NEWBURYPORT — Alan Soucy's physical therapist told him several years ago he could never run again unless it was across the street. But last night Soucy finished the Yankee Homecoming 5K Road Race with none of the recurring back pain that almost forced his retirement from the sport he's loved since high school. And he swears that running barefoot has everything to do with his renewed love of running.
"I feel better when I'm barefoot," said Soucy. "It's a lot less stress on my body."
Soucy was one of four barefoot runners who belong to the New England Barefoot Runners Club who ran in last night's 5K. He and his wife, Jess, whom he met while running on the track and field team at Amesbury High School, have come to love barefoot running for different reasons. But both agree that it's given them a new love for the sport they've always enjoyed. Jess Soucy received the honor of coming in first in the barefoot runner women's division, created specially this year by the Yankee Homecoming Race Committee to honor the new running movement.
"I feel great," said 28-year-old Jess Soucy at the close of last night's race. "I have one little spot that's tender. This is the best I've felt after running ever."
Ever since author Christopher McDougall's "Born to Run" inspired readers with his tome chronicling the unique running practices of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's deadly Copper Canyon, runners who have seen their beloved practice derailed due to injury are unlacing their expensive running shoes and going barefoot. It's a practice the tribe swears by to avoid injury, and which they've depended on to produce some of the greatest runners in the world. And it's made a lot of sense to many enthusiasts, who in turn have sparked a movement of runners desiring to explore minimalist alternatives to the restrictive footwear that's dominated the market for decades. And while it's a practice that takes time to perfect, the runners who arrived to the finish line last night feeling great are falling more in love with it with every run.
Barefoot runner Joe Caruso was running his first race last night sans shoes, and left feeling like it would be the first of many more to come.
"I run for fun," said Caruso, who finished first place in the barefoot men's division last night. "But I loved it. Barefoot or otherwise it was a great experience. I walked away injury free. I'm really heartened."
The trio of runners was met at the finish line last night by New England Barefoot Runners organizer and barefoot runner enthusiast Preston Curtis, who was an early devotee of the practice 15 years ago. A torn retina kept him from running the Yankee Homecoming race this year, but he regularly competes in half marathons without the expensive sneakers most of the participants wear. He and the others, who looked as though they could run a few more miles, talked excitedly about how adopting the natural gait that comes with barefoot running has increased their enjoyment of the sport.
It comes down to how their feet hit the pavement, they said, striking it in a more gingerly fashion than a running shoe can accomplish — at the middle of their foot, rather than the heel-toe strike typical with running shoes.
"You have to be delicate," said Curtis.
For the novice runner just starting out barefoot running, Curtis and the others recommend starting slow, perhaps at quarter-mile runs until your feet get used to the method. And that's not as easy as it sounds.
"Once you start doing it, it feels really good," said Caruso. "And you can overdo it. Things are moving along and you feel free."
For Curtis, strange looks from passers-by aside, it's the best kept secret in the running community.
"To me it's the biggest secret," he said. "And it's there for anybody and no one is trying it."
But that's not exactly true. Curtis' meet-up group boasts almost 100 members, and other groups exist nationwide and around the world. It's getting to where the sight of a barefoot runner bounding down High Street or elsewhere is becoming more common, though Jess Soucy laughs at some of the reactions she's gotten from people passing by.
"I had a car stop once at a stop sign and say, 'Are you all right?'" said Jess.
"I've had someone tell me I'm brave, and tell me to put some shoes on," Alan said, laughing.
But the trend is growing, and Curtis hopes that continues. He encourages anyone wanting to know more about barefoot running, or interested in participating in barefoot running meet-ups across the state, to go to his website at http://newenglandbarefootrunners.net.