Ingleside man crosses marathon finish line in bare feet
The course of the 33rd Bank of America Chicago Marathon was highlighted with the typical assortment of costumes, tutus, tiaras and colorful head gear that helped runners stand out in the mass of humanity moving through the city.
For Eric Vouga of Ingleside, it wasn't what he added to his running ensemble that drew curious looks, but what he did without.
"Hey, you forgot your shoes, shouted one spectator after Vouga decided to go completely barefoot at mile marker 20. The shoes he'd worn until that point weren't running shoes, but a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, a minimalist shoe that looks like a glove for your feet, serving to protect the surface somewhat but offering no support.
Running at least a portion of the marathon unshod is a "feat he'd been considering since he took up running barefoot on forest trails in March after he'd read the book "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall.
The book has sparked a barefoot running movement, the notion being shoes actually cause more injuries and the feet are actually works of architectural genius, perfectly designed to enable running long distances.
Vouga, a self-employed personal trainer, admits he had much anxiety about plodding along the racecourse unshod, as pavement is much harder than trails and he was undecided about shedding the Vibrams at all. The weather had left him with no excuse. It's likely he wouldn't have attempted this in extreme temperatures.
"I started off in the Vibrams and I'm glad I did because the road was really rough ... Vouga said. "There were some sections I had to block out the pain and just run.
Resting in the tent of Opportunity Enterprises, the charity he represented, Vouga inspected the damage, which consisted of a couple of grimy blisters and some sticky residue left over from the Gatorade- and goo-covered pavement.
His official time was 4:50.38, about 20 minutes more than the times he'd recorded in his previous five shoe-wearing marathons. How does a barefoot runner record an official time without a shoe to affix the timing band, you ask? With a hair band around the ankle, of course.
Vouga, who celebrates his 50th birthday Wednesday, admits he prefers to go against the grain.
When park rangers advised against hiking down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in one day, for example, that's exactly what he wanted to accomplish. So despite repeated, harsh warnings, he packed a 35-pound pack filled mostly with water and set out to do just that. He did it two days in a row.
One of his few supporters, his brother, John Mark Vouga, 47, of Valparaiso, Ind. is inspired, though he said he won't join the barefoot running bandwagon.
"It was cool before today, but today, watching what he did ... it's absolutely mind-blowing, he said.
The brothers ran along with Vouga's neighbor, first-time marathoner Scott Cox, 46, of Ingleside, who said he might consider running without shoes for short distances.
Before Sunday, Vouga had never run this kind of distance in bare feet or in the Vibrams. Hot summer temperatures and scorching pavement had hindered his intentions. Clearly more confident now, he'd like to try the entire marathon sans shoes next year.
"Another year of running barefoot and I could do the whole course barefoot, Vouga said. "I just don't think I've got enough road running in to really toughen them up and handle the asphalt.
Proponents of barefoot running say unshod is a healthier way to run and that when shoes are doing the work, the tendons, ligaments and muscles shrivel and stiffen. Shoes have become an addiction, they say, and increasingly necessary to support feet that have been lazing around.
"Just think about it, it's natural, Vouga said. "We were born in our bare feet. We weren't born with all this modern stuff wrapped around our feet and supporting this and building up this and make sure you don't do that.
Doctors who advise against it generally say barefoot running is something only the fittest individuals can succeed at.
To anyone wanting to take up barefoot running, Vouga advises starting slow to gradually toughen the feet and concentrating on the running technique, which naturally changes to running more on the balls of the feet and not striking the ground with your heel.