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Barefoot in the dark

With no shoes, no socks, and (they say) no pain, some find the soul of running

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / November 12, 2009

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Up ahead, you can see them, moving through the moonless, cold-tinged night, passing headlights dabbing them with flashes of light.

Strapped with strobe headlamps and DayGlo reflective vests, they’re clustered in groups and work in a rhythm - just like any runners you pass on any road in any town on any given day.

But hold on here - just take a look down at their feet.

No shoes.

No socks, either.

They’re totally commando. Toes fall exposed on cracked concrete, heels land on rugged and ridged pavement, ankles bend unencumbered through the cool, late-fall air.

Joining with their cushiony-shoed compatriots for a recent night run with members of Woburn’s Shamrock Running Club, these free-spirited, unshod few represent a mini-evolution (or perhaps devolution) in the running community.

By going barefoot, they contend, they’ve truly found the soul of the sport.

“This feels good - it’s freeing, it’s natural,’’ Gloucester 46-year-old Preston Curtis, wearing long sleeves, shorts, and no shoes, said after a 5-mile run through Woburn’s nighttime streets. “We were designed to run this way.’’

Your body doesn’t need the aid of synthetic leather or rubber - it’s already equipped with everything it requires to run properly and safely, say barefooters.

In fact such “support,’’ padded and pillowed into athletic footwear, isn’t helpful, say the shoeless. It can be damaging, by working against the natural gait and changing the way the body absorbs the shock of repetitive footfalls.

“We weren’t born with shoes,’’ 42-year-old Nancy Kinney of Woburn said. “It just feels so much more natural.’’

Still, Americans love their sneakers. Last year, we bought 334 million pairs of athletic shoes, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association.

Despite this, increasing numbers of runners are leaving their Nikes in the closet and letting their feet go nude. (And for the more tentative ones, there’s a bridge between shod and shoeless - Vibram Five Fingers, essentially gloves for the feet.)

Just do a quick Web search: You’ll find dozens of sites dedicated to the movement, as well as hundreds of instructional videos and forums. Some schools are even trying it, including the track-and-field team at Portsmouth Christian Academy in Dover, N.H.; others are using it as an engine for charity work. A Vermont man, for example, is now running across the country to raise money for homeless youth.

Meanwhile, the science community is also tapping into the trend, with researchers, including Harvard University’s Daniel Lieberman, studying the effects on gait, skeletal structure, muscles, and joints when running with shoes and without.

“When I started, it was much more fringe,’’ said Edward Faulkner, a 28-year-old from Somerville, who ditched sneakers 2 1/2 years ago and recently ran the Cape Cod marathon barefoot (and in 3:07). “It’s become much more respected among runners in general.’’

Largely the movement is spurred by Christopher McDougall’s recent book, “Born to Run.’’ In it, McDougall analyzes the Tarahumara Indian tribe in Mexico, whose members traverse hazardous and risky terrain every day in simple sandals with thin rubber soles.

Ultimately McDougall theorizes that the modern running shoe corrupts the stride and forces runners to land on their heels, rather than the balls of their feet, the latter being better equipped to handle the impact.

This means fewer injuries occur without shoes, he contends.

It’s the same testament you’ll hear from the local ranks of the unshod.

As they’ve liberated their feet, they say, ailments like crushed toes, weak ankles that roll, knee and back pain, blisters, and toenails ripped off from sweat buildup, have all but healed.

“I was just tired of aching,’’ Faulkner said of his decision to try going barefoot.

Longtime runner Melissa Bourassa of Woburn tells a similar story - she tried going barefoot on a whim a couple years ago at the end of a long mountain race.

Before that, she had chronic problems with her hips and IT bands (tissue that runs down the outside of the thigh).

Gone now, she says.

So she’s since sworn off shoes, although she does prefer a little protection, slipping regularly into a pair of light purple Vibrams.

“My knee feels better, my feet feel better,’’ she said.

Her wallet, too. She estimated that in six months time she bought 12 pairs of shoes - all styles, all brands. Nikes, Saucony, New Balance, Adidas, Aviva, the gamut.

Faulkner, for his part, estimated that he’s saved about $500 so far on shoes.

In addition, barefoot runners say the shoeless route provides a much better workout - muscles left idle are awakened - and it’s environmentally friendly.

“You’re not just throwing away thousands of pairs of sneakers that take a long time to disintegrate,’’ said Bourassa.

Still, doesn’t it hurt?

Remarkably, no, say barefooters.

So, then, how does it feel?

“Like a massage,’’ said Curtis, who started running barefoot 12 years ago on California beaches and now averages about 25 miles a week.

“Like a pedicure,’’ said 26-year-old Paul Koenig of Manchester, N.H. Exposing the bottom of his foot by grabbing hold of his big toe, he boasted, “My feet are softer than my girlfriend’s.’’ (His soles were smooth and blisterless - albeit a little dirtied from pounding the pavement.)

Sure, at first it can be a little uncomfortable, they acknowledge, but your feet adapt, the bottoms getting toughened and eventually feeling like gel packs or soft leather.

Which allows guys like Tim Bourassa, Melissa’s husband, to log 35 to 40 miles a week, and recently a 62-mile trek for charity.

The Woburn 39-year-old zips along back roads, busy streets rumbling with cars, and rocky, chestnut-studded trails at a clip of 8 1/2 miles per hour (averaging a 7-minute mile), even in snow and sleet.

And in his shoeless travels, he’s heard it all:

“You’re nuts!’’

“You’re a better man than me!’’

And then, Faulkner said, there are the jokesters who ask if you forgot your shoes.

Mostly, though, the reaction is shock.

“They think you have to be a tough guy,’’ Faulkner said.

The thing is, the opposite is true, according to Faulkner.

“I’m not willing to run with pain,’’ he said. “I’m much more comfortable this way.’’

But barefooters don’t advise tenderfeet to ditch their sneakers and immediately trot off at a marathon pace.

It’s very different from regular running, they say, which is clear as soon as you watch them. The pace is more tentative, strides shorter and landings gentler. They’re prancing almost, toes and balls of their feet touching down lightly and springing back up.

Intrigued? Try starting out on smooth, flat pavement, and begin with short distances, maybe a quarter-mile or a half-mile, Faulkner said.

Or work your feet in on a treadmill or track; even a golf course or the beach, Tim Bourassa suggested. Anything soft and easy.

Ultimately, “It’s like you’re starting from scratch again,’’ Faulkner said.

Bourassa agreed. “You’re going backwards. You take your shoes off and you have to learn how to walk again,’’ he said.

For more information on barefoot running, visit www.barefootrunner.com.