My last road race was the 2004 Twin Cities 1/2 marathon. Shortly thereafter I broke my foot for the first time playing a pick up game at Martin Luther park. I have since gone on to break 3 toes and an ankle while playing basketball.
Prior to my last race, I last ran competitively in 1999, logging a 15:22 5k at a local Turkey Trot in San Angelo, TX. A little while after that race, I was transferred to Offutt AFB where I suffered a basketball injury that dislocated my knee and hip and absolutely shredded the left side of my body (I was undercut on a layup and went down like a rag doll).
Before my time at Goodfellow, I was stationed at Osan AFB, ROK where I served a one year tour away from my family. I spent a lot of my free time running through the country side. Before Korea, I was at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California where I was part of the USAF run team, a local men's run team and a weekend group of ultra-marathon runners who would spend the weekends running in the hills south of Carmel, 17 Mile Drive and up the coast to Santa Cruz. We routinely averaged between 80-100 miles/week.
I was fast. I could long really, really long distances. I was having a blast. I was 6'1" and 162 pounds. There was nothing in the world I loved more than running. I loved everything about it and I ran twice (sometimes three) times a day.
I also loved playing basketball.
I am fairly certain I am (or was) good at two sports: basketball and running. I wasn't good at either sport until I joined the military and got in shape. During high school I tried both cross country and basketball. I was disinterested with and terrible at both. Upon hitting basic training and being...well, motivated, I started to realize I could do things with my body that I did not know were possible. I could run forever. I could jump really high. I had to cut off more runs because I ran out of water than because I was sore. I could recover like nobody's business. This included getting trashed on a Friday night and then running 20 miles on a Saturday morning. I don't know how to explain it other than to say it was fun.
For whatever reason, my body eventually started to give out while playing basketball. 50ks, insane tempo runs, fartleks and ridiculous stair work were perfectly OK but at some point in my life even the most basic of layups started to give me cause for concern. It didn't matter what I did on the court, I ended up getting rolled ankles, twisted knees, blisters, whatever. It was annoying as hell, especially since I was starting to get good (at least at the rec league level).
The first time I can really remember getting hurt on the basketball court was at the Monterey DLI gym when I came down wrong on my right ankle. It really f'ing hurt. After a week of hobbling around on a bum ankle, the pain started to migrate into the arch and up the side of my foot. I went to the doctor and told him about what had happened. He asked me a bunch of questions about my workout regimen and as soon as he heard talk of running upwards of 80 miles a week he latched on to the running angle. I'm obviously not a doctor but what he said seemed to make sense: The reason why my ankle rolled so easily and caused additional problems was because I ran too much and my feet were "fatigued".
What really caught my attention during the appointment was when the doc asked to see my running shoes. He told me to hobble on back to the barracks, grab my kicks and hurry back.
For those of you who have never been to Air Force Basic Training, the lucky duckies who get off the bus from the San Antonio airport are provided with a pair of trainiers that are purchased in bulk by Uncle Sam. Way back in 1995-96, this bulk purchase was a pair of entry-level Sauconys. I have no idea what model they were. They were grey. They didn't fall apart. We used them every damn day, often after walking around in heavy boots. We walked everywhere. We ran a lot. Somewhere around week 3 someone in our flight figured out that the best way to get additional time away from our TI was to ask if we could get in some extra PT by going on a run. A group of 3-5 of us made daily requests for extra runs and in a few short weeks I went from being a wheezy 185 lbs recruit to being a 160 lbs Airman who ran the final 2 mile PT test in 10:07. I was amazed by how quickly I was able to transform my body by not eating a lot of sugar (it gets completely cut off at the start of training and you don't get to go to the spinning cake thing in front of the cafeteria snake pit until week 4 or 5), walking everywhere and running twice a day.
When I got out of basic training I was transferred to tech school in Monterey, CA. One of the things that the recruiters don't spend much time talking about in the recruiting process is that newly minted Airmen don't make a lot of money. You also have to wear your uniform everywhere and you can't leave the base until after a few weeks. This means you spend a lot of time studying and in your room. Aside from the AAFES store on post, there are really not a lot of places to spend your money (at least not right away) in tech school. What is the best way for a young Airman to get out of his room and enjoy the coastal California air without having to wear a pressed uniform everywhere you go? Running.
I ran every square inch of that post. I found the awesome stairs up the hill. I created courses for tempo runs, slow-and-low runs, track work and so on and so forth. I have no idea how many miles I put on my basic training sneakers but it was a lot. I wore the damn things down. By the time I brought them back into the doc the uppers had tiny tears and rips and the lowers were worn down to next to nothing.
The doc had me put on my shoes and we both walked outside where I ran back and forth in front of him for about 2 minutes.
"Show me your 5k pace."
"Run in place."
"You run funny."
Now, while I was young and dumb and clearly not a doctor, I was pretty sure "you run funny" was not sound medical advice. However, the guy doing the talking had shiny things on his lapels and I did not so I kept quiet. Was this guy even trained in foot medicine? No, he was a PA.
"I think you need to get new shoes and stop running for 2 weeks."
I stopped running for 2 weeks (I even had a waiver) and I bought a new pair of shoes. I purchased a cheap pair of Sauconys and I waited. I then picked up where I left off and had no further injuries until I rolled my ankle (with the Sauconys) playing pick up ball a few weeks later.
Looking back at everything, I can safely say that my running style is pretty weird compared to most people I see jogging. I run straight up with bent knees. Everything above my waist is still and I move my feet very quickly. I have somewhat long legs and I remember my high school running coach telling me to "stride out" and put them to good use, but I have always been the type of runner to make very short, and very quick strides. I have a still head, I hardly move my arms and my shoulders are completely relaxed.
Flash forward to 2001 and I am playing basketball with the Offutt AFB base team and I go up for a layup when a guy in the lane tries to get away from me after I have already taken off. He catches my left leg and knocks me off balance and I remember thinking "I can't put out my wrist because it will break". The next thing I know I'm on the ground and my lower left leg isn't responding. My left arm isn't responding. It is hanging limp on my side. A sharp pain is shooting up my leg from my knee.
Since my basketball injury, I have gained in the neighborhood of 60 pounds, I have broken my foot four times and I have been to numerous podiatrists trying to get a diagnosis that would allow me run again. Each time I have been cleared for physical activity I have attempted to both run and play basketball. Each time I have played basketball I have injured myself further.
I have tried everything in my recovery: custom orthotics, motion control shoes, pool running, swimming, bking, you name it. I have searched long and hard and have spent thousands of dollars trying to regain something that is absolutely essential to who I am: being a runner.
Last year I was playing pick up ball at the Mankato YMCA when I felt a ping in my foot. I kept playing for a few days before the pain became so unbearable that I had to see a specialist. The diagnosis was severe: I had a stress fracture in my foot that would either require invasive surgery (cutting open my foot and grinding down the bone in my ankle) or would make me unable to run ever again.
This diagnosis cause me a lot of stress. I needed to run. I cannot accurately explain how much running means to me, and what it means to be me. I instantly turned down surgery and went to the internet to find out if there were other people in my situation and to figure out how they were dealing with such a world-changing conclusion.
During my studies on the subject I came across the book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. Every word of the book spoke to me in a way that I felt it was tailored to my personal experience: a runner with leg/foot issues searching for a way to keep practicing a discipline that was key to his being.
It was with this book that I discovered barefoot running.
I immediately went to my physical therapist and podiatrist and suggested that I try running barefoot. I immediately received feedback that this was a stupid idea and that barefoot running was a sure-fire recipe for disaster. I didn't care. If I was resigned to a lifetime of hamster pool swimming and Lance-Armstrong-wannabe biking, I needed to make sure that I covered all of my training bases, so I gave the barefoot approach a try.
Several months later I am down 30 pounds and have not been back to the doctor. I am logging 30-50 miles/week barefoot (and with minimalist shoes) and I haven't felt this good or this alive in quite some time.
What have I learned?
First, barefoot running is not a health cure. It is simply a technique that is a valuable tool in the toolbox of helping people to run with a proper style. Second, I really didn't have that weird or silly of a running style. I ran in a way that minimized impact and promoted a running gait that could be easily reproduced well into my middle age. Third, there is no such thing as a barefoot running dogma. Barefoot running is something that promotes an increased attention given to how your body interacts with the ground and it encourages you to constantly listen to the signals your feet are sending to the rest of your body. Fourth, I can never play basketball again.
Here are some random thoughts for the beginning barefooter:
- Don't waste your money on expensive minimalist shoes like Vibram Five Fingers or "no drop" trainers. Plunk down $30-40 on a pair of customized huraches (like this) and focus on your running form with form and pose drills.
- Barefoot running is a technique that will help you gain better form. It is not a life style or a cure. Ultimately, you can run in army (or Air Force) boots and have a good enough form that will allow you to run well into advanced age.
- Take the money you would use on minimalist shoes and buy yourself a good GPS watch with heart rate function and a metronome. Learning how to run at a sub aerobic heart rate and with solid pace is much more important than spending a ton of money on shoes that give your body less-than-optimal feedback and which promise a quick route to something that you can have for free (the barefoot experience).
- Take it slow. Running barefoot will cause you to use muscles you didn't know you had. Running is something that should bring you tremendous well-being and there is no quick and easy fix to replace something that will take time, effort and, yes pain. Your ultimate goal is to be fit. If you calves bark at you to try something different, listen to them.
- Experiment. Running barefoot will put you directly in tune with how your body interacts with the ground. If you feel a pain in your arch, try something different. Bend your knees a little more. Pull up your toes right before impact. Slack your shoulders. Your body will let you know what hurts and it is your job to pay attention and try something different.
- Read a lot of running books like Natural Running, Evolution Running (a DVD), Pose Running and Chi Running. Do not buy into the idea that there is a perfect running style that can be applied to everybody. There is no such thing as a running dogma. When in doubt, take a week or two to examine the available evidence and take the route that requires the least amount of spending. Run like you are poor. After all, if Kenyan and Ethiopian runners are able to perform at world-class levels with a history of barefoot/poor training, so should you.
- Find a good training partner. My running buddy is my dog and I run with a group every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
- Above all else, remember that running is for your overall well-being. It is a tool to make you fully human. If you don't understand this part of the equation, then there is no explaining to you why this suggestion is important. Either you get it or you don't.