Reactions to Barefoot Running

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 “Β‘Hola!” What else could I do but smile?

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18 comments

  1. Alan,

    This post brought to mind a humorous exchange that happened between me and an older man in my neighborhood (he’s probably in his 50s; I’m in my 20s). Every now and then, he would say “You forgot your shoes” or something along those lines. I ran by his house the other day, and he said, “You’re missing your shoes!” to which I replied, “I don’t miss ’em at all.” It got a laugh from both of us. Not taking myself so seriously and diffusing the situation with a little humor always makes me feel good.

    1. Hilarious! But kind of sad, too, that people would be so clueless.

      I get something similar when people ask “Doesn’t that hurt?” The obvious answer, of course, is “Would I do it if it hurt?”

      1. What kind of ‘bent do you ride?

        I rode recumbents for a few years. My first ‘bent was a Vision R40. Then I owned a custom-built lowracer (based on the Challenge Hurricane), which I later turned into a fully-faired machine (with fibreglass body). That got a little crazy, so i went completely in the other direction, and began riding fixed (commuting and ultra-distance events). Now I just run. πŸ™‚

      2. (Hmmm… won’t let me reply to your last reply).

        My first bent was a Defelice. Once that was stolen (long story involving a guy CARRYING the bike through NYC, with the police assuring me they’d never find a guy with an 8′ bright red bike over his shoulder less than 2 blocks away), I got the first R40 kit that Vision sold. Rode that for about 17 years. Then 2 years ago I decided it was time for something new and built a Cruzbike kit.

        Now I have fantasies about having enough cash to get some 17 pound carbon fiber bike (I saw one the other day and did some serious drooling)u.

  2. I would like to echo what Tmbowlsby said.

    Alan, just loved the line.
    “I waved, smiled, and left them to work out their own neuroses.”

    Just made my lunch, a smiley time.

    Cheers
    Jason

  3. Fantastic. I’m glad that your experiences are mostly positive. Mine have been too. But then again my sample size is smaller. Finally starting to up the distance. Woohoo. Ill be with ya in no time at all lol.

  4. I’m ignored by other runners, too. It makes me really sad actually, because look at what we have in common! We love to run, and there aren’t THAT many of us so why not make friends? But no, they usually glance at my feet, maybe return my smile, and just go on. Usually it’s pursed lips and an averted glance. One person’s been nice: “You’re braver than me!” Another person pointed at my feet, laughed and said, “You’re nuts!” I don’t know if she was kidding or not. However, now that I think of it, there’s that really hot chick I’ve seen a number of times now that does smile and say, “Hey man,” as we cross paths so that more than makes up for it.

    1. I think most runners take themselves far too seriously. Life’s too short for that. And it’s amazing how one pretty girl can make up for everyone else’s silliness, isn’t it? πŸ™‚

  5. Alan:

    You’ve done it again. An absolutely fabulous post; had me alternatively smiling, angry and ultimately (and quite literally) laughing out loud.

    While you’re by far the barefoot guru compared to me, I found myself completely identifying with this piece because I get the exact same reactions when I wear my VFFs (a.k.a monkey feet).

    I’m still hoping you’ll make it to Portland someday. :^)

    T

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Todd. Yes, I had similar reactions when I used to wear VFFs. (“Mummy, that man’s shoes have toes!”) It’s something, I think, when we can wake people up from their usual day-dreaming, better still when we can connect with them, and best of all when we can make them smile.
      And yes, Portland’s up high on my list of “must visit” places!

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