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Barefoot Running: A Tale of Two Races

During two different types of races I was able to examine how many minimalist runners took part. Would I see more minimalist runners during a road race or a technical trail race? Despite my own expectations, my conclusions were surprising.

In the space of a week, I ran two races that couldn’t be more different.

On April 15th, I ran the Vancouver Sun Run.  This is the largest 10K race in Canada and a race I have been actively avoiding for the past three or so years.  I’m not a fan of large races.

However, a little too much wine at a friends’ Easter dinner the weekend before and I had somehow agreed to pace her for the race. I had hoped when I woke up the next day that she had forgotten our agreement — she hadn’t.

So, on an early Sunday morning, I lined up to run 10K with 50,000 others, for what was to be an hour of chaos – albeit, good natured chaos.

The following Saturday, I ran the first event in the BC 5-peaks trail race series. They are small, low-key and there is the overwhelming sense of adventure that creates an immediate connection with your fellow racers.

As you can tell I love small trail races. Large road races make me uncomfortable.

The main observation I made was the popularity of minimalist running when comparing these two races.

If I asked you in which race I saw the greatest proportion of minimalist runners, what would be your reply?

If you answered the Vancouver Sun Run, you would be wrong. Surprised?

As I scanned the crowds of the Vancouver Sun Run, I saw a couple pairs of Vibram Five Fingers and that was about it.  I did see some unconventional running shoes, usually within the school groups  — as if the fashion conscious teens felt that ditching their trendy street shoes was too much to ask.  Yet, as far as running shoes went, the selection was a clear example of the shoes you would typically see at your big sports stores.

As I lined up in the corral wearing my Neon-green laced Invisible Shoes and toe socks the main reaction I had was, “You are going to run in those?”

The idea that you could run 10K in something as simple as a piece of rubber tied on with bootlaces seemed unbelievable to a lot of my fellow racers.

Six days later, I pulled into the staging area of the 5-peaks trail race.  Out of the four-hundred or so racers I saw the following: Double figures of New Balance Minimus Trails; a good handful of Merrell Trail Gloves and at least another pair of VIVOBarefoot Trails, which when counted with the ones I was wearing brought the tally up to two.

I have to admit I saw fewer Vibram Five Fingers than last year, but regardless minimalist shoes were very much in attendance.

Apart from the lady behind me — who like me — was marvelling at the amount of minimalist shoes that were being worn, no one else commented.  Minimalist shoes were accepted and considered fairly normal with the competitors.

I asked some of my ‘virtual’ friends to see if they had seen this correlation in the trail and road races they have run and they acknowledged that they had seen more minimalist shoes in the trail races.

How is it that given the more technical terrain, minimalist shoes are more popular in trail races?  Why are fewer ‘road-runners’ taking up the minimalist challenge when the terrain they are navigating is not as treacherous?

A friend of mine – who is new to trail running — gave me a simple but probably accurate insight into the issue.  Minimalist shoes allow you to feel and react immediately to the uneven terrain.  When wearing minimalist shoes, your instincts kick in and you are able to minutely shift your body weight to compensate to the hazards in your way.

She is right.

When I ran on Saturday, I was slow on the ascents, but as soon as I began the downhill straights, I was able to overtake my fellow racers because I knew I could deal with the uneven terrain.  I had the ankle and foot strength to be more daring as I made the descents.

I admit the lack of minimalist shoes being worn by the competitors of the Sun Run surprised me.  Runners have been wearing minimalist shoes like Vibram Five Fingers and VIVOBarefoot for road races long before the trail shoes by Merrell and New Balance came into existence.

It seems ironic to me that runners who are attracted to flat and level terrain believe they need the extra support and cushioning to enable them to run.  Yet, the runners who constantly deal with uneven and technical terrain realize that ground feel and ankle strength is the key to running well.

Perhaps it’s time the road racers took a leaf out of the trail runners book?