Tag Archives: women

A taste of States

by a beginner LD trail runner run-hiker

Weeks ago, a runner friend Loree from our Trail running group asked me if I would like to join her on one of her Western States (WS) training runs to prepare prospective and registered runners for the actual WS 100-mile race in late June. The runs took place this past Memorial day weekend “to acquaint runners with the last 70 miles of the trail.” Over three days, there were runs of 32, 20, and 20 miles over mountainous terrain, respectively. As a show of support for her upcoming race, my spouse John and I signed up for one of the shorter and “easier” training runs. We also thought it would be nice to give Loree a break from driving and run with her for part of the way. As training for this race, Loree had originally planned to commute to each day’s run and run all of them.

To give you an idea of how hard it was for Loree to gain entry into the actual 100 mile WS race: one must complete one of the listed qualifying runs under a stated finishing time of ultra distance. An example of one of the minimum requirements: “50 miles in under 11 hours.” If a runner qualifies, then there is a lottery for new runners to enter, according to the WS website and “odds work out to about one chance in ten (10%) for those with one name in the Hat.” Anyone who gained entry, as people have commented, received the golden ticket.

The day one training run was not only long, but also had the two highest climbs and started at ~9,000 feet.  The day two run, which according to the elevation chart, was a net downhill full of ascents and descents with three miles of climbing at the end. It started at a much lower elevation than the day one run. I believed we could do the day two run it because we’ve been training on hills in our local Redwood and Miller parks. Our longest local training runs in the past couple months were ~20 miles with climbs of up to 1500′ at a time, and we had run hilly trail marathon distances prior to that during the past year.

The WS training run seemed like a good peak run, prior to our upcoming 20-26 mile run in Tahoe three weeks after. They both take place in the Sierra mountains. After we signed up, I read that it was the hottest part of the course because of the reflection of the sun off the canyon wall. Then I looked at the weather forecasts and saw that it would be close to 80 degrees F. Uh oh. We had some heat training in the past month, but mostly run in the morning in the bay area when the temperature is often in the mid-50s F. It looked like John and I unwittingly signed up for the hottest run.


Despite all that, I was secretly excited. Though we would “only” run 1/5 of the WS course (as our fellow running club member Colin pointed out smilingly) and it was on a lower elevation, I was looking forward to seeing part of one of the premiere ultra courses in the world, as I had experienced it in my mind through the narrative in the best-selling book Born to Run by Chris McDougall. I had read it when I started trail running a few years ago and it kept me from quitting numerous times. The visions of the senior Tarahumara people in their 60s running ultras I think will keep the bar high for me until I pass into the next life. Deep down I knew that signing up for this run was equal to signing up for the pain cave for a relative beginner like me. Recalling the book’s nail-biting narrative of a past WS race somehow shifted the focus from my fear of the upcoming training run.

I also focused in on the minutia of prep, which is always a good thing for me to help stop worrying about upcoming run challenges. I trained with a weighted hydration pack, which was new to me, but essential for mountain running. The day before the training run, as per Jane, a runner friend and former competitive cyclist, I filled my hydration bag 3/4 full and froze the water in the freezer to help keep me cool for the upcoming run. I packed our sun hats with attached skirts (friend Nick calls them our foreign legion hats), bandanna to act as an ice collar if needed, sunscreen, food, Clif shots, Vega sport bars, salt sticks, post run food and chocolate milk. We laid out our trail running clothes and shoes. I taped the aid station cut-off times to my watch. (If a runner doesn’t make the cut off time, she is out and must catch a ride back to the start with the volunteers.)

Run day

We left the home in the darkness at 5:00 am to pick up Loree, who was amazingly energetic and regaled us with stories of her previous day’s 32 mile run in rain, snow and hail, with black bears warnings, on the 2.5 hour ride to the edge of Tahoe National Forest to a town called Foresthill. I marvelled at her capacity to stay awake the day after an ultra distance run.

When we arrived, I did the ritual: put on the gear (sun protection, pack, hat, shoes). We signed in and received our paper bracelets with our numbers on them, which the volunteers checked at each aid station. As I looked around, I observed a group of the most fit runners of all ages (~20s to 80s) I have ever seen up close in my life, with their compact, stream-lined hydration packs. It was like this episode of Star Trek: Next Generation where the Enterprise lands on a planet of fit people and everyone dresses like Greek gods and runs/jogs from place to place. The run started with a guy saying “Go” and a cow bell. The super group ran down the road to the trail head, which I was surprised to find was the entrance into a mountainous region (taller than the expected “foothills”).

There was miles and miles of descent, to the degree I had never experienced before as someone unaccustomed to mountain running. It was foggy when we approached the town, so I did not notice until we were running the soaring peaks of the pine-covered mountains until we were running. (According to the WS guide, this part of the course is considered “fairly gentle terrain.”) I did my best to keep Loree in site and had already told her a few times to drop me if needed, because I was new to the heat. (Plus, of course, she is faster and stronger than I.)  My quads were stunned and I tried, as advised to maintain light, quick foot falls, and not pound down and stress out my legs. Surprisingly, I forgot about the load on my back, which I was still fairly new to carrying and enjoyed the cool green pine forest and it’s smells, but the rocky descents lasted long for me with scant time for my legs to have a break and recover.

First aid station

I was relieved to have made it to the first aid station 8+ miles into the day’s course, 40 mins ahead of the cut-off time. There were bananas, pretzels, sports drink, and all the usual fare neatly arranged on a table with the most professional and fit volunteer staff I have ever seen at a trail event. My petite self walked up to a very tall, super fit man with a mustache, wearing a shirt and track pants. He was holding a pitcher of water. I spoke to him at chest level asking for some water please. Loree commented that the man who gave me water was five-time WS champion Tim Twietmeyer, who was volunteering at the aid station. Far out!

After the beautiful forest and pines, we ran by a canyon wall, which as expected, reflected the heat from the sun onto the runners. I slowed down, warned myself not to get too over-confident, and braced myself for the rising temperatures. I saw a group ahead and we all steadily ascended the hills as we headed to the second aid station with a roaring river with rafters down below, which I just wanted to swim in. A few groups of good runners ran by us from the opposite direction, ascending at a steady, strong pace. I wondered if they were doing today’s course twice for practice.  Loree dipped her bandanna into a stream and the rest of us followed suit, wrapping the ice-cold cloth around our necks was refreshing. After running parallel to the river among wildflowers, we hit a dirt fire road and it was amazing to be able to open up, stretch the legs, and run at a steady pace with Loree, which lasted until the next aid station.

Second aid station

Another amazing professional crew of people were ready with sports drink, aid station fuel, and ice to dump into our hydration bags which felt so absolutely amazing. This was the point at which, in the actual race, Loree and the other runners would have to branch off and cross the ice-cold river, some during the day and some at night. Instead of heading toward the river, which many checked out in preparation, we headed up the road of “White Oak Flat” for three up mountain miles to the end. I felt strangely cavalier after I read the name, then could not for the life of me understand why someone named this Flat. It was an ascent that felt like the longest three miles of my running life. Soon I asked Loree to please meet me at the top so I did not hold her back. It was one of the places for me to learn humility and grace as an 80+ year-old man encouraged me and said only 1.5 miles of the climb left as he motored by. This was after I was informed that he had started running at age 47, had surgery at some point and also ran the arduous Leadville 100.

I felt myself pushing my upper limits and approaching the crying point for my legs. I stopped and stood under the shade of a tree until my heart rate dropped a bit. I sucked air out of the hydration tube and realized I was out of water. Resigned to the heat, I shrugged and moved on. I let go of thinking that based on x number of minutes on my watch that the end was around the corner. It took me an hour to climb out of that “Flat.” Loree was at the top, looking absolutely great and relaxed. I was relieved to see her and dragged my legs up to run with her to the end, where they would clip our bracelets and check off on their lists that we made it back alive. John was already there as expected, waiting for us at the final aid station. I ran to the shade of the aid tent, drank a bunch of water, grabbed grapes and followed Loree and John to the bus stop. Runners in fine shape milled around, grazing as we all waited for the bus ride home.

Lessons learned

It was the hardest continuous 20 miles that I’ve ever run because of the continuous mountain ascents and descents, my legs did not get the breaks for which they were accustomed from “local” hill training. As soon as we arrived back at the car and changed, I forced myself to stretch gently and do my leg swings before sitting for the 2.5 hour ride home. I drank my usual recovery chocolate soy milk. It was windy outside, so we sat in the car and ate PBJ sandwiches and sweet potato chips. The temperature display said 80 F.  As we rode off, I realized that my quads were crying. It was a long time since  (at least since I just started running just over a year ago) I’ve had that sensation. I mixed some Vega Sport Accelerator with water (vegan version of Accelerade) and forced myself to drink it. I almost immediately felt better and am now convinced that recovery potions like this work.

Loree directed us toward our food stop for tasty healthy food at the Co-op in Davis. On the way back to the bay area she recommended 50 mile races — though we have not even run a 50k yet! (At present, I think I am too vain to run more than 50k. I already have toe nails that seem to be falling off.) All in all it was a good learning experience in mountain running for me. I will read the WS guide again before our next mountain training run in Tahoe next month. It was nice to have any remaining traces of romantic ideas about the WS adventure beaten out of me in only 1/5 of the course. The amazing athletes and volunteers were super, super nice and this is what makes trail running special. Great run Loree and John. She really looked steady and great out there after running an ultra in a storm the day before. Thanks Loree for being an inspiration and John for getting us to the food stop and home safely!

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Mission: Fat ass

“See you next weekend. Good luck and, As always, should you or any of your Ultrarunning Acquaintances be hurt or killed, I will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”

That was the message I received from our contact before we departed this past Saturday, Feb. 11. John (my spouse), Christian, Yoko and I carpooled to a secret location in the pine tree-covered Santa Cruz mountains. We met our enthusiastic fellow running club member Colin, who made me laugh. He said he had been telling “everyone at work that I’m running in a secret race — bought me some serious street cred.”

I pointed Christian toward last year’s fastest guy Jean and jokingly told him to follow that guy. (Later, I saw Christian sprinting and he caught up with the guy.) I had read the run report from last year’s top finisher Jean–he had been “stunned” that the first ten-mile loop, the easiest, took him two hours to complete. I knew it would be easy to get lost.

The forecast was for sun all day for the Second Saratoga Fat Ass non-event, but it was 43 degrees and raining when we arrived. The rain and low temperatures would last all day. (A rain cloud hovered over this part of the mountains, but it was sunny on the rest of the peninsula.) We put on our rain jackets, packed our maps and fuel, water belts, and we started running.

What is a Fat Ass?

A FA is basically a flash mob for trail runners. This course consisted of three loops of ten miles each. Runners were invited to do as much as they wish. I’m just a beginner runner (at long distances). I have only ran one other FA so far, but I have grown fond of them. The FA rules:

“No fees, no awards, no whining.”

My plan was to run as much as I could within six hours. I tried to keep my partner Yoko in sight, but lost her within 15 minutes in the dense forest. I ran the rest alone, but with help from other runners who pointed me in the right direction. Luckily, other runners had made arrows out of branches, which they placed on some trail intersections. Loop one was my favorite. At one point I edged around a boulder with a steep ravine below using cables to guide and hold onto. Thankfully, the valley was obscured by dense clouds or I would have been nervous about the drop below. as I crawled across slippery boulders.

Santa Cruz Mountains

Thick green moss covered the trees and signs read, “Do not eat the mushrooms.” Some boulders resembled large faces.

The First rule

“of Fight Club [Fat Ass] is you do not talk about…” When I yet again got off-course, I met David  who ran with his son, had marked courses for races and helped me get on the right track. While most wore rain gear with hats and carried water bottles and fuel, the strong, white-haired man wore minimal attire:  thin Fivefingers shoes, a t-shirt and light shorts. I tried to make small talk and asked him if he ran with a running group named BARF. He paused, pointed to a woman and said, “No I’m with her.” His eyes darted back and forth, cautiously.

“It’s a Fat Ass NOT a Fast Ass”

— John

I returned after the first loop to the parking lot, frustrated, because I was so far behind partner Yoko and friends. Judith, who I knew through a running group called BARF, was there. (BARF was started by two friends when they were in their 40s and who are now in their 60s. The youngest 20-something member was known by the founders from birth. One of the oldest is a 65 year-old woman ultra runner.)  Judith asked me if I was looking for two guys in blue vests (Colin and John). I said, “yes.” She laughed and told me that those two repeatedly went off-course. They sometimes appeared ahead, and other times behind her group. John and Colin had left on the second loop about 45 mins ago.

It was not the coordinator’s fault that navigation was difficult. His directions were fine, but some sign posts were uprooted and lying on the ground. I could not see the position of the sun because of the rain cloud that hung over the mountain. Many, including my lost buddy, did extra loops by accident. A guy who ran this course for his fourth time got lost.

I started the second loop, mistakenly thinking I could get through it faster than the first. I struggled up an endless ascent on two miles of Travertine trail. My six-hour cut off time passed. I was soaked, muddy and upset, but rallied my hazy, tired mind to focus on the way home. I had one energy gel left, and opportunities for potable water refill stops were ample. “Relentless forward motion.” I recalled Coach Will’s words.


The best part about this Fat Ass is meeting trail runners from all over the area, — and that the happening was free. There were runners in about their 20s. I was helped by ultra runners in their 60s. There was true Friendship through trail running.  Back at the parking lot, John said friends and a couple of top guys from the Quicksilver running club (who got locked out of their car) waited in the cold rain after they finished. He invited them and our friends into our car to warm up and share food.

I finished after about ~25 mi., running only two of three loops, doing a slow samba more than a run. It was my first time running that distance in my weeks-old New Balance 110 trail shoes. The lugs worked well on slippery rock and the protective plate in the sole, which I don’t have in my other shoes (the lighter, more flexible minimalists: VFF Bikila and NB Minimus trail), protected my feet well in the rocky areas.

Runner-strangers greeted me, asking me if I was ok. I had no idea why they were so nice. Then, Christian greeted me and told me the John-Yoko-san search party just left looking for me, along with the car, dry clothes, & food. A smiling Adventure Anna had offered to run the course backward to help find me. Christian took a photo of me finishing. He said I looked fresh.  I was smiling. (Strange what running does to you because I recalled being miserable and starving at that moment.)

When we regrouped, we shared onigiri rice cakes that Yoko had kindly made for us, Christian’s high calorie cookies & PB, chocolate soy milk, and electrolytes.  Then we all piled into the car and drove away from the mountain top. The weather was bright and sunny. When we looked back, we could see that the rain cloud remained over the forest. We headed over to Lyfe Kitchen for serious eating and sharing stories of our adventure.

What I like about trail running

The FA had elements of everything I like about trail running:  the physical challenge of running long distances on various terrains and elevations, forest, new adventures, discovering new flora and fauna, meeting new people, feeling humbled by the beauty and power of nature, learning from elder runners, navigating through strange places, meditation. Through trail running, I’ve met the most inspiring, gracious, and strong ordinary people running extraordinary  distances.


Post script


For runners considering becoming Fat Asses next year:

“Fat Ass runs are not running races as such, and they are not public events. It’s more like a fun day out. Some people may record times but this is not the prime objective. If you are looking for a running race then there are heaps of real ones to choose from elsewhere.” — Cool Running

Don’t get too fixated on finish times –yours or others. Some runners didn’t register or record their times on the FA website this year. Furthermore, times cannot be compared equally because many people reported getting lost. (Everyone from our group went off-course –though we carried maps, turn sheets, and text descriptions.)  Most seemed to be running easy as if training for upcoming major ultra events. Overall, it was a nice way to train, hang out with friends, and learn about the area trails.

Would I do this again?

He__ yeah!  Well, maybe I will run only the first scenic loop –plus chill-ax and prepare a mini-aid station, sustenance, and space blankets for my fellow runners next year.

Thanks: team BRC (Yoko-san, John, Colin, Christian), Yoko-san-John search party, Adventure Anna who offered to help find and rescue me, Christian (1st BRC’er to finish) who cheered me at the finish, our contact “The Secretary” for coordinating, David and Kat for helping me find my way. Shout out to BARFie Judith. Thanks for the fellowship and positive energy. See you Fat Asses in 2013!

Happy trails.


History of the Fat Ass 

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Running lightly on the earth in minimalist shoes, part II

A novice runner’s detailed review of Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes

There were many reviews on the internet about Vibram FF KSO shoes, but few reports from novices like me — and women. Non-runners, family, friends, old people, young people, and strangers have asked me many questions about my shoes when I wear them. Strangers stared at them. Furthermore, some relatives had never heard of these shoes and thought my shoes were a joke. Therefore, I decided to write this detailed review.

Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes

Side view

Side view

The experience:  Day one wearing Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes

When I finally acquired my new shoes from See Jane Run (where they were selling like hotcakes), I was glad to ditch the aqua shoes. Since the aqua shoes were made of neoprene, my feet sweated during my runs and the neoprene was not designed to wick the moisture from feet. (See the previous post A novice runner’s thoughts on barefoot running and minimalist shoes where I describe running in aqua shoes — to get a taste of running in minimalist footwear).

On day 16 of my running program, I switched to wearing Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes. (I alternate my running days with cross-training days, when I usually go barefoot for non-running activities.)  I ran 2.75 miles at Berkeley Marina, on flat surfaces to break them in.  I felt soreness on calves afterward — not uncomfortable, they just felt tighter and more worked out. As expected, the soles of the shoe were a vast improvement on my aqua shoes. They were denser, but still relatively thin. They allowed me to feel the texture of the ground, and roll on the balls of my foot comfortably.

They were breathable and felt great for running. Soon after the run, I changed to slip-on shoes to air out my sweaty feet and the KSOs. They are comfy for me for running, but not for lounging. Also, on a cool or cold day, my feet tend to get cold in them if I am not engaged in exercise.

A recent run

On Saturday, April 23 at dusk, I ran five miles slowly in hilly Tilden park with views overlooking San Francisco, the bay, and the sunset. It was run day 19, and day four running in new Vibram FiveFingers shoes. (Note: On a previous five-mile run in Tilden, the shoes started rubbing on the inner, middle sides  of my feet, halfway through the run. I got mild blisters.) On this April 23 run, I made the strap looser to compensate for foot swelling and felt no discomfort whatsoever. To prevent blisters on long runs, runner Barefoot Ted wore Injinji socks.

The spouse left me in dust as usual, to run to end of trail and back to meet the grazing cows. The slow run in nature was beautiful. The forest smelled fresh and earthy, and the rolling green hills made me feel peaceful. Large, dark birds of prey were out plucking small animals off the ground.  My new shoes felt great and helped me, my feet, legs feel stronger! The husband too ran in his new KSO shoes — but longer, eight miles and enjoyed them.



I bought these shoes for my workout and because the scientific research in the aforementioned websites and articles say that the conventional running shoes, with the thick heel and technical features do not necessarily prevent injury. Plus, the shoes are versatile and can be used for other fitness activities. I also personally don’t have a history of foot problems and prefer low shoes.

This past week, I noticed improvements in my other exercises as a result, I believe, of strengthening my feet with minimalist shoes. During “balance challenge” exercises like one leg balances with weights, and the warrior three pose in Vinyasa yoga, I am able to hold a steadier position. I noticed the grip of my foot and my arch feel stronger in these positions (versus the time prior to running in minimalist shoes). The skin on the bottom of my feet became thicker, specifically on the ball area. It has felt exhilarating to run in thin shoes, free my toes for a work out, and feel more of a connection to the ground.

Other benefits from my experience:

  • My senses open up more than with other shoes
  • My feet and arches feel stronger
  • For me, it feels like riding a bike versus an SUV
  • I feel more present when I work out barefoot or minimalist shoes because it encourages consciousness about feeling the ground, not landing in a way that hurts me, and looking out for stepping in glass, pollution, etc.

My future goals

  • I hope to enter my first run this year. Since I am a slow, novice runner, I would like to enter a 5k  for fun, and perhaps to join and support my friend, colleague, and cancer survivor Tita Loreta in a race to benefit cancer research.
  • I hope to work up to barefoot running on the grass or a track.

Shopping tips

  • If you are interested in buying the FiveFingers, look at the chart on the Vibram website to determine which model is right for you and your particular sports.
  • Click on “Size and fit” at the bottom of this webpage for instructions on measuring your feet for a good fit.
  • Be sure to find the right size for your specific model shoe.  Important: not all model shoes have the same size charts! (When I went to REI to try different models on, the staff did not inform me of this.)  Consult with each model’s size chart before trying on shoes.

New models
If you are in no hurry to buy the shoes and can afford to spend more money, you may want to wait for the new models of the shoes. According to the fan site birthdayshoes.com (see photos of the new models in different colors on this site), “Rumors put the suggested retail price at $100” for the new FiveFingers Bikila model, designed specifically for running. (When I purchased my KSOs, the retail price was $85, on sale for about $68  at the See Jane Run store, during their anniversary sale.) The new Bikila model is apparently named after the Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila, who ran the 1960 Summer Olympics marathon barefoot and won.

The original Bikila. "Running without shoes, Bikila, an Imperial Guardsman in Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie's court, pulls ahead in the 1960 Rome marathon." Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Via: Time.com

Vibram CEO Tony Post reviewed the Bikila.  I found product descriptions, specs, and photos of the new Bikila and new Speed models on the New Zealand Vibram site. (The new models did not appear yet on the US site at the time this article was published.) The new models were built on a “new platform,” different from the previous models. Post said the Bikila should start “hitting the first stores in late April.” However, the New Zealand site says these new models will be released in June.

New Vibram FiveFingers Bikila shoes in gray. Via: birthdayshoes.com

New Vibram FiveFingers Bikila in blue. Via: birthdayshoes.com

How to transition to Vibram FiveFingers

There are no instructions that came with my shoes on how to transition. Prior to buying the shoes, I recommend doing as many indoor and outdoor activities with bare feet. Here are some important tips on how to transition from your old shoes to the FiveFingers on the Vibram website, and from coach Michael Sandler, author of Barefoot Running, a former professional cyclist and skater, who “has coached both cycling and professional running teams.” In his article, Sandler describes “ways in which our feet are weak” and “how to get strong for FiveFingers.” (I recognized the condition of my previously wimpy feet in his descriptions– from formerly wearing traditional sport shoes.) These important articles must be read before one’s first workout with the new shoes. Enjoy!



(as of 4/1/2012)

May 8, 2010
It was day 24 of my running program and day nine wearing KSOs. I ran five miles on the Nimitz trail in the Tilden park hills. (Like the previous Saturday, two-thirds into run, the toes on my left foot got tingly. The feeling went away before the finish.) I realized that this feeling happened every time I ran up two hills toward the end of the run, and started lazily dragging my left foot close to the ground. When I adjusted my use and lifted my left foot more when running up hills, the tingly-numb feeling went away. Since I have been wearing non-cushioned shoes, I found I have been able to feel when my form was bad immediately and correct it right away.

May 21, 2010
The new VFF Bikila model is available online for pre-order at See Jane Run and REI.

November 2010
My husband and I ran the half-marathon portion of the Bangkok marathon, Thailand in our VFF KSO shoes. We met and conversed with Thai runners on the course who were curious about our shoes, which they had never seen before!

April 2011
I bought a pair of silver-green Bikila VFFs to replace my KSOs, which now have holes in them from lots of wear! I use them for my Thursday morning runs on the paved and dirt trails at Cesar Chavez Park, Berkeley and track workouts.


Articles and books

Minimal shoe reviews, Barefoot Runner

Consider Wearing this Shoe if You Want to Run Barefoot by Dr. Michael Nirenberg

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Transitioning to minimalist shoes
Transitioning to Minimalism, Running Times

Switching to Fivefingers by the Vibram Biomechanics Advisory Board

How To Transition into Vibram Five Fingers, runbare.com

How to Reap the Benefits of the Barefoot/Minimalist Running Movement without Getting Hurt by Coach Jenny Hadfield

Barefoot Ted

Vibram FiveFingers footwear

New FiveFingers Sprints Do Rocks 

Notes:  A look at Barefoot Ted’s form while running briskly on fist-sized rocks, a hill, and VFFs. In real time and slow motion. Notice the quick, small, light steps.

Running with Hiko and Edgar in KSO Treks – Slow Motion – Barefoot Ted
Notes:  A look at Barefoot Ted’s form while running on a flat in slow motion in VFFs.

2007 Vibram FiveFingers Sprint Test – Running & Balancing

VFF/City Sports All-Star Barefoot Running Clinic

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Running lightly on the earth in minimalist shoes, part I: A novice runner’s thoughts on barefoot running and minimalist shoes  (see more related articles here)

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Running lightly on the earth in minimalist shoes, part I

A novice runner’s thoughts on barefoot running and minimalist shoes

Over the 2009 holidays, I gained weight, and then decided like many Americans to get on a fitness program as a New Year’s resolution. I avoided eating processed foods like oil and flour, and focused on eating whole, fresh foods without labels or faces, following the advice of health educator and 75 year-old, six-time Ironman triathlete Dr. Ruth Heidrich. I also followed the health advice of physician Dr. John McDougall.

I increased the intensity and times of my cross training. (I had been exercising for many years prior to this, but according to an article in AARP magazine, not often or long enough!) My husband had already been running for years and inspired me to run. Plus, after moving out of a sick house to our new green home and modifying my diet, I no longer had my chronic, soul draining respiratory illness. I was able to breathe regularly, unassisted after ending years of dependency on medications, and finally had the strength to try running.

Re-learning how to run

On my first day running on March 6 on Nimitz Way, in hilly Tilden park, Berkeley, I started running and walking in intervals.  Though I started out slow, for the first time in my life, I was surprised to learn that I could run 1/4 mile without gasping for air and seeing stars! It was so exhilarating, like being let out of a prison for lungs.

Nimitz Trail Hill Climb by R. Georgi, via Flickr.com

I noticed a guy in the park running in”gorilla feet,” a term used by reviewers in reference to the dark-colored Vibram FiveFingers (VFF) shoes with articulated toes. I had never seen sport shoes like that before and was fascinated by them.  Later, when I met up with my husband (who talked to the runner) and he explained to me that those were minimalist shoes.

Shopping for new running shoes

Since the shoes (New Balance trail running shoes) I had were years old, I  headed to our nearest reputable store Transport for runners and also See Jane Run, a store for women. After trying on different shoes by companies such as Asics, Brooks, Nike, and New Balance suggested by the salespeople-runners, narrowing down the options, and running on treadmills in the stores in my selections, I selected $130 Nike Vomero shoes. They were the most comfortable on my feet of the ones I tried, non-binding shoes with a roomy toe box. My feet felt like they were on top of little mattresses.

I immediately regretted buying the Nikes. I wore them around the house, jogged up and down stairs. Though they were the most comfortable running shoes I tried on, I realized they were unnecessarily and excessively cushioned for my activities. My pampered feet were not getting a work out in these shoes. I returned them.

“My feet seemed to lack any connection, or kinesthetic awareness with the ground. Was it a good thing that my feet could barely feel any of the roots, ruts and rocks along the trail? Was this cushy desensitization helping or hurting me?”

Bill Katovsky, from his forthcoming new book, Return to Fitness


I decided to do research about barefoot running and the park runner’s low profile Vibram VFF shoes to see if they were for me. I was surprised to find whole websites and blogs online focused on barefoot running and running in minimalist shoes. There were thorough articles in Wired, the New York Times, and National Geographic, which cited scientific studies and health benefits.

“…the promotion of high-tech shoes has led to poor running form and a rash of injuries… The scientific evidence supports the notion that humans evolved to be runners… when it comes to long distances, humans can outrun almost any animal…  A study…suggests that our feet evolved for running.”

— “The Human Body Is Built for Distance,” by Tara Parker Pope, the New York Times

The most interesting writers on the subject are Barefoot Ted, a tester of the Vibram KSO shoes, and author-journalist-runner Chris McDougall.  McDougall struggled for over a year with plantar fasciitis and saw many specialists. Finally, he consulted with a barefoot running coach who advised him to run barefoot. “It was an imbalance, caused by running shoes… The second I lost the shoes, the plantar fasciitis vanished.” He tells his story in an interview on the Random House website.

After reading reviews about a bunch of minimalist shoes, I decided I was most interested in the Terra Plana Evo and Vibram FiveFingers. However, I ruled out the futuristic looking European Terra Plana Evo running shoes. They were out of my price range. I went with my husband to the REI store to try on a few Vibram FiveFingers models. (I went to REI because I had a gift card from there.) For beginners, it’s best to go to a store (other than REI) that specializes in running with: a wide range of running shoe options, an experienced sales staff who runs and can examine your feet, and a treadmill on which to try on your selections.

At REI, I tried on several models for various sports. I decided on the Vibram FiveFingers KSO model since I like running in Tilden park, which has  unpaved trails. This model was sold out and there seemed to be a lot of demand that day (my neighbor was there too with his sister and friend who were looking at the shoes). Plus, strangers stopped to ask me about the VFFs and stared at my feet while I tried them on.

While I waited for my shoes (back ordered online), I started running in my O’Neill Superfreak tropical weight aqua shoes. I got this great idea from several runners online. A barefoot ultra runner, author, and instructor Jason Robillard, who ran hundreds of miles in Wal-Mart Aqua shoes, suggested getting a taste of running in minimalist shoes by running in aqua shoes before spending a wad of money on new ones. Unlike the cheapo Wal-Mart aqua shoes mentioned on the site, my aqua shoes had a roomier toe area for comfort. I bought these shoes for learning how to surf in Bali in 2008. They have an articulated big toe compartment, a wide toe area, and just one layer of rubber under the feet (designed to maximize one’s foot grip on the surfboard).

O'Neill Superfreak tropical split toe boots

Thin rubber sole

The experience:  Day one wearing minimalist shoes

On March 25,  day seven of running and day one using aqua shoes, I jogged slowly for 2.25 miles at the Berkeley Marina. The marina has a flat loop trail by the bay, with views of San Francisco. I noticed that I when I started running with my old form, striking the ground first with my heel (which was usually padded thickly on previous shoes), it hurt immediately. I adjusted my landing and started falling more toward the middle/ball of my foot each time.  I ran more upright and had a pleasant, tingly feeling on my soles.

Strangely, it didn’t hurt.  Running on the gravel off the paved walkways, my feet felt like they were getting acupuncture. I felt a pleasant warmth rising up from my soles through my spine and hands, which started sweating lightly. I felt much more connected to the earth, and more aware of my surroundings — especially since I had to look out for sharp rocks and glass to avoid cutting my thin shoes. Overall, I felt more connected to my feet, body and surroundings. It felt like I was re-connecting and re-learning my sense of my body in space.

“Do you run barefoot — this direct contact with Great Mother Earth meaning that electrical equilibrium is established between you and the planet.”

— Fred Rohe, The Zen of Running

Later, I noticed red splotches on the bottoms on feet. Ok, so I didn’t follow advice to run only 1/4 mile at a time in low profile shoes to transition into them, but my feet didn’t feel painful afterward. Perhaps this is because I had taken dance classes barefoot, and also worked out at home barefoot (with cardio kick, dance and yoga exercises). I hope to “work up” to running barefoot.

“It was so simple, yet such a jolt. It was this: everything I’d been taught about running was wrong. We treat running in the modern world the same way we treat childbirth – it’s going to hurt, and requires special exercises and equipment, and the best you can hope for is to get it over with quickly with minimal damage.”

—  Chris McDougall, from an interview author of the best-selling book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”

Since I started running in my aqua shoes , I was able to run further and continuously, and truly enjoyed the workout my feet were experiencing. I worked my way up to running five miles in them and wore them on runs on nine separate days. My feet felt more alive, more energized than they had ever been in my adult life.

Coming up next:  A review of Vibram FiveFingers KSO shoes

Related items


Running barefoot reduces stress on feet, National Geographic
Shoeless feet hit the ground differently, a new study says

The Men Who Live Forever, Men’s Health
In the hills of Mexico, a tribe of Indians carries an ancient secret: a diet and fitness regimen that has allowed them to outrun death and disease. We set out to discover how the rest of us can catch up

Barefoot running debate by Chris McDougall
Note: An article by author Christopher McDougall, “author of ‘Born to Run,’ an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.”

The Human Body is Built for Distance, New York Times

Wiggling Their Toes at the Shoe Giants, New York Times

Barefoot running easier on feet than running in shoes, Harvard Science

Barefoot running, Runner’s World

Do Running Shoes Cause Injuries?, Barefoot Runner

Much Ado About Minimalism: The science and practice of reducing your running shoes, Running Times

Growing Up Shod: The traits of good form blossom (or wilt) early, Running Times

Running and the Land: Runners and environmental leaders, a brief history, Running Times


Barefoot Ted

On Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear, a Harvard University study
“This website has been developed to provide an evidence-based resource for those interested in the biomechanics of different foot strikes in endurance running and the applications to human endurance running prior to the modern running shoe.”


Barefoot Running, New York Times
“The Roving Runner strides along Central Park barefoot with Christopher McDougall, author of the best-selling book ‘Born to Run.”

Tarahumara Huarache Sandal Rocky Trail Running
Notes:  A look at Barefoot Ted’s form while running briskly  on fist-sized rocks, a hill, and sandals


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