Marathon Sandals and Mediocrity


“A great tailor trims little.” — Tao Te Ching

Five miles into my run in last weekend’s Colorado Marathon I was passed by a long-haired man in sandals. While it never feels great to get passed it was inspiring to see a minimalist runner in action. Could he keep that pace up for another 20 miles?

My last post expressed my high opinion of Eliud Kipchoge. Running a marathon in sandals might seem like the opposite of Kipchoge’s science-based attempt at the world’s first sub-two-hour marathon. Eliud was wearing the most advanced running shoe on earth while this long-haired dude had nothing but a thin strip of rubber between him and the unforgiving pavement. There is an interesting overlap, however, between the ethos of minimalist runners and a champion like Eliud. They are both going to extremes trying to perfect their run.

The thing that convinces a runner to abandon the soft padding of modern running shoes isn’t complete insanity. It is counter-intuitive, but without shoes you run differently, the body moves more naturally. Yes, natural running is dangerous but so is running with poor form in expensive shoes. Thick soles allow you to perform relatively well without needing to fix errors in your technique that eventually lead to injury. By abandoning their shoes a minimalist runner learns how their body was designed to run without the interference of feedback-nullifying padding. When it stops hurting you know you are doing it right.

Minimalist runners understand that their shoes, seemingly the most important tool they have, can actually prevent them from reaching their full potential.

Let’s build a metaphor. Most of us get stuck in mediocrity. We have the right “shoes,” we have mastered the right software, we have pledged our allegiance to the best processes, we gather and analyze the data drivel, and surround ourselves with enough padding to justify our professional existence. We believe that with the right tech, the perfect tagline, the right marketing, better data, improved UX — pick your buzzword — we will break through. And yet despite doing all the “right things” our work is bland, our careers aren’t remarkable, and our performances are routine.

I don’t think anyone has ever said it quite as well as Dieter Rams:

Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better — because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

What most of us need isn’t more of anything. New technology isn’t going to help us, in fact it will actually isolate us from the underlying flaws in our form. And yet we compensate for our failure by increasing the padding. We double down on the data/marketing/processes/meetings — the very things that got us in trouble in the first place. We never really learn to sprint because we never stop fidgeting with our gear. What we really need to do is strip away all the excess and get back to the core of our craft. Yes, it is risky. You will be as exposed as a barefoot runner. But maybe, just maybe you will perfect your stride.

Later in the race I overtook the sandal runner. While I am not quite ready to give up the padding of my Altra running shoes completely I am going to work harder to keep my routine minimal. I want to feel the pavement, uncover the tiny factors that are so easy to miss. I want to do as much as I can with as little as possible. No waste. Just a body pointed at the mountain, watching for flaws in my technique, trusting in my training, confident that I can finish the race set out for me.

Thanks for reading. You should follow me because I am a runner and designer who writes stories like this each week. Stay creative.

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