Going Barefoot 

Missoulians take a book's minimalist message and run with it

By virtue of being an ultra-marathoner who has run 50 miles in a day, it seems Dean McGovern has masochistic tendencies. But then you learn he regularly runs barefoot, and the diagnosis is confirmed.

"If there's anyone who's not a likely barefooter, it would be me," McGovern says as we jog side-by-side down a trail in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area. "I mean, I swear, my mom probably had shoes on me before the doctor slapped my butt. I was a baby wearing shoes when I couldn't even walk."

He's not running barefoot right now, but he might as well be. Black slipper-like shoes with compartments for each toe cover his feet like tight gloves, and he quietly glides along the trail ever mindful of sharp rocks. I, meanwhile, clomp along in my clunky sneakers, looking by comparison like I'm trying to drive those rocks into the ground.

McGovern began barefooting about a year ago, inspired by a book called Born to Run, a New York Times bestseller by Christopher McDougall that has become the barefooter's bible since it came out in May 2009. The book, which examines an indigenous tribe in Mexico called the Tarahumara known for its endurance, and explores the science behind why humans run and how they can run more efficiently, takes everything you thought you knew about running and throws it out the window—your sneakers included.

Born to Run doesn't necessarily make a case for barefoot running, but rather advocates minimalist, low-profile footwear. Count McGovern and a handful of other Missoulians among the multitudes around the country who have taken the book's message and run with it.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

And they'll soon be running with one of the book's main subjects, Micah True, better known as Caballo Blanco (White Horse in Spanish), an eccentric and nomadic gringo who for years has lived and run with the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyons, one of the most remote wildernesses in North America. Caballo Blanco arrives in Missoula next week to talk with runners about his story, the Tarahumara, and the book that has made him a running icon.

"My first takeaway from the book was not barefoot running," says McGovern, his voice showing no signs of fatigue after running from his house to the trailhead and then about a mile on the trail. "It was to change your running style, learn how to run correctly. And so I tried that. Basically the message was to use your forefoot as a spring, and don't land on your heel.

"Heel striking does several things that are bad," he continues. "It slows you down. It puts your knee in a compromised position, because you have to lock your knee or extend your knee in front of you. And it also slams you into the ground with an incredible impact. And so the take-home for me wasn't necessarily barefoot running, it was move from a heel strike to a mid- or forefoot strike. Land on the front of your foot, not the heel. And that just made so much sense to me."

McGovern, 42, an assistant professor at the University of Montana in the department of health and human performance, says his new approach has benefited him in a number of ways. First, he's developed a stronger arch—"one of the strongest structures in nature; it'll support your body if it's there." Second, he's revived and strengthened muscles in his calves he'd never used before, and in the process suffered through six weeks of nearly unbearable soreness.

"But once you break through that, it's miraculous," he says. "I don't even know how to describe it.

"And I realized," he continues, "that all the knee pain I had, all the hip pain, all the lower back strain, it's gone. I'm certainly running slower, so I'm not breaking any records and I'm not racing as much, but I'm enjoying my running more, and I am getting faster. But I'm going to get faster in a different way...I'm building up speed under a new sort of rubric, a new paradigm of running. I worked to build up speed under that old system, but I tore all that down and now I'm learning to run again."

It turns out that the lessons of the Tarahumara teach much more than just how to run.

"Superhuman serenity"

click to enlarge The indigenous Tarahumara (also called the Rarámuri, or “The Running People”) are known for their remarkable health and athletic ability. Born to Run author Christopher McDougall wrote that “fifty-five-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and eighty-year-old great-grandads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides.” - PHOTO COURTESY CALEB WILSON
  • Photo courtesy Caleb Wilson
  • The indigenous Tarahumara (also called the Rarámuri, or “The Running People”) are known for their remarkable health and athletic ability. Born to Run author Christopher McDougall wrote that “fifty-five-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and eighty-year-old great-grandads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides.”

Every day author Christopher McDougall's inbox is stocked with e-mails from Born to Run readers who found the book just the tonic they needed to rediscover their running selves.

"They wanted to run," he says in an interview with the Independent. "They didn't want to be elite marathoners, they didn't want to be ultra-runners—they just wanted the ability to run a few miles a few days a week, and they were constantly being hobbled by injury. You know, the most effective way to prevent somebody from doing anything is to threaten them with pain. It's like how animals are trained. You put a shock collar on them. And that's basically what running injuries are. They're a shock collar that make you really timid about just trusting yourself to run a little bit. And then you present them with such a simple, logical, totally-free solution and it's magical."

The solution isn't the newest, most expensive pair of Nikes. Quite the opposite.

"A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems," Harvard University's Dr. Daniel Lieberman is quoted as saying in the book. "Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries."

Liberman's words help answer the question McDougall begins the book with: "How come my foot hurts?" Unsatisfied with his doctor's response—"The human body is not designed for that kind of abuse. Especially not your body"—McDougall embarks on a journey to Mexico's Copper Canyons to learn from the Tarahumara (also called the Rarámuri, or "The Running People"), a tribe known for its remarkable health and athletic ability.

"In Tarahumara Land," McDougall writes, "there was not crime, war, or theft. There was no corruption, obesity, drug addiction, greed, wife-beating, child abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, or carbon emissions. They didn't get diabetes, or depressed, or even old: fifty-five-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and eighty-year-old great-grandads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides. Their cancer rates were barely detectable."

click to enlarge Born to Run has become the barefooter’s bible since it came out in May 2009, inspiring runners around the globe—including Missoula marathoner Dean McGovern—to rethink how they run. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Born to Run has become the barefooter’s bible since it came out in May 2009, inspiring runners around the globe—including Missoula marathoner Dean McGovern—to rethink how they run.

The Tarahumara's "superhuman serenity" is rivaled only by their propensity to party. McDougall describes one account of a Tarahumara rave during which they got "so blitzed that wives began ripping each others' tops off in a bare-breasted wrestling match...The husbands, meanwhile, gazed on in glassy-eyed paralysis. Cancun at spring break had nothing on the Barrancas [Spanish for canyons] under a harvest moon.

"The Tarahumara would party like this all night, then roust themselves the next morning to face off in a running race"—all wearing hand-made sandals—"that could last not two miles, not two hours, but two full days."

Eventually, after taking both physical and mental cues from the Tarahumara (not to mention personal training from adventure-sports coach Eric Orton), McDougall overcame his nagging injuries. By the end of the book he completes a 50-mile, 12-hour ultra marathon in the sweltering Copper Canyons in 2006.

McDougall, a contributing editor for Men's Health magazine, says working on the book transformed him from an injured and overweight grump into someone who's currently training for marathons in New York and Singapore.

"Simply, it gave me back the use of my legs," he says. "I don't want to over-dramatize it. It wasn't like I hopped out of a wheelchair or something. But for years I've been told that I'm exactly the kind of person who should not be running. And that made sense because I was always getting hurt. And here's the difficulty: If you take an organism and prevent it from doing the activity it's best at, that it's most naturally suited for, then you see the decay that occurs. Take a panda and put it in captivity, or a tiger, or any animal, and they start to have eating disorders and sexual dysfunctions and they can't reproduce and they have mood swings and grouchiness. And that was basically—apart from the sexual dysfunction—me. I was this grouchy, fat pain in the ass."

The most important piece of coaching McDougall received, he says, came from his coach and reflected the approach of the Tarahumara. "If it feels like work," he was told, "you're working too hard."

"The other side of it"

I keep that mantra in mind as I head out for my first solo run since high school. Back then, I had to run two miles in under 14 minutes to qualify for the soccer team, a requirement I found torturous. But this feels different, partly because I just splurged on a pair of the same minimalist running shoes McGovern had worn on our run in the Rattlesnake—Vibram's FiveFingers, which mimic true barefoot running.

McGovern had told me to take it slow. He recommended I run for about five minutes, and then stop or change shoes.

click to enlarge Next March, a group of four Missoula ultra-marathoners plan to run Caballo Blanco’s Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, a 50-mile race in one of the most remote wildernesses in North America. McDougall describes the terrain as “a sort of shorebound Bermuda Triangle known for swallowing the misfits and desperadoes who stray inside.” - PHOTO COURTESY CALEB WILSON
  • Photo courtesy Caleb Wilson
  • Next March, a group of four Missoula ultra-marathoners plan to run Caballo Blanco’s Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, a 50-mile race in one of the most remote wildernesses in North America. McDougall describes the terrain as “a sort of shorebound Bermuda Triangle known for swallowing the misfits and desperadoes who stray inside.”

"You'll notice, by default, you won't land on your heel, and that's the beauty of barefoot," he said. "If you're buying into the notion that, biomechanically, you need to run differently, then barefoot is just a tool to get you there. Barefooting isn't the goal. Barefooting helps you maintain the gait that you want to maintain."

By staying off my heel, the idea is that my feet, toes and knees will align, my back will straighten and my hands will rise. I'd no longer pound myself into the ground. McGovern had said barefoot running reminded him of when he was a kid running through hotel hallways, sort of tiptoeing and sprinting at the same time.

I tiptoe out my backdoor and jog to a park only about a quarter-mile away. McGovern's right—the shoes force me to stay on my forefoot and off my heel. And I find myself much more aware of where my feet are landing to avoid any rocks or debris that would hurt my un-calloused, flat feet. It certainly feels more natural than running in sneakers, but, by the time I reach the park, my lower calves are screaming. McGovern wasn't kidding.

"One of the things that's happened since the book," McGovern said, "is all these people have gone out and started barefoot running. They got excited, they bought these," motioning to his FiveFingers, "and they're actually hurting themselves because they're not taking it slowly. If they're a 25- to 30-mile-a-week kind of person, they take their shoes off and try to maintain that, and if they're like me, their feet aren't ready for it. Your feet and your legs are not ready for that. You've got to build up."

Even if runners do slowly build up, Anders Booker, owner of Runner's Edge in downtown Missoula, says the transition can still lead to injury.

"We're seeing a lot of people trade one set of injuries for another set of injuries," he says. "The person who reads Born to Run and goes out and buys maybe the FiveFingers the very next day and decides, 'Hey, these guys can run barefoot and I'm going to do it, too,' after a couple weeks they feel good and after a couple months they feel good, and then we're seeing metatarsal stress fractures and broken bones and things like that that we didn't see as much of before. That's the other side of it. That's the issue."

Booker finds that many runners who experiment with the skimpiest of shoes see the pendulum swing back a bit.

"Our goal," he says, "is to get people to transition smartly. What we've seen is the person who did transition, they went all the way down to a FiveFingers or a racing flat, and then they came back up. They said, 'I like the idea. I like being more efficient. But, I'm finding a happy medium here.'"

Runners at the University of Montana are part of the trend, too.

"I don't even know that you want to call it a trend," says Brian Schweyen, UM's director of track and field. "I think it's more of a movement."

In the last year, he says, UM running coaches have put a greater emphasis on barefoot training, often conducting workouts in the grass. Schweyen now sees more and more athletes buying the minimalist shoes.

"More support isn't solving injury problems," he says, "it's creating more weakness."

Schweyen goes so far as to say his athletes have seen lower incidences of shin splints and knee problems since they've begun training in their bare feet.

UM coach Courtney Babcock, a two-time Canadian champion in the 5,000 meters, says she's incorporated barefoot running into her athletes' training regimen, but only to a degree.

"I only let people who have worked up to it and done it before do that kind of training," she says. "I think it's an interesting concept and it makes sense in theory, but I think it's one of those things you really have to work into, because we're not accustomed to running in bare feet. You obviously don't want to go run three miles if you've never done that before."

click to enlarge Micah True, better known as Caballo Blanco, has for years lived and run with the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. The eccentric and nomadic gringo made famous by the best-selling book Born to Run visits Missoula Oct. 27 for a “beer run” and presentation at the Wilma Theatre to benefit the Tarahumara. - PHOTO COURTESY LOUIS ESCOBAR
  • Photo courtesy Louis Escobar
  • Micah True, better known as Caballo Blanco, has for years lived and run with the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. The eccentric and nomadic gringo made famous by the best-selling book Born to Run visits Missoula Oct. 27 for a “beer run” and presentation at the Wilma Theatre to benefit the Tarahumara.

At least one of Babcock's runners who has embraced minimalism to strengthen her foot and lower leg muscles appears to have benefited.

"She was able to qualify for nationals last year, which isn't necessarily related to that, but I think it did help her with some of her form and technique," Babcock says.

"It's about running free"

Rick Wishcamper, another avid local runner, helped coordinate Caballo Blanco's Missoula visit, and he calls the process "stupidly easy."

A few months ago he and a couple friends, all members of the local running organization Run Wild Missoula who had read Born to Run, decided to sign up for the annual Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon, the grueling race Caballo Blanco first organized in 2006—and the one McDougall wrote about in his book. The race is designed to pit the Tarahumara against the best ultra-marathoners in the United States.

After they signed up, Wishcamper began communicating with Caballo Blanco via e-mail. In one e-mail, Caballo Blanco said fewer and fewer Tarahumara can afford to leave their homes to compete in the race. Wishcamper contemplated this while running with friends, and then, as he tells it, he said, "Dude, we should have Caballo come speak at the Wilma." It could be a fundraiser, he thought.

"We exchanged a few e-mails with Caballo," Wishcamper wrote in a Run Wild Missoula newsletter, "and before we knew it, Caballo was quoting Frank Zappa about coming to Montana to be a dental floss tycoon. The deal was done."

The day after Caballo Blanco arrives in Missoula he'll visit with the Runner's Edge book club about Born to Run. Then, on Oct. 27, at 6 p.m., he'll lead Run Wild Missoula's monthly "beer run." It'll be a five-mile jaunt from the Wilma Theatre down the Kim Williams Trail and back. After, he'll lead a discussion at the Wilma Theatre. The suggested donation is $7, all of which will be donated to the Tarahumara through a nonprofit called Norawas de Rarámuri.

Reached by phone at his sometimes-home in Boulder, Colo., Caballo Blanco, 57, says he's looking forward to his Missoula visit. Mostly he'll just take questions, but he also hopes to use the opportunity to clear up misconceptions about the Tarahumara.

"As far as the condition of the Rarámuri people goes," he says, "the truth lies somewhere between some charity organization's depiction of starving babies with their ribs sticking out and desperate women, and McDougall's portrayal of some Zen-like, idyllic state with no problems and super health and all of that."

Others have taken the idyllic portrayal much farther than McDougall did, Caballo Blanco says.

"I saw this Discovery Channel movie recently...and it's just a crock of b.s.," he says. "It just talks about these superhuman beings who regularly run 400 miles in a shot. It's just a bunch of crap. These things don't do the Rarámuri any favors."

Caballo Blanco recognizes that Born to Run has inspired the minimalism movement, but quickly points out the irony in its commercialization.

"I think all of that is valid," he says, "and certainly I'm a minimalist, which is just what is. I don't describe myself that way. It's just what is. And I feel as though the commercialization is out of hand. But that's how things go in America. Things are taken that way. Everything needs to be bought and sold. And I think it's kind of ironic. But there's not much I can do about it.

"But it's about form and it's about running free," he continues, "and it's not about what you wear or don't wear on your feet."

Caballo Blanco regularly runs 100 miles in a week. He says he had been training for the 27th annual Man Against Horse Race in Prescott, Arizona, a 50-mile race that actually includes horses.

"I haven't decided yet whether I'm going to enter as a horse or a man," the so-called White Horse jokes, "but I heard that at the check-up points for the horses they've got big thermometers, so I'll probably go as a man."

"Swallowing the misfits"

When I was running with McGovern in the Rattlesnake, we coincidentally ran into Wishcamper. Although Wishcamper doesn't ascribe to the barefoot movement—"With my feet, I just can't do it," he explains—he and McGovern run just about every day. In fact, the two have teamed up with friends Kevin Twidwell and Kiefer Hahn (winner of two of the last three Missoula Marathons) to train for Caballo Blanco's Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon next March.

click to enlarge McGovern’s running shoe of choice has become Vibram’s FiveFingers, which mimics true barefoot running. “You’ll notice, by default, you won’t land on your heel, and that’s the beauty of barefoot,” he says. “If you’re buying into the notion that, biomechanically, you need to run differently, then barefoot is just a tool to get you there. Barefooting isn’t the goal. Barefooting helps you maintain the gait that you want to maintain.” - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • McGovern’s running shoe of choice has become Vibram’s FiveFingers, which mimics true barefoot running. “You’ll notice, by default, you won’t land on your heel, and that’s the beauty of barefoot,” he says. “If you’re buying into the notion that, biomechanically, you need to run differently, then barefoot is just a tool to get you there. Barefooting isn’t the goal. Barefooting helps you maintain the gait that you want to maintain.”

The race is one of the ultimate tests of human endurance. In Born to Run McDougall describes the region, known as the Barrancas, as "a sort of shorebound Bermuda Triangle known for swallowing the misfits and desperadoes who stray inside."

"Lots of bad things can happen down there," he writes, "and probably will; survive the man-eating jaguars, deadly snakes, and blistering heat, and you've still got to deal with 'canyon fever,' a potentially fatal freak-out brought on by the Barrancas' desolate eeriness. The deeper you penetrate into the Barrancas, the more it feels like a crypt sliding shut around you. The walls tighten, shadows spread, phantom echoes whisper; every route out seems to end in sheer rock. Lost prospectors would be gripped by such madness and despair, they'd slash their own throats or hurl themselves off cliffs."

What concerns McGovern more than the supposed man-eating jaguars is the lack of water. One of the more dramatic scenes in Born to Run follows two world-class ultra-marathoners who find themselves out of water in the desert-like Barrancas and resort to drinking from a pool of "black mud and green scum, buzzing with flies and churned by wild goats and burros."

"The biggest thing that I can't get out of my head is the water problem," McGovern says. "That's the thing that's got me spooked, and if anything's keeping me up at night, that's the thing—what we're going to do about water. We haven't quite cracked that code yet."

Water issues aside, the foursome seems to be largely taking the daunting challenge in stride, and maintaining a focus on training. In March, they, along with another dozen or so Missoulians, ran the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim—a 48-mile quad-killing quest that took them all at least nine hours to complete.

"For me it's all mental," Wishcamper says of the extreme competitions. "The way I prepare for it is I run slow—and I don't stop...And I don't think any of us—Dean or Kevin or Keifer or I—are taking this seriously as a race. It's an adventure."

And that, as Caballo Blanco will tell Missoula next week, is precisely the point. The need to run is a mentality, he believes, that's encoded in all humans' genetic memory, not just the Tarahumara.

"A lot of us, I think, are working on recalling that memory," he says, "and some of us are doing pretty good at it, too."

For more information on Caballo Blanco's Oct. 27 beer run and presentation at the Wilma Theatre, visit www.runwildmissoula.org.

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