Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Wet and the Dry
Twas the day before Christmas and...I'll just stop there with the cliched cleverness.  We wanted to show off the Golden Gate Bridge to my brother's girlfriend from Czech.  I took this as another great barefoot walking opportunity.

We parked at the Sports Basement there in Crissy Field.  It looked like a longer walk than I'd done barefoot and, in an act of cowardice, I brought my shoes along "just in case".  As it turned out, I could have gotten away without them.

I was thinking I'd have mostly gravel trails and pavement to deal with.  I'd forgotten about the grassy parts of the field and the sandy bits of the beach.  We only walked, but I feel the mole-churned field and beach gave me a pretty good ankle workout.  I'll be back for a real run here.

Past the Warming Hut, the trail narrows and I had to choose between gravel on blacktop or the slippery ocean-sprayed concrete.  I chose concrete.  I had great footing, but the wetness seemed to make my feet ultra-sensitive to every bump.  I'd read a tip on that running on the wet stuff could soften foot pads and rub them off like "pencil erasers" so I gave in to my cowardice and pulled my shoes on.

What a shock!  I went from feeling sure-footed and agile to having moments of panic where my foot would slip and my body would straighten up and freeze to right itself.  Without the insulation of the shoes I could read the pavement's slickness much more easily and make corrections without the drama.

I took the shoes off again after the wet stuff.  My feet felt refreshed and excited to be bare again after their brief shodding. Google Maps tells me the total trip was around 2.6 miles.

View Crissy Field barefoot trail in a larger map

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Time Off
My parents and both siblings have come for the holidays.  Between our newborn and relatives, it's been hard to squeeze a run in.  To cap the deal, while unloading from retrieving my mother from SFO her bag leapt from the back of our baby-mobile and onto my foot.  I was wearing shoes -- my spiffy new wife-approved shoes -- at the time, but I wished I had a steel-toed work boot instead.

There I was, itching to continue my barefoot experiment, unable to break away from family duties and with a bone-bruise near my number-2 (index-toe?) proximal phalanx.  I could feel my weeks of work slipping away.

We all decided to walk a few miles into The Mission for lunch.  I figured I could get in some foot-building exercise by doing the walk barefoot.  Sure, why not?

After bundling our son in his pram my wife called "Get your shoes on, we're going.".  Not wanting to start a conflict I called back "Ready!" and snuck my shoes into the stroller.  Lucky for me, my wife was having a lively discussion with my mother and didn't see my naked feet until we'd started down the street.  She must have been in a saintly mood because she just rolled her eyes at me and continued chatting.

Half a mile later, we'd made it to the Mission and my wife noticed some broken glass on the street.  "There's broken glass here.  You need to put your shoes on."  She was correct.  There was a lot of broken glass.  Everywhere.

I was a bit nervous, but I decided that I was committed to the experiment come what may.  My wife escalated to claiming that she would NOT take me to the emergency room when my feet were cut to shreds.  I thought to mention that St. Luke's was only a block away at that point and that I could probably crawl if I needed to.  But then thought better of it.

And the outcome?  Unscathed.  In my ten or so barefoot pavement runs, I've never had problems with glass.  You can easily avoid the big pieces.  I'm guessing the smaller splinters get swept into the gutters and cracks.  Walking barefoot is very different from running, but I do feel like I got high quality pad-building exercise and practice in treading lightly on the trip.

Glass I can handle.  But I do like to worry.  I'm a bit concerned about what I might be absorbing from the pavement through my soles.  Auto emissions...human emissions...who know's what's out there?  Is this a realistic worry?  I'm not sure what the permeability of foot-skin is to whatever's in the pavement.  I do know that skin is able to absorb quite a bit more than I used to imagine.  At least the folks making caffeinated soap and caffeine patches think so.  This (currently) unsubstantiated worry will probably drive me to getting some sort of minimalist running shoe before shards of glass do.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Six months or so ago, a colleague from our Zurich office asked me if I knew anything about the Vibram Five Fingers shoes.  "Huh...that's crazy", I thought, "running shoes with toes" and filed it away with other sports-gear that I wanted to possess but which would end up rotting in a box in the garage.

Fast forward five months and I'm failing to deal with lack of sleep with the birth of my first child.  During paternity leave, my wife decided my go-to pair of running shoes do not in fact go with every outfit and make me a very un-hip looking dad.  My wife and I were always at odds over my footware.  I had a history of rejecting any shoe that met her euro-sensible, art-school-fab criteria.  They were uncomfortable.  They lacked the arch support and padding my big feet needed.

Maybe it was lack of sleep.  Maybe just a desire to please the new mother.  Maybe her challenge to "man up and wear some stylish shoes dammit!" finally got to me, but I tried to take her request seriously.  Her analysis of the situation was that my feet were weak and just needed time to get used to any shoe.  From her experience with women's shoes, you break in her feet, not the shoe.

Were my feet weak?  How could this be?  I'd done long back-packing trips with heavy packs.  Races on steep mountain trails.  Triathlons.  All without any foot issues to speak of.  It just didn't make sense.  But it deserved some research.

Somewhere along my internet spelunking I came across an article from 2001 that claimed that populations that wear no shoes at all have the healthiest feet.  Yeah, but what about for running?  Surely you need protection for running!  Apparently not.  And apparently this was all old news and there were many crazy folks in first-world countries running around barefoot.

The core arguments around barefoot running go something like this:
  • Padding in your shoes insulates your foot from the ground and encourages you to place your foot incorrectly.
  • Heel padding allows you to lengthen your stride and strike with your heel ahead of your body causing greatly increased stress on your foot, ankle, knee, and on up the chain.
  • With an unshod foot you cannot heel-strike (it hurts!).  Instead, you land on the ball of your foot and absorb the landing through the length of your foot, Achilles tendon, and calf muscle as you more gently contact ground with heel.
I decided to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. My wife will tell you that I'm an avid cult joiner, infomercial purchaser, and food fad follower.  I'm going to try to stay objective, track my progress, and arrive at a verdict on barefoot running -- brilliant or bunk.

So how's it going so far?  After a month on paternity leave going barefoot to start building some strength, I have to admit my wife may have been correct. (Not about everything -- last week she claimed to have a longer intestine than I do.  But really, why would I argue about that?)  I'm now sporting a pair of wife-approved footwear in comfort.  No regrets.

Running?  I've tried to go slow running 10 to 15 minutes twice a week.  I imagined that running on pavement with bare feet would tear them up.  Minus a pine-cone splinter, which I could have avoided, there have been no issues.  My calves, however, needed work.  I was laid up for a week after my first 15 minute run, hobbling around like an old man.

Three weeks of running later and the calves don't complain.  I'm struggling a bit with other pains further up my legs and don't feel I can add distance yet.  Here's to hoping to report advances in future posts.

Why a confessional?  The average person, even here in San Francisco, has a strong reaction to seeing bare feet in public.   When running I've gotten mostly smiles as if to say "oh, you're a kook!" and a few who exclaim out loud something like "you forgot something!".  I do feel like I've joined a cult, have shaved my head, and am walking the earth in flowing robes.  When I run at work, I take routes where I won't see too many co-workers. 

So here I go unloading my conscience to the world.  It does feel like a guilty pleasure trolling the neighborhood in bare feet, rolling back the clock to childhood and doing something I'm not supposed to do.  My bet is this will make me stick with it.