The Unexpected Consequence of Barefoot Running

I started my Sunday long run much later than usual. It’s early in the afternoon, and the weather is mild and cool, overcast. I had decided to run one of my favorite routes, one that I haven’t run in some time. It’s a commercial road around the northeast edge of my city. It’s a fairly busy road, which is why I am surprised when I see the black SUV suddenly come to a full stop about 100 feet ahead of me.

No …

The reverse lights of the SUV come on and it starts to slowly back up.

Surely not …

The SUV stops backing up about 30 feet ahead of me. For a moment I think it’s going to pull into a driveway. Then it begins to reverse again, I look back to make sure there aren’t any cars coming, I’m afraid for the driver. The SUV stops as it comes parallel to me. The driver is a young man, and he leans out the window and says something to me. I can’t hear him because cars are passing between us. I can see a passenger in the car next to him, but I can’t make out their face. I think I hear the word “method” and wonder if he’s looking for directions to a Methodist church nearby.

“I’m sorry?” I say, with my hand to my ear like a cartoon character.

“What is this method? You’re exercising right?” and he gestures to my feet.

My bare feet. I am running completely barefoot.

I am still not used to this kind of attention. I falter for an answer and within a few seconds several responses run through my head: It’s supposed to be better for your feet … It’s cheaper, haha … I can run faster barefoot … You don’t lose toenails if you don’t wear shoes …

At this point about 5 seconds have passed and there are several cars behind the black SUV. One of them honks. The young man is still waiting for me to answer and looks entirely nonplussed at making those cars wait.

What I end up hollering back across the road is the most truthful for myself: “I have a condition in my feet and can’t wear shoes.” He nods “Ohh,” waves, and drives away. I’m still a little baffled at the interaction.

My response is mostly truthful, and is the quickest and easiest for these kinds of spontaneous encounters. People can understand running barefoot by necessity. By choice is a little more difficult. In reality I can wear shoes, but not without a fair amount of pain. I typically wear a pair of loose hiking sandals to work, and my supervisors don’t seem to mind. The rest of the time I’m usually barefoot.

Early this year, I developed a searing pain in my left foot. Upon my initial visit to urgent care, it was thought to be soft tissue damage and I followed up with rest from running for a few weeks. The pain still didn’t go away, and trying to run in my sneakers felt like torture.

I have been a runner for about 10 years. I began in my mid-20s, as someone who had never been athletic, or run a mile in her life. I quickly realized that I actually really liked running and after about two years of building up (mostly my courage) I ran my first marathon at 28. It was like falling in love again (sorry, dear husband). The feeling I get when running far or fast is something that can’t be matched by any other type of exercise. Over time all my chronic aches and pains fell away or diminished greatly. My mind seemed clearer, more focused. My anxiety became more manageable. I had always heard that exercise is good for the mind and body, but it took almost 26 years for my lump of a body to want to give it a try.

I had heard of people running barefoot and had always been curious to try it. To be perfectly honest the biggest draw for me was not having to spend a few hundred dollars on running shoes every year. I never did try it, until this problem with wearing shoes began. My first attempt at running “barefoot” was a slow mile, wearing running socks with duct tape on the bottoms to protect my feet from whatever danger was waiting to pierce my soft feet. I then “graduated” to running in socks alone, mostly because I felt too lazy to tape them up every time. I joined a barefoot running group on Facebook and was advised to ditch the socks. On reflection, I considered that I was using the socks more as a mental barrier than a physical one, so I did. I was now running purely barefoot.

Here and there.

In the meantime, I was still trying to figure out what was wrong with my foot. A second visit to the doctor suggested a fracture. “The pain is only in your left foot?”

“Yes.” I answered. I waited a month for the MRI and subsequent visit to an orthopedist, and rested from running the whole time.

Within that month, the pain got worse. It wasn’t a local pain anymore, the entire ball of my foot felt like it was swollen and on fire. A week after my doctor visit, my right foot began to hurt as well. First thing in the morning is worst. Sometimes so bad I have to walk on my heels for an hour or two before things loosen up.

My visit to the orthopedist revealed a neuroma in my left foot. She pointed out the gap between my third and fourth toes, which is a tell-tale sign. I described my morning pain to her, and let her know my right foot hurts now as well, but she didn’t linger on that part of the conversation. She said I can continue to run barefoot, and was hopeful that I won’t need surgery.

I left the orthopedist with a prescription for custom orthotics (which my insurance doesn’t cover and I didn’t buy), some metatarsal pads, and some kind of painkiller cream.

In addition to wearing the metatarsal pads when I’m not running, I opted for an anti-inflammatory diet to keep the pain at bay enough to keep running. Currently, I try to follow the diet as strictly as possible, and I am now training for a barefoot half marathon. Any temptation to stray off the diet or “treat myself” with desserts are met with screaming pain for a few days after. I decide that my desire to keep running is stronger than my love of ice cream (most of the time).

After the black SUV pulls off, I continue my run. About a half mile down the road I stop at a traffic light to wait, and a woman in a dark sedan rolls her window down.

“Are you okay? Do you need a ride?”

I smile and wave, “No thank you, I’m exercising.” Her mouth widens into an “O” of surprise and she laughs and pulls off. I keep running once it’s safe to cross.

I hadn’t considered this aspect of barefoot running. It was a surprise to me. I usually run very early in the morning, before anyone else in the house is awake. The streets are typically rather quiet and it’s rare that I pass anyone. Since it’s usually dark, I can only assume passing cars don’t notice my bare feet (or probably even a runner on the sidewalk).

I ran my first barefoot 5k in late spring. I had barely worked up to 3 miles at that point, and it was a family fun run. My husband and I each ran with a child in a stroller. The previous year, I had run 16 race events. This was only the second event I had managed this year, so I was very excited.

As we lined up toward the back with our kids, I heard someone behind me mention to a friend that I was barefoot. I was a little taken aback; they weren’t rude, I just didn’t expect anyone to notice.

The race started, and we took off slowly. We passed some walkers, a few slower runners, and pretty soon my husband outstripped me as we both ran a comfortable pace. Since this will have been the longest distance I’d ran since my foot pain started and I was pushing a stroller, I wasn’t trying to challenge myself. The race was out and back, and pretty soon runners were coming back on our left. I cheered the leaders of the race then turned my attention back to my run. I started to notice a few people on the way back pointing at me and my feet. A few people gave me a thumbs up. A few more said “Great job, barefoot!” or “Impressive!” I just smiled and kept running.

This was unexpected. I didn’t like it. I don’t like attention. I started to feel like everyone was looking at me, pointing at me, and my bare feet. I began to panic a little then talked myself down again. Truthfully, the vast majority of people weren’t paying me any attention, but when you spend your life trying to fade into the background, even a little bit of attention seems like every eyeball is on you. I finished the race, my feet just a little sore, and joined my family. As we are packing up I heard one of the organizers say “I saw one woman running barefoot, can you believe that?” I turned my head and pretended that I didn’t hear.

Like many people that experience some trauma in childhood, I try my best to fade into the background. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision, like when I’m at a party and stand in a corner, enjoying just watching the scene instead of engaging in conversation with people I don’t really know. Most of the time it’s unconscious: I am drawn to gray, black, and beige clothing and have to remind myself to choose colors to keep my wardrobe from becoming entirely drab; I keep my hairstyles fairly simple; I have worn the same neutral beige and medium brown eye shadow for at least 15 years.

When I do try and branch out with my appearance, I feel ridiculous. Fancy hair and makeup that looks completely natural on other women feels like a clown costume on myself. When I venture out of my shell, I feel like everyone is watching me, judging me, laughing at me.

Why?

Because being unnoticed feels so safe. My comfort zone is fading into the crowd, unnoticed, forgotten. Drawing attention to myself feels like inviting criticism to my flaws, all my imperfections, and every reason I’m less than.

I like people. I enjoy conversations with my friends and coworkers. I love bright colors, and sunshine, and dancing. My comfort zone can be lonely and these two halves of myself are often at odds.

But at the end of the day I just don’t like attention.

I continue on my Sunday run. A mile and a half down the road I am passed by a middle aged gentleman who gives me a thumbs up, “Great job, especially barefoot!” he says as he passes me at a much faster pace. I smile and keep running. About another mile on I pass a group of school-aged girls. Four of the six of them stop walking and stare at me. I smile and give a small wave “Hi”, and they don’t smile back. Their furrowed brows are confused, and mistrustful. I look back down and keep running. I pass a few families on their porch and couples walking their dogs. I prepare myself for questions or comments every time, but no one else says anything. Most of the rest of my run is uneventful and eventually I settle back into a peaceful pace.

I often get comments or questions when I run during the day. No one has ever been rude, or made me feel unsafe or threatened. They range from confused to curious, sometimes congratulatory (which is the most baffling to me, honestly). When it’s women they are often concerned, as though I have been caught out in some dangerous situation. I don’t get upset, and I understand that I often look rather curious (sometimes early mornings I’m running barefoot, with my hair in rollers and a scarf).

But the attention just makes me so damn uncomfortable, and I just don’t think I’ll get used to it.

I finish up my Sunday run, rounding out 7 miles as I turn the corner to my block. I walk the rest of the way and stretch some of my muscles as I walk. I can’t stop thinking of the black SUV, reversing on a busy road, ignoring the honking car.

I walk into my home, and call the dog to take him for a short run around the block. My 5 year old son asks if he can come run with us, taking off his socks as he is talking.

“Sure bud, why are you taking off your socks?”

“I’m going to run barefoot like you mommy,” and he joins me at the door.

And there it is. The kind of attention I actually enjoy.