Barefoot NYC: The meat and potatoes of it all

So obviously Merrell didn’t send us all to NY just to stuff us all with delicious food, give us pricey swag (very nice shirt, shorts, hoodie, and of course shoes, all in a fancy bag), and to allow me to run a pretty epic mile down 5th ave. TANSTAAFL, after all. What did they want from us? Us being

Christian Peterson: Maple Grove Barefoot Guy
Jason Robillard: Barefoot Running University
Shelly Robillard: Shoeless Shel Bell
Justin Owings: Birthday Shoes
Tucker Goodrich: Yelling Stop
Kate Kift: Ramblings on Barefoot Running, Motherhood, and Life
Jesse Scott: In Search of Solid Ground
Peter Larson: RunBlogger
Dr. Mark Cucuzella: Natural Running Center
Amby Burfoot: a.k.a. 1968 Boston Marathon winner and former executive editor at Runner’s World
Warren Greene: Runner’s World
Adam Chase: Running Times
Jay Dicharry: UVA Enduro Sport
Nicholas Pang: Minimalist Running Shoes
Curt Monson: Playmakers Shoes
Pablo Paster: Treehugger Magazine

(List stolen from Justin, who stole it from Christian. See, there is honor among thieves)

And there were a few others, too. Lotsa people. So… why?

I got back to the hotel after the race, trying to get my head in the game. “Don’t be a cocky jerk. Don’t talk too much. Don’t try too hard to be funny. Don’t get all fanboy at Amby. Don’t bitch about Zem copyrighting Less Shoe, More You. AND DON’T BE A COCKY JERK.”

I waltz into the meeting room where everyone had gathered to eat and share ideas about the barefoot movement/cult/happening. “Dudes and Dudettes, you are looking at a sub-five minute miler. Feel free to worship my feet!” Crap. I broke rules one, two, and three with one sentence. “And did I tell you about what Zem did?” Ugh. I’m hopeless. Fortunately, everyone else was polite. They either knew me from the blog and expected such nonsense, or they figured such weirdos like me were part of the deal when in NY.

After chit-chatting, eating a tasty lunch, looking at Merrell’s new shoe line up, and eating some more, we settled down for the roundtable discussion. You can see some footage at Birthday Shoes. It looks like I’m taking copious notes, and then pick my nose. I was doing neither; the scribbling was just that. I doodle to keep myself focused, and my nose itched. I swear I wasn’t picking it.

I did take a few notes of things people said that stuck out, though. Here they are:
Truth over harmony
Cool to play again
We need a cashier shoe more than a running shoe
Primal = masculine

That last note prompted me to write down an observation of my own: we need more study of the lives of women in paleolithic times.

Looking over that list, I think I managed to sum up the discussion pretty succinctly. Wow. That’s a greater accomplishment for me than any race I could ever run.

Of course Merrell wants to sell shoes. But, and here’s one of the neat aspects of the whole free market thing, is that they stand to gain a LOT if they are at the forefront of a meme change. A shoe that leaves the foot alone instead of binding and cushioning and supporting would do a world of good for everybody, including the 97% of the population that doesn’t run.

I consider myself a barefoot (not “minimalist”) advocate, and felt a little exasperated at how shoey the whole “barefoot” event was. It was funny to go watch the “Kudus” talk later that evening about being barefoot, while surrounded by a bunch of tables covered in the latest shoes. But irony is such a rule of nature that it should be one of the laws of physics. My wish for bare feet to be more acceptable in society and for more people to join in barefoot yahoolery could very well be made possible by shoe companies like Merrell. I mean that, and I don’t think it’s all the free food and beer and swag talking.

“It was amazing,” said the Merrell reps (I’m paraphrasing). “When we brought Jason on board, and he gave our employees the barefoot spiel, people who never ran started to run. We cleared a four mile trail near our offices, and everyone is on it all the time. He turned Merrell into a running company.”

If they wanted to make a slam dunk argument that a shoe company has a place in the barefoot movement, they made it as far as I’m concerned.

Thank you Merrell for a wonderful weekend. It was great meeting everybody. I would love to do it again.

As the meeting wrapped up, I said to Amby, “this whole time I’ve been trying to think of something to pick your brain about. I got nothing. All I can say is that it has been an honor just to be in the same room with you.”

And down went rule number four.

5th Ave Mile Race Report: Lonesome Road

There will be more recapping of the Barefoot NYC shindig, but I’m still waiting for the thoughts to settle in the snow globe that is my brain. Until then, let’s discuss the fastest mile of my life.

Time: 4:57 (ten years ago I ran this race in 5:54)
Overall: 135/4709
AG: 15/407

I stood out a little bit. Not just at the race, where I was the only barefooter (that I know of), but I was also the only barefooter at the NYC Barefoot meeting of the feet/feeting of the minds who was thinking about numbers, time, PRs, and cardiovascular agony. Sweet, intoxicating cardiovascular agony.

I flew into town Friday morning. After checking into the hipsterific Ace Hotel, I wandered around a bit, getting my brain re-cityfied. It didn’t take long – jaywalking with authority, avoiding eye contact, taking in everybody’s individualistic fashion stylings. In NY, your clothes are your car. Fashion is an expression of the Everyman Self more so in that city than any other place I know of. In case you’re wondering, patterned pant cuffs are very in, which I rather enjoyed. Unfortunately, the skinny tapered jeans are amazingly still hanging on. Maybe they’re so tight, the wearers just can’t get them off. I can’t imagine anyone would actually choose to wear those things anymore.

After having lunch with a long lost friend, I journeyed up to the New York Road Runners office for packet pickup. The sky was dumping buckets of rain, and my fashiony Ted Baker sandals were becoming a slipping-off liability. So they went into my pockets and I splashed carefree through puddles down 89th street.

I think I found a way to attract attention, even in NY

Understand, this whole time I’m struggling to absorb the reality of packet pickup. The familiar old building, the craze of runners, the feeling of smallness. In Cackalacky, I’m a regular-sized fish in a small pond. NY, I’m a minnow in the ocean. My running life is incredibly different than it used to be. New me, old stomping grounds. I was giddy.

I even tripped on the same stair that I would always trip on. Just like old times.

After picking up the bib and an awesome shirt, I walked back to the hotel down 5th Ave.

Standing on Versace's face

The future is a bare foot stomping on a dead media... FOREVER

Back at the hotel, I cleaned up and rested up for dinner. That was consumed in the company of fellow bloggers Tucker, Peter, Justin, and a few Merrell folks. It was nice to meet the 3D versions of internet friends. Then, time for bed (for me, at least).

The next morning I woke up, had breakfast with Christian, Nick Pang, Tucker, and… crap. I don’t remember who else was there. That’s the risk one takes when namedropping, I suppose. Anyway, I made my mile ambitions public: I hoped to finish in 5:15.

I made a caffeine and nerves-induced jittery exit to prepare and get to the start. Riding the 6, listening to the train musicians, surrounded by people living the beautiful struggle. Runners with shorty shorts and race bibs blended in with the workers going to work and partyers going home as we jostled north.

One of my favorite pictures from the trip.

At the start, I was alone in a sea of runners. Again with the little fish in the ocean. I have grown accustomed to being surrounded by familiar faces, and no one here knew me. Just like old times. Except for the feet, of course. I warmed up, watched a few heats, cheered the runners running their guts out, all alone. I was too focused and nervous about my upcoming effort to notice, but I was lonely.

Then it was my turn. I found a spot near the front, surrounded by runners of all shapes and sizes. That’s another difference in NY: with so many different kinds of people, you can’t judge speed based on how someone looks. Not that I’ve ever been very good at that anyway, but what I’m trying to say is that the there’s a lot of variety on the podiums around here. Anyway, I hoped I picked a good spot.

I remembered a quote from some runner somewhere: I’ve run thousands of miles. This is just one more.

The gun went off, and off we went. I tucked in behind a guy who didn’t look like he should be fast, but I struggled to keep up. My feet were burning – I didn’t start very gently, and was spinning my feet faster than the ground was moving under them like a cartoon. Eventually I settled in, and focused on the game of catch and don’t get caught. The crowds on the sidelines roared. I inhaled their cheers – it was like Super Oxygen. I started passing people at around 70th st (halfway).

At that point, I wasn’t thinking about anything except running as fast as I could. Any agony I felt was eased to a great degree knowing it would be over soon. My mantra was HANG ON LIKE A PAIR OF SKINNY HIPSTER JEANS.

Ahead I saw the pace truck pull off. Already? That gave me new wind. Suck it up, buttercup. Passed another one. Looking down the road a fer piece, I saw the clock: 4:43. I couldn’t believe it – I had a shot of finishing in under 5. Passed two more. I saw a guy ahead who flew by early on. Caught him. One more for good measure. I finished 15th.

I walked by the banana and bagel table, thinking I’d have all the time in the world to grab a bite to eat. Not so – I left the corral and wasn’t allowed back in, what with all the heats, they couldn’t have runners just milling about at the finish I suppose. No big deal, though. It’s not like I was missing out on chocolate milk.

I hung around for a bit, as if waiting for friends. But I was alone. I wasn’t Barefoot Josh, or Joshi, or That Guy Seen At Races All The Time, or The Chocolate Milk Guy, or The Charlie’s Soap Guy, or the Bed and Biscuit Guy. Or husband. I was legs with a number. Just like all of my races prior to 2006. I was perfectly content with that then, but now I want handshakes and high fives and hugs and smack talking at the end of races. So I took the train back to the hotel and drank the Beverage of Barefoot Badasses:


So that’s that. My next race will be the Cannonball Half in Greensboro. I look forward to the familiar faces, my people, and hopefully I’ll perform well again.

Flowers growin’ in the rubble of the towers

I hear leaders quit their lyin’
I hear babies quit their cryin’
I hear soldiers quit their dyin’
One and all

I hear them all, I hear them all, I hear them all.
-Old Crow Medicine Show

Photo by Chris Van Dyke, blogger of

“Come on, Josh! We’re gonna Hula!” beckoned Chris McDougall with his giant Shrek arm.

“Hula? I can tear up some Hula. Prepare to get schooled,” I taunted as we made our way to the group of people who looked like they were not quite sure what they were getting into.

The NYC Barefoot Run and the weekend was wrapping up. To be honest, I still am not quite sure what Merrell got out of the deal by inviting me, aside from my usual smartassery. Maybe I’ve been seriously undervaluing my smartassitude this whole time. Regardless, they seemed happy that I was there, and I was certainly happy to be there. Especially since I got to meet some of my heroes:

Fresca! I owe her some art.

The back of Amby Burfoot's head. He was the only one I got fanboyish with. Also in the picture is Dr. Cucuzzella - he'll be featured in an upcoming post.

It was also a chance for some admirers and fans of me to get my autograph:

He's never washing his head again. I gotta write a book, just for hygienic autographing purposes.

One of the highlights of the weekend was working out a plotline of Dr. Who with Katie Kift:

Everyone at dinner shook their heads with pity at us nerds.

I like Dr. Who and Born To Run for the same reasons: the protagonists (The Doctor, the Tarahumara) run away. I’m a big fan of fleeing. Iris and I knew we were to eventually flee NY ten years ago, standing on the roof of our apartment, watching the skyline change for the worse. But that’s another post. One that I’ll probably never write, frankly.

I thought about this on the ferry to Governor’s Island, experiencing a rare moment of quiet melancholy. Once we arrived at the festivities, however, my spirits lifted, seeing now-familiar faces and feet milling about eating avocados and drinking coconut water (their mouths, not their feet, were doing the eating and drinking). Or was it eating coconuts and drinking avocado water? I don’t remember. I had a banana.

We socialized, then ran around a bit. My long run plans never materialized, but I figured that would be the case. On one loop, I saw a guy wearing what I thought was an untied corset. Turns out it was a pair of Vibram’s tucked in the back of his pants. We chatted, and as we neared the “finish line,” we both broke out into a sprint, overcome with that competitiveness that is usually assumed absent from a barefooters character. He might have edged me out at the last moment. No resting on any laurels for me, it seems.

After a few loops, it was all chit-chatting and then time for Hula. This wasn’t, to my knowledge, a planned event. I think McDougall’s wife (who’s name I’m ashamed to admit I’ve forgotten) just decided we all could use a good Hula. She was right.

The thing is, she’s a Hula dancer. I thought we were going to Hula hoop. Hula hooping? You can’t beat me. I can lay the smacketh down with a Hula hoop. Hula dancing was new territory for me. But that didn’t matter. She taught us the moves, and we Hula danced as she played the ukelele. It was silly, pointless, and wonderful. That moment was one of the nicest flowers growing in the rubble. The whole weekend, so many flowers.

Much happened before, and even after. I’ll write about some of it. But for now, I feel the need to Hula hoop while listening to Old Crow Medicine Show.

Thanks again everybody who put this together and invited me to be a part of it.