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A 'Barefoot' Running Newbie Tries Those Odd Five-Toed Shoes

By Nicole Bode | November 10, 2010 3:50pm

By Nicole Bode

DNAinfo Senior Editor

The first time I saw a pair of Vibram Five Fingers "barefoot" running shoes was at a bar in the East Village. I thought my friend's boyfriend had succumbed to gangrene.

A year later, my husband is now the proud owner of not one, but two pairs of the strange-looking shoes, the most recent of which I purchased for him for his birthday. And, on Marathon day (I did not run), I picked up my first pair, in a nice two-tone shade of grey and blue.

So how did I, a reporter whose entire running career has consisted of chasing after reluctant interview subjects and doing a few months of weekly laps around the Central Park reservoir until my ankle went out, end up on the bandwagon of the latest running craze?

Well, in the words of coach Eric Orton, whose work with barefoot running was featured prominently in New York Times' bestseller "Born to Run," "If it’s broke, you gotta fix it."

And my technique, which left me with nothing but flat feet and chronic ankle weakness, clearly qualified as broken.

So, I attended a lecture last week at the New York Society for Ethical Culture to hear from the author of "Born to Run," Chris McDougall himself.

Over a wide-ranging two and a half hour discussion, McDougall and other speakers who were featured in his book made a compelling argument.

"Who’s teaching runners how to run?" asked Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman, whose work in evolutionary biology suggests that our ancestors survived and evolved by basically chasing their prey to death, marathon-style. "One thing that’s nice about barefoot running is it forces you to run gently, to run softly."

Lieberman, who has earned the moniker "Harvard’s 'Barefoot Professor',"  still has some reservations about the barefoot running trend, saying there’s not enough data to know what the long-term injuries may be. But he said there’s no question that the current running technique is a colossal failure.

He estimated that at least 30 percent of runners are injured, and suggested that humans successfully ran for centuries before the advent of arch support.

After the discussion, I passed a display of Vibrams for sale in the lobby for $80-$110. I was not tempted to try them.

But two days later, I accompanied my husband to a Super Runners Shop to swap out his Vibram KSOs for a different pair.

While he was at the counter handling the exchange, I edged closer to the display rack.

The styles were surprisingly appealing, and came in colors other than gangrenous black. I began to feel the way I did as a kid eager to pick out new ballet slippers.

The next thing I knew, I was wiggling my toes into a pair of Vibram Sprints, fastening a Velcro strap across the top of my arch, and taking my first steps.

The sensation was different than what I've felt in any other shoes, especially in my pinkie toes, which have never felt anything but useless or cramped in typical footwear.

Now my pinkies and my fourth toes felt liberated, as if stretching out a long-held cramp.

Walking across the store felt like learning to walk for the fist time, and I knew enough from hearing my husband discuss his own learning curve that I should concentrate on landing in the middle of my foot, to spread the impact instead of slamming down with my entire body weight on my heel.

A stint on the treadmill and another few laps around the store, and I was hooked.

"Can I wear these out?" I asked the salesman. I wiggled my toes all the way home, pointing and flexing and attracting not a few glances from the passerby.

"Aren't you cold?" a woman asked me on the way home, her nose wrinkling. 

Not the slightest, I explained, since the rubber underside kept in all the heat emitting from my foot so I felt downright toasty.

I should say that I'm not in any rush to hit the track in these shoes. For now, I'm too gun shy from my running injuries to do much more than wear them for short errands and around the apartment.

But even that little exposure has changed how I notice my feet. I now pay more attention to my pinkies inside my sneakers. I notice how rarely I use them and how weak they've become. I walk differently, softer, even in high heels.

And I know that while plenty of people will laugh at my shoes, and tell themselves they'd never be caught dead in them, I'm glad to be on the bandwagon. I'm glad to be game enough to try, even briefly, something that has the potential to make me feel healthier.

Considering all the crazy lengths to which New Yorkers go to stay fit, who am I to judge?

Well, just another Manhattanite in web-footed shoes, padding her way toward some semblance of well-being in a city that's anything but soft.