I’m neither an early adopter nor an early adapter, but barefoot running is, after all, 200,000 years old — much older than the domestication of dogs. I don’t care for fads or trends, particularly fitness- related ones. I haven’t read Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run, about Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians who run as much as 50 miles a day barefoot or in crude sandals. What snared me were the myriad magazine articles about the wonders of running sans sneakers (and the skeptical stories in magazines that have a vested interest in running-shoe sales), and the fact that if I didn’t try something different, I’d have to give up running altogether. Which would play hell on Daisy, my dog.
Running is Daisy’s favorite activity. That’s not much of a surprise to active dog owners, but she just turned 14 on Valentine’s Day — the day we chose to celebrate her birthday when we brought her home from the pound. She went through a Frisbee period, then a Chuckit stage, but running is something we’ve always had together. She’s a cow dog, a Kelpie some rancher had abandoned on the Wyoming/Utah border. She came pre-programmed to run and follow some basic voice commands while doing it. I’d start the day off with four miles of carless country roads. Daisy, of course, would put in closer to five or six miles by chasing squirrels and sprinting past me before shooting back and sprinting behind again. Her vet, Dr. Maria, claims she’s the fittest 14-year-old she’s ever seen. It’s the running, I told her. Though Daisy is slowly going blind, she’s farsighted; she routinely bumps into the coffee table, but can still target a squirrel at 100 yards.
Then the saddest thing that could happen to a running dog happened: I turned to cycling with a passion. Bicycles and dogs don’t mix very well; the speeds and distances are too taxing, and routes interface with dangerous traffic. I trained for and rode in a couple of mountain-bike races from Canada to Mexico. They kept me away for a month at a time, and the thousands of training miles were enough to burn me out on bicycling. I hankered for something different, something I could do with Daisy again besides downward dog poses in the living room and walks to the mailbox. Barefoot running seemed custom-fit.
Barefoot aficionados recommend that you start slowly — very slowly. I found out why. I’d run just five minutes and my calves would be sore the next day. After all, I was using muscles and tendons and ligaments that I hadn’t properly utilized since I was a toddler. Daisy didn’t understand why we’d turn back after barely getting warmed up. I added five or 10 minutes at a time and gradually, over some months, built up to five kilometers. My shoes had become vestigial, as useless as Daisy’s dewclaws.
I was a handler on a racing sled-dog team, and one of my jobs was to outfit the huskies with little red pack-cloth racing booties. The dogs hated them and kept kicking them off. The dogs craved the feeling of the trail and I did, too, though at first I felt the trail too much. The blisters on my soles wouldn’t heal. Daisy and I wanted to run longer, but my feet wouldn’t let us. While I was padding along, defying logic, the tarmac heated to egg-frying temps. I found myself on a firewalk with no choice but to hotfoot it back to the trailhead. “You need some shoes,” remarked an old lady with a Schnauzer. My feet, heat- and friction-blistered, resembled jerkied buffalo tongue for three days. Then, I bought a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, the glovelike minimalist footies with separate toe compartments that make human feet look like gorilla feet. I haven’t looked back.
Barefoot running, like wine, is all about terroir. You feel the earth, even when it’s paved, in a different way. Like a dog’s, your feet and legs are your highly advanced suspension system, and with each step, the ground sends signals through your limbs to your brain for processing. You, in turn, finetune your footfalls to meet the ground; there is no padded, canted running shoe between you and the experience.
Ankle-deep mud. My family and I were visiting my parents in rural southeastern Iowa over Christmas vacation. There’s a 1,600-acre refuge nearby, Geode State Park, that is seldom visited, especially in bad weather — we had all seven miles of muddy trail to ourselves. A mile down the trail and the dry creek bed that we usually cross in two strides was running five feet deep with snowmelt. A hard rain pelted down on us.
Daisy had tangled with a wild turkey hen the last time we were here (the turkey, protecting her nest, won) and dog paddled across the creek to seek a rematch, allowing for current and playing the angle like a Labrador Retriever — I’d catch up to her when I got across. I began bushwhacking upstream through multif lora rose to find a way to cross without subjecting myself to a hypothermic ford. I found an 18-inch oak log stripped of bark but coated with fine moss, slick as snot on a doorknob. The oak bridged the ad hoc river five feet above its surface — if I fell, there were limbs to hit before I found myself in the drink. I inched gangplank-style to test the log, adjusting my trim with arms outstretched like wings. My feet contoured to the tree like an ape’s. But it was taking longer than I expected. Halfway through the tightrope act, I remembered Daisy, and called to remind her that we were out here together and not to get too attached to tracking the turkey.
Nothing. Just the “whoosh” sound of the swift creek.
I crept out a little farther and tried not to look at the coffee-colored torrent below. “Daisy!” No dog. Then I felt something, a different kind of wet, on the back of my calf. Daisy’s nose. My half-blind running buddy had circled back, recrossed the creek, followed my scent upstream and followed me onto the slick log. Now I worried more about her — if she fell, her 69-in-human-years body would hit a lot of wood before landing in the fast water, and there was a possibility she’d get tangled in the brush being carried along by the current.
She couldn’t turn around. At least, I didn’t think she should. But her claws gave her the advantage of all-paw-drive. Could she trace the log without close-range eyesight? She had to — I couldn’t step over her. We were both committed to the log walk. I don’t like these situations, am not fond of sketchy heights. But there was nothing to do but inch onward. Daisy followed, and we made it to the muddy bank.
We went back the next day and did it again. Then the day after that. The water had receded, but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that I’d found serious joy in running again. With my favorite running partner. And Daisy’s hardly missed a step in her old age, or maybe it just seems she hasn’t since I’ve gone barefoot.
Photographs by Clay Billman