Deseret Morning News, Friday, July 21, 2006

Shoes not needed in marathon

By Linda Hamilton
Deseret Morning News

Rick Roeber of Lee's Summit, Mo., won't be the first to run the Deseret Morning News Marathon without wearing shoes. At 50, he may not be the fastest.

He may not even be alone. There are several barefoot marathoners who live in Utah, and there's a whole national network of people who travel around to do it.

But Monday's Deseret Morning News race will be Roeber's 20th barefoot marathon — he did 18 shod marathons first — and by the time he hits the Parleys Canyon starting line, he'll have run around 6,300 shoeless miles.

Without gnarly feet.

"My feet, they look pretty much like everybody else's. They're not overly calloused. They're not real supple, but they're not incredibly tough like tough leather, either," said Roeber as he looked forward to his first trip to Salt Lake City.

With the encouragement of his barefoot-running inspiration, Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton of Southern California — who ran the 2004 Deseret Morning News Marathon with Barefoot Todd Byers, also of SoCal — Roeber expects to do fine Monday.

He said he will have to pay attention to his quadriceps muscles and Achilles tendons on the long downhill, but he doesn't worry about his feet.

Saxton said he enjoyed running alongside the parade in 2004 and being next to the mayor's car "for a short ways. He was going too slow, so I passed him," he said, remembering also that "the organizers were nice enough to have those small, plastic, kiddy pools filled with ice, which really felt good on the bare tootsies."

Roeber said after the first few shoeless miles of training, the feet do fine, and the rest of the body is happier than it's ever been while running, even healed by running barefoot. Knee problems magically disappear, said Roeber, speaking from personal experience.

"Basically barefoot running forces proper technique to where you don't overstride," he said. "You take shorter strides, quicker cadence, so you're landing underneath your torso. It will make you a better runner all-around just by strengthening those muscles that have atrophied by not using them as much."

Barefoot runners learn quickly to land first on the balls of their feet, rather than the heels, and Roeber said studies show that he lands with about half the impact than he does if he runs in shoes. "With shoes, you can basically run any goofy way you want to because you have all that padding. When you have to land lightly, then you do," he said.

"My knees were crunchy. When I would do knee-bends, you could hear the cartilage," Roeber said. "I quit having knee pain almost immediately when I started barefoot running. Within a year, I had no more crunching whatsoever. My knees are well-lubricated."

Barefooters also develop "foot-eye coordination," which lets them choose their paths to avoid sharp objects and keep from getting stepped on at the start of crowded marathons. Even at Boston, which he's run twice barefoot (except for about five miles in sandals the first time), no one has stepped on Roeber. And "you don't worry that much about the little stuff because if you're running with proper form, your foot is coming straight down to where you're not scuffing it."

He says picking up the barefoot style in 2003 made it possible — because the knee pain vanished — for him to run many more miles weekly than he did when he wore shoes. Running is a passion for him, and he can do it more now. Barefootin' makes him feel like a kid again. "I'm probably just looking for an excuse to play as a 50-year-old," he said. "I was like, 'I can do this.' It was kind of a rediscovery."

Roeber grew up fairly normally in Lincoln, Neb., enjoying riding his bike and fishing, then moved with his family to Texas, where he went to school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Now, he helps coordinate emergency services for Sprint, headquartered in Overland Park, Kan., where Roeber works and does much of his training. He works in the disaster recovery field. He had hoped to be sent to Salt Lake City to troubleshoot prior to the 2002 Olympics, but he did his work from the home office instead. Same with the Gulf Coast hurricane problems last year.

And he's no eccentric. Barefoot running gets him and others like him into conversations with those amazed by what they do. Many barefoot runners have their own Web sites (Roeber's is, and that can lead you to a lot of other links), and there are Internet forums devoted to the Shoeless Joes of the world.

The challenge was a factor in Roeber's taking up running without footwear. "I've always liked doing things extreme," he said. He's sky-dived three times. He began reading about Saxton online three years ago and got the bug.

Just like when he first took up shod running in 1990 as therapy for a divorce, he went all-out. In '90, he ran a mile for the first time in his life, he says. Within five months, he was a marathoner. He ran most of Boston shoeless soon after shedding the sneakers.

"I'm definitely not winning races anymore at 50 years old," Roeber acknowledged, "but I've taken my passion, and I've basically re-created it, personalized it for myself, which gives me a lot of joy and happiness."

Barefooting is a subculture of the running world, he says, and it is not for everyone, despite its benefits.

"My doctor says, 'Hey, if it works for you, keep doing it.'

"My podiatrist said some people just have the makeup to be able to do it. He doesn't recommend it for everybody. Some people have the body mechanics to be able to do something like that," Roeber explains.

He admits that, at first, he suffered a few blisters. "Even though I had gone barefoot a lot, I still needed to learn how to properly plant my foot so I wasn't going to hurt myself. You just kind of do. Your body responds appropriately. It will always go to the place of least resistance," he said. And it doesn't take that long. A few days after his first three-mile barefoot trot, and resultant blisters, he was out there again.

"It's like I tell people, I don't recommend barefoot running to everybody, but I do suggest that if you want to re-create your running, make it more interesting, try a barefoot run once or twice a week.

"It will strengthen muscles in your feet and your legs that you didn't think you had."


© 2006 Deseret News Publishing Company