David Engwall got home from work the other day, slipped on his workout clothes and left for a run, his sneakers still at the door. As in, yes, your eyes work just fine, that guy jogging down Poplar Avenue is in fact barefoot.
The only one in Arbutus who will run with a barefoot Engwall is his frisky dog, Beans. It isn't that his fiancee, Galina Portnoy, is embarrassed to be seen with him (though he concedes the whole thing "seems crazy"). She's just worried the 26-year-old will step on a piece of broken glass or pick up some funky bacteria. "She threatened to call my mother," he said.
Engwall is part of a mini-movement of barefoot runners that has taken shape over the better part of the decade and appears to be gaining ground. One driving force behind it is this underground theory that the expensive running shoes everyone is wearing could actually be contributing to jogging injuries. The runners say our feet have become weak because the fancy sneakers with their arch supports and thick cushioning do all the work. They point to cultures with long traditions of long-distance shoeless running, to the barefoot Ethiopian athlete who won the marathon at the Rome Olympics in 1960, to Zola Budd, the world-class South African runner who trained and competed without any shoes.
And many new converts seem to have been inspired by "the book," Christopher McDougall's "Born to Run," released in May. At its heart is the true story of the Tarahumara Indians, a tribe isolated in some of Mexico's most treacherous terrain and whose members can run hundreds of miles with ease - and without Nikes.
The chapter that seems to be persuading people to try barefoot running is No. 25. In it, McDougall lays out the crux of his case for running on naked feet, that there were few running injuries before the 1970s, when Nike introduced the first cushioned running shoe. McDougall himself has taken up ultramarathoning and reportedly trains barefoot, believing that's the way we were meant to run.
"Obviously, it's resonating with people," said Dr. A. Ben Pearl, a podiatrist in Arlington, Va., who has spoken on barefoot running. "It's become a culture of its own."
Pearl said there isn't enough data to know whether barefoot running is safe - or even if it prevents injuries. He says people in good shape shouldn't be afraid to try it, but they must start slowly. The bottoms of their feet need to develop calluses. The rest of the body has to adapt. When barefoot, Pearl said, a runner touches more lightly on the heel and lands more on the ball of the foot, which is different than the way a runner in standard shoes tends to strike the ground. This takes getting used to.
"Sometimes people get so committed to the idea of barefoot running that if something happens to them, 'It's something else,' " Pearl said. "They rationalize it."
"It's unlikely to be incredibly harmful for people with normal feet," said Dr. Gregory Guyton, an orthopedic surgeon at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore who specializes in foot and ankle reconstruction. "There's a lot of people that have run barefoot for a long time on this Earth."
With the appropriate caveats - don't run three shoeless miles on your first try, for one - "I wouldn't object to a patient of mine who said, 'I want to take up barefoot running,' " Guyton said. Still, he cautions there is no evidence that high-tech running shoes are to blame for the many jogging injuries out there or that barefoot running is a cure-all. He says much of the research out there is not of high quality. "A lot of claims," he said. "No solid data."
Not everyone in the "barefoot running" movement is actually running shoeless. They are simply shunning the "advancements" in shoe technology and looking back to a time when running shoes had flat soles, no arch support, no motion control. Shoe companies have even seen an opportunity. Nike's answer is what it calls the Free, a throwback shoe with little support.
Then there are the Vibram Five Fingers, thin, ultralight shoes designed for boaters. They fit the foot like a glove, with each toe getting its own individual compartment. The main protection offered is against road debris. Some say you can feel the grass between your toes as you run. These "barefoot shoes" don't come cheap: They cost as much as that fancy running shoe.
Engwall has a pair. The substance abuse counselor thinks they look like bear's feet. He wears them only when he runs with his fiancee.
Larry Ellcessor's wife, Elena, read "Born to Run" and was captivated by it. "She's a reader, not a runner," the Catonsville man explained. When he read it, especially the part about the shoes, everything started to click. The 38-year-old has been running since high school, where he was on the cross-country team, but he has always been finicky about what he puts on his feet. He usually buys the lightest sneakers he can find, after too many experiences wearing shoes that felt like he was running in clogs.
Last week, the electrical engineer decided to head out shoeless, on blacktop, on sidewalks, on freshly mowed grass, up and down busy Frederick Road, along quiet tree-lined streets. "Sometimes the pavement or grass is OK," he said. "Sometimes, ouch, I stepped on something. The hills seemed effortless. ...
"I ran by McDonald's. Someone said, 'Shouldn't you be wearing shoes?' "
He ran three miles on Day One. Then five miles the second time. He has no plans to run in shoes again.
"I think you're going to see a lot more people doing it in the next year or so," Ellcessor said.
The Stanford University cross-country team has famously practiced barefoot. A few marathoners race shoeless. At Loyola Blakefield High School in Towson, junior varsity cross-country coach Chris Cucuzzella uses it with his team in practice.
"It's a risky gamble to say we're going to bag shoes altogether," he said. "But at the end of practice for five to 10 minutes" the guys do sprints and easy running on the grassy areas without their shoes.
"The running shoe has gotten so strong that it basically prevents any real motion from occurring in your foot," said Cucuzzella, whose day job is teaching physics. "When you run barefoot, the foot moves around more and those small muscles get stronger. Anything you can do that decreases your chances of injury, I'll try it."
There's a statistic about running that screams from the pages of "Born to Run." Here's what McDougall writes: "Every year, anywhere from 65 to 80 percent of all runners suffer an injury. That's nearly every runner, every single year. No matter who you are, no matter how much you run, your odds of getting hurt are the same. It doesn't matter if you're male or female, fast or slow, pudgy or ripped as a racehorse, your feet are still in the danger zone."
Jim Adams, owner of Falls Road Running Store, said he is fielding more questions all the time about barefoot running. He used to carry the Free, but stopped after it "sent so many people to the doctors" with classic running injuries. He has tried the Five Fingers, but said they felt "really weird." Still, they do "offer significant protection from hazards on the trail or road - pebbles, glass," Adams said. But he won't sell them. He thinks people who run in them regularly, who push through long workouts in them, will get more injuries, not fewer.
"I didn't want to carry that stuff because we rely on repeat business and plantar fasciitis" - painful inflammatory condition of the foot, common among runners - "can last for years," he said.
And yet some people swear by it.
Falls Road sales associate Pete Mulligan said one customer asked if there will be a barefoot category in the Baltimore Marathon (there won't). Only if they have an ambulance waiting at the end to take the shoeless to the hospital to treat the staph infection they're likely to pick up on the route, he quipped.
"They say, 'Our ancestors ran without shoes on,' " Mulligan said. "They also didn't have cars or cell phones. That doesn't mean you should run a half-marathon barefoot."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun