Friday, October 9, 2009

Barefoot Josh—A Man on a Mission

A few months ago, an interesting young fella joined me and my running buddy Dena for an 18-miler. What made this fella—Josh Sutcliffe—so interesting was his bare feet. I've heard and read about barefoot runners, but I've never really known one, unless you count the guy in front of me at the start of the 2006 Honolulu Marathon. He was barefoot and had flip-flops stuck in the back waistband of his running shorts. When I asked him what the flip-flops were for, he replied, "After the race." Made me chuckle. He was getting ready to run 26.2 miles barefoot, but needed flip-flops for after the race.

Back to Josh. I was really curious to see how this barefoot guy was going to manage on our 18-miler that would take us across blacktop, cement, gravel, and dirt trails. This run would be the longest distance (at the time) for Josh to run barefoot. He did have a pair of modified Vibram 5-Fingers that he slipped on during a stretch or two of gravel/trail areas (maybe a total of a mile in distance), but otherwise he ran completely barefoot. He had the lightest and smoothest gate I've ever seen for a runner. I was eager to see what his feet looked like after the run. I couldn't believe it. They looked great. In fact (besides some surface dirt) they looked better than my socked-and-shoed tootsies. I spent a good portion of that run talking to Josh, picking his brain, and learning more about this unconventional approach to running.

Now that I've gotten to know Josh, I bet, he would laugh at me calling barefoot running "unconventional." As he explains it, we humans were designed to run barefoot. What other animal on the planet has to wear $100+, blown-rubber, graphite-treaded, semi-curved-lasted, gel-cushioned shoes?

I wanted to learn more about barefoot running, so I met Josh one day for coffee and he filled me in on how he got into running shoeless.

RunnerDude: How long have you been running?
Barefoot Josh: Well, out of college ('95-'96), I was mostly biking. In 2000, I was looking for something different to help me keep in shape. At the time, I was living in an apartment in New York City and each year I'd watch the NYC Marathon runners go by and I decided, "I can do that." I really didn't know anything about running. I was what you'd call a "spring-and-summer-runner." I'd start, but when the weather got bad or other things got in the way, I'd stop. Then I'd start back up a few months later.
RD: So the marathon is what motivated you to get into running?
BFJ: Yes, I decided to run enough races in the NYRRC (New York Road Runners Club) series to qualify for the NYC Marathon. I actually did that and got a marathon entry. I even bought "real" running shoes! I ran all the required races but ended up with ITB (Iliotibial band syndrome ).
RD: So, did you try again?
BFJ: Yes, I was frustrated and depressed, but I did the race series again in 2001. And again, I had ITB. Tried again in 2002 and had the same problem, plus I was bitten by a dog!!
RD: Why didn't you just hang up the old running shoes and get back into cycling or some other type of activity?
BFJ: Well, I'm a very headstrong and determined person and I was bound and determined to get a marathon under my belt.
RD: So what did you do?
BFJ: Well in 2003, I finally realized I was just running too much and too hard and my body was paying the price. So, I looked for another activity to supplement. Most would take-up swimming or cycling. I joined a boxing gym. Never been in a fight nor even took a punched in my entire life. The diversion of a different sport and the great conditioning boxing provided actually helped me finally run the NYC Marathon in 2003. During that time in the gym I researched barefoot running and found Ken Bob Saxton of During my time at the gym, I did some running in my boxing shoes as well as a lot of jumping rope. With both, I noticed I was landing more on the front part of my feet.
RD: Wow, those are some pretty unconventional marathon training techniques, but they seemed to have helped you master the marathon.
BFJ: Well, "mastered" is a strong term. "I lived through it" is more like it. It was not a pretty sight. After the race I thought, "This is stupid! I'd rather be punched in the face!"
RD: Well, it's six years later and you're still running, so what I call "marathon amnesia" must have kicked in.
BFJ: Yep, but it took a while to get back into running. In 2004, I didn't run. I focused on boxing and the gym. However, this time I wasn't in the ring. I was training the kids. Really enjoyed working with the kids. Probably around 2005, I began doing some running, but nothing more than a 10K distance. It was during this time that I experimented some more with barefoot running.
RD: In Brooklyn?
BFJ: Yep. Had to hide my shoes so my wife wouldn't know I was running barefoot through Brooklyn. I had a pair of the Nike Free shoes and wore them some, but also ran barefoot for some runs and I discovered it actually helped with stress relief.
RD: That's so funny! I can picture you running out the door all properly shoed...."By honey! Going for my run!" And then dashing behind the bushes, pulling off your shoes and reappearing as Super Josh! The Barefoot Runner!
BFJ: Yep, that' pretty much how it happened. Actually, I did kind of feel like a superhero when running barefoot.
RD: So in 2005, you were secretly running barefoot in Brooklyn, but here we are in Greensboro, NC, sipping on Starbucks coffee. Greensboro's a "fer piece" from Brooklyn. When did you make the move to the South?
BFJ: We moved to Greensboro in 2006. Not only did we gain a new home in 2006, but from 2006 to 2008 I also gained quite a bit of weight. I really didn't care what I looked like in the mirror, but my clothes were starting to feel not so comfortable anymore. During this time, I also lost my job. Jobless and with tight pants, I decided I needed to get out of the house. So, I started running again. My shoes were old and a wreck. They hadn't been used in quite a while. I went to the local running store and bought the lighest trainers I could find.
RD: So the running helped put some needed room back in the ole britches and helped you get back into shape as well. Didn't I hear you ran the Grandfather Mountain Marathon back in July?
BFJ: Yes. In March of 2009, I stumbled across some info about the marathon which piqued my curiosity. I knew I only had 4 months and my mileage base was basically nonexistent, but I told myself I could do this. I knew I wouldn't set any records. All I wanted to do was finish. I started slow with 11-12:00-minute miles. Was doing fine until I got up to 16 miles when those familiar feelings in my knees resurfaced.
RD: By now, you quickly read the pre-warning signs of injury, right? What did you do?
BFJ: I remember how great I felt barefoot running in Brooklyn, so I went back to and thought...."Hmmm, maybe this guy's on to something."
RD: You began running barefoot in prep for the marathon?
BFJ: Well, I wasn't sure about running that far barefoot, so I bought a $6 pair of aqua socks from Walmart. You know the type of shoes you wear to the pool or the beach. My next long run was 18 miles and I ran it wearing the cheap aqua socks. I almost cried with joy because it was so liberating—the ground beneath my feet. I felt such exuberance.
RD: So, you completed the Grandfather Marathon last July. How did it go? Did you run barefoot or did you wear the aqua socks?
BFJ: Well, I did wear the aqua socks and I was feeling so good that I PR'd at the half-marathon mark. This great feeling came back to bite me later though. I started out too fast and payed a little for it in the second half. I did quite a bit of walking in the second half of the race, but overall I felt good after the marathon where as I was miserable after the NYC Marathon.
RD: Well, your running completely barefoot now, so when did that happen?
BFJ: After Grandfather, I wanted to see if I could run more "truly barefoot." My wife still wasn't thrilled with the idea. She preferred I wear the aqua socks or the Vibram 5-Fingers. So, I continued to run barefoot secretly like I had done in Brooklyn. I didn't want to hear the "I told you so." I got up to about 6 miles barefoot with no problems or blisters. Eventually she caught me and I "fessed up." She was less than thrilled—"Guess you know what you're doing. Just remember we have no health insurance and you need your feet." Funny how she was fine with me boxing but not running barefoot. But, she finally came around when she saw how much I enjoyed it and how I was running injury-free.
RD: Would you recommend that someone wanting to run barefoot, transition into it by first wearing a minimalist shoe like your cheap aqua socks?
BFJ: For some it may help them feel better if they ease into it by wearing a minimalist shoe. But, honestly? You don't need them. Just get out there and run barefoot. You need to start slow. That's really the "easing into it." Your feet have lots of nerve endings and that's really what you have to get used to—the different sensations that your feet have never before been allowed to experience because they've been encased in a shoe. I discussed this with Bob Saxton, and he said to forget the transition, just run barefoot.
RD: So how many miles have you logged barefoot?
BFJ: Since July I've logged 250+ barefoot miles.
RD: No turning back, huh?
BFJ: No, I've found my niche. Barefoot running keeps my ego in check. It keeps me more in tune with my body. I'm not fast. The speed will eventually come, but it's not my main goal. Running now is so much more satisfying for me. It's kind of like a dance—an expression of myself. It feels beautiful. I want to be running forever.
RD: Injury free now?
BFJ: Yes. No more ITB problems. It's funny. Books focus a lot on the shoe for improved running and decreased injury. I could find very few books that focused on running form. Whole industries teach form in other sports, but not in running. It wasn't until I found the "barefoot running community" that I realized there was a correct or better way to run. They shared a few tips, but the most important piece of information they shared is that my feet would tell me how to do it, and they were right. Odd how much money is poured into large ad campaigns, endorsements, and cool-looking running shoes, yet runners who wear them continue to be plagued with injuries. Barefoot runners have no shoes on their feet and they tend to have very few running-related injuries.
RD: So where do you go now? What's your goal as a barefoot runner?
BFJ: To run, run, run, and continue running long into life. I know I may sound like a fanatic, but I really want to spread the word about how great barefoot running can be for you physically and mentally. I want runners to see that it's not a passing fad or something "unconventional." I also want runners to understand that you don't need any specially designed shoes to run barefoot either.

Josh is a cool guy and he's taught me a lot. Be sure to check out his blog—Art and Sole. Earlier this week, Josh was gracious enough to make his video debut by letting me video-tape him explaining the basic principles of running barefoot as well as the foot-landing technique of barefoot running. Check out both clips below! Thanks Josh!


Junk Miler said...

Your listening and note taking skills are to be commended. Folks: I was way overcaffeinated during the interview. How RunnerDude was able to follow my stream-of-conscious rambling is beyond me.


RunnerDude said...

Hey Josh! Tell my wife I'm a good listener! LOL!! Please!

Lady Southpaw said...

Wow Impressive! Especially the running barefoot in Brooklyn part... I would be afraid to walk barefoot around here, that was my best excuse for not trying it.

You've never caught a piece of glass or nail or anything? It seems like it would require a lot of attention on the ground as well as in your body... then how would you notice what else is going on with all the cars, pedestrians, and kids on bikes also constantly buzzing around. I can understand your wife's hesitance...

I like the basic premise, it makes a lot of sense to me.

Amazing! Good scoop RunnerDude :)

Zoë said...

All I can say is "wow." This was such an interesting post and very informative. My Uncle has similar views to wearing heavy "clodhoppers" as he calls my running shoes...he'd run barefoot if he could. He actually uses wrestling shoes instead of running shoes most of the time. It's just amazing to see someone actually RUNNING such a long distance without shoes! Wow!

Very cool!

RunnerDude said...

Thanks Lady SouthPaw! Hope the running music is doing well!

RunnerDude said...

Hey Zoe! I agree, pretty amazing. If I didn't have a problem with a nerve in one foot, I'd be giving it a try to. Have to wear a pad to keep the never from hitting bone. OUCH! So, barefoot running is out for me. :-(

Junk Miler said...

Lady Southpaw: Oh, I've stepped on plenty of stuff. The worst of it would leave a little bruise. Splinters are annoying, but I haven't had anything that wasn't a pull-it-out and keep truckin situation. Glass hasn't been a problem; anything big enough to injure me is all glittery and easy to see.

Because of the way depth perception works, the road looks far more cluttered than it really is.

Zoe: If I ever do something exceptional, trust me, I'll brag about it. While I've made my share of mistakes so far, all in all learning how to run barefoot has been pretty easy; nothing I could brag about in good conscience.

B. Kramer said...

Josh has been very helpful with my experimentation with going barefoot. Nice interview.

Lady Southpaw said...


I just posted one of your videos on my new blog:

I found it so helpful I kept thinking back to it during my race yesterday.

I hope that's cool!

RunnerDude said...

Hi Viper! Welcome to the blog!Thanks for the feedback on the post! So cool that Josh has mentored you on barefoot running!

RunnerDude said...

Hey Lady Southpaw!
That's great! I appreciate the repost of the video and I'm sure Josh does as well!

Junk Miler said...

I hope to someday be the Yoda of running barefoot. Lift quickly you will, and there is no shoe, there is only feet, etc.

Re video, thanks for that, lefty lady. I'm just glad I had a non-wrinkled shirt to wear.

RunnerDude said...

Hey Josh! May the foot be with you!

The Boring Runner said...

I ran 2/3 of a marathon with Barefoot Rick. These guys are AMAZING. I still don't know how they do it.

Junk Miler said...

Adam: It's easy. Especially if you're a wimp like me.