Saturday, January 10, 2015

Evolution of a Barefoot Runner

Jesus Joggers

In 1997 Tarah and I decided we had had enough of our “freshman 15” (which was actually closer to 30 pounds, and we hadn’t been freshman for long time). We decided to start living more active lives, which included: tennis, day hiking, backpacking in the Cascades (my first go at backpacking since being a boy scout in middle school and Tarah’s first ever), and even running. The running was going very well. We were feeling great. Then one day, in the middle of a run my knee started hurting. I took it easy and walked the rest of the way home. My knee felt fine even later that day but I let it rest a few days just to be sure. The next time I went out I only made it a fraction of a mile before my knee hurt too much to continue. This time I gave it a couple of weeks, just to let it really heal, but to no avail, again I couldn't even make it a mile. I continued trying every few months after that and purchased several new pairs of running shoes hoping that this time my knee would have finally healed and I could again go for a run. Then in 2009 I read an article and saw a video on the New York Times talking about this new weird barefoot running technique that claimed to be gentler on the joints. The article went on to discuss the mechanics of using your calf as the shock absorber by coming down on the mid-foot instead of on the heel and how this is our natural style of running and how heel striking is only made possible with big thick cushy modern shoes. In the video they even went for a run around central park with no shoes on. At first it really seemed crazy to me. Not just crazy but kind of annoying, like the dude preaching the thing that you’re not into kind of annoying. But the idea stuck with me, and the mechanics made sense. Finally, given my history of knee pain and inability to even run a mile, I thought what the hell. So I walked out the front door barefoot onto a sidewalk of Seattle's densely populated Capitol Hill feeling like a complete nut job. When I started running I noticed immediately that landing on my bare heels on concrete was not an option. I didn't have to think about changing my style; my body simply was not going to allow me to heel strike without shoes. The first block felt awkward, mostly due to self-consciousness over the bare feet. By the second block I was in pain, however, it wasn't knee pain, it was just the pain of my skin being rubbed off by the sidewalk. I was able to run two thirds of a mile with absolutely no knee pain. This was the farthest I had been able to run in over a decade. The two days following that first run were painful in yet another way; my calves have never been so sore! This wasn't a normal nice feeling sore this was seriously intense to where I had real trouble getting up the stairs to my bedroom. A few days later I tried it again and made it a mile, then later two miles, and before I knew it I was running three or four miles with absolutely no knee pain and completely barefoot. The bloody feet had gotten tougher but still hurt, and I was still self-conscious running barefoot on the street, but I was running, and it felt amazing! I started reading more about barefoot running on the web and discovered that people were making DIY sandals modeled after those made by the Tarahumara of Mexico called huarache. So of course I had to make some of my own. I ended up making three iterations before finally nailing down a comfortable design that would hold up to running. They looked like Jesus sandals so I called them my Jesus Joggers. I ended up logging hundreds of miles on the sandals. And fast. I was running faster than I had ever run in the past. Somewhere in there I read the book "Born to Run" with its stories about ultra marathoners and barefoot running and the Tarahumara and of course Caballo Blanco. At that point I was completely hooked. Then one cold wet Seattle winter, after trying to keep myself going with wool socks and my sandals, I finally broke down and purchased some minimalist shoes. By that point it wasn’t some weird fringe thing. I regularly saw others running barefoot or in sandals. I even realized that I had been running right past Barefoot Ted’s Luna Sandals office and there was a new store down the street dedicated to minimalist style shoes. Later that same winter, huddled in the house to keep warm from the cold rain with our new baby girl, Mielle, we decided we couldn’t take the cold Seattle rain any longer. I got a job offer in Santa Barbara and we moved right away. Not long after moving to Santa Barbara I went camping in Joshua Tree National Park with friends from work. Our intention was to rock climb but we ended up on a trail run through the Wonderland of Rocks (a stunningly beautiful and rocky section of the park) and barely did any climbing. It blew me away how fun it was and how alive it made me feel. That was my first real experience with trail running but I couldn’t wait to do more.

Joshua Tree National Park

When I got back from Joshua Tree I went to a presentation by Luis Escobar titled Running With the Tarahumara that included a friendly jog before the presentation. On our run Luis told be all about the upcoming Born to Run Ultras festival. I had never signed up for an organized running event but it sounded like too much fun to miss so I signed up. When the day came I packed the family into our Westy for a weekend of camping and music and drinking and running. It was totally AWESOME. The top volume 4 a.m. mariachi music and accompanying shotguns ensured, however, that my family would not be camping with me in the future. The next year they had a blast dancing to Metalachi and then left me to camp with friends.

I’ve lived in or near the Cascades my whole life but somehow I’ve become more connected to these Santa Barbara hills and trails in the few short years that we’ve lived here than I could have imagined. Thanks to everyone that makes the Santa Barbara trail running and the general ultra community so interesting and fun.
First iteration of Jesus Jogger