Guest Post: How I Became Barefoot Charlie: The Origin (In 3 Parts)

I met Charlie via email, after PranaFlo followed me on Twitter, I followed them back, checked out their website, and commented on a blog post, wherein Charlie described barefooting it through the snow. How’s that for making connections?

One thing led to another, and I asked Charlie to guest post on his barefoot running journey. As many runners these days, barefoot running holds an interest for me, though I’ve yet to make the leap. I’m moving my way into more minimal running shoes and will, one day, include some barefooting in my training, and so thought it would be interesting to hear Charlie’s story.

Everyone deserves to become their own superhero.  When I go barefoot trail running, that is precisely what happens.  I, like every superhero, have a gripping saga to share of how I gained my barefoot superpowers.  Gaining super powered Barefoot Trail Runner status is no simple feat (pun?).

I do not derive my powers from our yellow sun like Kryptonians.  No sir…it actually required quite a bit of footwork (snicker).  Sit right down and allow me to relate the tale of how this transformation occurred.

The other day my dad says to me “Charlie, did you know that Barefoot Running (BF) is actually going against evolution?”  I say, “No…I didn’t know that.”  He reminded me that our ancestors never would have crossed the Bering Straits, if it were not for shoes.

All I can say is that I would never have switched to BF trail running, if it were not for shoes.

Shoes taught me everything that was wrong with running. They made me very inquisitive.  They led me to seek out answers to life’s big questions…those questions that all runners throughout the millenia have pondered while massaging their shin splints, such as:

  • why do my feet always hurt in different places, depending upon which shoe I am wearing?
  • why does my ankle roll all the way to China?
  • didn’t someone say running was supposed to be fun?
  • am I really supposed to be “running through the pain”?
  • did that guy really run all the way from Marathon to Athens…and what shoes did he wear…was it the shoes that perhaps killed him?
  • why aren’t humans born with arch supports?

Well…that was my list.  And you know what I learned?  What I learned is that, for my feet…shoes were what was wrong with running.  That’s all, nothing else.  Unbeknownst to me, I had acquired an archenemy.  Oh man…that is a good one!  “Arch”enemy.  But it’s true.

I realized that running shoes, no matter which brand I tried, all did one thing in common.  They made my feet and body hurt in different places.  Some made my right ankle roll, while another hijacked my left ankle.  All of them made my shins hurt.  My right hip wasn’t feeling so great either.  My toes banged into the end.  My arches hurt badly, but only sometimes.  My lower back would act up, but not everytime.

Over a period of years, and through many pairs of high tech shoes, I reached a point where I was just burned out on shoes, and gave up on them.  But what do you do then?  How does one run without shoes?  I wanted to find out.

After running trails and pavement barefoot now for over a year, I can personally attest that running doesn’t cause injuries….running in the wrong shoes causes injuries.  I have found that the only right shoes I wear, are the ones permanently attached to my body.

My shoes are my left foot and right foot, and they like to go commando, if you know what I mean.

Like many of you out there today, I first tried a minimalist shoe.  I was and am an avid trail runner.  I enjoy technical trail running over rock strewn, root bound, pine conish trails that give hikers reasons to slow down.  How in the heck was I going to run barefoot on that?  I truly believed it impossible.

So, I did what everyone else did-I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers with the same confidence used when ordering a mocha.  They were trendy, stylish, and people began looking at me like I could hold my own.  I was a celebrity, people walked up to me and asked me to hold their babies while they asked me questions about my shoes.  It was cool.

AngieB on the trail

But there was trouble afoot.  On my first day on the trail in my VFF KSO’s I ran way too far.  I ran way too fast.  I got a stress fracture.  Oh, but that wasn’t enough for me.  What is pain to someone under 40?  I didn’t think I was immortal any longer, but I did think I still might be a demi-god at least.

So, I went out a few more times, just to make sure the pain wasn’t my imagination.  I broke the 2nd metatarsal.  That first run out I completely flew like the wind.  It felt so amazing.

I had the feeling of light feet, proper running posture for the first time in my life, and I must have been doing 6-7 minute miles on technical singletrack.  Yeah, I spent about 3 months barely running after that affair, besides the few test runs I ignorantly did, just to make sure something was really wrong.

What many people now know, and what I want to pass on to you, is that your foot is not equipped to go without shoes, just because you quit wearing shoes.  The amount of atrophy and underusage of supporting structures in your foot cannot be understated.

They need time to learn how to bear the weight of your body without the false structure of a shoe supplanting your foots natural ability to support and bear weight.  What I would recommend to anyone now is to begin by walking barefoot.

15-20 minutes a day at the most.  I view shoes now as coverings for my feet when the weather is too cold, or when I need to be shod to gain legal entrance into public places like stores and restaurants.

So, there it is.  My first steps towards superhero greatness left me hobbled on the couch, watching my brothers DVD box set of Galactica.  I hate TV.  But I have to admit, after a couple of weeks, even I wanted to know what the Cylon’s were really up to.

I also wanted to know if I had permanently damaged my right foot with the fracture.  I say again…go very very slowly and introduce the idea of being barefoot, to your feet, one step at a time.  No matter which minimalist shoe any company creates, there is absolutely no substitute for the grace, form, connection and freedom you will feel while running barefoot.

Any shoe you wear will separate you from this experience.  I really want to stress that I eschew wearing any shoe at all.  Barefoot is barefoot, no substitutes.  I will also concede that there are times when you will need to have on some kind of shoe, so choose them well and do not take off running in them until your feet have really adjusted.

On the practical side of things, if you are considering a career move, open a clinic for minimalist shoe newbies…you’ll probably make a killing until people learn to slow down.

Part 2 of my saga will cover cape and supersuit construction, how I finally began barefooting on trails, and pitfalls along the way. 

Charlie is the customer service guru at PranaFlo, an online retailer of running gear and site for trailrunners to connect and get inspired to get out there and enjoy the outdoors.  He also coaches barefoot trail running in the Chapel Hill, NC area.

Part 1 of 3 – also read The Origin: Part 2 and The Origin: Part 3.

17 thoughts on “Guest Post: How I Became Barefoot Charlie: The Origin (In 3 Parts)

  1. Thanks for putting this up, Kovas, and thanks, Charlie for hitting a lot of the points that people seem to insist on learning the “hard way” about the “process” of becoming a barefoot runner. And not everyone can become a barefoot runner, as a result of anatomic anomaly or because of previous injury (yes, sad to say, very likely caused by years/decades of wearing shoes, particularly ill-fitting/supporting ones). You are right about the “clinic” potential/demand for them.
    Happy [barefoot running], Ann

  2. “why aren’t humans born with arch supports?”

    Wouldn't you want a shoe, at least something with an arch support, if this is the case? Something my podiatrist talked a lot about last week. Something he says is why I the problems I have.

  3. I loved this!! Good stuff to ponder –
    and I loved the “arch enemy” 🙂

    As I continue to deal with ongoing injuries, I have to start making some decisions…
    I like the idea of starting slow and walking barefoot. Right now, I am barefoot probably 75% of my day because of working at home and not wearing shoes…now I just need to move this out of doors…

  4. This is great!

    I have slowly been easing my way into a minimal shoe. I am in the Brooks Ghost right now (which is still far from the frees and the green silences) but less shoe than in prior years. I tried making the switch quickly last year and ended up with a stress fracture in my toe. Since then, I have proceeded with caution.

  5. Hey thanks everyone. I am glad you liked the article. I love connecting with other barefooters, and those curious about it as well. I am so glad that Kovas invited me to post here. As soon as he is ready for the 2nd installment, I will cover the essentials of how to choose your own superhero cape color…and how I found my stride with barefoot running in an injury free way.

  6. Very informative AND entertaining! Nice “meeting” you, Charlie. I find the whole idea of barefoot running interesting, though at this point it's more of an “oh, that's interesting” as I tie on my running shoes and hit the trails.

    And barefoot may be better for your feet, but I'd miss my high heels, too. 🙂

  7. Anyone else old enough to remember Zola Budd? I remember thinking she was nuts! This was very informative… and intriguing. Thanks!

  8. This is not a smart ass question: Does running barefoot affect speed for road running? Faster? Slower? If I switched to barefoot running and transitioned properly, how would that affect my normal marathon pace? I will subscribe to this comment board.

  9. To Jill, and then to Chris K…

    Jill…I believe we are born with arch supports. Just like elbows and fully functional hands. The majority of us are born with feet that are strong enough to last as long as the rest of us. Just like eyesight though, requiring people to need glasses, there are some feet made differently than others and I know some people really do need special shoes. I just think that the understanding of how wearing shoes themselves, leads to injuries, is way out of touch with common sense practice and thousands of years of humans who walked the earth with no shoes..and no podiatrists. Before barefooting, I was on the way to a podiatrist and their solution and conviction was that I needed special shoes…when in fact I needed none.

    Chris K….that is a completely valid question to ask. I have to say that barefooting has completely changed my perspective on speed and timing. I do not think about either any longer. I know that I sometimes run even faster barefoot than I ever did with shoes. But it is because the hill is steep, or because the section of trail is especially fun or on pavement, because I am just feeling really great. I don't run to get exercise any longer or go fast to do a speed workout. i do understand that this perspective is not for everyone and that having speed related goals and finish line driven thinking can help us achieve lifelong dreams. So, to answer the question specifically, yes-you can run just as fast and you will also be able to run faster for longer, because the economy of movement that comes from correct posture and connection with the ground lends itself to having more energy for longer periods of time. Switching will slow you down for a while though. It will take some months at least to match where you were at, without sustaining an injury.

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