Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Converted and Barefooted

A man runs past my house in his bare feet. He drinks orange Gatorade. He wears a headband. His heels are sullied, calloused, black. I want to know this man. I drop what I am doing and race to the garage. My wife says, "Go get 'em." I mount her bicycle and take off down the street to find the running man.

By the time I reach him, his bare feet have carried him six blocks. I am not short of breath, but neither am I twenty. He is on the sidewalk; I take a parallel position on the street.

"Excuse me," I say. He glances at me, as I continue to talk. "I'm not trying to interrupt your run. I just noticed you go past my house in your bare feet. How long have you been doing that? Running barefoot?"

"A year and a half," he says, stopping for a breath. He wipes his brow and asks, "Do you do it? Run barefoot?"

I want to say yes, but barefoot running is more of an interest than a practice for me. I considered myself a seeker or potential convert, but the comfort of calluses is not earned without pain. This is why spiritually curious people don't attend church. This is why conspicuously unhealthy people don't exercise. This is why lonesome addicts don't join recovery groups. Comfort is a profound enabler.

My initiation with barefoot running started with a book: Born to Run. The author lays bare his personal transformation, brushes with death in the Copper Mountains, accounts of ultra-runners, and scientific debate surrounding the value of running shoes. An audio version of the book entertained me during morning jogs as I trained for a marathon. By the closing chapters I was unlacing my shoes and running small clips in my socks.

Then I entered the woods. Sticks jabbed my soles. Fallen acorns pricked my flesh. Within five steps I turned around, wincing and tiptoeing out. Conversion was painful.

I recommitted to running with unshod feet, but I would stick to grass, sidewalks, and roadways. Once a week, when feeling inspired, I would finish a run with my shoes in hand. Unfortunately, without accountability, weekly bursts of inspiration were not enough to complete my transformation. To become a barefoot runner, I needed to run with someone whose feet were calloused.

Which brings me back to my wife's bike and the man on my street. He has asked if I run barefoot. He is waiting for my response.

"I've just started," I admit. "But I want to get a barefoot running group going in Warsaw."

The plan is audacious. We will run barefoot on Saturdays. We will wear shoes on our hands and shirts on our chests. The shirts are white with a red footprint, each bone detailed, x-ray style. Our name, BROW (Barefoot Runners Of Warsaw), is emblazoned across the front.

A week earlier I chased down Scandinavian Don, a regular pavement puncher in my neighborhood, and I unveiled my intentions for BROW. His shoes pounded the ground as he muttered, "Good luck." He was not interested. He won't get a shirt.

The barefoot man, however, is a candidate for BROW because he is a convert. Then again, conversion does not guarantee commitment to a club. The average evangelical can find many reasons to skip small group and Sunday gatherings.

"Have you read any of the barefoot forums online?" he asks.

"I've glanced at a few, but I did read Born to Run by McDougall," I explain.

He smiles. McDougall made barefoot running mainstream.

"We should run together sometime," I suggest.

He agrees. We exchange information before he resumes his course. And I ride home feeling good about myself, having pursued an idea with feet. I am one step closer to conversion.

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