I am not sure what other runners would do when handed a prescription for redesigning their running form, but I did what I do in many aspects of my life: I sulked. I feel like I should automatically know how to do this, like running properly should be an intuitive action. I am hard on myself because I don’t have that instinct that tells me to lift my feet behind me, to have a rotary form, to propel myself forward while being light on my feet. I had focused on the Chi running form—well for a short while, anyway—and I admit I may have gotten a bit lazy. But isn’t it quite arrogant of me to assume I can run intuitively when so many others have coaches, clinics, years of training? Needless to say, I am no longer sulking.
So, am I back at square-one? Well, not entirely. The good news is that I have learned how to run for some distance. I have learned about proper hydration and nutrition for long runs. I also know that I have it in me to do this thing (though whether or not I can do 26 miles remains to be seen). And, I am willing to learn. This has been my experience, that as long as I am willing to learn, the world is open to me.
Having recently become obsessed with proper running form, I scoured the internet for information and videos (there’s quite a bit out there). I tried out different exercises. I got back into the Chi form. I started running on a Tartan track twice a week working with speed and lean. All of these were fine but nothing was magic. I think I was still looking for some instant gratification.
One day, after a particularly intense massage on my sore ankle, my Physical Therapist asked me about barefoot running. I told him that I had been at the playground with my little girls recently and the thought had occurred to me. Naturally, in all my obsessive searching for the quick answer to my running problems, I had come across barefoot running. As well, my occasional running partner Jeanette Welker had been running in 5-finger shoes and had talked about the benefits of her foot strike without the thick heel of a traditional training shoe. Still, I told Joe my excuse for not trying the grass that day at the playground was that it was filled with clover, and the clover was filled with bees. As much as I admire the metaphor of bees and even their simple beauty and role in life, I do not appreciate their self defense when applied toward me. Joe explained that even a short barefoot run can refocus my feet and legs to a more proper form, reminding my body to strike below my column rather than out in front. Then he gave me a another series of exercises to do, something like a crane stance with a flexed heel to a small kick to a swift stroke of the foot down then out behind me. The key to this is to make sure I am lifting with my glute and really employing my hip to do the motion. It is actually easier to write than to perform in reps.
As it happened, I was at the track that night working on speed and form. I had all of my attention on my feet and where they were striking below my column and which part of them was hitting the track. Mostly, I was getting a mid-foot strike, sometimes exaggerating and getting up on the balls of my feet, but there was occasion to slip back into the heel strike when my focus was on the iPod or elsewhere. Still, overall, I felt like it was a successful run. It was only about 4 miles. I stopped every so often and did the crane stance reps. The night came on cool and the sky was darkening, but the neighboring softball fields gave off enough light so that I could continue to run without worry for the waxing evening.
At the end of the run, I walked slowly to my car, sipping from my canteen and feeling my heartbeat slow back to a normal rhythm. I sat in the grass and did some long stretches. I put my hands out into the grass as I reached forward leaning over my legs. I remember a friend once told me about the amazing properties of grass, about how each blade grows back to a point sometimes mere hours after it is cut square at its tip. As I thought about this, feeling the warmth in my legs, I looked out over the stretch of lawn where I sat. It was filled with sweet clover, but void of bees. It was nighttime for the bees. This thought moved me to my feet at once, and off came the shoes.
I began to slowly trot, over the grass, building cautiously to a more moderate pace. I ran back and forth on the small swath of lawn feeling the cool carpet under my toes. Yes, I was aware of the underside of my toes, the balls of my feet taking the fall of each step, my heels scarcely involved the effort. It was fun. I ran from one end to the next, turning and trotting and then sprinting on the stretches. At one turn, I saw children by the side of one of the softball fields; they were also running in the grass. I tried to mimic their form, their freedom. After all, running is actually intuitive for children. When I once asked Joe Uhan why he thought it changed as we got older he said that we get stiff, we spend too much time in one position, either at a desk or otherwise, and it is not natural for our bodies. We forget that freedom. Well, running in the grass that night, in the cool evening of summer, I awakened something in me. Now, each time I run at the track, I finish with some time in the grass. It is my cream at the bottom of the Hawaiian Shave Ice—summer’s sweet reward.
So, this latest session with Joe Uhan, he mentioned that I was making improvements. We talked about my experience with the barefoot running in the grass. He made a pretty radical suggestion. He said that I should try the grass before I run the track. He had me run barefoot in the clinic and then he took me outside and had me run the same way in my shoes. It was a challenge; I feel like I am exaggerating a more organic form, but I am willing to try it if it is going to get me away from injury and back in love with running.
When I left there that morning, I ran about 2.5 miles along the river trail. I did this on the balls of my feet, slow and deliberate. I felt like a kook, but I did it. Toward the end of the experiment, my calves were sore (as they are today, over 24 hours later) but I feel like I gained something. I think there is a happy medium. Like tuning the strings on a guitar, each has its own ideal pitch. If one is out, it could change the pitch of others and affect the sound of the instrument entirely. Often it is best to have some outside source to give a true G or E so that all strings can be tuned just so. I am fine tuning each element of my running and listening to a true outside source that wants to help me to be tuned correctly. Again, as long as I am willing to learn, the world is open to me.
Now I need to stop writing and work on stretching out these sore calves or I wont be running with my training group tomorrow.