Chris Hawson didn't run much in New York City until he took off his shoes. That was three years, and more than 9,000 miles, ago.
"You can blame Chris McDougall and Born to Run for that,” he says while sipping hot chocolate in a coffee shop near the Union Square Paragon Sports where he works as an outerwear buyer. “It was inspirational to me. I didn't treat it as a technique manual, but it set me off on a path.”
A health scare in 2009 prompted Hawson, now in his mid-50s, to start running a couple of times a week, but he found his IT bands, knees, and shins started to hurt, forcing him to resort to inline skating. Then Hawson, who spent a decade leading bike and ski trips in Northern Scotland, discovered Vibram FiveFingers and ran a few hundred miles during the summer and fall, mixing them in with a couple other pairs of more traditional shoes. But winter came, so he packed the FiveFingers away because of the cold. That plan didn't last long, however, and pretty soon he had ditched conventional shoes entirely.
"The following February my boss told me that his son was going to only run in FiveFingers. I thought, Hell, if he can do that, I can do that. By the first of April, I'd done my first barefoot run,” he says. “Everything was wrong: I was on the beach. I did 11 miles. I did it the next day, too, and I felt fine because my legs had developed the strength in the preceding months to let me manage it. That summer a third of my running was barefoot. It took awhile to adapt, for the skin to get less aware or get thicker or whatever it does. The last two summers I've basically not worn shoes between sometime in May and the end of October. I've done a couple thousand miles each season."
Three years later, he runs either entirely barefoot, in VFFs, or in the Altra Adams he's wearing when we talk, and he hasn't missed a day due to injury. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that over the past two years he hasn't missed a month doing at least one barefoot run on the streets of New York. We met on a Monday—less than 10 days after Superstorm Nemo dropped 10 inches of snow on the city—and he had jogged home barefoot the previous Friday evening dodging the occasional pile of plowed snow. His barefoot mileage is down this winter, which has been quite cold, but he gets out when he can. Still, even he has his limits. "I have friends in Winnipeg and they will go running in -34. I'm not going to play that game."
WHEN HAWSON IS BAREFOOT, he gets strange looks running to and from work and his home on the Upper West Side—through Central Park and down Madison Avenue—but that's just fine with him. The reactions run the gamut. "Last spring, one girl went 'ew, ew, ew,' but half a mile later, there were four guys walking down toward me on Fifth Ave. and they thought it was cool,” he says. “They wanted to know how far I was going.”
The community of barefoot runners in New York is small—it peaked during the Born to Run craze and has tapered off since—but committed. There's a Meetup group that holds informal runs every week, and a handful of people turn out on summer nights. Interestingly, Hawson says it’s mostly beginners. Occasional more prestigious without-shoe events draw larger crowds. It will always remain a niche subset, a very niche one, but it's not going away.
New York, of course, is not the cleanest place in the world, so I asked Hawson how he avoided dangerous detritus on the streets. "As I told my mother, I've taken my shoes off my feet but my eyes are still in my head,” he says. “I've really had next to no issues. I had one piece of glass that slowed me down for a couple of days. I picked that up during a thunderstorm. I couldn't see anything because there were so many reflections. But otherwise, pretty much everything has either brushed off or been picked out in a few seconds. I think I counted 11 pieces by the end of my first 5,000 miles."
(Playing Devil's Advocate, that's still 11 pieces of glass in your foot.)
But the positives outweigh the negatives for Hawson. Barefoot running sounds a lot like traditional running, only with a forced focus on technique. "You have to pick your foot up and put it down," he says. "If you slide and scrape, you'll get blisters or worse."
For Hawson, the reasons to take off the kicks and place foot to pavement are simple: "It's fun. It's different. And it keeps me young."
Noah Davis (@noahedavis) is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.