Robillard, The Barefoot Running Book

Jason Robillard’s The Barefoot Running Book is a primer on the “art & science of barefoot running.” At seventy-some pages, this first edition amounts to a relatively informal extended essay, every bit as minimalist as the running equipment it advocates. Robillard, a psychology teacher from Grand Rapids and blogger at Barefoot Running University, recommends a slow-buildup approach to barefoot running that moves predictably from pre-running (foot strengthening and sole toughening) to barefoot exercises concerned with footstrike (“foot kiss”), cadence, and relaxation to intermediate and advanced training. The book also offers cautionary advice about blisters, minimalist shoes, avoiding debris (a basic assumption being that this barefoot running happens on hard surfaces, such as pavement). All of this guidance rests on a premise I largely accept as reasonable, which is that running shoes, or “foot coffins” as Robillard calls them, muffle many of the foot’s potential sensitivities, resulting in weakened, hobbled feet.

I am no barefoot runner as of yet, but the emphases Robillard places on falling forward and on processing foot lifts rather than foot falls are instructive to me as a novice. And will probably continue to say “novice” for many more years because I don’t run often or far or with much desire to identify as a runner, much less a minimalist runner. These ideas from Robillard come more as reminders than as new ideas; the running I’ve been doing lately (just under 3.5 miles three mornings each week) has been relatively stress free, as stress free as any running I have done before. That is, I don’t think of this as hardcore training or even exercise but as something more like meditation.

So why should I be reading a book on barefoot running? This is due entirely to my brother’s influence. The book arrived Kindle-lent as an experiment between us to understand how Kindle book loans work. That this was a lent book meant I could have it for fourteen days (expired today). I wanted not only to read the book in that time, but also to add a couple of annotations and disconnect my Kindle from the network to learn whether, when the loan period expired, it would remain on the device. So far, it has. I received the expiration notice via email this morning from Amazon, but I have been able to access the book and annotations the same as before (note: I have not connected the Kindle to the network; when I do, I suspect the status of the book will change. What of the notes? I don’t know yet.). Here’s one of them, on scanning a few steps ahead: “In either case [smooth asphalt or rugged trails], you eventually develop foot-eye coordination. Your eyes will scan the terrain in front of you. Your brain will create a cognitive map of that terrain” (Loc. 951).

I’m intrigued by barefoot running, but the extent of my training in the near term will be to end the morning loop by removing my shoes and walking a little less than a half mile barefoot while cooling down. Maybe by October I will try to jog it. That’s probably going to be the end of it before winter (although Robillard says he runs barefoot in temps as low as 20F). And I will, of course, have my brother to thank (or curse), considering he is nowadays running upwards of three miles barefoot on asphalt. That he doesn’t seem at all miserable about it—quite the opposite!—makes it harder for me to dismiss as lunacy.

Drift Types

Early this morning I read Michael Finkel’s recent GQ article, “Here Be Monsters,” about three Tokelauan teens who survived fifty-one days adrift at sea. It proved an uncanny read on the Kindle, considering I pushed it there mostly to try out Readability’s new “Send to Kindle” option, and I have also been slow-slow-Kindle-reading Arum and Roksa’s report on the failures of colleges, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Some sort of reading device-based juxtaposition in this, I guess.

The fruits of this pollenation, if they can be called fruits and not flotsam, include a hypothetical reading list for a course I will probably never teach on different types of drifting (dreaming it up, so let’s consider it a course on curriculum).

From “Here Be Monsters,”

Some-times boats are blown off course; there’s even a Tokelauan word for this: lelea. It’s theorized that the very existence of people on the island–is has been inhabited for a thousand years–is because a Polynesian canoe drifted off course. But there is also another, more complicated Tokelauan word: tagavaka. This applies to boats that have purposely sailed away–for love, adventure, or suicide.

What, for example, comes of viewing academic drift in terms of lelea and tagavaka? And what of the here/there reference to monsters (in the article’s title) might productively refocus academy drift characterizations on drifting from and drifting toward?

And we would need additional readings in this speculative scenario: Singer’s “The Castaways,” Menand’s “Live and Learn” (an ENGL328 student just shared this one with me), Haynes’ inestimable “Writing Offshore,” and, why not?, something on The Essex. And, it’s undeniable, I wrote an entry a lot like this one just about four years ago. I have continued in the intervening years to drift away from and, having surrendered to currents, back toward ideas like these–ideas rekindled, of course, by my dissatisfaction with academic drift-states cast too singularly as a problem to be buoyed simply by resetting drifters on a fixed, positionally precise course.

The “Here Be Monsters” article includes a nod to assessment from a New Zealand psychiatrist who examined the boys: “‘They won’t ever forget this,’ he says. ‘It won’t be put out of their minds. But young people tend to be resilient, able to work through tragedies with reasonably good long-term results.'”