Barefoot Ted became a household name when Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, became the topic of conversation at running groups and post-run pubs all over the world. Could it be possible, whispered several million runners, clutching their thick-soled supportive shoes bought with the certain knowledge that the more support the better, that we might run faster, further and more soulfully if you scrap the technology and go barefoot?
Barefoot Ted was the man who coached and cajoled Chris McDougall into becoming a barefoot runner and led him on his journey to the heart of hidden and forbidden Mexico where he came across the world’s elite, if secretive, ultra runners – the Tarahumara. But why am I telling you this? There’s not a soul with a 10k medal in a drawer somewhere who hasn’t read the book.
So Barefoot Ted made his name thanks to McDougall, and now is a global brand. Having met him at a recent talk he gave at the Moti running shop in Bristol, I can confirm he is also a fire brand. Ted is a sparkly firework of a human who exudes a strong, inexhaustible energy. Wearing ripped jeans, a white long sleeved t-shirt and his signature sandals (more on those later), Ted looks like an underwhelming American tourist on first sight. That is, until he starts speaking.
When the words start coming, the world pricks up its ears. It is a flow, nay a torrent, of exuberance. He started his talk with simple stories of his life, of where he has been (Turkey, running Lycian Way), and what he thinks of England (too much traffic, nice in the sunshine). Then without drawing breathe (as indeed he didn’t for the next several hours), he launched into talking about his true passion – barefoot running.
Revelation, realisation and personal revolution
Ted’s running story was in many ways a classic story of revelation, realisation and personal revolution. He grew up in Southern California, mostly shoeless, skateboarding and playing around outside in the sunshine. He started running much later in adulthood, and found that no matter how much he trained, he would hit the one hour mark and things would unravel. He’d get sore and injured, and get slower. Then he read an article which lit the lightbulb. Could it be possible that the comfy, solid, thick-soled shoes were actually making him less robust and less able to take the pounding that running was affording his body? It seemed so.
So he tentatively started the journey towards natural running. He realised that he could run further, longer and stronger with no shoes. He started reading, inhaling research and meeting others who had reached the same realisation. Then he met Chris McDougall and with the help of the sandal wearing Mexican super-athletes, the barefoot movement was born.
Mostly, Ted is full of empassioned descriptions of what running should feel like. Natural doesn’t cover it. He talks of a sense of flow, of falling, of a feeling of ‘smooth’ that fills him with a kind of pure happiness even Ted finds it hard to describe. But the audience of pre-converts nods and murmurs knowingly. ‘That’ feeling, when running is effortless; when it is a beautiful thing.
A marketing opportunity?
Ted’s trip is sponsored by Vibram, it would seem. There is a rep from Vibram in the store, ready to answer questions about their range, and also to peddle pairs of Ted’s own range of Luna sandals, which he developed with his friends the Tarahumara. His sandals are little more than a flip flop, with the right straps in place to make them suitable running ‘shoes’. To say they are minimalist doesn’t quite cover it. There is more air than structure. And that’s the point. Ted’s Luna sandals don’t get in the way of finding that pure running experience. They are more incidental than instrumental.
They also cost £70, which as one of the audience pointed out, could be seen as a bit of a contradiction. “If barefoot running is all about getting back to nature; getting back to the natural feel and simplicity and purity of running, then doesn’t it feel like a bit of a disconnect to then spend £70 on a pair of sandals, or over £100 on a pair of Vibram Five Fingers?” Ted’s answer is appropriately simple – it costs a lot to make these items. His small factory in Seattle employs local people and ships small numbers of sandals all over the world. They aren’t adidas with the back up of economies of scale. And the technology that gets funneled into the five-toed design of Vibrams means that production costs are high.
Ted finished his talk asking to sample the local cider, which prompted a range of questions about nutrition. He isn’t Scott Jurek; isn’t vegan and doesn’t live off beans and distilled water. He eats natural, normal food that we should all be eating. He won’t eat junk food, pumped full of chemicals and no nutritional value. But cider’s ok, especially in the West Country.
Ted’s top tips:
1. Build up slowly. Ted does not pretend the transition to barefoot running can be made overnight. He spent his youth running around with no shoes on. Get those foot muscles strong before you contemplate Forest Gumping it with no shoes on.
2. It must be enjoyable. Barefoot running is as much about mind as it is about body. Strip back the complexities that sports manufacturers layer around running, with their gel cushions and midsole structures, and find the pure elements of the sport that light up your soul.
3. Try different terrains. Your feet will get stronger, your skin tougher. Work up to trying off road running and use your running to access beautiful places, like the coastal paths and mountain trails.
4. Read others’ stories. There are hundreds of blogs out there of people who have made the transition and who have embraced the natural running movement. Read their stories for inspiration. Ted’s blog is barefootted.com.
5. Barefoot running isn’t for everyone. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t worry about it. Enjoy running no matter how you do it.
Try them for yourself – Luna Sandals.