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Seven lessons learned in seven years of barefoot hiking/trail running

January 16, 2017

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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).

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Son, grandkids, grand-dog: not a shoe to be seen

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.)

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Lesson #1

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).

In 2016, I also completed my first trail ultra (50k through the Navajo Reservation at Monument Valley) mostly barefoot, with Sockwas for places where pokey stickers were too much to handle.

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?

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Barefoot KenBob and his barefoot companion.

Lesson #2

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.)

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Lesson #3

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.

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Limping along with friend Gina at Irvine Park last week.

Lesson #4

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!)

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Lesson #5

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.

 

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Happiness is a barefoot foot-hug with grandkids at a waterfall in Big Sur.

Lesson #6

Smiling is unavoidable when trail running with a long braid.

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My awesome (and no-longer-available) Merrill Pipidae Wrap sandals

Lesson #7

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.

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Happy Trails . . . seven times seven!

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. Caveman Hiking permalink
    July 4, 2017 8:22 am

    I can totally relate to your 7 points, and we get the same questions: you’re hiking barefoot? (Umm…yup) and how do you do that…I could never do that!? (Umm…I just took off my shoes, and you could too, but it seems too many cultural taboos are in your way). I often wonder if those shod hikers, besides thinking we’re crazy, are secretly jealous?

    • July 4, 2017 2:21 pm

      Ha! I love the answers you give folks (in your head). I try to be polite, but . . . sheesh . . . some of the questions/comments do seem a little insulting. (Such as the example you gave, “You’re hiking barefoot?”)

      I’m pretty sure they do think we’re crazy; as far as the “secretly jealous” idea . . . you may be on to something. That might be behind the slightly wistful tone with which people make the comment, “I used to go barefoot all the time as a kid.” Let’s unleash our inner kids! (not Keds . . . but that might be a 1960s joke) πŸ™‚

      • Caveman Hiking permalink
        July 4, 2017 2:28 pm

        During one encounter with two women on the trail one made the typical “I could never do that… I can’t walk around my house barefoot” comment while the other got that wistful look you were talking about and said “when I was a kid we were always barefoot.” I think the second woman was secretly jealous.

      • July 6, 2017 1:23 pm

        Ha! Yep! Hey . . . as part of your six-month experiment, maybe you could do what I’ve always wanted to, but was never “organized” enough to pull off: write down all the comments you get and see what patterns emerge. Just a thought πŸ™‚

      • Caveman Hiking permalink
        July 9, 2017 8:31 am

        I’ll work on that πŸ™‚

  2. Lore permalink
    February 28, 2017 8:00 pm

    Hi Thea! I enjoyed your post very much, it really resonates with my own experience (especially lesson 5! i feel as well that going barefoot changed me in other unexpected ways, collateral benefits). I’d love your advice! I’ve been running barefoot for years but almost exclusively urban terrain. I started to venture into trail running. However I’ve found it to be very challenging, maybe these trails are too difficult. I can’t actually run, only walk, because when i run it feels every step Im landing on too much gravel and twigs. So I cant help wonder if it’s just me or I’ll just have to accept that some parts of some trails I cant run barefoot, and I might decide to get vibrams to be able to run those parts. Is it a matter of toughening the feet? A matter of better technique?

    • March 1, 2017 12:52 pm

      Thanks for reading my blog–and letting me know it’s been helpful to you . . . that always makes my day! I’m glad to hear you’re eager to get out on the trail; as you said, it’s definitely “challenging” . . . but it provides so much enjoyment too!

      Whether I run or walk (or hobble along) depends on lots of factors: time of day (extreme heat and cold = yikes!), the condition of the trail (dust or mud or small irregular gravel or big chunky rocks or ???), my own mind-set that day (whether I’m out for a fast or slow adventure) . . .

      Over the years, my brain has gotten a lot more experienced at giving me accurate feedback (instead of “pain! danger!” all the time); now I can move along with mostly “huh; interesting texture” messages from my sensory feedback system. I’m fortunate in that my favorite nearby trails (I guess this is why I like them so much) have some smooth clay-ish sections that I can actually run on (as opposed to high-stepping my way over rock-fields: the quick/light/fast steps really help me negotiate rocks better, until it sometimes becomes a sort of zen-thing).

      You’re right on the money with the “acceptance” idea; trails are fun to run on exactly because of the variety of terrain they offer, and so I’m (usually πŸ™‚ ) OK with mixing up running and hiking. (When my psycho inner runner-racer takes over, however, that’s when I get annoyed with any rocks or plant bits that slow me down, and that’s when I tend to get hurt.)

      As far as alternate footwear–when I hike/run in a new place, I carry my Sockwas in my hydration pack. If I know I’m going to be needing long-term foot protection (like backpacking), then I wear my old-but-beloved Merrell Pipidae Wrap sandals (unfortunately, no longer made, but I’m thinking of getting a pair of the new Xero Amuri Z-trek sandals one of these days).

      Hope this helps! The main thing is to enjoy your time on the trails, whether shod or not πŸ™‚

      Cheers,

      Thea

  3. Lorena permalink
    February 16, 2017 6:39 pm

    I’m so relieved to have read your incredible journey since you decided on something that for the most sounds impossible and for others insane. ( I am happily insane by the way ) πŸ˜‰ yesterday while I was trying to find some comfort and information about heel pain while trying to figure out what a heck is now happening on my right foot!!!!! Not again!! 10 months since transitioning and this is my 4th setback damn! Must be my age ( 47 ) or I’m doing it all wrong etc… But after reading you I just know that whatever it takes me I won’t be a prisoner of any shoes ( except for my xero sandals ) lol! Just to run errands you know πŸ˜‰

    Having said all that bunch of nonsense, I must tell you that you have inspired me to continue. Frankly this feels like heaven! When it’s not hurting ha-ha

    Congrats on your 7 wonderful years of freedom πŸ™‚

    • February 20, 2017 10:16 am

      Hi Lorena–Thanks for the nice note! It really makes my day when someone gets inspiration from my blog–because that’s why I do it! Best wishes as you continue to work through the messages your body is sending (another way to look at “pain” πŸ™‚ ). I hope your barefooting continues to bring you much joy . . . Happy (barefoot!) trails, Thea

      • Lorena G Reyes permalink
        March 3, 2017 8:54 am

        On the contrary, thank you for your kind reply. So much inspiration and learning from persons like you.

  4. February 3, 2017 8:42 pm

    Thanks for the great essay! I’m a guy who is crazy enough to go barefoot in public, but I have never had enough personal power to live a healthy lifestyle like you do. I’m very envious (in a positive way).

    • February 4, 2017 6:26 am

      Thanks for the positive response, Victor. I guess I’m just the opposite of you in terms of going barefoot “in public” . . . I wear sandals around town but not out on the trails. And . . . your choice of “shoelessness” IS a healthy lifestyle choice . . . keep building on that πŸ™‚ Happy Trails, Thea

  5. Paula Peeters permalink
    January 23, 2017 2:57 pm

    Yay! Well done Thea, I hope you have many, many happy barefoot trails ahead. Certainly ditch the haircuts (or get a nice person to do a tidy trim now and then for free – this works for me). And I reckon ditch the make-up too. And the anti-bacterial soaps. And it baffles me why people pay money for water in polluting plastic bottles if they have good, clean tap water available. Another one of life’s mysteries…

    • January 25, 2017 7:47 pm

      Hi Paula–It’s always fun to hear from you and think about your nature-lovin’ life in another hemisphere. We seem to be on the same wave-length: the make-up went decades ago, nasty soaps a bit more recently, and the whole disposable water bottle thing–I was just ranting about that yesterday at work! Grand Canyon National Park stopped selling single-use water bottles a few years ago; I wish more places/schools would do that. Enough ranting . . . I’ve got to get back under my rock and avoid the news . . . unless it’s news about our amazing series of rain-storms this past week πŸ™‚ Happy (Artful!) Trails . . .

  6. Rob G. permalink
    January 20, 2017 6:17 am

    Hi Thea…another nice post! Yes, that beautiful “retirement” word! I have similar thoughts…I’ve tried to eliminate my bad, junkie-like failings, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, stuff like that. Lots of good juices, wheat germ, honey, walnuts, garlic pills now! As I get older, I don’t want hair, or shoes, and I only want enough clothes to let me leave the house!
    If I ever bust out of NJ, it would have to be someplace hot, bright, red, sandy, with not even a remote chance of snow!
    Peace be with you…

    • January 20, 2017 12:53 pm

      Thanks for the note, Rob. I like your “getting older” plan: less shoes, more garlic πŸ™‚

      (And your retirement nirvana sounds like southern Utah in the summer: “hot, bright, red, sandy” — but you’d have to find somewhere else to escape winter! Peace (and shoeless fun) to you as well πŸ™‚

  7. January 17, 2017 10:01 pm

    Will there ever be barefoot basketball? Why do people think that basketball shoes must support one’s ankles? I don’t think kids need high tops to play basketball (I just bought my kid a pair of high tops though) nor do they need ankle support when running… that’s my rant on shoes. I must get it from my mother…. nice blog post, though. πŸ™‚

    • January 18, 2017 7:39 am

      There are some who do play barefoot basketball . . . with great success . . . see this article about the amazing Triqui boys (from Oaxaca, Mexico) winning an international basketball tournament: http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/22/sport/shoeless-mexican-boys-basketball/

      • February 3, 2017 8:48 pm

        And again, there is that unfortunate association of bare feet with poverty in the article, and in the mouth of the coach himself. How I wish they should stop harping upon it.

      • February 4, 2017 6:29 am

        Ha . . . that is true . . . I was just talking about that with a student the other day: the ancient association of shoelessness and slavery. We can’t change history, but maybe we can MAKE history in terms of being examples of how going without shoes is something positive and enjoyable and healthy!

  8. January 17, 2017 5:21 am

    You will retire. Good for you! I’m glad finances permit, and I hope you will stay involved with gardens and writing so our paths will cross. My big lesson in unconventional wisdom recently has been inviting carbs back into my life, with LOTS of vegetables and daily beans. And my A1C is good! (Scott got gout and I did the research…)

    • January 18, 2017 7:44 am

      Yes to gardens and writing! (and, like you, “yes” to carbs again; we have re-branded our eating as “carb-aware” as we gobble up all kinds of fruits and veggies (including beans) while limited processed grains/refined sugars/you-know-the-drill πŸ™‚ Godspeed Friday!

  9. January 17, 2017 12:56 am

    Don’t your feet just smile in joy? Mine do ☺️

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