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Barefoot Ted Told Me To Do It

September 14, 2010

“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.


If the Tarahumara can get wasted on corn booze and run 100 miles, why can’t I?

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 – :]”


A shepherd in the Galicia region of Spain laughing at my FiveFingers.

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?”

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2010 3:40 pm

    Awesome post Dylan, I actually thought I would write something similar soon but there is no way I can write it as well.

    I am actually listening to Born to Run now on my morning runs. Like you I suffer from knee pains, which thankfully have not required surgery at this point but have limited my tennis playing. I believe the source of my pain was due to the stress of starting and stopping that high level tennis requires. Tennis shoes haves tons of heel padding which only promotes striking heal first. The force of the strike goes straight to the knee.

    I have been putting off getting a pair of fivefingers for a while, I first considered them around the time that you did. I knew they were a solution, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up on the shoes that I had. For a couple of months I have been focusing on toe striking when running, but it isn’t the same. The heel of running shoes are just too thick.

    My pair of KSO treks arrive on Thursday.

    I think it is pretty awesome that that you were able to exchange emails with Ted and Caballo Blanco 🙂

  2. September 14, 2010 3:44 pm

    That sounds like a pretty epic trip. I actually quit running in college because of joint pain and many broken bones and torn tendons. This is making me think that I should get back out there again even if it does hurt a little. Great post.

    Robert Cherry (@reverettcherry)

  3. Dylan Romero permalink*
    September 14, 2010 4:04 pm

    @Zac – Listening to Born to Run as an audio book would certainly be motivating on runs! I can see how tennis would be brutal on the knees. Let me know how the FiveFingers treat you.

    @Robert – Glad you’re thinking about giving running a try again! Definitely give Born to Run a read; tt really made me believe in the human body’s amazing capability to heal and persevere.

  4. Amy permalink
    September 14, 2010 4:11 pm

    FYI, VFF’s, huaraches or barefoot are not your only choices. You could check out SoftStar Shoes RunAMocs. Barefoot Ted did a positive video review of them. I have 3 pairs of VFF’s and have tried huaraches (they were always too loud!) and a pair of RunAMocs, and the mocs are, by far, my favorite for running.

  5. September 14, 2010 4:12 pm

    I’m planning to do the Camino again….only this time in Vibram Five Fingers. Just got back from my Around The World/Camino Adventure and bought a pair of KSOs. I am in love….and in a bit of pain as I break them in, but there is more love than pain! I’m hoping to do the Camino again in 2011 or early 2012.

  6. Dylan Romero permalink*
    September 14, 2010 6:38 pm

    @Amy – Thanks for adding in some more footwear suggestions. I saw Ted’s review of the mocs, and I think your endorsement might finally get me to buy a pair.

    @RenegadePilgrim – As long as you don’t break them in on the Camino itself (like I did), I’m sure the love will far outweigh the pain!

  7. Dylan Romero permalink*
    September 14, 2010 7:08 pm

    Btw Amy, which mocs do you recommend? I was thinking about going with the Lites…

    • Amy permalink
      September 14, 2010 7:58 pm

      I think it really depends on where you live and what conditions you like to run in, but I personally have the lites with the street sole and love them for street and packed dirt paths. As you might expect, dirt gets in the holes when I run on anything other than asphalt, but I never have problems with gravel or sticks getting in. I have even hand washed them after running particularly dusty trails with no ill effects. I live in MA, so the temps and humidity range quite widely; I’ve worn the lite mocs running in humid 85f temps (I don’t like to run in anything hotter!) to today’s balmy 60f and my feet have been comfortable. I think if I add socks they could get me into late November. However, I think that I would want the trail soles to deal with snow or wet, loose trails. I read on the soft star blog that they are considering a fully wool-lined smooth leather shoe for winter running. This might be too warm, but then again, sometimes my area sees temps in the single digits! Overall, I guess I’d say start with the lite 🙂

  8. Dylan Romero permalink*
    September 14, 2010 8:28 pm

    Great info, Amy, thanks!

  9. September 18, 2010 7:35 pm

    So excited to have stumbled across your blog! Fascinated by your footwear.

    When I walked Leon to Santiago, April/May of 1996, I wore some lightweight Nike hiking boots. Some Tibetan monks were walking about a week or so in front of us, and we’d get the stunned reports everywhere we stopped – not only were they covering up to 50 KM a day, they were doing so in sandals. We were in-step with a French woman in her 60s who was walking in Keds and doing just fine, and a younger French man who I’m fairly certain alternated sneakers and espadrilles.

    It was nice to have hi-tech boots when we walked through torrential rains, but they weren’t a necessity by any stretch. They didn’t protect me from blisters (thank god for the amazing Spanish band-aids), but at least I wore them instead of carrying them in my pack.

  10. Trevor Huxham permalink
    September 5, 2011 6:16 pm

    Hey Dylan, I’m thinking about walking the Camino in FiveFingers, too, but I’m wondering: did you get any blisters? Also, were they sufficiently protective on the more, erm, rocky parts of the walk? Thanks for the informative post.

  11. September 5, 2011 8:38 pm

    Hi Trevor,

    Glad to hear you’re thinking about doing the Camino! I didn’t get any blisters, but my girlfriend did. It really depends on your feet and how VFFs fit you. If you go on a couple hikes first, pay attention to any hotspots — those could turn into blisters over the course of the Camino. The balls of my feet were definitely sore on rocky parts of the trail, or even pavement after a few 20 mile days. I found if I stayed under 20 miles per day I way ok; for my girlfriend it was more like 17. Test your limits and bring an extra pair of flat, but more cushioned shoes just in case.

    Cheers,
    Dylan

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  1. Tweets that mention Barefoot Ted Told Me To Do It « Walking the Camino -- Topsy.com
  2. Barefoot Ted Told Me To Do It « Walking the Camino | Why Foot Hurts
  3. Dylan Romero’s Barefoot Camino | Camino Buddies
  4. How To Keep Your FiveFingers From Smelling Like A Gangrenous Skunk « Walking the Camino

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