Barefoot Running Experiences on Three Continents

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by Turner on November 26, 2010

I wish I could say that I remember my first barefoot run as a kid. I’m sure there were times when my parents took off my shoes and set me loose in the backyard to play, but I was never one to go great distances until I reached middle school cross country. Fast forward to my adulthood, where I set out for a run on a long stretch of grass to recapture that lost feeling of the grass between my toes at Chuo Park in Kagoshima City in Japan.

For me, it all comes down to running like a child – the surest sign you are still in touch with your inner child is if you run from A to B. Not for exercise, not to make good time. Dashing from the TV set when you hear the doorbell because you never know what’s behind that door. Sprinting to the end of the aisle in a supermarket to grab one of the 52 different kinds of fruit snacks. Running down the stairs Christmas morning to see what Santa left. Running with excitement because it feels right. It feels like something that one just… does. Without question.

The first time my feet strode into that park, it was a rebirth in more ways than one.  Gripping the blades of grass with my toes, with every intention of going great distances. Unfortunately, it’s rather difficult to find long uninterrupted grassy fields in Japan, or even less-than-rocky dirt trails. Although I had now made it a goal to complete my next marathon shoeless, I had begun my quest for the perfect running surface, and what country could provide it.

Thailand was a breath of fresh air after living in Japan for two years. Although Japan is certainly a runner-friendly nation, all the paths and trails seem so tight and regulated, as if there’s no room to just take the road less traveled; that road didn’t survive the Japanese bureaucracy. Now, far to the west of its shores, I found pleasure in running past the rubber trees in the morning hours, or perhaps jogging on the beach as the sun set over the Indian Ocean.

Beach running in Thailand will always be one of my favorites- very fine sand, few big rocks, and crabs to scare away as you move down the coast. Those white crabs could easily take you over short distances; it’s amazing to watch them scatter and hide under the sand as anything resembling danger approaches. Through the “jungle”, however, I had to be on my toes (and not just for proper gait); night runs made it difficult to see the huge black scorpions that would often crawl onto the road… not to mention the occasional asp. As a walker, asps are more likely to be alerted to your presence and have time to slither away; as a runner, you might be fast enough to accidentally step on one.

Coming back to the states after so much time in different countries allowed me to indulge in all the things I had forgotten, including, but not limited to, buying Vibram Fivefingers from the local REI. I experimented going completely shoeless on the Town Lake Trail in Austin, Texas, but found even the smallest pebble under my heel could induce some pretty decent pain. Dirt trails aren’t exactly scarce in Texas, but I wanted to be a social runner. No, I wanted to the  runner that others looked at, asking, “How can I do that??? I gotta talk to that guy!”

Within a few months it was time to leave again, and this time I headed over to New Zealand, Vibrams carefully stowed in my carry-on baggage. Being “lazy” and not even bothering to look for trails at times, I spent the majority of my training doing the same 8-mile stretch of paved road from my home at a Buddhist monastery to a nearby olive estate.

In my days off, I discovered that New Zealand had much to offer the barefoot runner. 90-Mile Beach in Northland, is probably the longest, flattest barefoot running-suitable beach in the world. Or you could enjoy the trails of the redwood forest near Rotorua, softened by leaves and pine needles. Maybe enjoy a barefoot run in Kuirau Park, where you can jog past boiling mud pits before soaking your cold (I did it on a dewy winter morning) tired feet in one of the free mineral baths. But, by and large, my favorite places will always be the beaches. For New Zealand, that means black sand all the way down the west coast, a byproduct of living on volcanic islands.

Choosing a place to live now becomes a balancing act between convenience, food, lifestyle, and barefoot running training. Where am I now? On the east coast of South Korea near the small town of Uljin. I figured that any town this small would have decent trails and easy beach access…. well, it was good in theory. In actuality, I’ve found Korea isn’t really too runner-friendly. It’s hard to find shops, or even sections of shops, dedicated to runners. Sure, there are shoes, but Vibrams haven’t really caught on, as they have only recently began selling them here, and the spirit just isn’t here yet. I am close to the beach, but the sand has been “bulldozed”, making it a steep dropoff between uneven sand and freezing seawater; I’ll test the surface again once it gets colder and firmer.

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