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Barefoot Running: Musings on heightened perception

Do we lose more than the sensations coming from the soles of our feet when we put on cushioned shoes? When we take off our heavy shoes, do we in fact, experience so much more than just the gravel under our feet?

How much of our other senses do we lose when we put on heavy cushioned shoes?

I am pretty much blind as a bat.

Honestly, it’s amazing that I am legally able to drive. When I meet up with friends at the local coffee shop, I could be standing almost next to them and still not see them.

I am also a really bad ball player – obviously.

However, when I hit those trails I see everything. With my minimal shoes on – I tend to run gravel trails and when I am feeling suicidal technical trails – I feel everything. I see everything in my path.

I am very conscious of my environment and space. I can see the rocks, roots, and changes in terrain. The faster I speed along the trail, the more of my environment I see. I feel my brain has engaged into a higher gear. The same awareness you hear from people who have been in a car crash — everything comes heightened.

I have often wondered how much of this is down to what I have – or in my case, don’t have – on my feet.

How much more aware am I, not only because I have to be vigilant of where I tread, but because of the neural-impulses being sent from my feet to my brain?

My questionable theory appears more validated when I run the popular, but fairly easy inlet trail near my home. The 6km trail is full of wildlife, but as I go past my fellow runners on the trail, it is very apparent they don’t see it. Almost as if the cushioning on their feet is also acting like a muffler to their other senses.

As an example:  A few weeks ago on this trail, I spotted a heron fishing in the tide of the inlet. This beautiful bird was so graceful as it fished I had to stop. Another runner sped past me and looked quizzically — silently wondering what I was looking at. I motioned to the heron and even after it was highlighted to him, he barely shrugged his shoulders and carried on – not even breaking his stride.

This week, on a rare sunny day, I was again running this trail and a butterfly chased me. We flew and ran alongside each other. Racing.  Yet, the other runners around me were oblivious.

How am I  — a runner who is unable to read a sign-post 5 metres away — able to see such small details as I speed along, when others clearly do not notice?

I attribute some of this failure by other runners to see what’s around them, due to their noisy foot-strike.  The wildlife hears them coming before they even turn the corner on the trail.  As I try to silently run on the gravel trail, I make it my mission to creep up on the birds and mammals hiding on the bushes.  I have a fairly good success rate.

I have developed this sub-conscious ability to examine my environment, out of a necessary need not to break myself.   As my senses instinctively switch to this heightened level, my brain allows me to examine my surroundings in more minute detail.

I wonder how dull the senses of a runner in conventional shoes are.  How much do they miss when they do not have to be so wary of the path they tread?

I partially experience this muteness in my senses when I run on roads.  The monotonous terrain, the constant stride and cadence, lulls me into a sense of numbness.  Instead of being super-aware of everything around me, I am completely oblivious to my surroundings – to the point where I run into posts, bushes and other general obstacles that litter the urban environment.  Did I mention I am notoriously clumsy?

I freely admit I am a fan of trail running – my mind seems to require some sensory input when it needs to process problems, events and the general challenges of the day.  I can only write in a busy coffee shop, I can only go to sleep listening to music, and I need the feeling of gravel under my feet when I run.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand or appreciate the sense of inert stillness my mind goes into when I run on the roads.  The repetitive motion of my muscles as I propel myself along. My mind devoid of thought – just feeling the sense of movement.

Maybe this stillness is what people crave when they run. Perhaps the sensations underfoot are a distraction to their sense of calm. Yet, I wonder if people are missing out on so the joy of heightened perception when they refuse to remove the cushioning.