I was ready to dismiss barefoot running as a fad.
When my runner friend D. recommended I read “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, I was skeptical. A Washington Post review of the book said McDougall suggested that running long distances without shoes is a key to health, happiness and longevity. It’s like suggesting that living without clothes and electricity would fortify our immune systems. It would more probably get us arrested and a pneumonia.
It turned out the book isn’t just about running barefoot. Almost halfway through it, there was no reference to ditching the shoes. It’s about fascinating people who all run extremely long distances, wearing sneakers, sandals made of strips of tire rubber, or, indeed, barefoot.
I couldn’t put the book down until I finished, and when I did, I went running on a Cape Cod beach: barefoot.
The book made me realize I have been going barefoot for a long time — indoors. The first thing I do when I get home is kick off my shoes. I rarely wear slippers: I prefer socks in the winter. When I was having parties in Paris and New York, I often hosted barefoot. The book didn’t convert me: I will keep wearing shoes outdoors. But, just like it did with D., it made me think about the way I run.
After a 15-minute run on paved roads from the Cape Cod family vacation home to a deserted beach on a crisp afternoon early October, I left my Saucony running shoes in the sand and started my barefoot jog. It gave me a powerful sense of freedom and freshness as I let some of the cold surf caress my feet. “Caress” is the right corny expression to describe the sensation. I was feeling foolishly exhilarated, a living cliché of giddiness.
Soon, reality hit. The beach was slanted, forcing me to limp. I had to constantly look for the firmest sand while avoiding stones, clams and other sharp objects that could have ripped my soles apart and prematurely end the run. The beach narrowed, forcing me to disrupt the nap of a large group of dozens of seagulls as big as cats: my excuse was that they were camping on the firm side of the sand. Once they cleared, they had their revenge. I was forced to slalom to avoid their drops.
After half an hour, I turned back. I could tell the middle toe of my left foot wasn’t feeling right but I chose to ignore it. It wasn’t hurting, just giving me an unfamiliar and unpleasant sensation. I put the Sauconys back on to head home. They felt cushy and warm, as comfortable as heated slippers. They also felt as heavy as lead.
Back home, I found out what was wrong with my toe: blisters. The entire toe had become a big blister, encompassing the nail. I had another smaller blister under another toe. There was no other damage to report, which was a surprise because I expected to use muscles that don’t work out often. I pierced the blisters and let them heal for three days by running in my cushy shoes. I returned to another part of the beach four days later and ran a final time barefoot two days after that. That day was windy and I pushed farther south. When I turned back, I regretted it. The strong headwind and the lack of firm sand slowed me to the point where I could barely advance.
There were very few people on the beach at this time of the year; most of them were walking dogs and most of the dogs chased me. On the second run, I stopped to watch surfers. On the third one, I talked to a man who said he also enjoyed running the beach, but with shoes. “How do you deal with the blisters?” he asked.
“I tough it up,” I said.
What I enjoyed most about barefoot running on the beach was probably the beach part. The vacation is now over and the running shoes are back on.