Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee are husband and wife, founders of the RunBare Company, and authors of two books dedicated to shoeless, outdoor exercise. Following the success of their 2011 manual, Barefoot Running: How to Run Light and Free by Getting in Touch with the Earth (Crown Publishing), comes the sequel that should have been a prequel, Barefoot Walking: Free Your Feet to Minimize Impact, Maximize Efficiency, and Discover the Pleasure of Getting in Touch with the Earth (Crown, $19.99).
Mastering the sport of barefoot nature walking may be No. 714 on your bucket list. But it is the authors’ top priority. Although the book contains a medical disclaimer -- Sandler and Lee are neither doctors nor dieticians –- they are bursting to espouse the possible health benefits of being barefoot: increased bone density, circulation, height, and balance; lower blood pressure and stress; a stronger immune system; a sharper mind; and a heightened sex drive.
From the table of contents onward, my temporal lobe pulsed with the 1992 Annie Lennox song, “Walking on Broken Glass” (here's a link to the Renaissance-themed music video). Annie screamed along with me when I read the words, “Soon enough, glass will become no more than a sharp pebble.”
Still, having spent 400 pages with Sandler and Lee, I can attest that they are much more friendly and zen than any ordinary pair of extremists. In a perfect world, they’d never have to wear shoes again (concessions are made for dog parks and public bathrooms, but not traipsing through downtown Manhattan).
The restaurant aphorism “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” is a “discriminatory artifact from our past;” since barefootedness in a business establishment is technically not a crime. This couple makes most of their own meals anyway -- a diet 90 percent comprised of raw foods. Speaking of raw foods, the barefoot bride and groom were married on an organic farm at 10:10am on October 10, 2010, standing tall on their two sets of 10 toes.
In Christian Launder’s catty, clever blog-turned-book Stuff White People Like (Random House, 2008), No. 9 on the list is “Making you feel bad for not going outside.” That sentiment is just the tip of the guilt-iceberg in Barefoot Walking. High heels, sneakers, typical pedicures and hot tubs: bad. Shoes and socks for babies: really bad. Sitting at a desk all day: the worst.
I first read about the modern barefoot movement in 2008, in Adam Sternbergh’s New York magazine article, “You Walk Wrong,” written a year before Sandler and Lee established RunBare. The photographs accompanying “You Walk Wrong” are genius. Artists John Maurad and Jenai Chin applied make-up to transform regular feet into exact replicas of a leather Oxford, a Christian Louboutin heel, and an Adidas cleat.
One of my best friends, an actress/river guide who used to sell camping and hiking gear, is rarely seen without her barefoot-proxy, Vibram FiveFingers footwear. (We became friends after our first improv class, where the teacher interrupted himself to ogle her toes and proclaim, “Those are weird.”) If you’ve seen the two-man Discovery Channel show Dual Survival, wilderness expert Cody Lundin touts that he’s been going barefoot for 20 years.
Some people remember the 1960 Olympics, when Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila ran the marathon barefooted and won gold. (While Bikila trained barefoot, he never planned on eschewing shoes in the race -- the pair he was provided with was too big. He wore shoes when he won his second gold medal in 1964).
Earlier this month, The New York Times interviewed one of many doctors who is leery of barefoot running. Several other media outlets reported similar stories, including The Huffington Post. With constant use, certain shoes will wreck your feet. Yet legions of women will not only keep wearing high heels (myself included), but also shirk the “benefits” of being barefoot, such as wider feet and higher arches.
My recent attempt at barefoot walking took place on a freezing sidewalk in Chicago. Day one, the authors recommend walking for up to three minutes. Within a few seconds, the cold dissipated and my feet felt pleasantly fizzy, like walking on champagne with traction. When I took a couple steps on the pulpy grass, I felt childlike and rebellious. The not-so-wonderful side effect: Despite my brief jaunt on pavement usually covered in snow, the balls of my feet looked embedded with dirt; the grime rinsed off instantly in the shower. I’ll try again in a more rustic environment.
Barefoot Walking is a worthwhile skim, especially because the authors believe it’s never too late to learn. They’d welcome you warmly after you check off those other 713 to-dos first.