Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The "narrow band of perception"...and the journey to barefoot / minimalist running.

"We do not see things as they are.
We see them as we are." 
- The Talmud
A breathtaking picture presented itself at sunrise! A "window" in the clouds allowed the sun to illuminate a narrow but absolutely brilliant band of land and sea. This sliver of light found itself sandwiched between the low overcast and the deep blue of the Strait of Georgia. In the distance, across the water from Gabriola Island, the windows of towering buildings in the host city of the Winter Olympics reflected the sun and shimmered a brilliant gold. A massive freighter, its bow wave clearly visible by the unaided eye, journeyed to an eventual berth in the harbour. Jets descended through the clouds and just a brief moment later flared for landing on the runway at Vancouver's YVR. Outbound aircraft climbed into the sky, their wheels barely retracted when they were completely enveloped in the dense grey. It was only in that narrow band of sunlight that everything was clear. In the thin "horizontal world" between the sky and the sea, there was a narrow band of perception.

Taking a quick image with my little camera, before it changed or vanished, the thought struck me. How easy it is to find our perceptions of life confined within a narrow (albeit "brilliant") "band". Sometimes, it's tempting to assume that what we see is the only true reality and, hey, what the heck is wrong with everybody else?! Yikes, I can think of plenty of times when I've been guilty of assuming my perspective is the only reasonable one. It's pretty common. Anytime people feel passionate about something, whether it's paddling, politics, or philosophy, there can be a tendency to be less than generous in our outlook. Here's a case in point: the current debate raging (literally) amongst those who enjoy running. (Remember this: all involved in the debate share a love of running - that point is sometimes lost.)

On one side of the argument are those who feel our feet are essentially, by their very nature, "broken" and require the assistance of sophisticated running shoes to restore them to working order. These shoes offer the buyer cushioning, stability, and pronation control - not to mention lots of other "bells and whistles". And they must, of course, be replaced every 500 kilometres or so ($100 - $200 a "pop") in order for the feet to enjoy continued protection.

On the other side of the debate are those who feel that after a million or so years of evolving, our feet are just fine, thank you very much. The feeling is that our feet are, in fact, marvelous instruments. They don't need to be encased in expensive technology, supported by orthotics, separated from the ground by an inch or so of cushioning, and prohibited from "natural" movement. Speaking of "arches", it does seem odd to be told that we need to support this quite miraculous structure from the underside. Surely civil engineers would raise an eyebrow! As you will probably have gathered, I'm inclined to side with the runners who believe in their feet and I find it quite disappointing that those who manufacture and sell running shoes (and orthotics and other such "fixes" for broken feet) refuse, for the most part, to look beyond their narrow band of perception - which of course sells shoes.

When I was suffering from yet another running injury several years ago, I went to a podiatrist - pretty much as a last resort. I was willing (as Barefoot Ted would say) to "pay for a solution" for my sore, inflamed, weary feet. When I told the foot specialist that I wanted to continue to run, he gave me a look that suggested, "Why in heaven's name would you want to run?" He even reminded me of my age as if I should know better! "You want to run? Good grief, man, why?"

"Well, sir, I'll tell you why. I've been running for almost thirty years. Sure, I've never been fast and in any organized event, I'm always at the back of the pack. Still, I love to run - and I know that it's good for my health, both physical and especially mental. It makes my day!" Point is, I figured a guy in the "foot business" would celebrate my desire to run. Instead, he offered to make an expensive orthotic and suggested that running simply wasn't necessary - or even beneficial. Needless to say, I thanked him (with as much grace as I could muster) and left. The injuries healed and I returned to running.

A couple of years ago, everything changed. I discovered a copy of Danny and Katherine Dreyer's ChiRunning in the bookstore. To make a long story short, we were both so impressed that we signed up for two workshops in Seattle. We were learning how to run without injury - and it worked! Then, last year, Joan gave me a copy of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. His journey to the discovery that we were born to run (yes, all of us) - barefoot is virtually impossible to ignore. The recent Harvard study by Daniel Lieberman is jaw-dropping to say the least. His credentials are impeccable and his argument with regards to the biomechanics of heel landing (significant force) vs mid-foot landing (minimal force) would seem very difficult to refute. That being said, the running shoe companies, retail outlets, and plenty of other folks are sticking to their guns - that is, their" narrow band of perception", meaning, ya can't run without proper running shoes. Hmmm, strange, since the modern running shoe has only been around for forty years. Can't imagine what they are thinking.

Anyway back to our personal experience. We were so taken with ChiRunning and the case McDougall made in is book, that we took it to the next step - a barefoot running session with Barefoot Ted (from Born to Run), again, in Seattle. I can say that running barefoot or, at the very least, in minimalist foot wear such as Vibram FiveFingers (VFFs) will significantly reduce running injuries. We've run both ways, with conventional shoes and now barefoot-style and the latter is a whole lot of fun! Barefoot Ted ran the Leadville 100 (100 mile trail run - at altitude!) this way so yes, it's a running form that will literally "go the distance".
Enough for now but we'll post more on our experience in the VFFs later. The usual daily run is 7-10 kms and we're up to 5 km in the VFFs. (We did 8.17 km in VFFs today, Feb 16 - very encouraging!). It's a steady transition to what seems to be the way we are supposed to run - without all the usual injuries. Having said that, the transition to barefoot / minimalist should be made gradually.

I know that I've probably been driving a few folks crazy around home and office with what I'm sure is (admittedly) completely "unbridled" enthusiasm. And I must take care to avoid developing my own "narrow band of perception" on matters related to this subject. When folks share a passion, whether it be running or kayaking or anything else, it's the shared joy that matters. What they "put on their feet" (so to speak) is secondary to celebrating the mutual love of an activity. So yeah, once again, it's openness to one another that matters. (But when it comes to injury-free runing, I'm sure I'm right!) :-)
One step at a time,


Top image: Looking east from Gabriola Island towards Richmond, BC.
Middle image: Favourite (and well worn) conventional Salomon trail running shoes and Vibram (pronounced "Veebram")FiveFingers - no cushioning, no stability or pronation control, they let the feet...be feet!


  1. Ah openness to each other...hugely important in life...if only we all were..and sharing our joys with others makes it all more joyful...yet I know that most often I feel sure that "I am right"
    hmmm 10 km's hey..I'm sure I'll be up to that in no time..(not)

  2. Thanks L, But you CAN do whatever it is that you want to do - you just have to really want to do it. Trust me on that.

  3. Very interesting stuff. I was reading a article in a running mag about a year ago that was connecting the dots of ankle injuries in North America to places in Africa where it's unheard of almost.

    I remember being in the middle east and seeing a guy stood on a freshly paved road in 60 degree heat! I was amazed!

  4. I'm not usually one to exaggerate (too much), Lee, but if you love to run (as well as kayak!), this form of running is as magical as an excellent day on the water!

  5. I have to say that I like your blend of sea kayaking and running. With respect to running, bf / minimalist running is simply so, so fine - more fun, more natural, way less injury. I'm lovin' it too!