written by Justin Brent
Are you kidding me? Is that Dr. Brent with rolled-up pant legs, running ‘round PC? Why is he naked from the knee down? Has he lost his mind?
Dr. Brent really has lost his mind, though to be fair, mid-life crises are fairly common for people his age: Some buy fancy sports cars and rack up speeding tickets, others take hikes along the Appalachian Trail (or at least claim to), others disappear to some uncharted Greek Island to retire with young, chiseled nubile flesh (Momma Mia!); and then there are those who shed the foundational armor of the feet and kiss the ground with their bare soles.
Running is toxic enough. Why would someone willfully add to the muscle-burning, joint-aching, labored-breathing pain of distance running? Or willfully risk slicing flesh and arteries, bruising multiple metatarsals? Who would want to touch the germy, bacterial, viral ground—practically inviting infection in through one’s baby-soft, porous-skinned feet?
Or such is how I interpret the dubious looks of students, faculty and staff as they force a smile at Barefooted Brent.
My mid-life crisis, it turns out, was precipitated by two late-onset interests that I never could have predicted ten years ago. One is an enthusiasm for long-distance running. My whole life I’ve hated running, unless I was chasing a soccer ball, a beer truck, or the odd date who’s decided she’d rather walk home. But the repetitive routine of waking up early and plodding down the dark lonesome highway somehow has gotten under my skin. The other interest is human evolution and its implications about the ways we should live. Although I once did have an interest in biology, the ‘D’ I received freshman year weeded me out and thus immunized me from the contagion. But the bug is back with a vengeance, and lo, this English Prof is now more likely to pick up Scientific American than Wearying… sorry Wuthering Heights.
Both running and evolutionary biology led me to the conclusion that I feel better, function better, when I am exercising more. The feel-better vibes have been confirmed elsewhere: From my armchair introduction to paleontology, I realized that humans have been hunter-gatherers for longer than anything else. As hunter-gatherers, they were constantly on the move. Even after we learned how to plant and harvest, we were still on our feet, performing mandatory calisthenics just to put food on the table. Human existence has been defined by (with the exception of a mere century or two) physical exertion. Is there anything “normal” about human life in the last century? In the grand scheme of things, one could characterize it as an unprecedented experiment in sedentary living—modern homo sapiens love to sit.
When you consider the 1.8 million years of human existence – beginning somewhat subjectively with homo habilis, who walked upright and managed to migrate fairly long distances – you realize we’ve been genetically adapting to running for a long time! Even if we subtract from that 1.8 million the 10,000 years of domesticated agriculture, we’re still talking 1,790,000 years of adaptation! Now I’ve checked my paleontology with Dr. Rischbieter, my ancient history with Dr. Heiser, and I’m pretty sure that if I checked my math with Dr. Beasley, he’d tell me that 99% of our ancestors’ history has been adapting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In short, we are, genetically speaking, still living in hunter-gatherer bodies, evolved to stay in motion, migrating with herds, studying their movements, ready at any moment to shift into Persistence Hunting.
No wonder bestselling books today are arguing that we were Born to Run, and not with those cushiony air soles that the running industry has wedded us to, but with bare feet… on terra dura!
Such are the musings of a middle-aged professor, whose midlife crisis is a passionate affair with running. I’ve talked to people my age and older who used to love to run, but whose knees eventually gave out. They hear me emote about how running has changed my life and respond with nostalgic jealousy: I miss it, they manage.
So the next time you see Dr. Brent padding along barefoot, pity his deranged delusion, but console yourself in the solace that he actually thinks he’s happy… and would love for you to join him on a Saturday morning run, shod or unshod.
Dr. Brent’s favorite Barefoot Running Websites:
- Running Barefoot—Maintained by the Guru of Barefoot Running Ken Bob Saxton. Ken Bob’s book provides a great how-to guide.
- Biomechanics of Foot Strikes & Applications to Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear—Published by Harvard’s Dept of Human Evolution, this site offers some research on the merits of barefoot running.
- Runner’s World provides a balanced assessment of Barefoot running. Read the debate and decide for yourself!