I’ve never been a runner. Then I moved to Boulder. This brings to mind an atheist moving to some similarly-sized Bible belt town.
New arrival: “Hi! I’m your new neighbor. I’m Mark.”
Neighbor: “Howdy Mark. I’m Chad. Great day for the move, eh? By the way, what church ya’ll looking to go to?”
Except of course the Boulder version goes:
New arrival: “Hi! I’m your new neighbor. I’m Mark.”
Neighbor: “Namaste Mark. I’m River. Gotta love this Colorado weather, right? So! You a 5K guy? 10K? Marathoner? Iron man?”
I’ve never been a runner. It’s the boredom that puts me off. Just pumping one foot in front of another over and over again with no other real goal is not my flavor. I do play soccer, tennis and basketball, which involve sprinting and jogging for maybe an hour or two at a time. I skateboard, and I snowboard hard. I practice Kenpo a few times a week. I’m in pretty good shape. But this is Boulder. All that’s just dilettante shit. No run? No cool.
But what if I have a secret weapon? I love Boulder, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stand being shown up by the granola gang.
So let’s rewind.
July 1994 and I was in Milwaukee meeting up with best friend Arild on our way to Kentucky for a rock climbing trip. Arild would make a great poster child for those ubiquitous granola sports zines. Having almost made the Norwegian sea kayaking team as a youth, he now seeks out every possible solo athletic challenge. Naturally he wanted to stop and do the Storming of the Bastille 5K run. I don’t remember exactly how it all went down, but I know we were pressed for time and trying to figure out how best to meet up after his run. He suggested I run it too, but I was not wearing the sort of shoes I’d even want to run 500 meters in. I decided to go barefoot.
No big deal. I’ve always played soccer barefoot, hiked barefoot, etc. It would be easy to say “it’s the being from Nigeria,” and milk the image of African kids who’ve never seen a pair of shoes, but that’s is a silly anachronism by now. Yet even a middle-class Nigerian like me would have grown up spending a lot of time barefoot on various terrain, and doing things, that might seem like torture to most Americans. In the tropics, you want to avoid wearing socks and shoes, if you can, if for no other reason than the heat. But more than that, I don’t really like being shod. I crave the feel of different surfaces under my feet. The only things I fear are glass and sharp, rusty nails. I’ve hiked the Roosevelt forest around Erika’s house barefoot a few times because it’s so remote I don’t have to worry about High School kiddies hanging out around their illicit alkie stash and and breaking a bunch of bottles. Road race routes would normally be a problem, except when there are several hundred or thousand runners ahead of me, I can be sure any dangerous objects have already been stuck into their shoe bottoms.
No, If I could get over my distaste at running 5K in the first place, running it barefoot was certainly the no-big-deal bit. Once I started The Bastille Race, I found entertainment from fellow runners commenting and gesticulating and all that once they noticed my pedestrial situation, so it wasn’t as dreary as it could have been. When I got to the finish, a newspaper reporter, probably finished interviewing the elite runners, and with nothing better to do, came up to me and asked where I was from, and whether I’d really run it barefoot. I tried to spin the best yarn I could in my Nigerian accent, figuring it would be fun to get them to put some nonsense in the paper about a barefoot exotic, but I don’t think she bit.
A little over ten years later my wife had been a walker veteran of the Bolder Boulder 10K Memorial Day Race for a couple of years and wanted me to join the family to do it with our then 8 year old. The idea of jogging or running 10K was no more appealing than its half distance, but I figured I could spice it up again by doing it barefoot.
So since then I’ve participated in every BB, from part-jog/part-walk pace with the 7 year old to jogging pace as he decided to go for better finish times. This year I went with his younger brother, now 7 as well, so back to part-jog/part-walk while his older brother went on to run it in an impressive time. My own finish times would be fit to make any Boulderite yawn. Except I was doing it barefoot. Have I said “no big deal?” Eh! No big deal. Except that I get to say:
In your face, granola!
I haven’t seen any others barefoot in the Bolder Boulder, but it’s a huge race (around 50,000 runners most years, half of the town’s population), so the stats are probably against that. I do still get a lot of cheering, gesturing and pointing from watchers and other runners, and I’ve become used to all the “hey! doesn’t that hurt your feet?” This year someone came up and asked “Hey! You’re in that barefoot running club, right?”
I gave her the chicken eye. Club? I don’t need no stinking club.
“Yeah! You must be. I read all about them in the newspaper.”
Sure enough, a group of barefoot runners is news. In The Boulder Daily camera. Silly me. I’d been doing it for years and despite the Milwaukee reporter’s casual query, it hadn’t even occurred to me it might be newsworthy. Apparently it’s a growing movement, which is a good thing, of course. I don’t think I’d even want to run 3K or more in running shoes. The thought of the wear on my shins, ankles and knees is as unappealing to me as I expect the thought of running it barefoot is to others.
Perhaps also unappealing is the aesthetic bit. I think I’ll never understand the Western and Asian obsession with feet as sexual objects. I expect that coming from a culture where feet are the ultimate utility, it’s hard to fit them into the ultimate leisure—non-reproductive sex. Maybe it’s the same thing with breasts. Sure a beautiful pair of breasts is an aesthetic delight, but I just can’t see as much sexual portent, and bodily shame, in boobs as I find in the US. Certainly the National Geographic image of topless African women is well overdone, but in tropical cultures in general any guy is likely accustomed to countless, casual sightings of bare breasts, often in the utility role of breastfeeding. Acknowledged that the nipples are a useful erogenous stop between face and loins, breasts seem no more apt than feet to be such a shoe-in (rimshot) for pornographic device.
Or maybe I’m just pleading my disadvantage. As probably required for barefoot running, hiking, etc., the bottoms of my feet are well ugly—thick and tough. If I were a lady I’d probably be the ultimate object for Lauren Becker’s Paul Bunions. Especially if he likes ’em flat-footed (with stilettos heels off, of course).
One day, at last year’s Bolder Boulder, a lady came up, and matched stride with me.
Lady: “Ooh! Running barefoot. That’s neat! Where are you from.”
Uche: “Eh, well I live here now, but I was born in Nigeria.”
Lady: “Cool! Are you from around those Mexican Indians who run, like, all day barefoot?”
Yes, she could not have done well on her granola school certificate. One nice thing about the genre is that they usually know their geography.
Uche: “Different continent, you know…”
After a few minutes of attempted chat-up on her part, and my obvious disinterest, hardly helped by her continental FAIL!, she angles off.
Uche’s son: “Dad, why is it such a big deal you’re running barefoot?”
Uche: “Oh yeah? Why don’t you take off your shoes and finish the race that way…”
The lady did have one point, though. If granola wants to see a real big deal, they should check out the hundred-mile barefoot runs of the Rarámuri, in northern Mexico. They can even find themselves lapped several times by a native smoking a cigarette, looking down at their shod feet and sneering at their “patas elefantes.” That has got to be worth at least a couple of granola scout badges.
Me? I’d rather challenge them to a marathon day of soccer/basketball/sparring/tennis/volleyball. Shoes always optional.