Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Barefoot Runner

Just yesterday, on our way back from lunch out on the town, the boys and I spotted the Barefoot Runner. He was wearing a bright orange vest, an odd apron-styled top that went to just above his knees, blue leggings, and…no sneakers, no socks, just bare feet, which he lifted slowly and gingerly with each step as if he’d been walking on broken glass, crusty pavement, roadside nasties. He carried a bright yellow sign on his back: SUPPORT DOWN SYNDROME, DONATE TO NDSS AT BAREFOOTRUNNER.NET. We saw the sign first, of course, that, and the dirty soles of his feet as they were lifted one by one, up down, slap, slap, slap. We drove by slowly, rubbernecking, trying to make sense of him. As we passed by, we noticed that his hair was exceptionally short, making him much more clean shaven than most young men in the valley. He had a slightly bemused expression on his face that didn‘t offer many clues, other than, perhaps, he knew he was a bit of a spectacle, and was acutely aware of all the attention he was getting. And, there was the fact that you could tell his feet hurt. He was not running, as his sign might have promised, but walking. And there was a nearly emphatic ouch in every step.

This morning, there he was on our breakfast table. Front page of the local paper. Big color photo, same bemused expression, same grubby feet. On the back of the first section, there he was again, stepping carefully along the white lines of Route 2, big yellow sign hanging below his wide brimmed hat and pack.

Tim Bourassa is walking from Williamstown, in the far northwest corner of Massachusetts, to Woburn, his hometown closer to Beantown. A full 138 miles. He is 39, not a young man anymore, but not quite pushing 45, as many of us are. He is walking to raise money on behalf of his fiance’s brother, who has Down syndrome. He’s raised $1063, but has set a goal to raise a total of $7500 for the National Down Syndrome Society. He decided to walk across the state after losing his job as a store manager, and figuring he “could do good with some of my time.” Imagine if all those unemployed workers out there set their minds to promoting worthwhile causes and tackling similar good deeds?

What the newspaper did not mention is that Tim Bourassa is a grandfather, amazingly, and was inspired to ditch the running sneakers after his grandson was born--born, according to his blog, “amazingly with nothing on his feet. I’d personally say his feet are perfect, legs perfect, hips perfect, back perfect. He’s just perfect.” Perfect until he starts wearing “those cutie socks and mary janes and little tiny running sneakers awe they are all so cute!!!!” Bourassa believes that shoes ruin our feet. “Let’s blame our ancestors first, as they are the ones who ruined it for us in the beginning. They moved to cooler climates and to different terrains sometimes out of pure necessity. Then let’s blame the people that decided we need to put footwear on our feet to protect them.”

Hmmm…ok, I’ve heard of this theory a few times before now. And I do like going barefoot occasionally. But walk the 3-Day in nothing but bare feet? Without my lovely new running sneakers and custom-made orthotics that take care of my anteverted hips, over-pronation, and leg length discrepancy? I think the last time I went barefoot for any length of time my plantar fascitis started to kick in, and I couldn‘t walk at all.

Bourassa’s advice for people with foot problems is simple: lose the shoes.

“And why are my toe nails falling off where did i get this HAMMER toe, why do I take a fungal prescription etc etc etc ....... so take those shoes and socks off move around the house the yard barefoot go to the beach STRETCH those sore puppies out. Just like your parents taught you to walk with those shoes you can teach yourself to walk work and play with none.”

Ok, ok. But what about all the nasties on the roadways and sidewalks? Are you worried at all about stepping on something dreadful, or picking something up, or having forever-earth-burnished feet? Doesn’t it hurt sometimes? Because, Tim, you see, when we drove by, you weren‘t running, you were making your way with pained feet across nobby, wet pavement. You were grimacing a bit. You were feeling it. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, with each and every step. We could tell. “Yes it hurts when you step on a rock or stub your toe... but so does knee and back surgery and if you believe me just ask those doctors that are cashing in on your PAIN.”

Ok, true, sometimes, I suppose. But I’m thinking that taking care of my feet --staying out of bad shoes, high heels, pinchers, and basically anything but my nifty customized running sneaks--is going to help me stave off the inevitability of hip replacement surgery (or perhaps, arthroscopic surgery) for a nice long time, yes? I’ve never been one for shoes. Many women go ga-ga over shoes. I’ve never understood it. I have about four pair. I did cram my feet into a pair of high heels last Saturday night after a lovely 12-mile walk not in barefeet but in my trusty Brooks. And I do admit, those pretty, strappy black shoes felt heinous and torturous and I took them off as soon as the gig was up and it felt absolutely divine to air out my dogs and “stretch those sore puppies out.” Nothing quite like touching down on the pavement, and feeling the cool of the evening on the soles of my feet. It reminded me of all the other times I’d stuffed feet into ridiculously skimpy, pointy-toed shoes and busted out sooner than perhaps was respectable. At my wedding, I wore flats, but before the reception even began, I was out of those wayward, dusty paddles, feeling the soft July grass underfoot, blustering my way through all the traditional nuptial nonsense, and finally, dancing to the beat of the Pigs, sans shoes.

Indeed, I am a barefoot dancer, and always will be. But running? Training for and walking the 3-Day? I don’t think so. So, barefoot runner, I understand the joy, but I also feel the pain. I’ll stick to my properly fitted running sneaks, thanks. I might not bag wearing shoes altogether, but I just may have to toss a few of the pinchier ones out. I’ll save the flirty black pair for those occasions when I have to don a dress and do my hair and clean my fingernails; I’ll be sure to take the shoes off just as soon as I can, and enjoy feeling the smooth chill of the pavement, the squish of soft sand between my toes, or the tickle of grass on my heels.

And when I’m ready to switch out, I’ll be sure to donate my old running sneakers, as Bourassa suggests in his blog, or recycle them (the Greater Boston Running Company in Lexington, for one, will take your old ones). I’ll let the Barefoot Runner have the last word: “Leave a better footprint on the earth our time is short but our children and their children must deal with our decisions!! Or just be really green and go barefoot your feet will adapt back to the way they were when you were born made to walk and run the earth!!!”

To make a donation to NDSS, go to the barefoot runner’s personal page: I wish you luck, Tim!

Last Saturday, I walked about eleven miles on the roadways of Gill. As usual, there was the typical road kill, and as I sidestepped these occasional nasties, I was awfully glad for my sneakers.

Road kill count: (which I tracked in my little Unabomber notebook)
1 squirrel, splayed, spread-eagle, face down, in the same fashion as the
1 banana peel, a bit further down the road, which smelled a whole lot better than the
1 raccoon carcass, rotting on the side of the road, its eyes staring out of hollowed out sockets, its stench rivaling the
1 dirty disposable diaper that must have rocketed off the garbage truck some recent morning during some particularly strong winds and
1 cassette tape, crushed, its tape snaking along like an outed earthworm on a rainy day (didn’t cassette tapes die a long time ago?)

At the roadside restaurant where I stop for a small respite, there is a biker dude sitting in the table next to mine, who watches me as I scribble away in my little blank book (fits nicely in the fanny pack). As I stand up to go, he stands up, too, his long braided grey beard nearly stretching all the way to his leather clad knees. “Are you keeping a journal?,” he asks me.
“Uh, yeah…huh?” I am feeling particularly chatty.
“I saw you writing away in that little book and I wanted to make sure you weren’t the Unabomber.”
“Uh-huh.” (Didn’t they catch that guy? Eons ago?) Homeland Security?

On the way home, I plug myself into my iPod and walk up the hills on Mountain Road, glad for the chance to escape the rattling pick-ups and silent hybrids pushing me into the crusty shoulder. At the top, the air is so sweet and smoky that it brings back my very best memories of being in the woods, the freshness of the air an instant portkey to happier, safer times. Listening to the B-52’s sing Planet Claire on the top of this lovely spot reminds me of doing yoga while watching the Colbert Report.

If I could just live in that air, weave spirit and bend with the ash and poplar and birch in the winds, climb in between the heavy stones that balance the ancient walls and let the gathered softness line my sleep, I’d fill my hollows with that gentle sweetness and breathe again.