I have a confession to make: I’m a barefoot runner.
I understand if that makes you think I’m some kind of granola eating, dreadlock- and tie-dye wearing, crunchy green hippie earth mama, but I’m really not. I do eat paleo, for the most part, and that is part of my coming-to-being-barefoot-more-often story, but otherwise I’m about as far from a green earth mama as you get. I’m a laissez-faire capitalist, pro fossil fuels, pro business, pro human innovation, anti government regulation, anti environmentalism, anti anybody else sticking their nose in anybody else’s business as long as force is not being initiated.
I used to love shoes. High heels, more specifically. I got great joy out of buying a new pair of 3-inch heeled boots with glowing green cat eyes on them. I built outfits around my quirky shoes. You could not have peeled me out of them by telling me they were terrible for my legs and back. I didn’t care. They looked good. I felt sexy in them.
And then I crashed into the barefoot running crowd. Somewhere in the midst of going to paleo events and lectures, I stumbled across the 2nd Annual NYC Barefoot Run, which was a two-day event taking place in Manhattan and on Governor’s Island over the last weekend of September 2011.
Hmm, that sounds weird, I thought. And … fun. I signed up. I like to try new things. Especially weird new things.
On Saturday of the event, I took Barefoot Ted’s barefoot running workshop in Battery Park.
It changed my life.
On that Saturday in September in Battery Park City, I ran barefoot joyously with a group of ten or so, following Barefoot Ted’s distinctive shiny dome as it bobbed up and down gracefully in front of me. People stared.
I learned not to care. I followed Ted’s instructions on barefoot running form, landing first on the balls of my feet rather than my heels, feeling the spring rather than a jarring as I did so, keeping my head up and arms at my sides — feeling how smooth running could be. I paid attention to my breathing; I paid attention to my body.
It felt like a miracle.
It’s funny, isn’t it, how as adults we lose touch with the things that as children seemed so natural to us? Babies kick their shoes off constantly; they can hardly keep them on, they feel so awful. Moms patiently put them back on, again and again. Young children run barefoot without a second thought. They wouldn’t even notice the need for shoes if it weren’t for Mom making them put them on. But now as adults, after so many years wearing those shoes and being taught, again and again, that they are “proper,” here we are, finding it odd and, worse, gross, that people would want to run barefoot.
I’ve been running barefoot ever since — for four years now. In the last year, I’ve done it less, and as I write this, I miss it terribly. It used to be that in summer rains I would delightedly shuck my sandals and walk home that way, reveling in the skin of my feet against the wet concrete.
But others are often not accepting, and that can make it tough. They express concerns that my being barefoot will lead to disease (for me? or them? I’m not sure). They worry that I will step in or on dog poop, shards of glass, or a rusty nail. Someone once mentioned heroin needles. I’ve had strange men try to put me in cabs upon seeing me walk barefoot on a city street late at night. Perhaps they thought me drunk (I was, but not in the way they thought). Perhaps they simply couldn’t handle my unshod state.
Because the truth is that it is the moist, confined environment of shoes that lead to diseases like athlete’s foot and plantar’s warts. The truth is that I rarely step on dog poop, broken glass, or rusty nails, whether shod or not. I use my eyeballs when I walk, and I watch where I’m going. The truth is that when we are barefoot we land more naturally on the springy part of our foot (the ball) rather than the part that jars us (the heel) because we feel the impact more deeply, immediately. We are also more in touch with the feel of our foot against whatever touches it — and so are unlikely to step hard on anything that might hurt us.
I have never stepped in dog poop or a rusty nail in four years of regularly going barefoot. I often step on shards of glass — in my kitchen. (I’m not good with soapy glass dishes.) I pick them out with tweezers and go on my way.
I remember clearly one Christmas night when it was warm enough to walk barefoot: After dancing for hours, I took off the heels that hurt my feet and walked up up up through most of Manhattan toward Grand Central and the 7 train, talking to my best friend on the phone about who knows what, feeling lonely and alive and unbelievably happy.
If I’d left my toes pinched in those shoes, I would not have felt so alive nor so happy.
Feet are meant to be used. Toes are meant to splay, openly, freely, as wide as they can go. Joints and soft human bodies are not meant to slam into concrete heel-first. It hurts. They are meant to spring on the padded ball.
But it’s not the health benefits that thrill me. It’s the emotional well-being, and the way it crept up and surprised me. Walking out into the world with no shoes on is immediately different. You are lighter, not only literally, but mentally. You are braver. You are more centered. You are more you, unencumbered. There is something about feeling the earth with the soles of your feet as you walk or run that is unlike any other experience of life.
It is like being connected to the earth. To nature. To the planet, to the goings-on, to the whole wide world. It is like being grounded in a way you cannot be when you wear shoes. You are more aware of your body. You feel everything it feels, naturally. You don’t hide. You connect.
Imagine if everyone always wore clothing head to toe and you were never allowed to touch your lover naked skin to naked skin, only with clothes in between. Imagine if that were what normal, grown-up adults did. And then one day, you realize that you can take the gloves off and put the oh-so-sensitive pads of your fingers on the side of your lover’s face. Or run them along the definition of his pectoral muscles. Or up along the inside of her thigh. You can touch her ears, the nape of her neck, and her lips, directly, skin to skin.
You’d see things differently. You’d have a hard time putting the gloves back on. Wouldn’t you?
When you take your shoes off, the earth becomes like a lover. You feel her. You feel you, in a new way.
Don’t believe me? That’s okay. I understand. You’re logical; you’re an adult who learned how to adult very well. You learned the rules and now you like to stick by them. You’re afraid of disease and dirt because Mom taught you to be. You don’t like to look weird and have other people think badly of you. I get it. Most people are like that.
But you’re a creator, aren’t you? What if you experimented with not being that way, for just one hour on just one day? What if you tried it out, to see how it made you feel? What if you found a park or a bit of sidewalk that you liked and you slipped off your shoes and ran and ignored the looks?
What if, for a little while, you felt like a kid again? What if, for a little while, you connected with the earth in that way I just described? What if, somewhere in there, you found a more centered, peaceful, happy version of you — without your shoes?
What if it influenced your work in positive ways? What if that feeling is exactly the same as the feeling you need to get in touch with in order to create more?
Wouldn’t it be worth it?
What if …
(Let me know what happens when you try it.)