Columbia Triathlon runner is banking on 'barefoot' shoes

When Ross Kennard gets ready to go for a run in his hilly Ellicott City neighborhood, he slips on special shoes that resemble mesh gloves. Each toe has its own slot with a thin rubber underside, and the shoe's overall design offers no arch support and little padding.

These "barefoot shoes" will play an integral role in the Columbia Triathlon next weekend for Kennard, 53, when he tries something new in his ninth competition. He will do both the running and biking portions of the race in the special footwear, which is akin to wearing no shoes at all.

The Severna Park chiropractor is part of the minimalist running movement, whose followers seek to avoid injury by running more naturally, like the barefoot Kenyan Olympians do, he said.

But minimalist runners, who don't have the thick, callused soles of African long-distance runners, concede that the bottom of the foot needs protection and believe the unusual footwear provides the best of both worlds.

"I feel like a panther when I'm up on the tops of my feet," Kennard said, describing the emphasis that minimalists place on kicking up from the ball of the foot instead of striking down first with the heel, as most people are taught to do.

Instead of the slapping sounds that conventional running shoes make as they hit the pavement, the lightweight footwear makes calming "pat, pat, pat" sounds, he says, when he pads along the steep hills of the Worthington community, which lies northeast of Montgomery Road.

He pays as much attention to that sound when he runs as he does to his body's biomechanics, he said.

With a sold-out field of 2,400 athletes registered for the 29th triathlon scheduled for Sunday, May 20, in Centennial Park, there will be probably be a few entrants racing in minimalist shoes, said Linda Congedo, communications director for TriColumbia, the nonprofit organization behind the race.

"We don't keep stats on this trend, but I see the racers pass as I sit and blog at the finish line," she said. There may be some racers biking in the special shoes, she said, "but that's very rare."

The triathlon has three segments: a 1.5-kilometer swim in Centennial Lake, a 41-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run.

Kennard said that when he completes the biking portion, he'll be able to dismount and start running without changing from biking shoes to running shoes, and that will save him some time.

But that's not a strategy he conceived of in hopes of winning, he said. Out of the field of 2,400, he'll be happy to end up in the top third, he said. In the men's 50-54 age group alone, there are 185 competitors.

"I do this because I enjoy it," said the married father of three. "And the shoes add to the experience."

Tweaking things

While the teen years are a time of experimentation, few people strike out in as many directions as Kennard did when he was 14 and growing up in Toronto.

He was already a self-described fish, ranking 25th in the world among male swimmers in his age group after spending many years in the pool. But he wanted to "tweak things a bit," so he began running and taking classes in yoga and meditation.

In the transplanted Ellicott City resident's case, something unusual happened. He hasn't cast aside any of these interests as he grows older; he just continues to fine-tune them.

Barefoot shoes, which hit the mass market in 2005, seem to contradict long-standing advice that athletic footwear should provide rugged support to lessen the chance of injury, opponents say. That's where the debate surrounding the growing trend comes in, according to Kennard.

Minimalist runners say that engineered running shoes promote striking the ground heel-first and that when they make the switch to barefoot shoes, they begin placing their weight on the forefoot, shifting the brunt of the impact to the calf and biceps muscles. This change strengthens the underside of the foot and eliminates repeated jarring that can cause injury to ankles, shins and knees.

"We are taught to run heel to toe, but that [motion] can cause shin splints, which are a painful pulling of the tendon away from the bone," he said.

With heel-to-toe running, the hip flexes to pull the leg up, and pain in the hip and in the quadriceps muscles at the front of the thigh can result, he said. But when runners push up with their calf and biceps muscles at the back of the leg, they keep their hips in line.

'Somewhat strange'

Kennard has attended chiropractic conferences that have left him convinced that conventional running shoes actually pamper and weaken feet, making them more injury-prone, he said. But, he added, "certain people do need the special support" a traditional running shoe offers.

But merging the barefoot running philosophy into the sport of biking is "somewhat strange," said Ben Reisse, sales manager at Race Pace Bicycles in Columbia.

"Biking shoes are typically exceedingly stiff, and they take the load instead of the calf muscles," said Reisse, who added that he wears a leather-upper version of the barefoot shoe to work for the comfort factor.

"There could be a lot of extra stress to the lower muscles of the calf [when biking] with barefoot shoes, but that depends somewhat on the individual," he said.

Kennard, who purchased special straps to hold his feet to the pedals since he no longer has a cleat to clip into, feels he's up to the challenge.

After receiving his Vibram FiveFingers shoes in August as a birthday gift from his wife, Blair, he spent months transitioning into them, which he says is a necessary precaution for anyone making the change.

Carrying his regular shoes along with him, he would run short distances in his barefoot shoes and then switch off for the remainder of his route. He gradually increased his time wearing the new shoes and now runs or bikes his entire 4.5-mile route in them four days a week. He swims once a week and lifts weights as well.

He has also learned to pay attention to the sounds the shoes make because the "pat, pat, pat" sound means he's maintaining good form, he said.

"Ultimately, I'd like to be wearing barefoot shoes in my chiropractic clinic," Kennard said, since he's constantly on his feet at work. "I've learned to like the way they feel."

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