I meet Ted McDonald, known to the long-distance running world as “Barefoot Ted“, on a warm, sunny morning in Hyde Park. Clad in a white vest, black shorts and sandals, the 49-year-old Californian promptly strips off his top and footwear for our training session.
Ted has worked hard to earn the honorary title of “Barefoot”, having completed more than 20 marathons, ultra-marathons and 100-mile trail runs either barefoot or in “minimalist footwear”. His legs are as hard and gnarled as ancient tree trunks. And despite the gruelling distances, his feet, hamstrings, knees and back are, he assures me, injury-free.
“We have inherited the perfect hardware to become the perfect long-distance running animal,” says Ted, looking down to his bare feet. He quotes Leonardo da Vinci, who called our feet the “pre-eminently engineered part of the body”. He is enthusiastic to the point of evangelical.
Ted’s epiphany came as he approached 40. He got backache. Like many of us, he took up running because he wanted to be fitter and have more energy, but his lower back gave him agony. “I was looking into these fancy shoes, these $300 Kangoo Jumps from Switzerland,” he says. “But they didn’t help. I couldn’t run further than an hour without a jarring, pounding feeling and I wanted to run a marathon. I was practically giving up.”
It was then Ted discovered the website of “Barefoot Ken Bob” Saxton, the leading instructor of the barefoot running movement. He read up about the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico, who could run 100 miles in simple sandals, injury-free; about the barefoot marathon runners of the Sixties who smashed record times. Then came the introduction of Bill Bowerman‘s Nike trainer and “the idea that if you can get people to land on their bony heel they can run better”, says Ted disparagingly. Cushioned sports shoes are today a multimillion-pound market and ever advanced in their technology. So, goes the argument, why are we still plagued by running injuries?