Barefoot Ted Told Me To Do It
“Why does my foot hurt?”
That’s the question asked by Christoper McDougall’s book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.
But my foot doesn’t hurt: my knee does.
Five months prior to walking the Camino de Santiago, I had microfracture surgery on my right knee. My surgeon cleared me to walk, but warned me to wear
good hiking boots with ¾ insoles to protect my freshly repaired appendage.
Then I read Born to Run. McDougall’s simple question of “Why does my foot hurt?” leads him into Mexico’s Copper Canyon, where a tribe of natives called the Tarahumara manages to run distances that make marathons look like a trip to your mailbox. Not only that, but they often do it after an all-night drinking binge.
As far as I was concerned, the Tarahmara were the perfect role models for a twenty-something male like myself.
But more pertinent to my predicament was that they did it next to barefoot, and they never got hurt. The arches of their feet didn’t implode, their shins didn’t splint, and their knees… well, I’m pretty sure the average Tarahumaran has no idea what microfracture surgery entails.
Best of all, Born to Run provided the science to explain how this was possible, and it all boiled down to one thing: the human foot is not broken.
The book essentially pitted millions of years of evolution against a few decades of Nike research and marketing, and declared evolution the winner.
My mind was officially blown. I had to learn more. There was no way I was going to walk across a country without the best footwear option available.
Unable to find the contact info for the book’s author, Christopher MacDougall, I turned my search to two of the prominent, and almost mythical, figures from Born to Run: Caballo Blanco and Barefoot Ted.
I emailed Barefoot Ted first, mentioning I had just brought some swanky Solomon running shoes from REI (where I had practically been living over the summer as I gathered supplies for my long trek):
“Should I take them back?” I asked Barefoot Ted.
“Take the shoes back!!!” he replied. Three exclamation points. You can’t get much more adamant than three exclamation points. “I would go with huarache sandals if I were you. Or with FiveFingers… or barefoot… I know one Chilean doctor who did it barefoot!”
But I’m not Chilean. Or a doctor. Or crazy. Caballo Blanco gave me much simpler advice: “Put one foot in front of the other and have fun – :]”
The smiley face didn’t make the message any less cryptic, but maybe I was worrying too much. Maybe just going for it in a pair of sandals or FiveFingers would be fine. If a doctor walked the Camino sans sneakers, then doing so is practically doctor prescribed, right? One out of one doctors surveyed agrees!
But I’ve never been much of a wraparound sandals kind of guy; too many years of seeing Birkenstocks paired with socks on the mean streets of Seattle and Eugene has permanently turned me off to the idea. So I went with the only remaining option given to me by Barefoot Ted, and one week later I was the proud owner of a pair of Vibram FiveFingers.
The science of going barefoot may be compelling, but I wondered if it was sound to take that science and applying it to 500 miles of walking – post-knee surgery – after only a few weeks of training in my new barely-there shoes.
At first the FiveFingers were difficult just to put on. It felt strange having my toes separated into individual sheaths of “thin, abrasion-resistant stretch polyamide fabric.” But one week later I was running comfortably for the first time since my surgery – and not just running, having fun running.
I could feel every change of running surface – dirt to grass to pavement – and my movements adjusted accordingly. I could feel what I was running on, without the pain of being entirely barefoot.
I was lighter on my feet, something Born To Run had suggested would come naturally, and my knee could tell the difference. Two weeks before the pilgrimage I was convinced; I would bring only the FiveFingers and a pair of flip-flops. At the very least, my minimal footwear decision would cut down on weight and space in my backpack. Besides, I had three persuasive exclamation points backed up my decision.
Did the shoes work? In short, yes. The long answer is a bit more complicated (and painful).
During my trek, did I ever have to ask myself why my foot hurts? Most definitely. That kind of mileage doesn’t come without some pain, no matter what’s on your feet.
But after each and every mile I walked, one important question never once crossed my mind:
“Why does my knee hurt?”