As David and I continue to experiment with barefoot running, adding miles, altering terrain and slowly adapting our muscles to this natural way of moving, I marvel at how effortless it is for David, and balk at how difficult it is for me.
When we used to run in trainers, I was the one who could keep going happily for miles whilst David would struggle awkardly and seem to work harder than necessary. Now that we've shed our shoes, it's as though David has been freed of the evil hindrances that were slowing him down and hampering his natural running style and he now flies along almost just skimming the earth beneath him. For me, however, it's the opposite. My shoes were apparently masking a multidude of sins that have now been exposed and are reaking havoc on my body. My feet are sensitive; little niggles that I used to be able to ignore (but shouldn't have) are now shouting too loudly for me to silence them.
It's not that I'm not improving - I'm actually getting quite good - but still, the question keeps bugging me: why is it so much easier for David than for me? I was as good, if not better than him at running before. He could beat me at most other sports, but running was my thing. What's going on?!
I recently read an article on Christopher McDougall's blog which encouraged me to think beyond the self-pitying "it's not fair" train of thought. His article is very funny, by the way, you should read it, it's called "Dr. Runner's World and Mr.Hyde" (www.chrismcdougall.com/blog). In a particular section of the article, he questions how the journalist he ran with a couple of months ago, who had never run barefoot before, was able to knock out 6 miles sans the shoes and with no nasty repercussions. He then notes that other runners take weeks or longer to adjust to barefooting. He concludes that "...the truth is, no one really knows".
Well, to some extent, that's true. There isn't one, singlular attribute that puts certain runners above others on the capability scale. There's no universal rule governing who will find barefooting easy and who won't - but there are a number (quite a large number) of contributing factors and looking back at your general exercise and movement history will help. For example, David's background lies predominantly in martial arts and dance, both of which emphasize whole body motion. With martial arts particularly, he was encouraged to use both sides of his body equally and as a result has extremely balanced movement. David's martial arts instuctor also made him run outside without shoes on and all his training was done barefoot, so his feet have been well-prepared and conditioned for barefoot running.
Injuries play a role too and more importantly, how well you recover from them. The healing process can lengthy and requires rest and rehabilitation, things most of us aren't very good at. A healthy, balanced diet is also key not only to recovery, but injury prevention as well.
Then there's genetics. I was born with lax joints apparently (my hips used to dislocate when I was a baby and I had to wear double nappies to hold them in place) and my joints still have that disconcerting tendency to fall out of place. David is genetically very strong - without any specific training, his father was able to lift an entire car engine all by himself. I think there can be quite marked differences in the congenital "quality" of people's soft tissue. There hasn't been enough diverse research on this subject (most is carried out on Caucasian men) but in my opinion, if the meat that you eat can vary so much in texture, chew-ability, etc. then surely human tissue can be predisposed to different levels of pliability?
There are other factors to consider too: how active generally were you as a child, how active are you now, how often do you go without shoes, what sorts of shoes do you wear, what's your natural running style like?....the list is endless.
So, having mulled over the above I've come to the conclusion that I always end up with when these questions of comparison arise: don't compare yourself to anyone but you. It's no good - and can be quite demoralising - to rate your progress according to somebody elses. It's silly really. My barefoot running journey is mine - I am experimenting with my own body and learning from it. It really shouldn't be about anybody else. And I think this attitude comes across with all barefooters, particularly the veterans such as Barefoot Ted and Barefoot Ken Bob. They share with us their own experiences, the ups and downs, the successes and failures. They say, "hey, why not try this?" or, "have a go at that". But their message is always very clear: listen you your own body and respect what it's saying. This is not a competition.
And so, my own personal barefoot journey continues and I will stop trying to make ludicrous comparisons between myself and my running partner who is practically the exact opposite of me. I would encourage anybody taking on the same barefoot running challenge to take a realistic look at their background, build and running style and adapt accordingly. Your body - or more specifically your feet - will tell you what to do.