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What Can a Person Accomplish Without Shoes?

October 10, 2019
barefoot sculpture

Scott’s mother recently created this sculpture of him at work.

Scott Marckx: Barefoot Runner, Hiker, Luthier, Boat Builder
A Q & A with Thea Gavin

Scott Marckx has been mostly barefoot since 2012, whether at home or work or on the trails around Port Townsend, WA, where he makes his living crafting violins in a workshop next to his house.

Since I’ve appreciated his barefoot insights—as comments on this “Barefoot Wandering and Writing” blog—over the years, I asked him to write a little more about his barefoot running (and life) as a guest post. This turned into a series of email “interviews,” the results of which follow, as Scott responds to my questions.

For more insight into Scott’s violin-creating and music-making, listen to the 2/17/19 podcast/interview with Joe McHugh on “Rosin the Bow: An audio journey through the fascinating world of the violin family.”

bridge

Barefoot history

I think I must have always had a problematic relationship with shoes, although I wasn’t one of those kids that got to go barefoot in the summer.

My grandmother (Grandma Liz) started taking my brothers and cousin and me backpacking starting when I was five.

When I was a teenager—supposedly buying my own clothes from an allowance—I remember Grandma Liz’s frustration a few times that my shoes were so worn out I could slide my foot out through the hole in the side and pull the shoe up my leg.

She was always trying to figure out decent footwear for me when we went backpacking.

I wore shoes pretty much all the time until I was 46 or 47 and looking for some form of exercise that I could stick with, as I was out of shape.

A friend told me about an article in the New York Times that she had read while using newspaper to sheet mulch her garden. It was about an exercise called “100-ups” and was written by Christopher McDougall.

That led me to his book Born to Run which I got from the library as an audio book to listen to while working in the shop. He made running sound so fun!
I had never been a runner—it had always been pounding misery for me, but McDougall made it sound like, if I learned how to do it correctly, it could be like flying!

So I got books on running form and tried it out, but it didn’t work for me.

In Born to Run, though, there is a character who goes barefoot, and the whole take-off-your-shoes argument is laid out, so I figured “let’s try that.”

At first, it was painful to even walk to the mailbox—it felt weird; I felt conspicuous with those naked feet. Somehow, I kept with it, and it was fun! It freed me up, not worrying about putting shoes on to walk out in the garden or out to the shop.

The path out to the shop was gravel, though, and felt like a bed of coals—that seriously hurt. And running? That took a while.

I had hoped that going barefoot would fix my running form issues, and it sort of did, but mostly by being painful when I did something wrong.

There were breakthroughs and setbacks. I found out that skin gets tough fairly quickly, but tendons and bones take longer, and I hurt myself by overdoing it.

Eventually I found out that gravel, instead of being the painful enemy, was actually a great trainer and friend. When I am hunched over from working in the shop with bad posture, the gravel hurts, but when I start to unhunch my posture it gets easier to run on gravel.

Different types of mud also offer lessons: there is a type where the surface is slick, but the mud isn’t deep and your feet slide. You can feel if you are over-striding because your foot slides forward as it lands, and you can feel if you are pushing off because your foot slides backwards as you lift it.

winter prints

Off the gravel and into the house

Barefoot philosophy

I think I’m coming to the conclusion that we are way more fragile than we want to believe, but if we can work within that fragility, maybe even use it to help us find better ways of doing things, we can do great things.

Barefoot form

I keep noticing how walking and running form issues can make it way more painful (or not very painful) to walk/run on gravel.

That leads me to think that I could probably learn a whole lot more in that area that would help me be able to go farther barefoot on more difficult surfaces, but that would take figuring out how to learn that sort of thing and lots of practice time.

Barefoot injuries (“too much, too soon”)

From my house it is about a mile of neighborhood streets and mini-trails to get to the edge of “Cappy’s Trails” where there is a whole maze of trails through the woods.

I never was a runner before doing the barefoot thing, although I did a lot of cycling earlier in life. So, when I started running barefoot, the combination of bad running form, over-excitement to run on “Cappy’s Trails,” my bones and tendons not being used to this new thing, and being overweight proved very troublesome.

I hurt my feet (probably metatarsal stress) and had to back off.

At first I tried to run every day and I learned that, especially being in my late 40s and early 50s, having at least a day off between running days really helped keep me from getting hurt.

Later I had some sort of tendon thing on the outside of my leg near my knee cause trouble.

I finally read a chapter in Running With the Mind of Meditation by Sakyong Mipham called “Just Do It—With Gentleness” (pages 84-86), and that has really helped me. Also, learning about nose breathing from Scott Jurek’s book and then reading Body Mind and Sport by John Douillard really helped, along with trying Phil Maffetone’s heart rate training.

Mostly, I learned to slow down enough so that my body could catch up with my aspirations and obsessiveness with this new fun barefoot thing.

There’s all sorts of stuff that just moving more has brought up. Paying attention to one’s body after years of wishful ignorance brings up plenty of issues.

Barefoot goals
I would love to figure out barefoot backpacking more: how far can I reasonably
and sustainably go on what kind of terrain? How can I figure out the ergonomics of
carrying a pack, in terms of how it changes my form and how my feet either gently
or less gently contact the ground with each step?

A friend of my wife’s sent me a newspaper article on a man who hiked the
Continental Divide Trail barefoot:
https://missoulian.com/news/local/barefoot-hiker-bags-continental-divide-trail/
article_7835b778-0929-5b68-9021-4e0a0b1f8422.html

That is inspiring! There is a trail called the Pacific Northwest Trail that goes from the Continental Divide in Montana through Idaho and Washington and it goes right through my home town of Port Townsend on its way across the Olympic Mountains and out to and up the Coast. I don’t think I would do the whole thing, but getting to hike out my door and into and across the Olympic Mountains is a dream I would like to do some day. Doing it barefoot would make it even better!

Other than that, just getting in a decent run two or three times a week sometimes
seems daunting. I say “yes” to so many things that I don’t always have as much
time as I originally thought I did.

I guess I’ve seen so much improvement in terms of the types of surfaces I can walk
and run on barefoot that I figure I should be able to learn and adapt to even more
difficult terrain—and then I overdo it, yet again!

One other goal: more multi-day sailing/rowing trips in my boat.

getting ready to play.JPG

Barefoot and playing the fiddle

Do I perform barefoot? Sometimes. It depends on the situation. A lot of times I will put on socks and most people think I just took off my shoes at the door and don’t think further than that. Sometimes, like playing for a wedding that seems a little more formal, I’ll wear shoes, or sandals with socks. Farmer’s markets you can usually perform barefoot. At a lot of contra dances and square dances even some of the dancers are barefoot.

Barefoot and family life

My wife has been very patient with my quirks and obsessions over the years. She has been patient with my barefoot obsession too. I am very fortunate.

My family has gotten used to it, for the most part. I got some reactions at first about how I was going to hurt myself, etc. One of my sisters still has kind of a hard time with it. Once, she pretended to try to step on my toes, so I returned the favor and that made her stop! I’m trying to encourage her son to go barefoot, just to be difficult! I wish my Grandma Liz were still alive and I could go hiking with her. She always had trouble with the worn-out nature of my footwear, so I would love to get to talk to her about how that ended up working out.

fall barefoot hiking

Walking with Jeanie and Monty

Barefoot with Monty

I was already going barefoot when we adopted Monty from the local shelter, so he doesn’t know me any other way. He does enjoy walks and runs in “Cappy’s Trails” and on the beaches around here, along with hikes in the Olympics. It helped not to have shoes around when he was going through the shoe-snatching-and-chewing stage. He did chew my favorite wool hat that Jeanie knit for me, though. Oh well— he is turning into a really sweet dog.

barefoot dogwalking in snow

Taking Monty the puppy out in the snow

Barefoot racing?

At first I wanted to do an ultramarathon and trail races, but I’ve realized that the commitment to training to even finish an ultra doesn’t really fit into my already packed life. What would I be willing to give up in order to have that extra time? The cost of entering a race also deters me from entering. Yes, it would be great to meet other runners, but I already feel peopled-out with music stuff, and I can go out my door and run whenever I have the time and feel like it.

Also—I am pretty slow as a runner. I started to realize that I really enjoy just getting into “Cappy’s Trails” and looping around on the maze of windy, squirrelly trails, seeing and hearing a woodpecker or some other bird, splashing through a mud puddle in season, feeling the different textures and temperatures under my feet . . . maybe some day I’ll enter a race, but it isn’t very high on the to-do list.

Barefoot backpacking

When I first started going barefoot, I was scheduled to do a backpack along the coast with a friend; I hurt my feet and had to cancel.

The next year I backpacked that trail in boots, took them off for the last part of the hike in, and didn’t put them on again until the hike out. I took them off again for the last couple of miles and almost left them behind by accident. By the next year I had backup sandals and neoprene socks that I packed, but didn’t use. That was about seven miles each way, through woods and along the beaches.

Last year I hiked up the Dosewallips River up the old gravel road, past the abandoned ranger station, and a couple of miles up the trail. I went about eight miles the first day, and then up the trail a little farther the next day before hiking out, so about 10 miles the second day—all barefoot until the last two or so miles when I put on the sandals because the gravel was hard on the feet, especially going downhill, when it’s difficult to place your foot gently instead of banging it into the ground . . . painful. And, when you are already slightly hunched over from carrying a pack, that doesn’t help either.

I want to do more of those types of backpacking trips and figure out what works.
I also got some thicker sandals, because if I do overdo it I might want more protection from the sharp rocks. I’m still not sure the thicker sandals are needed; I just need to find time to do more trips and play with the details.

This year, on a backpack with my cousin and his boys, I found that if I just use the sandals for the long downhill sections I could go barefoot for the rest of it fairly sustainably.

barefoot backpacking

Barefoot and shoes

When I first started going barefoot, I wanted to go everywhere without shoes. I’m still mostly that way, but I’ve mellowed a little and wear sandals in restaurants and hardware stores. I was volunteering at a community boat shop where they require shoes, so I wore them there, putting them on as I got out of my truck in the morning and taking them off before driving away in the evening.

Church was interesting. There is the burning bush passage in the Bible where God tells Moses to take off his shoes. It felt weird to be barefoot everywhere else and then put on shoes for church. I tried a few things and settled on just wearing socks. There are people who saw me in church for months before they realized I didn’t put on shoes when I left, but instead just took off my socks.

I got some thin Xero sandals when I first got started, wore them running, and hurt myself—I have bad running habits, and I revert right back to pounding if I wear something between my skin and the ground.

The sandals come in handy for those places that require shoes, though.

When I began hiking barefoot, I got Xero Z-trek sandals because the strap doesn’t come up between your toes, and I could bring neoprene socks to go with them if I got too cold in the snow. Now I have a pair of Teva sandals to bring as backups for backpacking because they give more support, but I’m still not sure about those.

I have a pair of cheap tennis shoes to wear at the boat shop and an old pair of heavy hiking boots from my pre-barefoot days that I took out last winter when it was in the 20s and I needed to walk in the snow. Also a “sort-of” pair of old dress shoes. But I’m no good at dressing up—too many shoes!

Barefoot trail running

The best thing is feeling the textures and temperatures and really being in this place!

I like to be able to go right out the door and not have to worry about putting some special expensive thing on that is just going to wear out and add to all the garbage that doesn’t biodegrade eventually anyway.

Mud and puddles! Walking right through while others are worried about getting their shoes wet.

Also—leaving barefoot tracks on trails for other hikers to wonder about.

I am only able to trail run because I took off my shoes. It didn’t work for me any other way. I have, however, overdone it in various ways, so someone could say, if you just had shoes on in that instance where your feet got too cold, or when you strained something because you ran too far before your bones were used to it, or you stubbed your toe and broke it . . . but I say, I wouldn’t have been out there doing any of that if it weren’t for going barefoot, so why would I want to put shoes back on?

The worst is not getting to go outside barefoot, because it is too cold or because of an injury, or because I have to work or be somewhere else. That is the worst.

Barefoot advice

Do it right now, but take your time. Skin builds up faster than tendons and bone. Do a little and build slowly. Don’t get carried away like I did—keep coming back to it!

Barefoot distance: how far is far?

I’m not sure what my longest mileage barefoot is—I found out that I enjoy it more if I don’t keep track.

Also, how far I can go really depends more on the terrain. I’ve done a 14-mile day hike on a trail that had a fair amount of sharp rocks. Once I hiked about 18 miles in two days of backpacking—on gravel and rock slides, along with some nice soft trail—but that was too much, and I ended up putting on sandals for the last two miles or so. (And my feet hurt for a few days afterwards.)

Carrying a backpack also makes you hunch forward a little and makes it more difficult to step lightly, at least for me. There are ergonomic packs that distribute the weight front to back that might help with this, but I can’t afford them. I figure I’ll just slow down and not travel as many miles next time, maybe try to listen to my feet, enjoy the place more.

carving fluting

Barefoot at work [in the violin shop]

It’s great being my own boss; the worst things in my shop are if I drill metal and step on the filings, or if I drop something heavy on my foot. Those instances are super rare, and I can always put on footwear if I’m worried. There isn’t much metal in a violin and they aren’t heavy, so I am fortunate that way.

shaping the violin

Barefoot in a boat

My ideal of a boat is to get as intimate with the water and wind as possible, similar to taking off your shoes in the land-based world.

Scott Marckx by John Kohnen 2

Getting intimate with the water during the Salish 100 (Photo by John Kohnen)

I grew up on Puget Sound, which is never as rough as the ocean, so maybe that is part of how I view saltwater. I swam in it as a kid, even though it is cold. My parents had a difficult time keeping me out of the water.

Yes, cold, critter-filled water is scary, but it is also fascinating and mysterious and there is a romance in exploring its surface and wondering about its depths.

During the Salish 100 [a 100-mile trip through Puget Sound, June 22-28, 2019] I loved living on my little row/sail boat and not going ashore (as much as was possible), getting followed by seals, feeling the rocking of the waves, seeing bioluminescence in the water at night, and each day joining other little boats as far as I could see sailing in front of and behind me as we made our journey from Olympia to Port Townsend.

barefoot boat building
Yes, I built my own boat.

When I was in high school and was going through the guidance counseling on what I wanted to do in life, I said I wanted to either be a boat builder or a luthier (stringed instrument maker).

The wood shop teacher wouldn’t let me build a boat in high school wood shop, so I finished the required projects and then built a mountain dulcimer, a banjo, and a mandolin.

It was a kind of long and twisted road getting to where I eventually got a job in a violin shop and then was able to make the transition to making violins for a living, but once I was settled in that, and we had moved to Port Townsend where there is a lot of boat building going on all around, I said to myself: “If I don’t build a boat living here I won’t build one anywhere.”

I had been collecting boat building books over the years and dreaming of it. I was actually gearing up to make a cello, but the boat got first dibs this time around. I found out about John Welsford, who is a boat designer in New Zealand who has a gift for designing beautiful, very functional boats that amateur builders can make in their garage or backyard with very little prior experience.

He has a couple of sayings that sum it up: “By the time you finish your boat you will have all the skills you need to build a boat” and “The mistake hasn’t been invented yet that can’t be fixed with some more epoxy, plywood, and fiberglass tape.”

He has a knack for helping people fulfill their dreams.

I emailed him and told him what I was hoping to do with the boat and mentioned several of his designs I liked, and he suggested one.

Then he was very patient with various questions and modifications I wanted to make as I went through the process. He has a online group that was very helpful in showing the way through the various choices, questions and pitfalls.

At first I tried to build it too much like a violin, and I got bogged down in perfection issues—reading everything about how to do it without ever jumping in and doing.

It took a while, and I wasted a lot of time, but I learned that I could do a little work on it as I had time and materials and then let it sit for months at a time and just dream about it and gaze at it on my way out to the violin shop.

Eventually, I finished it as a row boat, and then, over the years, have added the various parts of the sail rig. Before there were sails on it, we once rowed across the bay to Ratt Island with a friend, and on the way back we had a tail wind. So I took out an umbrella and handed it to my wife in the bow and handed a canoe paddle to our friend in the stern to steer with and we “sailed” back across the bay. We called it “Mary Poppinsing”!

The first time I spent the night in it I awoke in the middle of the night and there was a ring of phosphorescence around my boat!

We’ve had as many as 5 people on my boat at once. It is sort of like a small pick-up truck: very versatile and fun!

scott sailing

         On Puget Sound during the Salish 100, 2019 (photo by John Kohnen)

I still dream of a smaller, lighter boat that I could row and car top and still be able to sleep in, but this boat has been so good and feels really safe, especially when the water gets rougher than I had expected, so the incentive to build another boat hasn’t reached the level of take-off yet—plus there are so many other projects and things to do that there doesn’t seem to be the time. I did scratch that itch some by starting a boat building project with my cousin and his kids. We are making a skin-on-frame rowboat called a Shenandoah Whitehall designed by Dave Gentry: http://gentrycustomboats.com/Whitehallpage.html

It is fun getting other people hooked on the things I enjoy and getting to see and remember that process of discovery of different fun and interesting, if not life-changing, things.

I’m glad I didn’t end up doing boat building for a living; I love the small boats, but it is especially difficult to find a market for those, plus the shop space, overhead, and materials are way more extensive and toxic than what I work with making violins.

I am glad I ended up on the path that I did, creating violins.

finished instruments

Two of Scott’s creations

Barefoot and boredom

I can’t understand how anyone can be bored in this world with all the music and things to make and/or play with and problems to solve and people to converse with or even thoughts to think.

I would love to learn how to simplify. That is probably where the main interest in going barefoot and being in a small boat and carrying a lighter backpack comes from, but those seem to lead to more ideas and things to try out!

Just life stuff

Phyllis Lee, who taught English at the high school I went to, also played old-time fiddle music and brought my brother Patrick (who is now the father of Olivia and Charlotte, the Sempre Sisters) and I to jam sessions hosted by the Washington State Old-Time Fiddlers and to the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes.

fiddle playing

Jam session with a friend

It was at one of the Fiddler’s Christmas parties that I met Tex Standefer, who had taught himself how to make fiddles and who got me started making my first violin when I was 15 or so. I was hooked!

As far as performing goes—I’m not so good in a crowd or on stage. I like being able to have quiet time to try to focus. I do miss having people around when I am alone in my shop for hours, but that is way easier to deal with than being on the road for me.

I wouldn’t have been able to figure this stuff out when I was younger, so I am glad things seemed to open up and offer choices as I went and things seemed to fall into place in a very good way.

I feel especially spoiled in my marriage. Jeanie has been very patient with me over the years and we’ve done a fair amount of work together on our relationship. The fit has always been there, though, and that has been a wonderful blessing.

The Church has really been a blessing, growing on each of us and supporting us.

The year we were to be married we came up to the Fiddle Tunes Festival and ended up seated in the cafeteria next to an old fiddler named Melvin Wine. He heard we were going to get married and he told us, “You make sure you get married in a church, because those people will be there for you when the going gets tough.”

We told him, “yes,” we were getting married in a church. He was right, but we also have so many other communities, including the music community and our families, who have been there for us as we have dealt with the issues that have come up in our marriage and in life.

 

Having gone to the Fiddle Tunes Festival here in Port Townsend since I was 15—when I go now, there are so many memories; so many of the tunes I play, I learned from people who are now gone, and we all seem to be getting older and more frail.

The hand writing is on the wall.

We have three friends in the past couple of months who have lost their spouses unexpectedly, and that has been even more of a wake-up call.

Tell that person right now that you love them, or that they were so helpful to you in that way, or that you really like that tune they played or give them a smile or a hug, because this might be the last opportunity to do that or say that in this world.

It is interesting, but barefoot running has also made me more aware of mortality and frailty. It seems there is this precarious balance—between getting better or more in shape, and injury or failure.

Sometimes when I have the opportunity to go for a barefoot run, I am scared that I can’t do it, that I will hurt myself—and I’ve proved the “hurt myself” part of that right enough times to be wary, since I’ve come back so often with a  stubbed toe or a pulled muscle.

If I just tell myself I can start with a walk, and then go slow and easy, and that I can always back off to a walk again, and that it is so good just to be outside on the trails and I don’t have to prove anything—then usually I get out the door and go gentle and come home happy and satisfied that I took that little bit of the day to go running.

I know that some day I will not have that option to go out the door, for whatever reason, so I try to remember and do those things now, while I still can.

IMG_0531

Thank you, Scott, for taking the time to answer all my questions, and for providing feedback as I shaped our email exchange into this piece . . . you are an inspiration to me, even though we’ve never met, and I hope that your words, recorded here, inspire others to live creatively as well . . . with or without shoes!

Happy Barefoot (musical!) Trails!

 

11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 15, 2019 7:27 am

    Great article Thea. Scott is an interesting individual who sounds like he’s very much in touch with the world around him. His desire to lead an uncomplicated and fulfilling life is something I’ve been learning to appreciate as well. The support of an understanding spouse is something extremely valuable in today’s society, I too am lucky to have that.

    His description of adaptation to a predominately barefoot lifestyle is as real as it goes. Yup, there’s occasional aches and pains, sometimes there’s the occasion shoes need to go on, but overall it’s beneficial and freeing.

    The sculpture his mother created is simply awesome!

    • October 15, 2019 7:56 am

      Thanks for the note . . . I’m glad you liked the article. Scott’s story of living life so thoughtfully (and barefoot-ed-ly) seems like a great antidote to some of the “ills” of contemporary society. (And three cheers for “understanding spouses” . . . another cause for daily celebration 🙂 ). I appreciate your taking the time to comment . . . happy trails! Thea

  2. Kelly Anderson permalink
    October 11, 2019 10:10 am

    I love this story. Scott’s reading on becoming a runner called to mind the novelist and runner Haruki Murakami. I think it was his book Walk, Don’t Run that really caught my imagination.

    • October 15, 2019 7:58 am

      Hi Kelly–Thanks for the note and book suggestion . . . I’ve heard about Murakami’s book from others as well . . . running and imagination: a great pairing 🙂 Happy trails!

  3. October 10, 2019 9:56 pm

    My favorite quote under Barefoot and boredom:
    “I can’t understand how anyone can be bored in this world with all the music and things to make and/or play with and problems to solve and people to converse with or even thoughts to think.”
    I can relate. 🙂

  4. sfmarckx permalink
    October 10, 2019 6:18 pm

    Thank you Thea!

    Your questions really helped me think through all of the whys and ways this barefoot thing has happened. Then you did a superb job of organizing all of those disparate thoughts into a cohesive whole. I’ve learned a lot from this exchange. You must be a teacher! I’ve really enjoyed your blog over the years. Thank you for putting all the work into doing that.
    All the best, Scott

    • October 11, 2019 5:20 am

      Thanks for all your clear and thoughtful prose! It was a privilege to piece your words together, like lovely fabric becoming an even more compelling quilt 🙂

  5. October 10, 2019 5:04 pm

    Cool!

    • October 10, 2019 5:09 pm

      Thanks, Ken. You are also an inspiring barefooter . . . how about an interview, too? (Let me know . . . ) 🙂

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