Barefoot runners from all over came out on Friday night to hear a panel of experts, celebrities, and coaches speak about minimalism.
Written by: Duncan Larkin
The line outside of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a cavernous, wood-paneled auditorium located adjacent to Central Park, wrapped all the way around the block. For barefoot runners in The Big Apple, this was the place to be two days before the ING New York City Marathon. Many of the runners in line wore Vibram Five Fingers, the trademark shoe of the minimalist movement. Some held copies of Chris McDougall’s recent bestseller, “Born To Run”.
Each of these fans paid $10 to attend a seminar called “Reinventing Running: The Cabaret”. The event was hosted by McDougall and featured several experts and celebrities in the field of minimalist and ultra running, including Harvard evolutionary biology professor Dr. Daniel Lieberman, Hollywood actor Peter Sarsgaard, and one of the characters from “Born To Run,” Barefoot Ted McDonald.
Dr. Deepan Kamaraj from Chennai, India was one of the fans waiting in line. While working in Pittsburgh as a fellow, Kamaraj discovered Professor Lieberman’s work and was intrigued by the science behind the theory that humans have evolved to run. The doctor recently took up running and has already completed two marathons—both with shoes on. “I’m curious about the concept of barefoot running,” Kamaraj said. “I’ve already run a half marathon with a pair Vibrams, and am going to try the marathon with them soon.”
Standing next to Kamaraj in line was Tucker Goodrich from Weston, Connecticut. Like Kamaraj, Goodrich discovered barefoot running through Professor Lieberman. Goodrich heard the Harvard professor speak two years ago and was intrigued. “I bought my first pair of Vibrams after that,” Goodrich said.
Both men weren’t fazed by having to pay for the lecture. “Hey, $10 is a cheap night in New York City,” Goodrich said, laughing.
Annette Bonwetsch, a longtime acquaintance of McDougall’s, drove into the city last night to see her old friend. She will be running the marathon on Sunday in her Vibrams. “I love it. I love the feeling they give me,” she said. On occasion, Bonwetsch has even shed the Vibrams and taken it step further by going barefoot on numerous occasions. “Sometimes when Chris and I go running, I take off my shoes and he ends up having to carry them for me,” she chuckled.
After the doors opened, the crowd filed in past several Vibram sales booths and settled into the auditorium.
McDougall and his fellow speakers mingled off-stage. The lights dimmed while a hula dancer appeared onstage and danced to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Barefoot Ted later gave the reason for the grass-skirt dancer. “When you think about it, running is really just dance. It’s a free expression of movement; it’s our birthright.”
At the end of the hula dance, a smiling McDougall mounted the stage and addressed the crowd. “Barefoot running is a revelation. Last year, us barefoot runners were weirdoes, but this year we’re in the mainstream. We’re no longer defending barefoot running,” he said.
The audience erupted with cheers and claps.
Following McDougall was Professor Lieberman, who took the audience through a light-hearted presentation that pointed out how humans have evolved into runners. “The body feels good after a run, because the body evolved to feel good,” he said. “The same endocannabinoid receptors that are stimulated when you run, a legal activity, are stimulated when you do other illegal activity.”
He clicked his pointer and brought up the next slide: a picture of a hippie runner. The crowd laughed.
The last panelist for the evening was actor Peter Sarsgaard. On a recent trip to Mumbai, India, Sarsgaard was influenced by the Jainist movement, which eschews all footwear for fear of killing anything living. While on the set for “The Green Lantern”, the actor read McDougall’s book and was immediately influenced to try out barefoot running. “I’ve realized that by living in New York City, all I’ve been doing is window shopping,” he said. “There was something missing in my life. And after I took up running, I’ve realized that I’ve been made better because of it.”
The last words of the evening were McDougall’s: “Running should be fun. It should be something to enjoy, so if you see a friend out on a run, don’t make it a necessity to run him down and pass him. Catch up to him and say, ‘Hey, let’s run. Let’s enjoy our time together.’”
Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was recently released.