I’m a Barefoot Runner: Caleb Wilson

by Danielle on November 7, 2010

In the I’m a Barefoot Runner series, we will be highlighting everyday people who are running the natural way!

Caleb Wilson has been a runner since he was in high school when he was on the track team. Off and on since then, the 27-year old Florida resident found himself running for the endorphin rush and as a way to stay in shape, but over time, his love for the actual experience declined. At times, he felt the rewards were too limited to justify the effort, and he would drift away from running.

Until Wilson, a dockhand and fork lift operator at a yacht basin and marina, read a running book that is proving to be influential for a growing number of writers: Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. If this were an infomercial for McDougall’s argument that running barefoot was the most natural and efficient way to run, Wilson’s story would include an instant epiphany followed by a renewed love of running and steady improvement as a runner.  Although Wilson found himself excited by the book’s ideas and discovered that he loved running again, his trajectory wasn’t exactly a straight shot upward.

Still, how’s this for a Hollywood twist? This past March, Wilson—wearing Vibram Five Fingers Treks—stepped into the pages of Born To Run by joining 366 other runners, most of them from the Tarahumara tribe, for the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon featured in McDougall’s book.

Caleb looking strong at the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon!

Barefoot Running:  How long have you been running barefoot and how did you get started?

Caleb: About a year ago this month. I read Born To Run and thought it made complete sense. Not just the science of it—the whole story. I picked up the book while I was in a book store before going into work, and I couldn’t put it down. I finished it at the store before my copy ever arrived in the mail. It reinvigorated a love of running and gave me a new perspective.

BF:  How did you transition from running in shoes to running barefoot?

Caleb: I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers and alternated between running in them and running barefoot until my feet toughened up.

BF:  That sounds sensible—was it a smooth transition then?

Caleb: No. I didn’t go slow enough when I first started.  I killed my calf muscles during the first run and then couldn’t run, or even walk barefoot comfortably, for over two weeks. [Barefoot running] hadn’t really taken off at that point, and I did not realize that it takes time for the calf and Achilles to stretch and lengthen.

BF:  Did your initial difficulties make you have second thoughts about ditching your running shoes?

Caleb: Nope. I had always bought cheap shoes, the ones you could pick up for $20 at Wal-Mart so I never had much or any support, and I usually went for the ones that had plenty of toe room. If the terrain requires it, I wear my Vibram Five Fingers. But I prefer going totally barefoot whenever I can.

BF:  Speaking of that, where is your favorite place to run?

Caleb: Trails. I love running trails barefoot. I love the constantly changing terrain. A few weeks ago I was running on the trail at Fort Clinch at night and all of a sudden my eyes adjusted and I realized there were lightning bugs EVERYWHERE, thousands of them just lighting up the forest.

That was the night I realized how much being barefoot can improve instinctive proprioception. Even though I could not really see the trail or all the knobby roots, I only stepped on a few and I never went off the trail.

Photos Courtesy of Caleb Wilson

BF:  So how did you end up running Copper Canyon (CCUM)? How long did you spend training for it?

Caleb: Honest answer? I had been telling everyone I was going do the CCUM, but I didn’t take the time to train and build mileage the way I wanted to.  I had to convince myself mentally and emotionally that I could complete the distance, and I wanted as little negativity as possible. I couldn’t back out of it after saying I was going to run it, and it was the first CCUM since Born To Run came out. There was just no way I was going to miss that potentially once in a lifetime experience.

Editor’s Note:  Caleb finished the race in 13:23, and was fifth from last, but has “no regrets”!

BF:  How have you benefitted as a runner from ditching your shoes?

Caleb: The biggest difference I’ve noticed between the last time I tried running in my old running shoes and going barefoot is the ease of hitting the sweet spot when my foot touches the ground. It’s easier to keep proper form since you have better proprioception . My feet have gotten stronger—thicker and wider—and I’ve gotten faster. A couple weeks ago, I ran my first sub 6-minute mile since high school.

BF: What do you like most about barefoot running?

Caleb: Wearing running shoes dulls the experience of running. One of the best ways I’ve heard it explained is that wearing shoes while running is like wearing ear muffs while trying to listen to a symphony. You take off the shoes and all of a sudden you start “hearing” things you didn’t know were there.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Curtis H. November 9, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Very very cool article!! I can totally understand what you went through with your transition! Even though i didn’t get real sore, i idid develop blisters that have sidelined by running the last couple days!! grrrr… :) But, just like you… it will not keep me from running barefoot. I love the feeling and i have NO PAIN in my knees!! that’s HUGE for me!! I would really really love to run the CCUM… my goal right now is to hit a 1/2 marathon barefoot… then we’ll go from there!! Anyways great write-up… thank you for the insite!! ;)

Curtis

Llama Caleb November 10, 2010 at 3:02 am

Curtis,

Good for you, man! just remember to keep things balanced. It feels great and your running without pain, but that doesnt mean that ditching the shoes is a panacea for running injuries. You can still get hurt if you’re not careful. The very first peice of advice Barefoot Ted gave me when I started was, “Make sure you keep a balance between your ego and your body.” Basically, what I feel I should be able to do or what I want to do, and what I’m realistically capable of doing at that moment. If your getting blisters, your probably pushing to far or going to fast. My good friend and coach Michael Sandler likes to say “Let your skin be your guide.” Make sure you stop your run (put the shoes back on if you have them with you. they are a good recovery tool to let your feet rest from a good workout) when you start feeling the hot spots on the pads of your feet. blisters eventually develop into scar tissue and ugly calouses. You want to have smooth uniform pads. Approach it the same way you would if you were lifting weights in a gym: you wouldnt keep lifting if you felt a muscle straining right? you lift to stress the muscles to a reasonable degree, then allow for proper recovery time. It should be the same way with your running, whether its foot strenght or toughening up the skin. Take care!

Curtis H. November 10, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Wow.. Thanks Llama! I really appreciate the advice… what a very cool gift you gave me today as i wasn’t expecting any feed back… That truly rocks and i’ve learned my lesson about pushing myself… I don’t regret the blisters or the pain as it’s a great TEACHER and Motivator!! :) After a good 2 days off now, i’m very happy to say i went running this morning and slow the pace a bit and really concentrated on form…. no pain… no blisters and no hotspots!! A very successful day i think… Anyways, thank you for the comment and input and please have yourself a great day!!

Curtis

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