by Bill Hoffman
This past October I completed the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon after four hours and 43 minutes of running, and 11 months of training covering 742 miles. I had lost 30 pounds and had become “a runner.” For someone who was told in high school by a doctor that running was not for me due to flat feet, this was an unexpected but joyful turn of events at age 43. I am now totally addicted to running and will evangelize running to anyone who will listen to me.
A year earlier, I purchased my first pair of Vibram FiveFingers while on a business trip. I was inspired by the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougal to try “barefoot” running. I had spent the previous year in shoe orthotics to correct some knee pain, which left me with slightly worse knee pain and constant foot pain. That night in the hotel room I slipped on the FiveFingers and jumped from the floor to the bed and back again feeling like a super hero. I had no idea that I would be running a marathon only 11 months later.
After returning home, I immediately took my new footwear out for a test drive in the woods behind my house. I imagined myself running in the Copper Canyons in northwestern Mexico like the Tarahumara (Native American people renowned for their long-distance running ability) and the other ultra runners of Born to Run. To my delight and surprise that first run in the woods caused no knee pain! Being excited about my new discovery, I posted my run to Facebook with a picture of my cool new footwear.
I was beginning to discover the joy of running for the sake of running. I was not running to train for a race or even to lose weight. I was running because I really enjoyed it.
For Christmas, my older brother gave me the “ChiRunning” book by Danny Dreyer. It was in the pages of that book I discovered the source of my knee pain. Danny talks about having all of your body going in the same direction, and shows a diagram of feet pointing outwards instead of straight ahead. I stood up and looked at my feet, and noticed that they formed a V shape with the toes pointing… outwards! It would take months of conscious effort to train my leg muscles to keep my feet parallel.
Not being a terribly patient person, I figured that personal instruction would be quicker than studying from a book. I “googled” local ChiRunning instructors and found an instructor in Ballston Spa. I immediately emailed her, and after a few weeks we met for my first lesson. I ended up taking two private lessons in January and February, and even arranged a group lesson for employees of my company Kitware. I continue to receive support via email.
If you’re interested, I would also recommend “Barefoot Running Step by Step” by “Barefoot Ken Bob” Saxton and Roy Wallack.
With the basics of ChiRunning, and my FiveFingers, I was now equipped to learn the ways of “a barefoot Chi-runner.” The knee pain came and went as I worked on my form. I gradually trained my feet to handle the FiveFingers. I am sure if I had had the ability to overtrain, I would have. However, when I started, a one-mile run left me breathless, and a 5K might as well have been a hike up K2 without oxygen. There was no chance of running too far or too fast in the FiveFingers at that point. Despite the cold and snow, I ran one or two miles almost every day during November through January.
Around the end of February while in Daytona Beach, I set out for a three-mile barefoot beach run, but kept going for my first ten-mile run! The next ten-mile run would be at the Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve in Clifton Park during thaws of spring along some really fun but flooded and muddy trails. I enjoyed the run at the preserve so much I invited one of my coworkers, Rusty Blue, to join me for a seven-mile run. At one point he started to pull ahead of me. I took a quick mental review of my ChiRunning checklist – a process known as body sensing, and realized my cadence had slowed and my lean was missing. I increased my cadence to 85-to-90 steps per minute, leaned forward a bit, and found myself floating up next to him with little extra effort. I now felt confident enough to run with Rusty, a seasoned marathoner, along the same trail for ten miles!
My friend and neighbor Sean Crall had noticed that the runs in my Facebook posts were getting longer and longer. He posted the following to my wall: “Marathon Time! You should sign up for the Mohawk Hudson in October,” which I did.
While on a business trip to San Francisco, I had an “epic” nine-mile run. I set out to reach the Golden Gate Bridge from my hotel. I jogged up next to an older gentleman running with a small dog, and started to talk to him. We ran past an outdoor yoga class where he stopped to talk to the instructor. Since I wanted to reach the bridge before my business meeting, I said goodbye. After about five minutes, I heard his dog approaching behind me. To my surprise, he had caught up to me because he was curious about my FiveFingers.
I discovered that he was Gasper Pulizzi, a 69-year-old ultra marathoner who has completed the Leadville 100 mile race three times! He actually witnessed the Tarahumara cutting sandals out of old tires before the race described in Born to Run. We talked and ran, I copied his cadence and pace, and before I knew it, we were on top of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was one of the most effortless runs yet.
I would spend the rest of spring and summer running whenever I had the chance. Many of the weekend long runs were with Sean, whom I would run the marathon with. During vacation and business travel I ran in many different places: the Galapagos Islands, Paris, Berlin, Vermont, Florida and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
About six weeks before the marathon, while out for a 16-mile run, the knee pain came back at about mile nine. I had to cut the run short and limp home at mile 12. I took a day off from running, panicked a bit, and figured I needed to get back to basics. I decided to go for a totally barefoot run. I planned for two or three miles, but felt so good I ended up running seven. Now with each foot fall, I try to ask myself would I do that barefoot, and if the answer is “no,” I make a correction.
Before the marathon I ran two 19-mile runs on consecutive weekends before tapering off. The Mohawk Hudson River Marathon was both everything and nothing, like I thought it would be. The last three miles were longer than the first 23, and yet I find myself looking forward to the next marathon. I hope to meet you on a run, I’ll be the barefooted or “five-fingered” one with the big smile on his face!
Bill Hoffman (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Clifton Park with his wife Naomi and two sons Max and Liam. He enjoys hiking, biking and snowboarding with his family, and running 5Ks with his 10-year-old son Max. Bill is the CTO and a co-founder of Kitware.