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Joys of baring the sole

Marathoner takes up shoeless cause

Ken Saxton, a 49-year-old computer engineer from Huntington Beach, Calif., figures that since he began spreading the word, his adherents in the Boston Marathon have multiplied at least four-fold. Double that number for the Los Angeles Marathon.

Saxton is not out to put Nike or New Balance out of business. But he is a strong proponent of running barefoot -- as he has done in 37 marathons. Au naturel, says Saxton, is superior in almost every way to wearing running shoes, and where he was the only barefoot runner at Boston last year, this year three others will join him.

After all, he points out, barefoot was good enough for Phidippides, the legendary Greek messenger whose ancient run was the model for modern marathon running.

Saxton is convinced running barefoot is a healthier way of hitting the road, at least for him, judging by the one marathon he ran years ago wearing shoes -- he came up with multiple blisters.

"I've always liked running barefoot," he said. "I did it on the trails and fields when I was a kid in northern Michigan. But when I ran my first marathon in '87, it didn't occur to me to run on pavement barefoot. I wore shoes and I got blisters all over my feet. So I decided to try running on asphalt barefoot; I carried my shoes with me a few times. I first ran home from work, about 11 miles, and that's when I found out I didn't need shoes. In 1997, I ran my first marathon barefoot."

Saxton said he found running the road shoeless to be little different than running the off-road terrain of his youth, which had conditioned the bottom of his feet. Once he made the discovery, his string of marathons began. Some were off-road, cross-country style races, but most were over pavement.

The problem with shoes, aside from the fact Saxton doesn't like them?

"It's like working at a keyboard wearing gloves," he said. "You lose your feel for what you're running on."

Saxton said he learned as he ran why barefoot was a superior approach, and that the assumption that high-tech, high-priced footwear has a cushioning effect is overrated.

"The biggest disadvantage with shoes is that they block out sensation so that people tend to ignore how hard they're landing," he said. "They think they have this cushioning on the shoes, so subconsciously they think it doesn't matter how hard they land on their feet. They're protected.

"But they're really not. There's just maybe an inch of cushioning in running shoes. But when you run barefoot, you're aware of the importance of landing gently, and letting your knee-bend absorb the landing of the foot. Consequently, a lot of runners out there suffer knee damage or quit running."

The only problem Saxton ever has had with his knees occurred when he was skiing in Michigan as a young man. He does not have blisters, sprains, muscle pulls, or the myriad maladies seen yearly in the medical tents along the Boston route.

"My goal in life [in 1987] was to finish a marathon, and I did," he said. "But with shoes on it hurt a lot. So I really didn't consider running another one for about 10 years. So I entered the Napa Valley Trail Marathon and that was the start."

The most famous barefoot marathoner was Ethiopian great Abebe Bikila, who took gold in the 1960 Olympics in Rome sans footwear. However, few marathoners today subscribe to Saxton's theory or practice. But there are some, and, he said, more each year.

"I've run into lots of people who share my theory about shoes, but they weren't practicing it," he said. "There was one guy in my running club who runs about 20 miles a week barefoot, although he trains about 90 miles a week. I tend to be less consistent than that, though I've run 51 miles so far in April. For me that's a lot."

Saxton is far from an elite runner, though he cut his five-plus hour time in last year's Boston to a qualifying time of 3:26 last December, a time he is targeting for Monday's race. There are other reasons, he said, that his Boston time last year was relatively slow.

"I realized that I had another marathon to run six days later, and that made me kind of take it easy," he said. "My goal wasn't any specific time, but I just wanted to finish. I was trying to run a marathon once a month, but that was an extra one right on top of Boston."

Saxton even runs barefoot on the hot pavement in summer races.

"For one thing, the bottom of my feet are conditioned," he said. "But when you walk on hot pavement, your feet stay on the ground longer. When you run, they're always coming off the ground, and that keeps them from getting too hot. It's not uncomfortable at all."

Many people who encounter Saxton give him high-fives for running "the natural way," he said. But to many foreigners, including many of the younger Kenyans, shoes during the formative years are unheard of.

"A pair of expensive running shoes to them is like a Lamborghini to us," he said. "They wouldn't even be wearing shoes in races if they weren't provided by sponsors. But here, if there are expensive shoes to buy, Americans will buy them."

To Saxton, the choice to eschew footwear boils down to a kind of slogan, one of many he posts on his website: "I probably wasn't born running, but I was born barefoot."

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