A few months ago, my friend TJ emailed me about the Down and Dirty race series. The races are mud run/obstacle course-type races typically set in an urban environment. The race directors set up a barefoot division, but were concerned about people running barefoot. As a result, they only allowed minimalist shoes to be worn.
A barefoot division that didn’t allow barefoot running.
This obviously created a stir among the barefoot running community. My Barefoot Runners Society peeps really stimulated discussion, which included contacting the race directors. It was at this point that TJ contacted me. The title sponsor of the race is Merrell, and I work closely with them to develop barefoot running educational materials and conduct running form clinics. TJ asked if I could pull some strings.
The original idea was to simply get the race directors to rename the division to something more appropriate, perhaps a “barefoot shoes division.” While I thought that solution would have been adequate, I really wanted the race directors to allow barefoot running. Even though I am a proponent of using shoes when appropriate, I like having the freedom to run races barefoot.
After a few conversations with Merrell, they jumped on board and made the request to allow barefoot running on behalf of us barefoot runners. The race directors seemed hesitant, but Merrell persisted. The race directors were still concerned about the possible dangers.
After more discussion, the race directors decided to allow barefoot runners. I participated in a conference call between Merrell and the race directors to decide the language that would be used. We outlined some wording to add to the race rules that spelled out what kind of experience a runner would likely need to safely complete the course. This is the result:
First, this is a victory for TJ and the Barefoot Runners Society. When we originally organized the BRS, one of the explicit goals was to promote barefoot running as a viable alternative in races. Members of the BRS banded together to create a positive pro-barefoot change. Our grass-roots organization swayed the opinions of the race directors of a major series.
Second, a shoe manufacturer supported running without shoes. I’ve often talked about how and why I think Merrell is different; it’s the reason I decided to work with them. They are the only shoe company I know of that openly supports the premise that the naked human foot cannot be improved with a shoe. As an organization, they’ve internalized the idea that shoes are tools to be used when appropriate.
When we organized the BRS, one of the goals we discussed was getting shoe companies to support the idea of barefoot running. I thought our point of view (shoes as tools) was entirely valid and supported by a growing body of research.
Quite honestly, I thought it was a pipe dream.
The very idea seemed outlandish. It would require a major corporation to undergo the philosophical metamorphosis us individual barefoot runners went through when we decided to lose our shoes.
Several companies seemed to move in that direction, but fell well short of supporting the naked foot. Most developed pretty good minimalist shoes, but took one of three routes:
a) The naked foot is swell, but our shoes make it better. Of course, any barefoot runner that has run more than a few hundred meters will tell you this is BS.
b) Barefoot running is okay for some genetically-superior super athletes, but the rest of you mongrels need our shoes. While I always took this as a compliment, I’m 99.99% sure I’m not a genetically-superior athlete. That idea is reinforced by anyone that sees me run. :-) Or,
c) This shoe should only be used as an occasional training tool. The message- we are selling this line of shoes to get a piece of this market, but we don’t want to admit that the rest of our “foot coffin” lines of traditional raised heel cushioned shoes are inferior products that may be harming the majority of the people that use them...
Merrell took a different route. As an organization, they took a route similar to what most of us took as individuals. They were curious about barefoot running. The did research to learn more. They decided the research was too good to ignore. They started exploring how barefoot running could make them better at what they do.
As individuals, that’s when we usually start running barefoot. As an organization, that’s where they decided to produce shoes that allowed the foot to move naturally AND begin educating their audience about natural running form. Early in their consultation with me, they agreed that learning good form was important, and learning while barefoot was the best way to learn. They realized they had the power to educate their audience to embrace their body’s natural abilities. Their shoes would be the tools people would use to do the things they wanted to do when being barefoot wasn’t practical or possible.
In short, they bought into the simple premise the original founders of the BRS outlined when we formed the organization:
Shoes are tools.
We made a difference. A significant difference.
Since Merrell has adopted this stance, others seem to be flirting with it. As the market for minimalist shoes grows, I fully expect some of the more forward-thinking companies to follow suit and openly support the human foot in it’s natural state. This is a huge victory for barefoot runners. It represents a momentous moment in the shifting paradigm.
The monster that is the “modern” running shoe is being slayed, and barefoot runners are holding the sword.
Thank you TJ and the rest of the Barefoot Runners Society. Thank you Merrell.
Completely Unrelated Topic
Many of my readers also read Shelly’s blog, so I rarely highlight one of her posts. However, she recently wrote a post that I think is pretty important and worthy of mentioning.
In a relationship with a dude? Follow this advice and you’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of life!
Dudes- forward this to your significant others.
And yes, this is the reason I smile a lot during races.