Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fleet of (bare) foot

It's not for everyone, but for some it's the only way to go the distance

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Bob Nicol is a barefoot marathoner, his stride is short and he seems to spring over the ground, in a quick series of odd little bounces, off the balls of his feet.

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"Usually what I tell people about barefoot running and how to get into it is that it's not for everybody," Nicol said after a weekend training run for the annual Canadian Death Race in the Alberta Rockies.

Nicol will take on the race, solo, later this summer, covering 125 kilometres over three mountains and elevation intervals of 17,000 feet. All within 24 hours. The run takes in some of the toughest terrain on earth through a wilderness trail studded with comically dreadful names like Hells Gate, Raven's Head and Dead Dog Lookout.

And Nicol, a man who never ran a race until just five years ago, will do it barefoot, or in minimalist foot gear, which means little more than a strip of rubber or leather between him and the rocky trail.

It's worth noting nobody has died in the death race. "But you'll feel like you want to die," says Nicol, who ran part of the trail, 68 kilometres, last summer.

His coldest run was -31 C, barefoot through Assiniboine Park one winter and his hottest was 34 C on a 42K marathon in Rochester, Minn.

He'll cheerfully tell you that he can run anywhere, on any terrain, "except on water."

There are maybe a dozen barefoot runners in Winnipeg and tens of thousands worldwide.

Barefoot running, which took off in runners' circles about a decade ago, owes its origins to the way our ancestors ran down animals for prey. William Shatner's Weird or What TV show recorded an episode on the running people of the remote Mexican Sierra Madre, known as the Tarahumara. The world's most famous barefoot runners run as their main way to get around. Distance runs cover 320 kilometres in a single race for sport. Their fastest runner holds an incredible but true record of 700 kilometres over 48 straight hours.

It's a goal of Nicol's to run with the Tarahumara someday.

A barefoot runner's feet look nothing at all like a Hobbit's thick flat feet.

There are no callouses on Nicol's soles and no cuts or scars either. Instead the balls of his feet have cushions that fold around twigs and pebbles, rocks and roots. Once flat footed, he's now got a natural arch.

His only barefoot injury was on a run at cottage country's West Hawk Lake: "I wasn't paying attention when I was running and I smacked my toe into a rock and broke it."

Runners who normally wear shoes quickly learn they can't run the same way barefoot. With shoes, the stride is long and a runner hits the ground with the heels. It's the opposite barefoot.

"You've got to be patient and you start from scratch. It's a totally different running style. You're using different muscles and you're using your foot as a spring, not your heel as a shock absorber."

His advice for beginners, is short runs on sidewalks and asphalt. Lift, don't swing your feet. "That way you don't trip over tree roots." "Don't run on grass to start with because what you can't see in the grass you can't feel. Even if it's only an inch thick, there could be glass in it."

And most of all, pay attention to what your body tells you.

"The most important thing, and this may sound kooky, is you have to listen to your body. If there's pain, you back off and you don't push through it," Nicol said.

After five years, Nicol says the sport does him a lot of good.

"I describe running this way as going out and having a pedicure. It's like exfoliating your feet."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 D16

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