Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Barefoot on the Banks of the Deschutes: The Urban Trailrunner Heads West

Since I’ve been writing this blog, two ideas have repeated themselves a few times on these pages. First, that while I’m interested in exploring barefoot running, I have no real desire to become a full-fledged “barefoot runner” as such. Second, that while running on trails is great, running in an urban environment is just as enjoyable as running on rural trails.
One weekend in Bend changed my mind on both counts.
I still think that urban running gets short-changed by the running community, and by trail-runners in particular. I think the aesthetic and introspective potential of sidewalks, bridges, water-front promenades, and parks is much greater than most non-city runners imagine, and that I have and will continue to take great pleasure and find immense fulfillment in running in the city. That said, after running along the banks of the Deschutes, I think I would always choose to run on trails over running in the city if given that option.
I feel a bit guilty writing this, since my moniker for the Run Smiley Collective is “The Urban Trail Runner,” and I’ve sort of built my persona around being the defender of urban running. I don’t want to be an apostate or betray my love of New York. Urban running gets such a bad rap that I don’t want this to diminish my (still strongly held) belief that running in the city can be a rewarding, joyous, fulfilling experience. It is just that there was something more primal, more stripped-to-the-bones basic about being surrounded by nature. Perhaps its my Oregonian roots, a rural orientation hard-wired into my soul by two decades spent growing up in the Pacific Northwest, but there is something about escaping New York City, no matter how much I love living my life there, that connects to a deeply essential part of my being.
My shift towards actually embracing barefoot running came on the same run. I drove my sister’s car down to the Deschutes, which runs right through the center of Bend. A paved path runs along the bank, past very nicely manicured parks, shops, and water-side dining, and Anna had told me that if I followed the river south, there was a foot-bridge I could cross over to make a five mile loop. The first mile I ran on pavement in my Vibrams, enjoying the river and views of the snow-capped mountains in the distance, but not quite blown away; it was scenic, sure, but I was surrounded by hotels and restaurants and parks, no more or less idyllic than running along the Hudson back in New York. After a mile, however, the trail transitioned to dirt as it lead away from town and into the wilderness. I slipped off my Vibrams, tucked them under my arm, and continued barefoot.
I’ve never really had a chance to run barefoot on the right surface. I’ve done a mile or two on the track near my school, a mile or so on the pavement in Prospect Park. This trail, however, was perfect: hard-packed dirt with a soft, dusty layer on the surface. I’ve been working on my foot-strike and cadence enough that maintaining the right form was effortless, and in fact felt like the most natural thing in the world. Most of what I’ve read about barefoot running focuses on the claims that it results in reduced impact and injury, but for me the appeal is fully sensual: running barefoot on a dirt trail is indescribably enjoyable. There is the freedom on having no shoes, your toes and foot open to the air and the ground, the sensation of the slight give as you touch down on the soil, rough ground against your sole, then heel, then lightly stepping up and away again. When you are running correctly and everything slips into place, into harmony, effort and awareness melts away and you just are: gliding across the ground, up rises, down grades, feet and soil and air nearly indistinguishable. Everyone always asks if it hurts, but it is the opposite: the soles of your feet sing to you when you are running barefoot, they tell the tale of where you are and where you have been, they come alive with the actuality of being as intensely in a place as one can be. I’d read that the body instinctually reacts to avoid stepping on rocks and other objects, and its true: without even thinking about it, one’s weight shifts, one’s leg or foot pulls back just enough so that the you never land fully on any protrusion, but nearly glide over them.
Perhaps this is part of the reason that I came away in love with trail running in a way I never have before, because for the first time I ran on trail barefoot and I felt that I was not merely running the trail, but that I was the trail, that I was here and now and present and part of where I was in a way that was nearly overwhelming in its intensity, nearly spiritual in the way that it dissolved the boundary between self and location. An act as simple as removing the few millimeters of Vibram sole that divided my foot from the earth removed something larger and more fundamental as well.

I was on vacation, running late on a Monday morning, so I only passed a few other hikers and joggers. All nodded or smiled, but at one point I another man passed me headed in the opposite direction, a wiry, middle-aged runner who was also running without shoes. We nodded at one another, but there was an exchange shared in our smiles, a knowing glow in his eyes that I am sure was in mine as well; we knew something that the others on the trail did not share.
I’m not sure what this means for my running. I know that, if it were an option, I would never run in shoes again, that all my runs would be barefoot on dusty trails along rolling rapids and shadowed pines. I think I’ve done enough barefoot running now to make it a regular part of my routine (Monday’s was 3 miles barefoot and 2 in Vibrams, but I could have done all 5 barefoot) but the sidewalks of New York just aren’t the same. I’ll try running barefoot in the parks, and definitely run in my Vibrams more than I have. There are actually hundreds of fantastic trails only a short distance from New York, and in a few years, when our kids are a bit older, I know I will spend a lot of time exploring them. In the meantime, I think I will be mainly exploring the streets and sidewalks that make up my urban wilderness, with perhaps a bit more longing for dust under my toes . . .


  1. NOOOOO, don't go to the dark side!!!!


    Actually, I'm jealous. I love running in NYC too but do wish I could run on "real" trails sometimes.

    You could always change your name to the Urbane Trail Runner.......

  2. Where I live the trails are too rocky to give up the vibrams and I have always thought that I would be barefoot if I were running on asphalt... I go barefoot on the beach, but when I have to move farther away from the actual shore, where the sand is dry, loose and deep, I walk - don't run - watching for half-hidden glass left by picnickers. Guess I will never be hardcore enough to really be barefoot. But smiling? Absolutely.

  3. Fantastic post (as usual). I always wish that our trails were less gravel and more loam..:)

  4. Don't worry, Bob -- going to the dark side isn't an option, whether I want it or not. (Luke: Yes, yes, I'll join you! Darth Vader: Um, no, I don't think that's a good idea). I just wish I could wave a magic wand and have the A train terminate in the mountain trails of Oregon. In the mean time, I might just need to toughen up and start going barefoot in the city . . .

  5. Its also good to be reminded by others that just because you have a trail doesn't mean its great for barefoot running. I think I just got lucky with the perfect trail.

  6. And i think i fixed the slide-show -- if you just saw a fixed picture (or nothing), there should be more pictures cycling now.

  7. Awesome post,of course-all of us envy that perfect trail run!! Like you I don't have the perfect terrain either. But isn't it amazing when all the factors fall together perfectly :))