Much has been written about Mexico’s Tarahumara, or “Running People,” all of whom can jog some 250 miles in a single clip, purportedly without shoes. I can’t help but wonder what might happen were a wayward tribesman to stumble upon a Foot Locker and its piebald shoe wall like an exploded Skittles factory. This pair orange, with two-layer rigidity. This one radium red, a midsole saddle and improved flexibility. Another’s canary-colored toe-box is ballooned for the wide of foot. Some are airy as fishnet, others more high-tech moonboots than trainers.
The sheer volume bewilders even the savviest among us. Still, zeitgeist demands we reevaluate our footwear before taking a single step, though like everything in life there may be a gulf between what is and what is assumed. Put simply, popular misconceptions might be leading us astray.
Considering whether or not to buy shoes is, of course, rooted in logic. Likely the soles of our old ones show signs of wear, are uneven or worse: flopping like fish with each stride. The cushioning could be compressed, the laces grim and aglet-less. And if they look so, how can the vulcanized rubber grip as intended, the dual-density foam polymers pad underfoot, the rear stabilizers, well, stabilize?
And that is to say nothing of the knee, “the most complicated and largest joint in our body,” a gliding sandwich of Latin derivatives held together the body’s rubber bands. As Nike co-founder Philip H. Knight recently put it on Marketplace, “An ounce in a pair of shoes is worth 10,000 pounds in the last ten yards of a mile.”
So what better way to convince ourselves we must log miles than buying a flashy new pair. An implicit contract is then forged reminiscent of Field of Dreams—Iowa corn farmer/baseball superfan (Kevin Costner) hears a smoky voice whisper, “If you build it, he will come.” In this case, if you buy them, you will run.
It’s not hyperbole to say we are in the golden era of running technology. The convergence of state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques and our obsession with competitive athletics has led to some impressive gains: gel pockets, progress arch support, extraterrestrial outsoles not unlike the Mars rover; a couple hundred bucks can get you microprocessor monitored cushioning to match every stride!
While recent improvements approach apoplectic, the modern running shoe has humble beginnings. Prior to 1974, running meant either strapping on whatever clodhoppers lurked in your closet or going au naturel, letting the spring wind squirrel through your toes. In 1974, however, Nike released a lightweight, well cushioned Waffle Trainer, giving rise to something of an arms (or foots) race. Now, this many years later, the athletic footwear market is forecast to soon reach 84.4 billion dollars.
Yet despite predicted industry value, market share, projected gross dividends, there exists an incredible irony: those dastardly Tarahumara and their shoeless 250 miles per, in some cases 400+. So what gives?
As recorded by Christopher McDougall in Born to Run and corroborated by various researchers worldwide: the human body, that’s what!
For shoe manufactures like Philip H. Knight, the modern running shoe is an attempt to fool the foot, and by extension human physiology, that it is not hammering away at a hard surface and therefore should be quite content. It’s a crusade for constant motion. Nevertheless, film analysis shows that when a shoeless leg swings forward, the knee angle obtuse, the human forefoot reaches for a firm place to plant, and in doing so the arch loads like a spring, dampening vibration otherwise shuttled toward the knee. As a result, barefoot runners pick their way along, wary of terrain, all the while strengthening the muscles of the foot. Suffice it to say, we really were born to run.
On the contrary, the modern running shoe with its cumulus cushioning encourages what is known as “heel strike”—that heel first, and then forward rocking motion—which some speculate causes the Tibia and Fibula to approximate a tuning fork. Further, studies indicate that the oft-advertised fortress-like support can weaken foot musculature increasing incidence of injury. To make matters worse, evidence suggests that those exorbitant, micro-considerate sneakers are no better at preventing foot trauma than their cheapie counterparts.
What, then, is one to do? Pitch every last sneaker overboard for bare feet?
No. The answer is simpler than that: just get out there. Start slow. Increase as necessary. Buy if you must. But for goodness’ sake, listen to your body. It’s the only one you have.
Please note that the science surrounding shoe technology, heel strike as opposed to forefoot, is still hotly debated. Perhaps it’s best to regard all this the way we do (or should) any preconceived notions: just because they’re swirling around, doesn’t make them true.
Take the stigma surrounding mental health, for example. Public perception tells us mental illness is rare, that those affected act erratically; they are violent and engage in criminal behavior. Statistics, however, reveal a startling counter narrative. In the United States, 1 in 4 adults experience mental illness in any given year, and sources confirm that there are no predictable patterns linking criminal conduct and mental illness, violent or otherwise. In fact, the sad reality is that people with mental illness are four times more likely to endure physical, sexual, or domestic violence than those without disabilities.
The data involving self-harm is just as alarming. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for adults nationwide and the 2nd leading cause for ages 10 to 24. For New Hampshire youth ages 10 to 24, suicide is the LEADING cause of death. And while the military represents only 1% of the U.S. population, veterans account for 22% of suicides nationally.
Such is the chasm between what is and what is assumed.
In the end, I suppose the best thing one can do is pay attention. Take each day, each person we meet, each decision we make with eyes wide open and refuse to let the winds of popular thought sweep us off. Running shoes, after all, can be a metaphor for so, so many things.
 American Psychological Association. (2014). Mental Illness Not Usually Linked to Crime, Research Finds.
 Phend, Crystal. (2012). Mentally Ill Often Targets of Violence. Medpage Today
 National Alliance of Mental Illness. (2013). Mental Illness FACTS AND NUMBERS.