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Fastest Barefoot Runner in America: Jeremy Johnson

Posted on 20 August 2012

Jeremy Johnson, a three-time All-American and two-time USA national XC team member, received his Masters of Science Degree in Applied Mathematics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In 2007 and 2008, he was University of New Mexico’s Male Track and
 Field Athlete of the Year. His PRs are impressive: 13:35.13  for 5,000m (2010); 28:33.08 for 10,000m (2008). Academically, his post-graduate research involved computational fluid mechanics. Perhaps that kind of deep-thought immersion in the world of empirical testing and observations led him to finally question the nature of running shoes. In other words, are they really necessary for all runners, or all the time?  Eventually, Johnson thought not. — NRC

***

Going Barefoot When It Counts

by Jeremy Johnson

My grandpa used to sing a Swedish song.  One of the verses he sang went something like this:

My name is Johansson,
I come from Visconsin.
I verk in da lumber mills dere.
Ven I valk down da street,
All da people I meet,
Says “Hey dere big feet”
And I say … (repeat song)

Big feet run in my family. I have 4E wide feet.  They do not fit well in most racing shoes.  So maybe it should come as little surprise why I abandoned shoes and now primarily use barefoot running as a tool in my training.  With that said, here are some events, thoughts, and observations that ultimately brought me towards this point in my competitive running career.

USA 12K 2011 Cross-Country Championships, Mission Bay Park, San Diego, California

As I was doing my pre-race strides, my spikes were not comfortable.  So I took them off.  I thought, “Right now shoes suck, screw them.”  Only problem, where do the timing chips go if you have no shoelaces to string them through?  After checking with an official who said, “Yes, you do need the chips on your feet”, I luckily found some athletic tape for a fix.  I taped the chips to my ankles.  And with that, I went in the race bare: 2K loops, nice smooth grass, except for a small section of asphalt, temperatures in the 70s.  Racing felt great.

USA 8K Road Championships, 2012 Carmel, Indiana.

My flats were driving me crazy; the feeling was all too familiar.  My shoes were tearing up my feet.  It was the same old story again.  Things just didn’t fit.  I couldn’t run normal.  Blood was seeping through the mesh.  I stopped, and tried to readjust the shoes, as the leaders gained distance on me.  But it wasn’t a fix.  So I stopped again. This time I readjusted the shoes for good.  I threw them in some trees, and carried on with the race.

The Oval.

In Albuquerque, you can feel it when it is track season.  Warm weather and sunshine are in the air.  With track season comes racing and training on the oval.  But, something else accompanies track season for me.  It means lots of left turns.  Lots of left turns mean blisters on the bottom of my left foot.  They never seem to get healed up in time for my next race.  And, an almost permanent cut under my pinky toe makes me think whoever decided to make it the one who “cries all the way home” chose wisely.  My foot would get infected, red streaks would come up my leg, and on numerous occasions I had to have it cut open and drained.  In order to do some races, I’d superglue the cut under my little toe.

Just Suck It Up.

In college that was my mentality.  I tried many solutions to stop my feet from getting messed up.  I tried baby powder in my shoes.  I tried on many pairs of racing flats and spikes.  They were not wide enough.  I tried cutting and modifying shoes.  No success.  I tried gluing spike plates to the bottoms of wider racing flats, but the racing flats were still too narrow in the first place.  No solution was found.  So I just dealt with it.

Run for Free.

In the Bible, Hebrews 12:1 talks about throwing off everything that hinders, and running with perseverance the race marked out before us.  About two years ago, I took this literally.  I ditched my shoes, albeit just when I would run on grass fields.  It was simply wonderful.  Running instantly became more enjoyable.  Running became more like play, less like work.  I felt faster, lighter, more free.  More meaning had become of the statement by Sir Roger Banister, “Running has given me a glimpse of the greatest freedom a man can ever know.”

A Sweet Ride.

Before I started running, I used to go snowboarding frequently during the winter.  On the slopes , there would be these people who had all the latest and greatest (and expensive) gear. They sure did look cool, at least until they hit the slopes.  Ultimately though, they were the ones always sliding down the mountain on their butts.  Interestingly enough however, there would be some guys without the latest fashions, possibly with holes in their jackets, and out-of-date snowboards, who were having a much better time, possibly spent flying through the air.  It makes me think, is it worth having the nice gear if you end up spending the whole day on your bottom?  I sometimes think running shoes are like that.  There are some shoes with flashy new colors, but they just can’t ride.  Don’t know about you, but I’d rather be surfing the snow than bruising my backside.

Dancing in High Heels.

Ever see a dude run in a pair of high heels?  That would be ridiculous, right?  They mess you up even walking in them, so I hear.  Guys are just not meant to wear them (and yes, I’d include the ladies here, too).  Well, how about running in high heels disguised as running shoes.  Anyone?  Not me.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Shoe Company.

Ever read the descriptions of running shoes?  There are words like medial post flair for added stability, 22 MM heel drop, power grid with shock attenuation, asymmetric arch-bridge, extended progressive roll bar, strobel board, inverted heel outsole, wave plate.  How many of these add-ons do we seriously need?  And how much of it is a marketing maneuver?  Leonardo da Vinci said, “The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.”  Arthur Lydiard had a nice idea, “If you could just attach a rubber sole to your foot, with nothing to the top, you’d have the perfect running shoe.”  Now, that is beauty in simplicity.

Spring Training.

When I started running barefoot, my legs felt more elastic.  Here’s what Frans Bosch and Ronald Klomp wrote in Running; Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology Applied in Practice on the spring, “Energy stored in ligaments, tendons, etc., is released again like a coiled spring.  The entire foot has a spring-like function.  Approximately half of all the energy needed for push-off is supplied by the spring-like action of the foot and shank.”  Why would one want to put a huge wedge under the spring?

That Guy Did What?

If you told me a few years ago about people doing their entire runs barefoot, I would probably have thought they were nuts.  In fact, I knew a guy who ran a road race barefoot.  I actually did think he was nuts.  I was sure that the skin on his feet were left on the road.  Surprisingly, when I finished the road race without shoes, not only did I still have skin on the bottom of my feet afterwards, but the skin was totally fine.  Warning: I’m not saying that everyone should take their feet for a spin on the tarmac immediately after reading this.

Building with Legos.

Barefoot was a process.  It spawned out a problem.  It was solved by eventually putting the pieces together.  The end product was something greater than that before – learning the benefits of barefoot in lieu of slogging around in heavy, brick like shoes.  Maybe I was the lucky one.   I finally had something that fits best of all—going barefoot.

Happy Assumption Breaking.

My hope is that this essay is more about rethinking the assumptions that people make in various endeavors, and not simply about barefoot or minimalist running.  Observing, pondering, learning, challenging, testing, and creativity are what is important.  It just might be good for us all to be a little more like Sherlock Holmes or Curious George.We should not just do something because that is how it has been done before.  We have a responsibility to challenge things that don’t fit within reason, and change them.  We need to continually be reevaluating all aspects of how we do sport, such as:

-How we train (including the “harder is always better” assumption)
-How we coach (including the acceptability of coaches yelling and cussing at their athletes)
-How we treat other athletes (including the coolness-social-hierarchy dependent simply on how fast one runs in circles)
-Alcohol abuse by athletes

Leave the Ego Behind

Have you ever seen runners introduce each other by their race and time?  Maybe it goes something like, so and so is a such and such 5K guy.  Why? In track, I often see individuals whose place on the top of the social ladder directly correlates to how fast they run in a circle.  If I was not cool before, how does running in a circle faster than someone else all of a sudden make me more cool than them?  It does not and should not.  It is very narrow minded.  My claim is that running (or any other sport for that matter) should be done for the joy of it, not to inflate one’s ego about how much more important they are than someone else.

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16 Responses to “Fastest Barefoot Runner in America: Jeremy Johnson”

  1. MarkC says:

    Jeremy,

    thank you for sharing! this is a great story. i hope one day a company makes a track spike that is shaped like a normal foot.

    Dr. Mark

  2. Jeff says:

    Jeremy,

    Loved the article.

    Jeff

  3. 13:35 5k? That’s almost as impressive as the fact that you don’t brag about your race times on a blog!

    Inspirational stuff, Jeremy. Great work.

    Josh

  4. Tarmo says:

    This is good stuff!

  5. Brian says:

    Love the irony of the Brooks shirt in the photo!

  6. John says:

    i don’t always wear shoes, but when I do I prefer Brooks. I ran with jeremy in HS – stand up guy!

  7. Bob Nicol says:

    Thanks for writing this, and it is a great read.

  8. Rick In Baltimore says:

    At the end of June was the Dreaded Druid Hills 10K here in Baltimore.

    http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=5496220

    Hot, and I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. After 5 miles and feeling very lousy I ditched the shoes entirely (Evos) and immediately felt the better for it. Not going to run that way all the time but was grateful at the boost I got from full ground contact for the finish.

  9. Thank you for sharing this, Jeremy. Keep spreading the word!

  10. Warren says:

    Thanks for sharing! Pretty similar to my own journey to barefoot aside from the fact that I’m no elite runner :) Liked the reference to Hebrews 12:1

    • MarkC says:

      Warren we are all running for health and fun…so we all are very much alike, no matter what the speed.

      Mark

      • Richard Mahony says:

        No mate. Don’t presume to speak for all of us. I don’t run for health nor fun. Why I run is my business and no one else’s. Don’t tell me why I run and I won’t tell you why you run.

  11. JosephTree says:

    It would give me such a thrill to see a gazelle like you go speeding by BF!

    Good on you, and thanks for the thoughtful writeup.

    So, where are all these Jewish Barefoot runners then, or were they just pounding the trails back in the old old days?

  12. Aaron says:

    Thanks for posting! I too have wide feet and can’t find any shoes that feel right. Fivefingers are the only thing that have worked for me.

  13. Richard Mahony says:

    I love to run barefoot. I prefer to run barefoot. For months at a time, I do 100% of my training barefoot, If I could race on tarmac with faster times barefoot than my best times in ultra-light racers, then guess what I would wear.

    Unfortunately, I race faster on tarmac in the best ultra-light racers than I do barefoot. (No, not all racing flats are the same). So, I race in running shoes. I don’t race barefoot.

    One can run barefoot all the time in training, and still choose to race in flats. Or is this a breach of Divine Law?


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