been a delightful consolation.
And then I was out late in the afternoon of Oct. 13, marveling at the marshmallow moon just above the bruise-purple mountains, floating free down from Barham Ridge on Coachwhip Trail–a fifteen minute traverse of switchbacks, maybe a mile or so, not measuring, just being in my body, in the now, in my lovely damaged corner of the sagebrush universe, not measuring time or distance, not measuring up or how long, allowing gravity to ease my flight . . . and then there was trouble in paradise.
A tiny twinge began on the outside of my right ankle, not enough to even remember at the end of the run, but two days later it came to mind during a circumnavigation of the rolling Peters Canyon loop and the twinge returned.
Not just trouble in paradise, but hard knocks in Nirvana, problems in the Promised Land, a shitstorm in Shangri-La . . . long story short, it’s a stress fracture of my lower fibula.
When runners can’t run, are they still runners?
I had thought I was beyond the identify politics of “being” an activity. In the shiny endorphin-y haze of nose-breathing-gone-wild
in my recent trail adventures, hadn’t I begun to see my self as “run” more than “runner?”
Hadn’t I evolved to a much higher plane of righteous physical spirituality than the sweaty masses of mouth-breathing mountain bikers that I (reluctantly) shared my trails with?
I was so much free-er than those machinery-dependents: foot skin on soil. Toes on trail. Yeah, stubbing bloody was always a possibility, but the risk increased the reward, identity gone beyond an activity to cellular communion with the refreshing dust, the sublime breeze-in-gray-hair that I created by RUN.
Shirtless, smiling, belly skin slick in the lingering fall heat–as close as I could be to the red dust, rolled rocks, curled laurel sumac, rattle-seeded yucca stalks.
That was then.
Today’s reality: now I walk slow, uneven, although I my aim is to Not Limp as I cross Santiago Creek.
I almost shuffle. Who am I? I sit on a fire-downed pine, straddle it like a broad-backed horse, shove up my jeans past the swelling, past the dark-tinged skin.
My ankle bone has disappeared in the inflammatory pudding that is my lower leg.
Why me? Why not me? Like lightning with nowhere to go, my furious electrical thoughts, sadness, anger, ricochet inside me.
At least running used to release this shit into the Earth, that comforting old friend which has heard, seen, felt it before for millennia.
It’s rained a couple of times this month. A new season has begun: the lush blink of winter in Southern California. All around my log perch needles of green emerge from the dead thatch of last year’s decaying grass: life springing from decay.
My home garden is responding to the recent rain in an explosion of sprouting–lupine and poppy and wild hyacinth and all kinds of cotyledons who are as yet unrecognizable. Maybe some weeds in the mix. Time will tell.
Me and the seedlings: we all go on; we all absorb light, warmth, moisture, nutrients . . . metabolize it into life. Death and decay repurpose what’s left over for what’s to come. It’s an imperfect world that still works very well–but everything hinges on loss. (Whoever loses her life will find it: from Matthew 16)
I try to be upbeat . . . What is this loss of mobility, this pain, but a teacher? What is it time to learn today?
I would not be scribbling here along the Rinker Grove Trail at Santiago Oaks, not too many steps from the parking lot, if I could run.
But I can’t run, and so I sit and take note of the acorns that litter the ground around me. (Why are some so dark? Might they taste different than the more common tan ones? Could I eat a few and find out?)
I return home and do some online research; there is a lot more to acorn color and taste than I had imagined. While all oaks produce acorns, some species are more palatable than others; the nuts are bitter with varying amounts of tannic acid, and for humans to consume them, a lengthy process of water rinsing (called leaching) needs to happen.
What I also find interesting is that bitterness levels vary not only between species but between individual trees.
Hmmm. My next Google search employs the keywords “osteoporosis” and “bitterness.”
I’m due for my annual bone scan next month; last year’s news was disheartening–the bone density loss was continuing at a steady pace since my first broken-rib-inspired DEXA test back in 2009. I had degenerated further most annoyingly: the osteopenia was now officially osteoporosis.
You suck, old lady.
Crap. Thoughts like that are why my bones are crumbling, according to a variety of both secular and religious web sites.
Sigh. Another reason to feel bad about feeling bad.
For over a year I’ve been reading books and internet articles about the interconnectedness of our minds and bodies. “Mind is body,” one researcher noted.
Now for a round-up of my most recent findings (feel free to skip if you are pain-free, and please know I am bitter towards you now as well).
This is a Christianity-identifying site on mind-body-spirit and illness called “Faith and Health Connection.”
It has a section on depression and osteoporosis which reads, “A study of several research efforts including thousands of people by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers has shown a clear connection between depression and a loss of bone mass, leading to osteoporosis and fractures. The results, say the researchers, show clearly that depressed individuals have a substantially lower bone density than non-depressed people and that depression is associated with a markedly elevated activity of cells that breakdown bone (osteoclasts).”
“God inspired writers of the Bible to share his truth and principles about the connection between our emotional and spiritual health and our physical health. Take a look at the following verses related to this topic:
“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Proverbs 17:22
“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones .” Proverbs 14:30
Next: an exhaustive list of mind-body illness connections that reminded me of a sort of “horoscope” — you can pretty much apply anything on it (the “Barnum effect“).
But, like a negative horoscope, it was morbidly entertaining; here’s what it said my osteoporosis was trying to tell me:
Osteoporosis: Feeling there is no support left in life. Mental pressures and tightness. Muscles can’t stretch. Loss of mental mobility.
On to a similar encyclopedia-type site; on it I found “COMMON MIND-BASED CAUSES” subtitled “Osteoporosis/Brittle Bones”:
“Inflexibility, rigid thinking, fixed ideas, unwilling to change, lack of structure, unable to support self, weak from supporting others, feeling inferior, bitterness, hate, resistance to standing up for yourself +/or attachment to external source of structure/support.”
As a bonus, this site offers custom calming thoughts–here’s the one I am supposed to use for this bone-crunching malady:
“CALM CURE THOUGHT: I am flexible and stand strongly in love.”
Then there’s the “Can Cannabis Cure Bitterness” web page–very timely in light of California’s upcoming vote next week on legalizing marijuana. This author provides a really long, thoughtful, far-ranging treatise on bitterness that does not even mention Mary Jane (1970s slang for other old people to enjoy) until the end.
Did I find myself in all the above-referenced references?
Let’s just say that all this close-to-home stuff about bitterness is making me even more bitter that I am bitter and thus destroying my lovely strong barefoot running self from the inside out.
F*** you, Bitterness! I’ll forgive you when you stop eroding my bones.
To end on a less-bitter note: a friend posted a quote on FB a few days ago that has stuck with me in all my current non-running angst: “Build a life you don’t need a vacation from.”
Another blogger liked it too and came up with all kinds of advice along these lines.
“A life I don’t need a vacation from” sounds good right now; I’m thankful that even though my trail running days in our local wildlands are on hold, I can step barefoot outside my back door and still experience some of the lovely local flora of the California Floristic Province, one of our planet’s biodiversity’s hotspots.
Here’s what I found sprouting and growing this morning (both California native plants as well as veggies):
Happy Non-bitter Trails!