Tomorrow is the kick-off to the second annual NYC Barefoot Run, a two day event that Christopher McDougal bills as, “The Woodstock of wild human animal mayhem,” though I suspect might be overselling it a bit. If the bloggers I know who are coming are any indication, it will be more like, “The SanDiego Comic Con of slightly flamboyant weirdos who don’t like to wear shoes.” Let’s just say that I agreed to be the local recipient for a shipment of yellow and orange tutus, and that one of my colleagues is flying out in a spartan costume, complete with a crimson cape — you be the judge of which description sounds more apt.
I thought of going to the run last year, but the weekend didn’t work for some reason or other, and I was toying with the idea of going this year when I found out that most of the members of my blogging group, The Run Smiley Collective, were flying out for the weekend. That pushed me into committing. As someone who is vaguely suspicious of on-line communication and social-networking, I continue to heavily emphasize the air-quotes whenever I mention one of my blogging “friends.” I feel a bit weird referring to people I have never met in person, spoken to on the phone, or even exchanged text-messages with as friends, but over the last 8 months or so I’ve really enjoyed getting to know this somewhat sprawling, ill-defined, and eclectic group of runners and writers. I’m really looking forward to finally meeting many of them face-to-face.
So in anticipation of this weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about barefoot running. Most of my fellow Run Smiley bloggers coming in are serious bare-footers. Jason Robillard is one of the keynote speakers, finished the Western States 100 in just a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves, and recently quit his job to travel around the country with his wife and kids in an RV to teach and promote barefoot running. Kate, Christopher, and Jesse are being flown in by Merrell to speak on a panel discussion of barefoot runners. These people run barefoot all the time, in all kinds of weather, on all kinds of terrain.
Then there’s me. I’ve run barefoot a few times, and honestly at this point don’t have any real desire to become a full-time “barefoot runner.” I don’t have any lingering injuries that running barefoot might cure, and I am very happy with my minimalist shoes. So why am I going to this thing, other than its in my back-yard?
That’s what I’ve been musing about, and I realize its all about paradigm shifts. If you’ve ever been within 50 miles of a liberal-arts campus, you know the bumper-sticker: “Subvert the Dominant Paradigm.” Meaning: question the way things are normally done, don’t accept the world uncritically, work to change assumptions and underlying values when they are harmful or even just baseless. And in a small sense, thinking about barefoot running and minimalist footwear has reinforced that for me.
I’ve been running to and from work in my Softstar Dash’s (review coming soon!), and if you haven’t seen them, they are are essentially a simple rubber sole with a thin leather upper — think a somewhat unattractive, very flexible bowling shoe. When I tell my coworkers that, “Yes, I did just run to work in these,” they look at me like I’m insane, like something like that is impossible. Paradigm Assumption: you need 30 millimeters of rubber and gel pockets and a wedge of EVA foam to run? Question: why?
Ah, that dangerous, empowering, revolutionary word: “why?” And in something so simple — why do we all wear running shoes? While reading about and following the minimalist foot discussion, there was one “why” that always bothered me: if heel striking is so detrimental, why did shoe companies ever add built-up heels in the first place? And the most telling answer is: no one knows. Not the critics, not the companies. They just did, then it became an assumption, and assumptions become quote-unquote-fact.
Rather than demanding, “Justify to me why I need a supportive shoe,” for nearly all runners the shoe is the assumption, the paradigm, and instead they ask why one would want to run without a supportive shoe? As if the shoe is the base-line, not the addition. And it really is the dominant paradigm, despite the “barefoot revolution.” Since getting into minimal running 10 months ago, of the hundreds (if not thousands) of runners I’ve passed, I’ve noticed maybe a dozen runners in Vibrams, half a dozen in Minimus and Trail Gloves, and one in a pair of Inov8’s. Not a single haurache, not a single Softstar, not a single barefoot runner.
Like I said, I’m not fully barefoot, but just to ask the questions seems important. As a society, we assume you must wear shoes at all times in public, but why do we wear shoes? Really, they are like gloves for our feet. Like gloves, they can be worn just for fashion, and like gloves, they can be worn to protect us from the weather and dangerous work-conditions. But no one today wears gloves every day — but no one leaves the house barefoot. Walk down the sidewalk without shoes, walk into a department store barefoot, and you’ll get stares, if not asked to leave If you seriously try to imagine doing that, I guarantee that most of you will feel uncomfortable, transgressive just thinking about it, right? But again: why? Most store floors are clean. Our feet are really no less dirty than our hands, no less likely to contract or spread germs or diseases, but there is something forbidden about them, as if they need to be hidden away from polite society. But walk into a store and tell that to the other customers, and you’d look like a lunatic.
I realize this is rising to the intellectual level of a sophomore in high-school discovering philosophy for the first time, but while running home the other day I had one of those blindingly-obvious epiphanies, like in Calvino’s brilliant story “The Flash.” One of those realizations where you realize that so many of the things we as a society do are just mindless reactions to “the way things are.” We all wear shoes, without thinking about it. Now, I’m not actually going to go full-blown barefoot hippie-nut-job, but I think that just asking the question, realizing that it is a choice and not a given, is valuable. To be open to possibilities, and the non-objective nature of reality. To ask “why?”
Because why is an important question, and allowing oneself to ask that about anything, to question the anecdotes and conventional wisdom that most people accept as reality can lead to some very powerful places. From the industrial complexes that generate tons of nutrition-less food to a legal system that recently committed a murder in the state of Georgia, we are surrounded by powerless forces that are empowered merely by our willingness to accept them without question. I don’t think that by wearing minimalist footwear I’m changing the world, or doing anything important or meaningful, but it’s reminded me to question things. Skepticism, like all skills, takes practice, and heading out the door each morning is both a question and an answer to a question, asked of me and of the world. “Why?”