Barefoot in the Park
Traveling on foot gets a whole lot more interesting when you’re barefoot…kind of. Amelia Mularz explains.
I decided a few weeks ago that barefoot is the way to go. I had just finished reading Christopher McDougall’s new book, Born to Run, an account of the writer’s adventures with the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. The Tarahumaras are a tribe of ultramarathoners, running 150-mile races for fun and outlasting some of the Western world’s fiercest athletes. They are also known for their athletic footwear–nothing more than sandals fashioned from tire strips. Halfway through Born to Run I was curious about barefoot-style running (ditching all the padding of modern-day running shoes for a more natural feel). By the end of the book I couldn’t look at my Nikes the same way. I had to go barefoot.
Of course, barefoot in New York City is just crazy talk. The shattered glass collection just outside my apartment’s front gate is enough to send any barefoot novice running back for her shock absorbers, gel insoles, and heel pads. Fortunately there’s Terra Plana–a British shoe company that makes sneakers that have the barefoot effect, minus all the abrasions.
I snagged a pair of Terra Plana’s Vivo Barefoot shoes. The idea is to strip the shoe down so that the foot can perform as it was naturally intended to–landing midfoot rather than on the heel. This shortens the stride and keeps the feet beneath the hips, which many argue is a healthier, more balanced form. In addition to realigning natural posture, the shoes also flex and strengthen muscles within the foot and stimulate all 200,000 nerve endings.
The first thing I noticed when I slipped into my Vivos was how cartoonishly wide my feet looked (the Ronald McDonald red pair I chose didn’t help matters much). The feel, however, was exquisite. I could feel all ten toes flat across the floor of the shoe, a sensation I wasn’t used to with my old running shoes. I laced up and I was off to the treacherous terrain of the Copper Canyon…er…I mean Central Park.
First, I headed to the Reservoir, knowing that the cinder path would be a good intro for my coddled modern-day feet. It had rained the night before so the track was covered with puddles. On any other day I would have sighed, turned lazily around, and looked for a more convenient path; not so with my barefoot shoes. I took to the path, leaping and bounding, paying special attention to my landing technique–definitely not on my heels.
From there I had to test every surface possible and fortunately Central Park has quite a few: I climbed boulders and dashed across the grassy North Meadow, coming dangerously close to snoozing sun bathers. I even hit up some good ol
man-made concrete across the park’s main road.
In general, the feeling is different in barefoot-style shoes–as expected, you feel more in touch with the ground beneath you. The wide foot design lends itself well to hilly running; I could feel my outreached toes propelling me forward on each incline. But I didn’t notice the real difference until the next morning. When Terra Plana says their shoes flex and strengthen more muscles than typical running shoes, they’re not kidding. My arches and calves felt as though I had truly run a 150-mile race alongside the Tarahumaras.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
In addition to Terra Plana’s Vivo Barefoot running shoes, I’m looking into their line of ergonomic high heels for what I imagine will be an even more glorious experience (eight hours in heels is the ultimate endurance test). The barefoot lifestyle is growing on me and just yesterday I noticed that the Society for Barefoot Living has 52 members in the state of New York (according to their website). I could become a full-fledged barefooter and go shoeless hiking and freestyle dancing, or join my barefoot brethren in making wine. But then each morning I see that broken glass heap outside my apartment and I think…hmmm…baby steps.
For more about the Tarahumara people, see this article by Cynthia Gorney from the February 2008 issue of National Geographic, with photos by Robb Kendrick.
Photos: Amelia Mularz