The Island of Misfit Toes

So I'm one of those douchebag barefoot runners. To which concept (barefoot runners) I invariably pre-pend the adjective (douchebag). Think of it as a pre-emptive apology.

I can't quite pinpoint the source of my embarrassment over it. I tend to vacillate between thinking it's the nerdiness of it and thinking it's the trendiness of it.

Nerdiness: Barefoot running is the open-source software of armchair athleticism, in the sense that it is fiddly, sometimes painful, and requires you to spend at least as much time thinking about your tools (feet) as using them. Also, Richard Stallman loves his bare feet so much that he eats them.

Trendiness: The toe shoes and the Born to Run and all that. I'm impatient for that part of it to be over, because I don't want to be identified as one of those people who stopped drinking merlot because Paul Giamatti joked about it in a movie.

I have a chrome skull license plate on the front of my minivan. It is there for irony's sake, except that it really isn't. It's a marker commemorating my youth. It's more about hairline than humor, because people call me "sir" now. Old people.

It sounds fairly pathetic to say out loud, but I am still image-conscious. I'm still just barely young enough to wonder if young people find me attractive and old enough to feel creepy about that. But, bottom line, when I first step out shoeless for a run downtown on my lunch break, I feel like I might as well be running in a full spandex body suit with nipple cutouts. Hey, look at that guy.

Why do it, then? Well, because I love it. I love nearly everything about it and hate pretty much nothing that I wouldn't hate if I had shoes on. I love the feel of rough pavement under my feet. I love cool puddles and returning to my footprints on an out-and-back. I love that my calluses aren't quite built up, so sometimes my toes feel tender for a couple of days after a run. I love what it has taught me about my form and my endurance and what I can do. I love how black my soles are after a good one.

But I think I also do it because it is goddamn amazing how many people try to talk me out of it. I get links to articles. I get concerned mom speeches from people who are not in fact my mom. They seem dog-ass determined to get me to stop.

So I push on. And I think I do that because there aren't many things in my life that I dedicate myself to, come what may. My marriage, certainly, and my kids, but of the things that are just me, I tend to flitter and abandon and forget and give in to discouragement.

I ran a marathon four years ago, the St. Jude marathon in Memphis. Mile nine, I started having really bad pain in my right knee. This bad pain was caused by a combination of bad running form and some ill-advised running through other bad pain during training. Point being, I wasn't entirely sure how to make it through the next 17 miles.

I came over a rise and saw a mother standing by an umbrella stroller. Closer I got, the more I wondered about the kid in that stroller, because it looked too big to be a toddler.

It was about fifteen steps away when I realized that this was a school-aged child, bald from chemotherapy and so weak that she was sitting in that stroller and using one hand to hold up the other one so she could wave at us. See, the marathon is to raise money for that hospital, and she and her mother came out there to encourage us, to say thank you for the tiny little bit we were doing.

It was the first time I ever had to pull off part of a distance run while crying. But, for the next two miles, my knee stopped hurting. When it lit back up on mile 11, my mantra was fuck you, she hurts more, now run.

My finishing meant nothing to her, of course, or to any of the others. It wasn't some grandiose moment of swelling music. It was me berating myself, which I excel at.

This time, incredibly, it worked. I could barely walk when it was over, and my time was a pathetic five hours, but I finished, with salt caked on my face and piss-warm beer in a very shaky plastic cup.

I turned to barefoot running out of desperation to fix what was wrong with my gait and get back to marathon form again. That was four years ago, four years of starts and stops, cycles of discouragement followed by months riding the couch followed by running again. And there were the linked articles and helpful frowns, but I pushed on and got better. I think I may actually be back on the road to distance, if humbler and more wary now than I was then.

Barefoot's what I reached for when Frankenstein motion-control shoes and custom orthotics didn't work. And I suppose that's the final reason I stick with it: if I want to be a distance runner again, it may be all I have left.

Yet I feel self-conscious about it, and I don't know what to do other than just wait until either I'm old enough to stop giving a damn or enough people start going bare around here that it becomes passé.

I'm running my first 5k in a long time this month, the Race to Remember. It benefits Mamie's Poppy Plates (bunch of Flash on that site, sorry), a charity some friends of ours set up after their daughter Mamie was stillborn. They give grieving parents something to commemorate the all-too brief lives of their children.

They are amazing. Every bit as amazing as my Internet friends, who turned out around the globe to wish Mamie a happy birthday and send their love to people they've never met. Guys, you don't know what that meant to me.

Anyway, if you're anywhere near Little Rock, come run or come cheer us on. There'll be lots of fun stuff happening. And if you see me, come say hi.

I'll be the douchebag with no shoes on.