Going Barefoot 

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

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"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.

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