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Going Barefoot

Missoulians take a book's minimalist message and run with it

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By virtue of being an ultra-marathoner who has run 50 miles in a day, it seems Dean McGovern has masochistic tendencies. But then you learn he regularly runs barefoot, and the diagnosis is confirmed.

"If there's anyone who's not a likely barefooter, it would be me," McGovern says as we jog side-by-side down a trail in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area. "I mean, I swear, my mom probably had shoes on me before the doctor slapped my butt. I was a baby wearing shoes when I couldn't even walk."

He's not running barefoot right now, but he might as well be. Black slipper-like shoes with compartments for each toe cover his feet like tight gloves, and he quietly glides along the trail ever mindful of sharp rocks. I, meanwhile, clomp along in my clunky sneakers, looking by comparison like I'm trying to drive those rocks into the ground.

McGovern began barefooting about a year ago, inspired by a book called Born to Run, a New York Times bestseller by Christopher McDougall that has become the barefooter's bible since it came out in May 2009. The book, which examines an indigenous tribe in Mexico called the Tarahumara known for its endurance, and explores the science behind why humans run and how they can run more efficiently, takes everything you thought you knew about running and throws it out the window—your sneakers included.

Born to Run doesn't necessarily make a case for barefoot running, but rather advocates minimalist, low-profile footwear. Count McGovern and a handful of other Missoulians among the multitudes around the country who have taken the book's message and run with it.

And they'll soon be running with one of the book's main subjects, Micah True, better known as Caballo Blanco (White Horse in Spanish), an eccentric and nomadic gringo who for years has lived and run with the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyons, one of the most remote wildernesses in North America. Caballo Blanco arrives in Missoula next week to talk with runners about his story, the Tarahumara, and the book that has made him a running icon.

"My first takeaway from the book was not barefoot running," says McGovern, his voice showing no signs of fatigue after running from his house to the trailhead and then about a mile on the trail. "It was to change your running style, learn how to run correctly. And so I tried that. Basically the message was to use your forefoot as a spring, and don't land on your heel.

"Heel striking does several things that are bad," he continues. "It slows you down. It puts your knee in a compromised position, because you have to lock your knee or extend your knee in front of you. And it also slams you into the ground with an incredible impact. And so the take-home for me wasn't necessarily barefoot running, it was move from a heel strike to a mid- or forefoot strike. Land on the front of your foot, not the heel. And that just made so much sense to me."

McGovern, 42, an assistant professor at the University of Montana in the department of health and human performance, says his new approach has benefited him in a number of ways. First, he's developed a stronger arch—"one of the strongest structures in nature; it'll support your body if it's there." Second, he's revived and strengthened muscles in his calves he'd never used before, and in the process suffered through six weeks of nearly unbearable soreness.

"But once you break through that, it's miraculous," he says. "I don't even know how to describe it.

"And I realized," he continues, "that all the knee pain I had, all the hip pain, all the lower back strain, it's gone. I'm certainly running slower, so I'm not breaking any records and I'm not racing as much, but I'm enjoying my running more, and I am getting faster. But I'm going to get faster in a different way...I'm building up speed under a new sort of rubric, a new paradigm of running. I worked to build up speed under that old system, but I tore all that down and now I'm learning to run again."

It turns out that the lessons of the Tarahumara teach much more than just how to run.

"Superhuman serenity"

The indigenous Tarahumara (also called the Rarámuri, or “The Running People”) are known for their remarkable health and athletic ability. Born to Run author Christopher McDougall wrote that “fifty-five-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and eighty-year-old great-grandads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides.” - PHOTO COURTESY CALEB WILSON
  • Photo courtesy Caleb Wilson
  • The indigenous Tarahumara (also called the Rarámuri, or “The Running People”) are known for their remarkable health and athletic ability. Born to Run author Christopher McDougall wrote that “fifty-five-year-olds could outrun teenagers, and eighty-year-old great-grandads could hike marathon distances up mountainsides.”

Every day author Christopher McDougall's inbox is stocked with e-mails from Born to Run readers who found the book just the tonic they needed to rediscover their running selves.

"They wanted to run," he says in an interview with the Independent. "They didn't want to be elite marathoners, they didn't want to be ultra-runners—they just wanted the ability to run a few miles a few days a week, and they were constantly being hobbled by injury. You know, the most effective way to prevent somebody from doing anything is to threaten them with pain. It's like how animals are trained. You put a shock collar on them. And that's basically what running injuries are. They're a shock collar that make you really timid about just trusting yourself to run a little bit. And then you present them with such a simple, logical, totally-free solution and it's magical."

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