As one runner crossed the finish line in last Sunday’s Tucson Marathon, he broke a world record: running marathons barefoot in all 50 states.
“I have stepped in just about everything you can think of,” Eddie Vega told the local ABC affiliate on Dec. 7. “Dog poop half a dozen times, nails, screws and rocks.”
But Vega runs barefoot for a reason.
“There’s a saying that to really understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes,” he said. “And there are over 300 million kids in the world who have no shoes.”
Vega collects donations for the nonprofit Soles4Souls, which provides shoes and clothing to the needy. This year, donations for his runs have contributed 7,000 pairs of shoes to people in the Philippines, where he lived before emigrating to Guam and then the United States at age six.
“It brings tears to my eyes when I think about it because as a toddler I grew up not having shoes,” Vega said. “Being there myself, I know what it’s like, and I want to make sure they don’t have to suffer those consequences because they can’t afford shoes.”
Sunday’s run also marks Vega’s 89th marathon run barefoot. But he’s not stopping anytime soon: “My goal is to run 100 barefoot marathons,” he said.
Barefoot Running Trends
Not all runners who train or compete barefoot do so for charitable causes.
The popularity of running barefoot or in minimalist shoes surged after Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born to Run was published in 2009. Sports One Source, a sports research firm, says that sales of these minimalist shoes reached a peak of $400 million in 2012.
But popularity has dropped since then. This year, popular five-finger shoe maker Vibram settled a class action suit that alleged the company had made health claims about its shoes without evidence.
Healthy barefoot running, doctors say, requires that a person be able to transition from a heel-strike to a forefoot-strike running style. In a 2011 study done by the University of Wisconsin at the behest of the American Council on Exercise, only half of the runners who participated were able to change their running style when not wearing traditional, thick-soled running shoes.
This can lead to serious injury over time.
About 75% of Americans have foot problems of varying severity at some point in their lives, but runners are far more likely than the rest of the population to suffer from repetitive stress injuries. According to research from Harvard, between 30 and 70% of runners get such an injury every year.
Any runners interested in challenging Vega’s feat should take seriously a statement put out by the American Podiatric Medical Association soon after the Vibram case emerged: “While anecdotal evidence and testimonials proliferate on the Internet and in the media about the possible health benefits of barefoot running, research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of this practice.”