Day #54: Running Barefoot

I was all of 15 years old, and Mary Decker and Zola Budd had just had another one of their scrappy track-fights — all pre-cursors to the 1984 Olympic 3000m final debacle which saw Decker devastated on the infield and Zola uncertain how to proceed, looking back… Most of what my teenage head perceived was the wonderful barefoot wonder, Zola Budd, and the way she sped down the track in her reaching toes and strong barefoot stride. Yeah, all I really noticed was her bare feet!

It was only natural that this running nut, yours truly, would emulate Zola eventually. And so, one day, instead of lacing up the shoes, I took mine off – and my socks – and stepped out onto our concrete driveway – hard and cold and gritty, I suddenly felt. I started out up our small neighborhood hill running on the fairly smooth asphalt. It was a perfect spring day, during season, but it didn’t take long before I was looking for some comfort for my soles. I quickly found that the sloped curbs on the sides of the road had cleaner and less gritty footing, and I began to find my way along those narrow rails of white concrete. Only parked cars hindered this plan, and I did my best to run around them on the grass. The grass proved such a respite that I next took to running across suburban front lawns, hitting pavement only in crossing driveway after driveway across our neighborhood.

zola decker

Of course, by this point – about a mile in – I was on the nether reaches of our housing division, and I gingerly hobbled across a large intersection on my somewhat pained feet. It was difficult finding safe running while cutting across lawn after lawn. I was facing discarded yard tools, the risk of any hidden holes and even cans or bottles tossed from wasteful motorists in previous days. I was uncovering a whole new realm in this quest to run like the fiery South African lass.

Eventually, I found a groove – a way to at least survive my attempt at a 10k barefoot run (why didn’t I just try for a mile or two on a soft track?!) I stepped with more and more lightness and chose ever more carefully the exact placement of my footfalls – and all was fairly well — if you don’t count my uncouth trespassing across endless yards…

And things might have ended well, had I not hit that piece of glass right at the turn-around. I remember distinctly reaching the end of the third mile stretch. I was daintily hopping and hobbling (not so Zola-like at all by this point) on a long stretch of even side-walk – and I hit an area where a bottle must have shattered. There were small shards of glass all about on the white concrete and before I knew it, I was in the middle of it – with no way out. I thought I had escaped unscathed, until I felt a tiny, sharp pain in my right heel — and as I looked back saw the dot-dot-dot of red following my footfalls.

I had been had. Kind of like Mary Decker (now Mary Decker Slaney) had been handed her ill-fate by her own barefoot nemesis. And by the way, back in the day, I argued unwaveringly that Decker was at fault in the Olympian tangle. Now, I am confident that a young Budd was too busily cutting in when Decker fell…

Of course, my travails were far from Olympian. I was just a silly kid, inspired to run without shoes in a culture that builds slab upon slab of relentless concrete overtop of the trails I that so love today. And so, also like Budd, I was the victim of my own naivete.

I can’t remember how I got home after that ‘glass phase’ of my ill-fated run. I know I finally made it – feet raw, Mom looking at me with that “Oh, no, you didn’t?!” look and Dad approaching with the dreaded tweesers…

Needless to say, Coach Wyatt was none too excited with my silly choice to go shoeless on roads during the season. For my part, though, that is one of the rare runs of my youth that sticks out clearly in my mind. And furthermore, I ran with passion on that day.

I have run barefoot since, only on sand, and I have without fail regretted it every time. Perhaps I started off on the wrong, bare foot.

My conclusion about the whole affair? It matters not so much what you wear on your feet when you run as what you carry in your heart.

How will you run?

~Coach Reed