“How Do You Run in Those?”

I’ve run the Jerome Hill Climb race many times, beginning in 1988, about one year after moving to Arizona. It’s a point-to-point uphill race on Labor Day weekend that starts in the small town of Jerome at an elevation of just under 5,000 feet (1,500 meters), then climbs approximately 1,100 feet (335 meters) along 4.5 miles (7.2 kilometers) of mostly little-used unpaved roads to the finish. It’s a very scenic course with splendid views of valleys and mountain peaks, and Jerome—originally founded to support copper mining operations and now mostly populated with artists and entrepreneurs and their employees who cater to tourists—has lots of old and weathered buildings with interesting histories lining narrow, twisting, and hilly streets.

2015 Jerome Hill Climb T-shirt.

2015 Jerome Hill Climb T-shirt.

This past weekend, I ran the Jerome Hill Climb again for the first time in 11 years. My friend Sandra was also entered in the race. We talked briefly minutes before the start when she asked me why after all those years I decided to run it again. I didn’t have a good answer at the time, but I thought about her question later that day and came up with two explanations.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the value of experiences over material things. Jerome is quite an experience with its challenging hills and altitude, and unique scenery, making it a refreshing change from my usual running locations in the Phoenix area.

And after 11 years things have changed quite a bit with my running. When I signed up for the 2015 race I was curious how it would feel running a very hilly, unpaved course in my unsupportive minimalist sandals using a different running form. But I was also a little wary of the event, not sure how sore I might be the day after, or of my memory of how rough the terrain was. And I hadn’t been doing any hill training to speak of.

Happily, my concerns proved to be unfounded. While as expected I walked two sections of the steepest grades, just as I had every other time I’ve run the race, I felt good. My minimalist sandals and improved running form worked great, and I managed to finish first in my age group out of 13 people!

These are the Xero Shoes 6 mm minimalist sandals I ran the race in.

These are the Xero Shoes 6 mm minimalist sandals I ran the race in.

Grinding up the steep grades with a pronounced forward lean at the ankles resulting in a smaller than usual angle between my feet and my tibias, plus the effects of running back down the hill to my car after the race, I thought surely I would be sore the following day. But I have excellent mobility and strength in my ankles and feet—much more so than 11 years ago when I ran with orthotics and motion control shoes. Honestly, except for the first minute walking around the house after getting out of bed, I wasn’t sore the next day.

It wasn’t the first time I was certain I’d be sore the next day from doing something out of the ordinary with my body, but was not. I’ve learned from experience that I’m not that prone to soreness. I suspect being a vegan plays a role, as plant-based diets are known to reduce the inflammatory response.

The two things about the run I found most significant though was the presence of a barefoot runner, and a question from another runner regarding my sandals.

Among the approximately 255 entrants was a guy in bare feet. I was impressed because the running surfaces were way too rough for me to consider running barefoot. He had a pair of Vibram FiveFingers tucked into the waistband of his shorts, but he was still barefoot when I ran past him just before the first mile marker. Seeing that made me even more confident about my plan to run barefoot in the upcoming Phoenix 10K which traverses city streets with relatively smooth pavement.

When standing around awaiting the start of the race, I noticed that a group of girls were looking curiously at my minimalist sandals. Each of them wore conventional running shoes in a variety of bright colors. They had the typical cushioned soles with exaggerated thicknesses at the heel.

“How do you run in those?” one of them asked me.

I explained how I landed on my forefoot, under my hips, lowered the back of my foot until the heel gently touched, and then quickly lifted the foot behind me. I also added that the sandals, because they provided no significant support, allowed my feet and ankles to strengthen.

The irony of her question quickly occurred to me. So indoctrinated are most of us in the idea that conventional running shoes are a prerequisite to running, minimalism throws us a confusing curveball. It would have made more sense if instead I had asked her how she manages to run in conventional running shoes. But I already knew the answer to that question, because for decades I ran in such shoes. Getting out of them was a necessary step in improving my form, becoming stronger, and having more fun.

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