Whilst my fellow Ultra168 colleagues are back home training and tapering for their various races I am on a bit of a whirlwind ultra running tour of the globe with highlights set to include pacing duties for Andrew at the Western States 100 in California later this month and my own mountain ultra at the Trail de Font Romeu in the Pyrenees with Kilian Jornet in July.
My first port of call was New York which embraces running and runners of all types, but what would I experience when it comes to the ultra scene. I very quickly found out that this city definitely never sleeps as jet lag forced me out for a very early run before the sun came up and to my surprise Central Park was crowded with runners, cyclists, in-line skaters and a few crazies making their way home.
After a couple of days exploring Manhattan including the newly opened sections of the High Line, I started to notice a common trend. Runners were embracing the barefoot culture in huge numbers. Everywhere I would look, I could see runners sans shoes and at the very least wearing no more than Vibram Five Fingers or equivalent. Now I know a lot of you have strong views on whether this is a long term change in the way we actually do the most basic of movements, or just another trendy trend that will last about as long as the Rubiks Cube.
I needed to get to the bottom of this urge to find out more and so I took to the usual channels that give trends a voice, namely Twitter and Facebook. Low and behold I discovered that the glamour boy of the movement one Mr Christopher McDougall, author of “Born to Run” was coming to the Big Apple that evening to host a run and a chat over a beer with the Barefoot Running Club of NYC. This I had to check out. I quickly tracked down where and when and made my way to Central Park on a very warm summers evening.
The runners gathered came in all shapes and sizes and there was a liberal interpretation of what is “barefoot” or as the locals liked to call it “Naked”. For the majority VFF was the footwear of choice, a handful of genuine barefooters and a smattering of interlopers like myself parading proudly my minimalist Inov8 X-Race 233’s. Whilst waiting for Christopher McDougall to arrive quizzical conversations ranged from “When did you first start going naked?” through to “How long did it take before you could run your first ultra?” and “Can you run trail in them?”.
Once our Times Bestselling author arrived, shod in VFF, gave us a pep talk, we set off for a 15km run through the city, down the Hudson and over the Manhattan Bridge at a leisurely pace. I settled in with a couple of VFF shod runners who had recently moved over from more traditional shoes. Now I like to chat when out for an easy run, but I quickly realised that the next 90 minutes or so was going to be a one way conversation and I was not going to have much to contribute. The almost evangelical approach to barefoot running did get me a little offside to begin with, but heck, I have been guilty of pressing my case on occasion. Eventually I was able to change my pace and pick up a couple of runners who were fine tuning their training for the Western States 100 and we quickly established a great rapport. We obviously covered all the usual questions, such as the snow pack, course changes and the potential for heat in the canyons before we moved onto the more difficult question of whether we will ever see a world class performance at the more gnarly ultras won by someone barefoot.
It was a question I posed over a few local brews on the Brooklyn side of the city to Chris McDougall. We rattled off the big names in ultras, Jurek, Roes, Jornet, Korner, Krupicka, and all of them have a multi-national shoe sponsor which emphasises the need for speed, protection and cushioning albeit with the move to lighter lower shoes with reduced heal lifts. We all know a lot of these athletes incorporate barefoot sessions into their training and clearly it’s more than just the equipment that wins races, it is the hours of training, natural talent and a will to compete that matters most, but we couldn’t find one runner who was genuinely competitive when barefoot. Will we see the day when this does happen? Who can tell, but one thing is for sure, with all the snow around this year, I don’t think shoes are going to be the answer, maybe some skis!
Next stop San Francisco and a meeting with Ultra legend Carol La Plant .