I recently read Chris McDougall’s excellent book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. The book is a mash-up of a sports/travel memoir, ethnography-lite, and biomechanics-for-dummies. My thumbnail synopsis:
McDougall travels to a remote region of northern Mexico, following a story about the Tarahumara, an indigenous people whose social identity is effectively defined by running.While there, he meets an eccentric loner who wants to put on the ultimate long-distance trail race in the Tarahumara home region. The Tarahumara are known for running hideously long trail races, some lasting several days, covering hundreds of kilometres. A few Tarahumara runners were convinced to take part in the Leadville 100: a very serious Colorado ultramarathon. The envisioned race will see a small group of top American ultrarunners take on Tarahumara runners on their own turf.
That’s the sports/travel and (more or less) the ethnography bit. Perhaps more interesting than that was the topic of why the Tarahumara are such dominant runners, and how they can cover such grueling distances over rough terrain without suffering the standard sort of overuse injuries that most runners seem to be plagued with. The answer apparently lies to a large extent in their choice of footwear (though that is an extremely techno-deterministic idea, completely ignoring any ideas about human agency and people choosing to run well and adapting their footwear to it over generations, rather than the other way around). Running in minimalist sandals, the Tarahumara runners run with an extremely efficient stride, landing primarily on the mid/forefoot, rather than the heel. Most running shoes encourage the opposite, by raising and cushioning the heel, though several “barefoot” and minimalist options have been introduced of late (and in no small part due to the popularity of McDougall’s book).
The debate over barefoot/minimalist footwear is ongoing and very interesting, especially in the context of archaeology and our insights into past human behaviour. It is especially fascinating in light of Tim Ingold’s 2004 article: Culture on the Ground: the World Perceived Through the Feet (Journal of Material Culture, 9(3):315-340). Ingold discusses how the tactile sensation(s) we experience through our feet are fundamental forces in shaping our interactions with the world. On this basis, someone going barefoot (or in huarache sandals) will perceive and engage with their environments in ways entirely different from someone stomping through the world in hobnailed megaboots. Or bouncing through in air-cushioned moonshoes, for that matter. And as a result, their philosophies, awarenesses and attitudes would likely also be different. How can modern scientists from a Western industrialist background, feet firmly encased in caulk boots (or gum boots, here on the NWC), really begin to understand the thought processes and experiences of people with a significantly different footprint.
In this vein, I decided to have a go at “barefoot” running (a sort of pseudo-barefoot as opposed to actually baring my feet) and see if and how it changed anything. An unfortunate reality of living in a society devoted to sturdy footwear is that public infrastructure design and maintenance is applied under the assumption that users will be shod. Unshod folks will quickly encounter monotonous cement pavements and pea gravel pathways “spiced up” by broken glass and other detritus- not much fun for a barefoot noob with tender, un-calloused soles. So I compromised my foray into barefoot running and opted to try out some kit I’ve been lusting after for quite a while: the Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treksport. I am aware of the irony of buying shoes to have the feeling of not wearing shoes (clearly the cheaper option), but I am also aware that gashing open my foot would be a big downer. Scoff all you like, though, because running in these things is pretty much the most fun you can have with bizarre shoes on!
First off, everything McDougall says about running barefoot (or “barefoot”) is true: you stop landing with a heel strike, there is significantly less impact, your stride turnover rate increases, and your running becomes much more efficient. Running on my usual route through the nature sanctuary near my domicile I was pleasantly surprised to see that even though my pace was the same (I passed landmarks at the usual time increments), my heartrate was 5-10 BPM lower than normal. Theoretically, once my muscles adapt to this “new” running technique, I should be able to go faster, further. Neato!
More importantly, however, Ingold hit the nail on the head too: you observe your environment differently when you don’t just tromp over or through everything. As a relatively robust runner, my regular running form may be described as “lumbering”. The din of my size 12 4E feet (stuck in correspondingly ark-like shoes) hitting the ground drowns out ambient noise quite effectively (my wheezing and snorting drowns out the rest). Now I cruise in comparative silence, conscious of birds chirping, brooks babbling, etc. Even better: the path has become interesting. My mind is constantly engaged in planning my route through mud, roots, rocks, etc. as I negotiate my way around the lake, up the hill and back home. As my speed picks up I must look further ahead, remembering the terrain and creating a cognitive topographic model with a time-delay for my feet to follow. The boredom of my usual plod has been obliterated by the necessity to be aware!
This, of course, gets me thinking about other aspects of footwear, the paradigms we adhere to in our booted society, and how technological strategies and tool/product design may be impacted by how we use and treat our feet. More on that another time.
PS. If you don’t click any other link, click the Ingold one and read the article!