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Barefoot runner likes to wear shoes, but wants 'to create an awareness'

Eddie Vega will run the streets of Baltimore Saturday just as he has his last 70 marathons — barefoot. Up Paca. Down St. Paul. A 26.2-mile jaunt over bottle caps and bits of glass and stuff that's better left unsaid.

Vega, 55, will sidestep the debris he can see and cope with what he can't. The tweezers he carries keep him going. That and an iron will.

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"Once I ran over a piece of glass that I couldn't get out of my foot, so I just kept running," he said. "After about two miles I didn't feel it anymore. I don't know where it went."

The soles of Vega's feet are callouses piled on callouses; he files his heels down twice a month.

"Chip-and-seal roads are rough, like rocks cemented onto asphalt," he said. "When race volunteers see me tiptoeing on the course they say, 'Hey, do you want my shoes?'

"I say, 'No, I'll manage,' and I give them my card — which says why I run barefoot."

He does it to drum up donations for a favorite cause. For nearly a year, Vega, an IT consultant from Raleigh, N.C., has run shoeless to bring attention to those in Third World countries who have no choice but to do the same.

"It's not a lifestyle for me," he said. "I like wearing shoes but I want to create an awareness for the 300 million children world-wide who lack adequate footwear and are at risk for contracting infectious diseases, like I did as a kid."

Born in the Phillippines, Vega said he contracted tuberculosis from a neighbor who had the disease and who always spat on the ground.

"I was cleared of TB when I was six, after my family emigrated to Guam," he said. "But that's why I'm so passionate about running barefoot."

Last year, Vega partnered with Soles4Souls, a nonprofit charity in Nashville that distributes shoes in the United States and 127 other countries. To date, he has raised more than $8,000 with his race-day pitches.

"When Eddie runs barefoot, that's his platform to open a conversation as to why this is a crisis," said Kelly Modena, spokeswoman for Soles4Souls. "He's doing and saying things that inspire people to pull out their checkbooks. For every dollar he raises, we can give out a pair of shoes — and that's huge."

Not enough for Vega.

"I wanted to do something amazing, to attract attention," he said. So, this summer, Vega ran marathons barefoot on 10 consecutive days (June 28-July 7) in Oregon, California and Texas, a feat confirmed by Guinness World Records.

"Running those races was easy," he said. "It's the logistics of getting from one place to another that's hard. But I'm pragmatic in travel. I sleep in my car or in an airport, stay at one-star hotels and eat at Subway."

His new goal: To race barefoot in all 50 states this year, which would be another world record. Maryland is No. 45.

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Even Vega's family is in awe.

"Honestly, I don't know how he does it," said Megan Vega, 19. "My dad says he's doing this for the kids, that he wants to walk a mile in their shoes. I've seen him run on days so hot that the soles of his feet were burned.

"When I look at him, I'm beyond proud."

Ambition is Vega's catalyst, said daughter Melissa Vega, 24.

"He's 50 percent craziness and 50 percent drive, and I admire him for that. I've seen pictures of his feet and I do my best not to throw up," she said. "When I wake up in the morning, I can't even walk across the driveway barefoot to get my mail. But he takes care of his body, so we hope for the best."

In May, Vega was struck by a car while running the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Marathon. Though his bare soles had no bearing on the accident, Vega said, "my left foot could have been crushed. I was told not to finish the race, but I did run the next week."

Always at hand in Vega's car are antiseptic, soap and towels.

"I've stepped in dog [feces] half-a-dozen times," he said. "I'll wipe my feet on grass or find a house with a hose and wash them off. It's easier than getting that stuff off your shoes."

Vega shrugs off his race times, usually around six hours.

"A couple of times I've finished last," he said. "Nothing to be proud of, but I'll take it."

He has run barefoot in places where there shouldn't be marathons. Last year, he completed the White Continent Marathon on King George Island in Antarctica, though it took 11 1/2 hours. After nine miles, he had to don shoes.

"It wasn't the cold (29 degrees) but the jagged rocks on the trails," Vega said. "My feet were so torn I lost practically all of the skin. It was two months before I could run again. A couple of psychiatrists who ran that race said I was crazy, but I still felt like I let people down."

A midnight marathon in the Philippines in 2013 found him running barefoot with a flashlight gone dead.

"I didn't see the snake coiled on the side of the road, two feet away, until another runner came by, shined his lamp and I jumped to the side," Vega said.

Despite all of the dangers of going shoeless, only one thought makes him squeamish.

"I've been asked to paint my toenails," he said, "but I haven't had the courage to do it yet."

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