People might think they're crazy, but barefoot runners, even those who pursue punishing marathons sans shoes, say that freeing your feet from the confines of a sneak is just as God and nature intended.
"It's kind of like trying to explain a sunset to a blind person," said Rick Roeber, the Midwest representative for TheRunningBarefoot.com a Web site dedicated to spreading the gospel of going shoe-free.
He compares walking and running in shoes to typing with gloves on. It's just not quite right.
"You have to try the experience to understand," he said.
Ken Bob Saxton started TheRunningBarefoot.com in 1997. Saxton, who is writing a book about barefoot running for spring release, has been running barefoot his whole life, off and on. He started the Web site in response to the many questions from other runners when he showed up at races without shoes.
"It's easier to direct them to the Web site instead of answering the same questions 1,000 times," said Saxton, a computer technician who lives in Southern California.
Elizabeth McCullough of Lexington, who started running barefoot earlier this year, went to Saxton's Web site for direction and soon embraced the idea.
"Just running up the street without any shoes on felt wrong and exciting," McCullough said. Kids in her neighborhood often stare when she runs without shoes, she said. "But I don't care; it's worth it."
Although it seems counter-intuitive, Roeber and McCullough were serious marathoners who ditched their shoes after physical problems resulted from running.
McCullough broke her pelvis while running a marathon.
"The doctor had told me, 'When you are breaking bones when you are running, you shouldn't be running,'" she said.
But the former Marine wasn't deterred. After consulting with the Web site created by Saxton — known in running circles as Barefoot Ken Bob — and after she had healed sufficiently from her injury, she slowly took to the road. She said there was a transition period before she felt totally comfortable running without shoes.
At first, her calves were tight, and some muscles and muscle groups were sore. "You live your life in shoes," she said. "Your feet have gotten used to being sort of immobilized."
But soon she was heading the Lexington chapter of the Barefoot Running Society and organizing weekly runs. She does have a pair of "five-fingered running shoes" that are like form-fitting gloves for feet, but she prefers to go without them.
Roeber doesn't come right out and say people who opt for some minimal foot coverage are wussies, but he's fanatically committed to running barefoot.
He has run without shoes since April 2004, when, after having run 18 marathons, he was in such pain he thought he might have to give up running.
Running barefoot presents some challenges because he lives in Missouri. It gets cold there. It snows there. He brushes that off. Sure, one time he did get frostbite on "a couple of toes." He ran a barefoot marathon a few days later, and his toes "were bloody nubs" at the end of that race.
But he runs on, still barefoot.
He wears shoes to work at a communication company only because he has to, and even then he wears loose-weave huarache sandals. "I like to keep them as free as possible," he said of his feet.
He's happy to spread the word to potential converts.
"I answer e-mails every day from people who are asking questions or inquiring about barefoot running," he said.
Barefoot running has been around a long time, said Dr. W. Ben Kibler, orthopedic surgeon at Lexington Clinic. An Olympic marathoner, Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia, won the gold without shoes in 1960. Barefoot South African runner Zola Budd famously knocked American Mary Decker out of medal contention in 1984.
Kibler said the less material you put between the sole of the foot and the ground, the more rapid the activation of the muscles. From that point, he said, the human foot is a little bit more effective as a shock absorber and offers a little bit more propulsion than an elaborately constructed shoe, he said.
"For those reasons, barefoot running is a pretty good idea," he said. Kibler cautioned that that's true if the basic mechanics of your foot are sound. For instance, someone with high arches or flat feet might need some support.
Saxton said people have been lulled into thinking that their feet won't work correctly.
"We've come to the perception that most people have feet that don't work," he said. "We think that 90 percent of the people need some sort of correction in the foot, where it is probably the opposite of that."
Dr. Orla Rooney, a podiatrist with Lexington Clinic, said she's on the fence about barefoot running. "I don't think the research has shown enough light on it to really make the determination" about how healthy it might be, she said.
Part of her reluctance to endorse the trend comes from the people she sees in her office who are having trouble with their feet. They have stress fractures or cuts, which she sees as potential side effects from barefoot running.
"That alone changes our perspective," she said. In her mind, "Most people are really putting themselves at a lot of risk" if they take up barefoot running.
Perhaps, she said, people who are experienced runners, who aren't carrying too much excess weight, could do it successfully if they started slowly. She said she wouldn't recommend barefoot running for someone who is generally inactive who is looking to start.
As for Roeber, he thinks there might be a trend in the making. Remember in the 1970s, when people wondered how jogging would ever really catch on?
"Five years ago, I would have said it's always going to be a niche. Now I am not so sure," he said. "I am amazed with the popularity that has happened within the last year or two."
The amount of traffic to Saxton's Web site, while small, has doubled every two years, he said. He toured the country this summer to promote barefoot running, and he met with enthusiastic crowds.
"Well, for the most of the history of mankind, people didn't wear shoes," he said. Still, shoe companies will continue to spend millions of dollars to convince people that they need shoes, he said.
McCullough, the Lexington woman, said that although the movement is catching on, people are taken aback by barefoot running. TheRunningBarefoot.com might be on to something with its unofficial motto: "Changing the world one odd look at a time."
Not too long ago, McCullough was running along Citation Boulevard in north Lexington when a driver pulled her car over. Apparently, she thought McCullough was running without shoes because she was in some kind of danger.
"She just wanted to make sure I was OK," she said.