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Shades of Gray Starfish: How Barefoot Runners Need to Change

Posted by on May 11, 2012 | 14 Comments

I’m fond of the “starfish analogy.” You know, the one where a man is walking down a beach and stumbles upon a little boy is frantically running up and down a beach tossing starfish that washed ashore back into the surf. The man asks the boy what he’s doing, and he responds “I’m saving their lives.’ The man chuckles, “But there are thousands washed upon the beach. You can’t possibly save them all.” The boy looks down at the gasping starfish in his hands. “But mister, I can save THIS one.”

This analogy perfectly describes the experience of teaching. Trying to save each kid is impossible, which is a painful lesson most teachers learn in their first year behind the desk. Once you recognize you can’t save each and every student, you focus on saving the students in your hand. You don’t stop trying to save as many as possible just because you can’t save them all.

I had a bit of an epiphany today. I started a discussion with the members of The Podiatry Arena forum. Specifically, I had an exchange with Dr. Kevin Kirby. Among the many points discussed, Kirby mentioned the perception that podiatrists do what they do (prescribe orthotics, etc.) simply to make money. Someone comes to them with an injury; they prescribe a treatment that assures the individual doesn’t actually get better.

That specific comment struck a chord as I was reading Anne Lamott’s excellent book ‘Bird by Bird.” It’s a book about writing… part of my efforts to become a better writer. Anyway, Lamott discussed the universal need to end the suffering of others. I immediately thought of the starfish analogy and Kirby’s comments.

All of us want the same thing. We want to ease the suffering of those around us. Each one of us are on our own individual quest to toss starfish back to the sea.

The problem arises when we see other people milling about on the beach. It may look like they’re also rescuing startfish, but their methods are far different than our own. We react to the unfamiliarity with cynicism. Worse, we waste time arguing with them over their methodology. Meanwhile, starfish are dying.

My Progression of Thought

When I was a teacher, it took several years to learn that other teachers could help some students better than I could. This was a difficult pill to swallow, especially when I disagreed with the other teachers’ methods. Eventually I learned to accept that we were all working toward a common good. I could be far more effective if I stopped questioning the methods of others and simply embraced our differences as a means of reaching more kids.

When I started barefoot running, I was convinced shoes were roughly analogous to medieval torture devices.This changed when I started running in conditions that required shoes. Eventually I came to see some shoes as good; some as bad, which has evolved into the idea that all shoe qualities  have tradeoffs. Raised heels, cushioning, width, sole thickness, rock plates, tread, materials, style, flexibility, ventilation… even motion control- all serve a purpose in some conditions. The key is to figure out which qualities you need and which qualities are extraneous.

Even though I accepted some shoes, I was still convinced shoe companies were evil, faceless corporations plotting to destroy our feet while bilking us out of as much cash as possible. This changed when I started working with shoe companies. I came to realize shoe design relied more on fashion than science and the designers and marketers really were trying to make products that would make their customers happy.

When I started helping people learn to run better, I had my own specific methodology. Of course, I thought my methods were the best. After all, I was able to help quite a few runners learn to run with better form. I did come across a few people I couldn’t help. I found these people could learn to run better, just not with my methods. I started recommending other methods that would get them to the same end result, such as Pose, ChiRunning, and the methods of my fellow barefoot running teachers like Ken Bob and Sandler.

The next big revelation came when I started holding clinics at running stores. Prior to this, I assumed most running stores were run by idiots that mindlessly “fit” people for shoes with little or no actual thought. As it turns out, running store personnel are almost always experienced runners with a wealth of knowledge.

The latest revelation derived from Kirby’s comments. Even though my opinions of the medical community have softened considerably over the years, I was still convinced we needed to change their minds. We needed to convince the medical community that we were right and they were wrong. We took our anecdotal evidence or a handful of studies that are impossible to generalize to a wider population and made a case that the medical community needed to change the way they did business. Of course, I was wrong; we are wrong. The medical community, probably more than any one of these groups, is in the business of ending human suffering.

I had a lot of preconceived notions about each of these groups… until I took the time and opened lines of dialogue. I lowered my guard and focused on learning, not arguing. I started listening more than I spoke. This strategy resulted in a far greater depth of understanding. The real bonus- this strategy has made me a far better teacher. I am in a much better position to help anyone and everyone I come in contact with.

What Is Needed

As barefoot runners, we need to open our minds. We need to accept the fact that the vast majority of the people involved in our sphere of influence is working toward the greater good of easing the suffering of those in need. We need to accept and embrace the methodology of others. We need to get over our cynicism and start learning from each other, even the people we think are wrong.

The real benefit- this opening of our mind is a two-way street. When we take the time to listen to others, we set up an environment where they’ll be more likely to listen to us. Our mutual curiosity and drive to learn thrives in an environment of free of defensive posturing.

Two things need to happen:

  1. We need to accept the idea that we don’t have all the answers; we can’t help them all. We can’t reach every starfish.
  2. We need to open ourselves to the possibility that other people may be able to help those we cannot. Furthermore, some may be more effective at helping those we can help. We need to drop our cynicism and start listening to each other. We need to focus on learning.

We all believe we’re making a difference. That’s the easy part. The hard part is accepting that others not only believe they’re making a difference, but actually DO make a difference.




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  1. Shades of Gray Starfish: How Barefoot Runners Need to Change | Barefoot Running University | Jogger Tunes
    May 13, 2012

    […] really enjoyed this article at Barefoot Running University. Recommended read even if you’re not into barefoot running. Actually, it applies to […]

  2. Nate Price
    May 13, 2012

    ‘Seek first to understand and then to be understood’ is one of my favorite leadership tidbits, and Jason, your post shows your leadership and wisdom.

    As far as the podiatrists are concerned, I imagine they take a lot of crap from MDs, DOs (osteopathy), and chiropractors. Are they just lashing out at barefoot/minimalists because it’s another attack on their credibility within the medical community? Are they backed into a corner by the rest of the docs and we’re throwing some stuff their way that questions them even further?

  3. Matt
    May 12, 2012


    One of your best posts. I am continually amazed by the fact that, no matter how old or experienced or mature we get, we never stop “growing up”

  4. Thomas
    May 12, 2012

    I am not really the right person to comment on this topic. But isn’t the key issue running form rather than what shoes we wear? With a good running form, we can use any type of shoes or no shoes.
    But with a poor form, we can either try corrective shoes or improve our form. Corrective shoes will not fix the problem, but its a simple fix.
    So my point is, its not about shoes – only about running form.

    • Paul Wallis
      May 13, 2012

      I would agree, but under normal circumstances (not including extreme weather, and or terrain) why use the shoes? Barefoot running is so much fun with the added sensations, and is much cheaper as well.

  5. Paul Wallis
    May 11, 2012

    Thanks for the reminder. It generally helps to listen more. However that’s really hard to do if you’re being called an idiot from supposive medical doctors. All I know is if I was to be treated like this in person by the doctors I work with, it would be highly unprofessional and borderlining on bullying and abuse. I suppose the anonymity of the internet makes it easier to be insultive to a newcommer. Hopefully some of the members of podiatry net will view your post.

  6. Brian G
    May 11, 2012

    Barefoot running, or the emulation thereof, is a means to an end, that end being reduction of pain and injuries (possibly through better running form). It is by no stretch of the imagination the only means to that end.

    In the bell curve of possibilities, there is a broad set of activities that work for some but not others. Where does barefoot running fall in that curve? Unknown. It may work for a very large percentage of the running population or for a very small percentage. But I do agree with Bare Lee in that, absent some congenital abnormality, the default should be tried first until proven otherwise.

  7. Chris U
    May 11, 2012

    Keep reading Anne Lamott Jason, it’s working. A well written article, and refreshing in that you’re admitting past mistakes and moving on.

    I’d come to my own similar conclusion recently; there is no silver bullet. What works for some may work for others, it may not. Because this grey area exists, it is so much harder than it should be to cut through the crap and work out which people are genuinely offering good advice and acting in the best interest of others.


  8. Wiglaf
    May 11, 2012

    BTW, Simon Spooner doesn’t know what “ad hominem” means. He also doesn’t seem to understand your argument regarding blog context and he has an axe to grind…over and over and over again. I’d recommend ignoring him.

  9. Ken S.
    May 11, 2012

    I like the points you made. There is way too much tribalism in the fitness communities, and running communities are no different. We don’t need to let honest differences of opinion turn into wars of religion. I’m sorry to say, I’m a little guilty of this myself.

    I’m VERY surprised that your thoughts evolved from an exchange with Dr. Kirby who is one of the most closed minded and extremely biased individuals I’ve ever had an exchange with on the subject of running. He constantly questions the integrity of anyone who dares to disagree with his highly biased take on the available science. He basically accused me of promoting Pose for reasons of profit after I exposed the fact that he was quoting studies that he either had not read or did not understand. I’ve seen him do it to other people as well.

    Can you provide a link to your exchange? I would be very interested in reading it.

  10. Bare Lee
    May 11, 2012

    Yah, I liked your exchange with Kirby, but that Payne guy definitely has issues, and he kept quoting you out of context.

    The problem is more institutional than conspiratorial, right? People in the medical profession want to help people, and are in many ways uniquely qualified to deal with certain types of suffering, for example an abdominal aorta aneurysm. Other areas of illness and injury are not so clear-cut, the treatments are often relatively new (e.g. orthotics), and most doctors have no training in the history or philosophy of their profession, so are unaware of, or closed-minded about, practices that don’t fit into the paradigms they were taught in school (for example the fact that most of the world’s population has/had done just fine in sandals or moccasins for a very long time). Kirby says ignorant stuff about ‘natural’ surfaces, etc., which belie his limited view on the subject. His ‘prescribe first’ mentality is also in keeping with modern medical practice. He may not be in collusion with shoe or orthotic companies, but it’s in keeping with his professional identity, his sense of who he is, to have the patient need him, rather than simply say ‘lose the shoes,’ which in any case may not be good advice for someone who’s been crippling themselves with them for a long time. Same in teaching, as you note; sometimes less is more.

    And I doubt any podiatrist is going to accept you as an equal partner in the debate–although Kirby was quite gracious in welcoming you–because you have a background in barefoot experience and teaching, not in medical school. Of course, most medical doctors have no experience in medical research–they are mere passive consumers of it–so it’s kind of funny when they dismiss your ability out-of-hand to evaluate research methodologies as well as they do. Good research methodology is universal, although the substance of a study, the factors involved, ignored, and so on, may require a specialist to be properly evaluated.

    But no matter what the issue or perspective involved–on running, walking, standing, or posture–I think, as Paul stated in yesterday’s post, we should start with the default state–bare feet–and then see what interventions or prescriptions, whether modern (cushioning, Pose method) or traditional (moccasins, yoga), may be of help.

    • Paul Wallis
      May 11, 2012

      It’s likely better to start with barefeet as a default. Interestingly enough even if you don’t even go this far you can see the glarring bias towards shoe use on the forum. If you award both positions as having equal burden of proof (which I don’t really think would be fair), we would require some research to adequately say that running in shoes should be the prefered method. The gang at podiatry net should apply the same standards to the lack of research that shows shoe running is better before they criticize us for having lack of evidence, for running in barefeet.

      • Bare Lee
        May 12, 2012

        Unfortunately, the bias towards shoes and against bare feet is not confined to the medical profession, but exists in wider society as well, so podiatrists’ preconceptions are constantly reinforced or ‘naturalized.’ I think that’s partly why they can say ignorant things without reflection. That’s the way hegemonic notions work.

        Someone at SBL (I haven’t asked permission to cite him) traces it back to the Vietnam era, and the use of ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service’ signs by conservative businesses to keep out undesirable political elements who had adopted hippie identity markers like bare feet. Soon the practice spread into general culture, and myths about health codes and broken glass were invented to justify the exclusionary practice after the political motive had moved to the background.

        If this narrative is accurate, then the issue is just as much about conformity and control as it is about professional gate-keeping, profits, or research validity.

        So that’s what we’re up against. The question then is whether it’s best to start with convincing people of better form and minimalist shoes, or take on the larger issue of bare foot running and lifestyle. If you start with the former, you may never get to the latter, but if you start with the latter, then issues of form and minimalism will naturally fall in line.

        • Paul Wallis
          May 13, 2012

          I agree social issues surrounding shoes in general is a definate obsticle. It’s probably one of the biggest issues we face as barefoot runners. There’s a lot of ignorance even outright discrimination out there. Many of the doctor’s I’ve talked to on a personal level support my barefoot running. Of course none of these are podiatrists, but concidering that most of the doctors are psychiatrists I know, at least I can say they don’t consider me crazy.