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Barefoot Running: The World’s Worst Gateway Drug?

Posted by on May 24, 2014 | No Comments

I distinctly remember the day before I discovered barefoot running. I was searching the Internet looking for building plans. Specifically, I was looking for green building technologies to incorporate into the dream house Shelly and I were going to build in the following years on our plot of land in Allendale, Michigan. We were eager to get it started so we’d have it paid off before we retired from our jobs as high school teachers.

The scenario makes me laugh.

For those who know anything about our lives, you’ll understand the joke.

Barefoot running opened a seemingly innocuous door that would have a profound impact on our lives. Prior to discovering the unconventional activity, we were living the standard American script: Went to college, got decent, secure jobs, had a few kids (two at the time), paid bills on the stuff we bought, enjoyed occasional vacations to tourist destinations, and looked forward to the day when we retired and could finally enjoy the fruits of our labor.

At the time, I had recently become obsessed with ultrarunning, but was dismayed at the injuries that popped up in training. I tried a lot of “fixes” including buying an expensive pair of motion-control running shoes from a local running store.

They didn’t work.

In desperation I was Googling “preventing running injuries”, just as I had done dozens of times over the last few months. The results were always the same no matter deep I ventured. he eighth page of Google results produced the same ineffective fixes as the first page.

Then I tried something a little different.

My graduate degree program allowed access to academic journals. Being the research geek I was, I tried searching for actual published research on running injuries. I spent hours reading abstracts and conclusions. The literature proposed the same solutions as the Google results… none of which had helped me.

Then I came across an obscure paper. The author (I don’t recall his name), made an off-hand remark about running without shoes. Specifically, he hypothesized that occasional barefoot running may strengthen the feet and reduce injuries. There was no data, and the article wasn’t even about barefoot running.

But the idea struck a chord.

As a teen, I used to run barefoot just because I could. It was enjoyable, but I never game it much thought. I shrugged and decided to give it a try.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Barefoot running, to me, was a seismic shift in reformatting my “standard American” script. It introduced the idea that popular convention followed by the masses wasn’t necessarily better for individuals. It introduced the idea that the unorthodox could be better. That realization led to the beginnings of an openness to experience like I had never experienced before. I embraced the idea of experimentation to figure out what worked best for me as an individual.

At first, that openness only applied to footwear. Then it spread to other elements of running. Then fitness. Then my teaching style. Then it made a huge jump to lifestyle. Then “careers.” Then our home.

Since reading that obscure academic paper, our lives have changed in ways I never would have imagined. We quit our jobs. Abandoned the idea of a dream home. Traveled the country in an RV. Settled in San Diego.

Barefoot running taught us an important lesson: Be open to new experiences, especially those that go against the grain. Don’t spend too much time planning. Embrace serendipity.

Life is a grand adventure, and our time is limited. Make the most of it.


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