If running 42km in a couple of hours seems daunting, imagine doing it barefoot.
Barefoot runners are still a tiny number of the more than 43,000 expected to race in the New York City Marathon on Sunday, but organizers say they have seen an increase in runners who are interested in the trend.
“I feel like I get asked at least weekly, if not more,” said Mary Wittenberg, chief executive of the New York Road Runners, which organizes the marathon and other races throughout the year.
Barefoot runners are not new to marathon courses — Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia won the marathon in bare feet at the 1960 Rome Olympics — but their ranks have grown in recent years, prompted in part by a best-selling book that promotes the practice and the arrival on the market of several lightweight, thin-soled shoes designed to mimic the feel of running barefoot.
The Barefoot Runners Society, a national club for unshod runners, claims 1,345 members, nearly double the 680 members it had in November last year, when it was founded.
“This barefooting thing isn’t new, but it is newly popular,” said David Willey, editor in chief of Runner’s World magazine, which published an article on the so-called minimalist shoes in this month’s issue. “The appeal of this is obvious, especially right now with where the economy is and the sort of macro-trends in the culture that are going back to simplicity. This feeds right into that.”
Barefoot enthusiasts, as well as those who run in minimalist shoes, say their method is easier on the body because it is closer to the way that humans evolved to run. The theory has been popularized by the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, who plans to run the New York City Marathon barefoot this year.
One convert is Rick Roeber of Kansas City, Missouri, who began running barefoot in 2003 and has run 54 marathons without shoes, including the New York City -Marathon in 2007.
Roeber, who runs in Missouri winters through snow and ice, said he had persistent knee problems until he made the switch, and he has been injury-free ever since.
“When I was growing up, I was barefoot a lot, so I could run gravel roads when I was a kid,” said Roeber, who goes by the nickname Barefoot Rick. “When the idea hit me to start running barefoot, I was like, yeah, why not?”
As the practice has grown in popularity, however, it has drawn criticism from podiatrists who say there is no scientific research that shows barefoot running reduces injuries. The American Podiatric Medical Association recently released a statement urging runners to be wary of the method, noting the lack of peer-reviewed studies and expressing concern it could lead to puncture wounds from road debris or added stress in the lower extremities.
“The surfaces that we tend to run on now are different than what our ancestors were running on when they were running barefoot,” said James Christina, a podiatrist and the director of scientific affairs at the podiatric association.
Jeffrey Ross, a podiatrist in Houston who specializes in treating runners, said he had seen six patients over the last three months with injuries that he attributed to running barefoot or in minimalist shoes.
One of his patients, Barbara Callistien, 54, fractured the second metatarsal bone in her left foot this summer, an injury she attributed to the pair of minimalist Newtons that she had recently bought. Callistien said she tried to ease into the shoes by wearing them on a treadmill for three weeks, but she injured her foot the first time she wore them outside.
Not everyone in the medical community is opposed to the practice. One proponent is Irene Davis, who is director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware. Although she agreed that more research was needed into whether barefoot running prevents injury, she said that there was also no evidence that -running with shoes prevents -injuries. -Running barefoot forces a change in gait, where the forefoot strikes first instead of the heel. Davis has done research showing that landing on the forefoot has less impact.
Medical directors at the Twin Cities, Boston and New York marathons said they have not seen any injuries more serious than a blister among the small number of runners who go barefoot, noting that they have more serious issues to worry about, like cardiac arrest.
Roeber said he was still seen as an oddity on marathon courses.
“It’s like an alien landed,” he said. “The reaction I get the most is, ‘Oh my God, he doesn’t have shoes on.’”
One of the biggest challenges facing a shoeless marathon runner is where to place the computer chip that records a competitor’s time. Typically, the chips are affixed to shoelaces. Roeber fastens a leather strap around his ankle. Others use dog collars. Angie Bishop of Des Moines, who ran her first -barefoot marathon last month, uses a -shoelace looped around her middle toes like a huarache sandal.
She said her reception as a barefoot runner had changed noticeably compared with a year ago, when she ran a half-marathon.
“This year people were very interested in telling me about their barefoot running experience, or how they’re really curious about it,” she said.
Bishop and others said many of the concerns about barefoot running evaporate once you try it. Sidewalks and roads are not as hazardous as one might imagine, she said, adding that she has learned to jog around debris like glass or twigs. She stepped on a garter snake while running through grass, so she makes a point of running exclusively on concrete or asphalt.
One place Bishop does wear shoes is inside her house: She once hurt her foot stepping on a stegosaurus toy in the middle of the night.
“I have four boys,” she said. “There’s always something on the floor to step on.”