So Jason Robillard has a rough marathon just two weeks after kicking butt at the 100 mile Burning River Race. One of his marathon frustrations was not being able to happily traverse gravel barefoot. I totally understand how he feels. Well, except for the marathon after 100 miles part. I’m still being a crybaby over a rough 11 miler this weekend. Putting on footwear, for anyone who has “barefoot” in front of their name, can feel like an admission of defeat. Now, before you say “yeah, but…” let me tell you why:
1. When learning, it’s a good idea to stick to the rule: if you can’t run it barefoot, maybe you shouldn’t run it. That’s meant for beginners who want to run farther than they should. Part of us continues to feel that way; after all, if we always wear shoes on gravel, we’ll never learn to run barefoot on gravel.
2. Also during the learning process, we are practically deluged with “impossible” things turning out to be not too hard, even easy. “I could never run that far barefoot,” “I could never run that fast barefoot,” “I could never run on a trail barefoot,” “I could never run that drunk barefoot,” and on and on. We become accustomed to asking, why not? and finding no answer.
3. We believe that running barefoot in any condition is possible (maybe not desirable, but possible). Gravel is kind of the holy grail – if you get it, you’re a ninja master. Nothing looks better on a resume than Ninja Master under Special Skills and Interests.
4. We (perhaps over) value tactile feedback. The (perhaps over) is directed at those of us who have learned the basics and push the envelope – running very far, running on rough surfaces, running in unfriendly weather – circumstances where comfort and safety should outweigh the benefits being able to feel the ground.
5. Good ol’ fashioned tribalism. Us vs Them. It’s a hoot proving the naysayers wrong.
6. Lack of shoe practice makes them a hassle. I went for a run today that included stretches of gravel, plus my feet still feel a little sensitive from a hard run yesterday, so I thought I’d trot out the aquas, with socks. It felt very strange. If I’m going to wear them for a leg of the Blue Ridge Relay, I’ll need to train in them at least a little bit. Really don’t want to, though.
7. It’s cooler to say “I did the whole thing barefoot.”
8. We care what other runners think, and want to represent the barefoot contingent well.
9. We anthropomorphize shoes, attaching a lot of meaning to them that doesn’t exist. Humans do that with everything, though; that’s not a trait special to barefooters.
10. We feel like we’re missing out on something when we put shoes on, even minimalist shoes. It’s like a chess player playing checkers. All the variety goes away.
I’m not saying it’s all of these things, but it can be. I’m also not saying barefooters are puritanical all the time, but rather most of us can be some of the time. Personally, I do my best not to anthropomorphize, but the other nine reasons certainly apply to me.
I think the best way to avoid being puritanical is to look at it from the learning perspective, and being honest with yourself where you are on that road. For instance, I really don’t think I’m ready to run 4.5 miles of gravel on a 9 mile leg that descends over 2000 ft. Frankly, I’m nervous about the prospect in footwear.
It does help, however, having a barefoot marathon under my belt. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, so I can focus on improving my running life and having whatever adventures I want on my terms without feeling like I gotta make excuses if I just feel like wearing footwear. Which, in general, I don’t.
So next time you see a barefooter flinching and grimacing their way across a gravel road, just understand: it’s complicated.