Hey, stop staring. This runnerís just gotta bare her sole

Published: 2011-05-23 10:45:40

  In the normal run of a day, most people don’t have cops leaning out of slowed-to-a-crawl police vans reminding them to beware of rusty nails.

And most folks haven’t had their mail carriers shout at them to "put some shoes on!"

But then, most people don’t run barefoot, like Vivien Shotwell does.

"I always thought I hated running," says Shotwell. "I really just hated shoes."

The 30-year-old opera singer from Halifax started barefoot running last summer after some highly agreeable barefoot walking and much dithering about whether people would stare at her as she coasted by au naturel — podiatrically speaking, anyway.

They do stare. And apparently some call out. But the sensory allure of barefoot running has won out over Shotwell’s self-consciousness.

Just the other day in Point Pleasant Park, Shotwell was "looking longingly" at a wood chip path and wondering how it would feel.

Off came her regular runners, which are actually almost-not-there huarache running sandals. (She hasn’t run in sneakers in more than a year.)

"It was wet," she says. "Sort of muddy and wood-chippy. That’s one of the coolest things about (barefoot running), you have so many nerves at the bottoms of your feet . . . your brain really lights up with all that kind of information."

In know what you’re thinking: but what about broken beer bottles and dog poop and foot-slicing rocks!? What about all those rusty nails!?

Shotwell says as long as she keeps her eyes on the sidewalk or path, she easily avoids stepping on any nasty bits. Plus, she’s running in south-end Halifax, not an abandoned building lot in Kabul.

Shotwell runs three to five times a week. She doesn’t track distance, but her route sounds like at least five kilometres. Right now she’s running completely barefoot in 10-minute stretches to condition her feet.

Going barefoot causes runners’ feet to hit the ground differently than in shoes, more of a middle- to front-strike than heel-strike, and it tweaks different sets of muscles, so despite the get-up-and-go sound of barefoot running, it actually takes training to get used to it.

Sounds serious, but Shotwell doesn’t consider herself an athlete.

Nor, growing up, did her brother, who’s a barefoot runner too.

"A podiatrist told him he had flat arches and they would never be anything else. But he thinks now it was his orthotics that made him not like sports or running. And his arches, now, are much stronger and higher."

Shotwell’s brother is what’s called, in the culture, a "minimalist runner;" he runs in Vibrams. They’re thin, bendable kind of foot-gloves with, yes, a wee pocket for each toe.

Running giants Nike and Saucony have their own versions of minimalist trainers, too, which speak to the burgeoning market for barefoot shoes, which isn’t the oxymoron one might imagine.

Despite this corporate barefoot dabbling, two solitudes remain. In broad strokes: barefoot runners can’t understand why conventional runners keep choosing to sustain injuries running in those unnatural, sensation-deadening sneaks and conventional runners think barefooters are plain off their rockers.

At the Running Room on Spring Garden Road this week, a polite clerk said she didn’t know of anyone running the Blue Nose Marathon barefoot. In fact, she doesn’t know a single barefoot runner, period.

Sue Newhook, Blue Nose event co-ordinator, hasn’t heard of anyone this year going sans souliers, but I saw a shoeless woman running it last year. Newhook says that runner has since moved back to the U.K.

Shotwell would just like to see more people around the city giving in to their barefoot running urges — just the odd runner here or there would be nice, she says.

Barefoot running clubs exist in larger centres, but none in Halifax.

"I would like that," says Shotwell. "It would make me feel less self-conscious."

Maybe a good first step, I’m thinking, would be if the mail carrier kept his opinions to himself.