My name’s MJ. I have raced barefoot for four years. My freshman year of college, on a wet, green spring, I took off my shoes before the 800 meter, and I have run that way ever since.
People always ask me, “but doesn’t that hurt?”
Some say that taking off your shoes puts you closer to the earth; that it keeps you sensitive and alert. For me, it means that and more. It holds a mental and physical significance.
Initially, it seemed exiting, daring, unique. But it was also a vulnerable act – both literally and figuratively. Taking off my shoes exposed my sole to anything sharp in the way. It made people talk. It pounded tender plantar arches and heels to the gravel and rocks and heat of the ground. But it also pulled my spine and hips into alignment – it forced my arches to stay strong and firm against the earth, it made my knees rise faster and my ankles spin more times a minute. Running barefoot has made me faster than ever.
Yes, it hurts sometimes. It’s a risk. But it’s worth it.
I’m a senior now. Over spring break, I took a last-hurrah trip to California with my team. We flew to Santa Barbara, where the mountains are low and green. From the valley, the mountains are not so special – your average big and beautiful. But I know better. I spent a day clambering around barefoot up their rapid-rivers and rock-faces. That evening, some of us decided to take the long trail to Tangerine Falls. It was a much longer climb than any of us realized, and we hadn’t expected it to grow dark so quickly. Several of us had to turn back – it was dark and the way was dangerous. I could sense the peril of the climb – the stony cliff-face on my left, and the cold breath of the ravine drifting up on my right. My fingers and feet had to be my eyes in the dark, seeing the narrow path in front of me, toehold by toehold, hand-over-hand. Every crevice was important.
We could hear a roar somewhere in the distance, and every once in a while we could see a pale ribbon suspended against the black shape of the mountain…and then it would disappear again above the trees. A song by Mumford & Sons was stuck in my head, and I started humming aloud to help me concentrate on every step, to keep the wet rocks and muddy patches sure against my heels.
“Keep the earth below my feet,” I was singing. “for all my sweat my blood runs weak. Let me learn from where I have been, keep my eyes to serve my hands to learn.”
We all had to concentrate, take it slow, feel everything. We pulled each other up. The trail grew steeper, and sometimes it disappeared. Handhold by handhold we crept up the mountain. Finally, our guide pulled himself up to a crevice in the rock, declared we’d arrived, and helped me over the last precipice.
The tiny ledge cupped the six of us against the midnight roar of the waterfall. I had never been so close to something so big. We sat there breathless against the cold rock, not sure how to say or sing or mean anything other than quiet awe. Far below us, tucked between the shoulders of the mountains, we could see the Santa Barbara lights, and the harbor, and the oil-rigs flickering like a fleet of pirate ships against the black ocean. And the falls itself hurtled past our ears, clear and cold like the sky.
We sat there for a long time in the dark.
That’s what’s supposed to draw us together, isn’t it? Struggling. Together. Like Shakespeare said, “He today that sheds his blood with me/ shall be my brother!”
The words give me chills every time I read them – such noble thoughts! But demanding ones. It sounds far easier (and more poetic) on a page then to actually live out in the real world. The act itself of shedding blood and time and tears is an act of vulnerability– to struggle together, we must be willing to show our cowardice, our selfishness, our stupid decisions and sharp words. That is difficult blood to draw! Sometimes I think it’s easier to have physical flesh be broken than risk the tearing of souls, which exposes clearly all of the mangled chaos inside.
Being a runner creates a natural environment for that sort of bond. First, there’s training, which hurts as a fact. But the act, the race itself is always vulnerable, painful. I have to be ready for anything; to let everyone who watches see my stride shorten, my endurance slip and my strength fade. Sometimes my sole (and my soul) bleeds.
But from the roar of the crowd emerges the only voices I care to hear – my teammates, my fellows, urging my on with gentle pleadings, urgent shouts and, nearing the end, roars of desperate excitement, louder than the rest of the crowd together.
Soul baring does that. It creates a team. Common goals, common struggle and pain – mental, emotional, sweat, blood, and (I am a girl) lots of tears – forms a bond, a brotherhood, and it draws us all together in its web. We strengthen each other.
I don’t like the thought of leaving my team. You know the rhetoric: There is a time for everything, the end of something good is the beginning of something better. It’s all true. And it will still hurt a while regardless. But I’ve decided something:
I want to keep the earth below my feet. I don’t want to miss anything. Yes. It’s a risk. But I can say truly – from where I have been, what I have learned…It’s worth it.
~ MariJean Wegert