When in Rome be a barefoot runner

When in Rome be a Roman.


If you are a runner there’s possibly no better city than Bangalore for year-round running. There’s at most one hot month and even then the mornings are nothing remotely like Chennai. There’s hardly a run where I don’t thank my stars I’m in Bangalore!

While it’s widely known that Bangalore roads are terrible for motorists, it’s probably the worst city for barefoot runners.

If the roads weren’t this bad I might have never switched to 4mm huaraches.

Inflection points in my barefoot journey:

The rhythm seemed to return but it would get punctured every time a blasted pebble got stuck in my sandals. This probably happened a 100 times and I only exaggerate slightly. THIS was the elephant in the room “rhythm crusher” that I had missed! After running KTM for the third consecutive time barefoot (barely 2 months ago) and extracting 25+ thorns, I resolved to NOT run barefoot at that course again. Now extrapolating this Aha moment to Ultra with its pebble-laden obstacle gotchas and non-trivial stretches of gravel-masquerading-as-road would require a level of intelligence that I clearly did not possess. Or maybe it was bravado?

The above extract is from the Bangalore Ultra 2014 race report. I wouldn’t blame you if you concluded that I relapsed from a barefoot to a shod runner.

However, that hasn’t happened yet.

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Barefoot running is religion. Barring the Tarahumara, Zola Budd, and a smattering of insanely talented (but pecuniary) elite runners who only knew barefoot running, the rest are mostly the born again religious variety.

Given how the resurgence (or the start?) of modern barefoot running was inspired by Born to Run, the anti-shod religious moorings should not surprise us too much.

As a practitioner, observer of other Bangalore barefoot runners, and chronicler of barefoot running in India, I know very few barefoot purists – the ones who run *all* their runs barefoot. If you excluded the slower runners, you have maybe 2-3 such runners (in India). The most famous in that exclusive list is Thomas Bobby Philip. Someday a tome will be written about this mutant runner with a VO2Max of 65 and an enviable Benjamin Button core.

The rest of the barefoot runners who have persisted for longer than 3 years (and I include myself in this category) have dabbled with various forms of minimalist footwear (sandals, Vibram 5-fingers or zero-drop 4mm shoes) before finding their ‘new normal’.

For many, the new normal was Vibrams all the time or sandals all the time. For me, it’s been an annual reset of the previous normal.

What’s my current normal? Barefoot for my speed/hill runs and sandals for the long runs on Bangalore roads though I’ll shed my sandals for more of my long runs to re-acclimarize myself for SCMM 2017.

Give me a smooth urban terrain and I’ll run barefoot anyday.

When in Rome, or any city with smooth asphalt or concrete, I’ll run barefoot anyday. For any distance.

Walking on Fire

If you’ve been following my blog regularly, you know that the trail around Kaikondrahalli Lake (one among a handful of Bangalore lakes undergoing rejuvenation) is my home course. As with most construction projects in India, progress happens in fits and spurts. A 200 meter trail stretch would be dug up one day… and it would be several days before the next stage of road rolling would kick in. The result is that no two runs around the lake are ever alike. While this is true for both shod and barefoot runners, it assumes special significance for the latter. Had I developed a navigational memory of the 1.9km loop (and I had not) it would be completely useless for the next run anyway.

My five months of running at Kaikondrahalli Lake between Feb and Jun were the most rocky (pun intended). They were also the most fun. During one of the weekday morning runs I started using the ‘pendulum technique’ to avoid a 100 meter stretch that resembled a rocky fallow field recently ploughed by a tyro farmer. After a few oscillations, my friend Jugy (a seasoned marathoner with several 75km Ultras under his belt) joined me. With his characteristic calmness, he made light of the rocky stretch and urged me to run a ‘normal’ round. I navigated the stretch a bit gingerly and it turned out to be tolerable. The demons (once again) were in my head apparently.

Walking on fire – touted to be an inspirational and barrier breaking experience (Pic: courtesy aberlourblog.com)

Fire walking has been practiced by many people and cultures in all parts of the world — as an act of self-purification, as a test of one’s courage, allegiance to a religious faith rituals, or simply as a rite of passage. In recent years, it is often used in team-building seminars and self-help workshops primarily as a confidence-building / barrier breaking experience. I’ve not walked on fire before but that morning in March as I slowly ran over the stretch of rocky trail, it felt like my personal fire walking ritual – a rite of passage to the barefoot running fraternity – a small but important barrier had been breached.

A few mornings later, I had Ravi Ranjan for company at the lake. Ravi started Ride a Cycle Foundation and, besides many feats of athletic accomplishments,  also started the iconic and growing-in-popularity Tour of Nilgiris. When he’s not racing his cycle up and down Nandi Hills like a man possessed, he runs. Predictably he’s a fast runner. As I kept pace with Ravi that morning, I ended up running the rocky stretch at a much faster (than usual) 5:20/km pace.  The barrier had been breached for good.

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Stay tuned for the next post in this series – Running with Padmadapa.