The consensus is that barefoot running is an activity best started slowly. Take an inaugural jog around the block, advise the runners' websites. Then stop. The next day, run three or four blocks. Then stop. The alternative is a graduate course in howling pain, as your tendons stretch and strain and finally rip apart.
The Friday my Vibram Five Fingers arrived in the mail, I ignored all that sage advice. Starting slowly is for beginners, went my humble reasoning, and you've been running long distances for years. I slipped on the foot-gloves, wiggling each toe into its individual nylon pocket, and stood to marvel at the newness of the experience. Walking outside, the Five Fingers' ultra-thin soles allowed me to feel things ordinarily denied wearers of conventional shoes: the icy waffle of a manhole cover, the cracks in every sidewalk panel.
In my defense, I paused after the initial trot around the block. Checked the sides and bottom of my new footwear for any chunks of glass or gravel: all clear. Flexed my calves and knees: no pain. Obviously, it was time to leap from pansy Stage One to manly Stage Five: a long jaunt around nearby Prospect Park.
Patience has never been my strong suit.
The first four miles blurred past. My freed toes gripped the cold pavement, legs settling into a machinelike churn, breathing and heartbeat steady. Start slowly, whatever, I thought. This is amaz—
And then my left foot's tendons, worked beyond their limits, decided to perform their best impersonation of an overstretched rubber band:
Eight weeks earlier, on her way out the door, the ex had left me a breakup mix:
"Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart," Johnny Cash
"Every Day I Love You Less and Less," Kaiser Chiefs
"Tainted Love," Marilyn Manson
"Not Crying," Flight of the Concords
"Your Woman," White Town
"When You Were Mine," Prince
"Against All Odds," The Postal Service
"Goodbye," Steve Earle
"Everything You Know Is Wrong," Weird Al Yankovic
You're not going to be stupid about this, I told myself, even as I engaged in that gateway drug of stupid post-breakup behavior, namely, staring out the window at a streetscape of wintery slush as Cash and company wailed their broken hearts out.
The mix warbled to an end, letting in a silence like black water. I turned and considered the wine rack in a serious way. Some dead relationships leave craters demanding to be filled, with the vice of your choosing. But any trashed idiot can rest their forehead against the comforting glow of a dive-bar jukebox, fishing in their pockets for enough quarters to play the Stones' "Miss You" for a record-breaking tenth time.
Instead I upped my running mileage, figuring that every hour pounding the trails around the park was time spent active, productive, and most of all not engaged in anything close to self-pity. I ran three nights a week, passing sprinters and joggers and helmeted ladies ambling on horseback. For the first time since high school I began jotting down my times and route mileage, the number of runners passed along the way.
"Giving you a breakup mix is strange," said E., once my college girlfriend, now my wry oracle. "I'd go find other waters to fish in, but that's me."
"I'm already over her." Wincing at the dull ache in my legs, I swallowed two aspirin with a swig of lukewarm black coffee: breakfast of champions. "I've moved on. Doing really great."
"It's okay if you're not. You're allowed to take these things slow," E. sighed. "Much as you'd like to be Iron Man."
"Nope, I am absolutely good. What's new with you?"
Running meant living in the immediacy of breath and pace, and not in the past with its wreckage. I graduated to four nights a week, then five and sometimes six. My toenails broke and my toe-skin split and spotted my socks red. Long-dormant hip and knee injuries awoke, with a squeal of bone. I beat my 5k and 10k and ten-mile bests, and still pushed for longer distances, faster times.
With my mileage creeping toward 35 miles a week, though, I discovered a new problem. The running became rote: I started pounding away the miles on autopilot, while my memories drifted — inevitably — in her direction. Then one night I caught myself crafting a mix of my own, complete with songs like Tom Waits' "Shore Leave," and with it came the realization that I needed something fresh to consume my life.
The 'minimalist running' trend stems in large part from the bestselling Born to Run, in which author Christopher McDougall details the Tarahumara Indians' lives spent running barefoot, seemingly without much injury or angst, around their home territory of Mexico's Copper Canyon.
The trend caught on with my particular enclave of Brooklyn, which seems to worship anything organic and esoteric and maybe a little dangerous, at least in a way you can joke about with your friends over a soy latte. I noted other runners gliding past in nylon foot-gloves by Vibram and Terra Plana, the super-flexible Nike Free. They made it seem light and effortless.
It seemed a trend I could embrace, if only because it demanded a learning curve. When running barefoot, the balls of the feet tend to hit the ground first — as opposed to conventional shoes, which emphasize the heel-strike. Acclimating to the new stride is no easy feat. "I ordered a pair of Vibram Five Fingers," I instant-messaged a former editor of mine in April.
"What's that? Those hideous shoes?"
"People will think I've gone absolutely barking mad," I replied, a little gleeful. "I'm such a big heel-striker when I walk/run, I'm sure the first couple days will be odd, re: stride adjustment." After that, I would build back to my old distances and times. Nothing like an epic quest, requiring all your concentration and a little blood, to distract you from picking through love's smoking ruins.
Two days later, midway through my overly ambitious first run, my left foot inserted a little reality into the situation. Pop. Cursing under my breath, I managed to drag my throbbing limb up Battle Pass and across the Long Meadow and home, where I applied enough ice to hole the Titanic.
Once on the couch, I flexed the injured foot and winced and tried convincing myself it would be okay — in a few weeks. The prospect of not running felt like a minor apocalypse, nearly as unacceptable as not breathing. For the next little while I lay there, trying to become comfortable with the room's humming silence, wondering if the time had come to uncork a bottle.
Two weeks passed, and I limped back to my apartment to find an email waiting for me, with a gift song from iTunes: The Magnetic Fields' "I Don't Want to Get Over You." My ex accompanied it with a note:
"Sitting here listening to your mixes. Keep thinking about you. This isn't healthy."
Our relationship had defined itself by music shared, swapped, debated over. Gillian Welch and Hyper Blynn provided our weekends' soundtrack, along with the click of Scrabble tiles and the dog's paws on hardwood. Of course she would reach out with a song.
I clicked play, and listened to The Magnetic Fields sing about clove cigarettes and loss, and realized this was a bonus track to the breakup mix: the ironic admittance, via Stephin Merritt's dour baritone, that the whole situation was wrecked beyond repair. Not exactly news to me. But at least I had learned one lesson from this whole mess.
Shutting down the laptop, I bent and eased into the foot-gloves for the first time since that disastrous run. My tendons flared in warning. I stood and placed weight on my left foot. It seemed okay. I took a step toward the door. That seemed okay, too. I walked into the hallway, believing I could run by the time I made the street, so long as I limited myself to a single time around the block. You're allowed to take things slow.
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