This is my third year of running barefoot. That means I’ve had ample opportunity to get reactions to me and my “sky-clad” feet. People’s reactions vary greatly, and depend in part on who those people are, where they see me, and (I suppose) how open they are to seeing people and things that are somewhat out of the ordinary.
Here’s a sample of some of those people and some of their responses…
Training runs: Most of the time, of course, I run on neighbourhood streets. The folks I share them with are neighbours, dog-walkers, runners, and people waiting to catch buses. Sometimes they’re used to seeing me on a regular basis, sometimes it’s a one-off thing.
So how do they react? Well, the old European guys who are watering their lawns early on summer mornings often call me over to tell me “I used to run barefoot back home, when I was a kid.” The high-school girls – the kind who travel in packs and giggle a lot – tend to be disbelieving (“Oh my god! Look at that guy!”) but pretend they’re not looking. Adolescent boys (the kind who have very trendy haircuts and are enveloped in drug-store spray cologne) are, oddly enough, often more self-conscious and distant than the teenage girls. They don’t want to look, they don’t want to know. Elderly Chinese couples (of which there are a fair number in my neighbourhood) stare stoically ahead, ignoring the semi-naked barefoot white guy, until I smile and call out “Jousahn!” (Cantonese for “Good morning”), and then usually break out into broad grins. Other runners usually ignore my waves and smiles completely. I don’t know why. (Am I too weird for them? Do I threaten them in some way? Or are they just way more focused than I am?)
Races: Reactions from other runners at races (I’ve run barefoot 10Ks, half marathons, and ultras) seem to be based on age and experience. Generally, the older and more experienced the runner, the greater the curiosity and degree of acceptance.
The twenty-something women runners who have all the colourful kit, the ponytails, and the pack of buddies with them are often aghast at the sight of a runner who’s barefoot (“Look at that! That’s crazy!”). The majority of mid-pack runners are happy to see me, sometimes curious as to why in heaven’s name I’d race barefoot, but generally positive (“Hey, that’s cool. Good on ya!”). Older, fitter, faster runners of both genders often show some knowledge and an active curiosity about running barefoot. They’ll start conversations with me about studies they’ve read about why barefoot running is better, and sometimes they tell me that they’re interested in trying barefoot running themselves.
The only negative comments I’ve ever had were from a small group of fifty-something male runners at last year’s Niagara 50K Ultra. They were dressed in matching outfits and all bore a startling resemblance to the Gordon Gecko character in the movie “Wall Street.” (A club? A family? A cult?) As I padded by – they were taking a group break – a couple of them called out some challenging and derogatory comments. I waved, smiled, and left them to work out their own neuroses.
The best responses I’ve had for quite a while come from three or four young girls I see most mornings as I run to work. They’re probably eight or nine years old, and they’re South Asian (i.e., either Indian or Pakistani). As I approach, they smile brightly, and one of them calls out “Bonjour!” (Bonjour? Are they in French Immersion? Do I look French? Or are they simply multilingual?) After this happened a few times, I got into the spirit of things, and called “Bonjour!” back to them. Sure enough, the next morning, they all smiled, and one of them cheerfully called out “¡Hola!” What else could I do but smile?