Reading Christopher McDougall’s recent article titled “Born to Be Barefoot” was a great pleasure. His article succinctly confirms and validates for me the worthiness of the pursuit of personal understanding through self-experimentation and hints from the stories and traditions of our most ancient ancestors.
Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run” has moved a lot of us to reexamine what it means to be human, what it means to locomote with two feet over the world. He has reminded us that we are not broken by default and that some of our most basic primal capacities are awesome before the admixture of anything, that we embody some pretty impressive ancient technology worthy of remembering and rediscovering.
Testing the Original Vibram FiveFingers January 2006
Since 2004, I have been committed to rediscovering for myself the joy of running, the joy of primal movement, the joy of tuning into my own body’s sophisticated and time-tested tools for survival and play. That led me to the bare foot, but my investigation did not stop there.
I started becoming fascinated by the footwear of our ancient ancestors, footwear that has played a role in our species’ ability to get to every nook and cranny of this planet on our own two feet. I looked for modern versions of these most fundamental designs and in late 2005 hit pay dirt when I was among the first to recognize the original Vibram FiveFingers as the perfect shoe for human beings, the first modern shoe that achieved full expression of the most amazing footwear design ever…the foot itself. (See my blog post Paradigm Shifting Trojan Horses - Vibram Five Fingers)
Tarahumara Huarache Sandals Made by Manuel Luna in 2006
One thing the footwear of our ancient hunter-gathering ancestors share is an elegance of design, a functional simplicity based on an underlying assumption that the foot is just fine as it is and at best requires protection from the extremes of hot, sharp and cold. Sandals and moccasins have played a role in our success from the very beginning. Go hither and thither on this planet and do some investigating… you’ll find fine examples of minimalist footwear everywhere.
It is no mistake that the Tarahumara Indians of Northern Mexico happen to be among the greatest long distance mountain runners on the planet. They have remained true to a tradition of running and sandal making that goes back into our distant past. Simple sandals have proven themselves through the natural selection of human experience and use. The simplest, most elegant solutions that work tend to rise to the top: sandals like the Tarahumara huarache and the traditional Japanese waraji and the San people of South Africa’s giraffe-hide sandal.
Traditional Japanese Waraji, part of a long footwear tradition
Regaining an acquaintance with our own bodies is a first good step in getting a chance to taste what it means to be fully human. Learning how to move well in your own bare feet directly connects you to an aspect of the human condition that is as old as time and older. Every able bodied 21st century primate of the genus Homo can relive the magic and majesty of our species’ bipedal mastery of movement in their own default equipment. It is a human birthright available to all, and when practiced well, brings health and happiness by virtue of being what our bodies and minds have evolved to crave. We know it when we feel it and humans have been practicing this amazing art for some time now.
Sandals of the Bushmen, among our oldest ancestors
In the end, is barefoot and minimalism for everyone? Is it the new cure all? Will it make me faster, better, stronger? It has yet to be determined, after all, we as a cohort of humans in modern urban societies are the among the first who have ever been so differently-abled as to literally need therapy and coaching to reconnect to our own bodies’ basic primal abilities. With insights from evolutionary biology and the cultures of our most ancient ancestors, we can pick up on a powerful riff of movement that when played through the instrument of our own bodies is instantaneously recognized by many as being the most perfect solution.
Using health and happiness as a motivator, you will find much to gain in reconnection to the earth and your body. 10 years ago, barefoot and minimalism was barely on the palette of footwear choices available to mainstream America. Now that it is actively being rediscovered, I feel like new-old aspects of movement culture can once again flourish. Running is not just about times, distances and speed. Running is about human exuberance and joy, about allowing the human animal to express and come alive, about mastering functional movements by moving well in one’s original hardware. All you need is your own two feet and a patch of earth, the rest is up to you.
In my own personal investigation of running and living, I have gained much inspiration from the American Transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman. In particular, I have been amazed to rediscover a similarly inspired anarchistic philosopher named J. William Lloyd who in 1890 wrote the first treatise on running as an exercise where he suggests that health and pleasure should be our primary motivation for movement, not competition. I plan on sharing much more about him and his insights in the future. For the time being, here is a great tidbit he wrote in a paper on coed running clubs and games in the 1890s:
"I would advise that each runner leave shoes and stockings at home, but of course this should be optional with the individual; next to bare feet are sandals, next to sandals moccasins, next to moccasins, soft, low shoes."
Deep insights into the human condition are timeless. Gaining access to some profound insights may be a bare foot away. Enjoy with gusto.
And of course you can always take it one step further and run with the animal that has hung out with us from time immemorial, the loyal, loving dog ;-). I do.
Ted with Hiko and Edgar in front of the Born To Run store in Seattle