For Ted McDonald of Seattle, the forefoot strike was a turning point in his running life. "It was close to a religious experience," said McDonald, describing his first barefoot jog.
McDonald, 43, had struggled with back pain while running prior to taking his shoes off. But the barefoot style suited him so well that he went on to run several marathons sans shoes and created a website to blog on the topic, barefootted.com.
"The first day I went barefoot was the greatest run of my life," McDonald said.
In my run last week with Laiti "greatness" did not enter the vocabulary. It started out fine enough, with Laiti running and me following on a bike to get a glimpse of his technique. Then, after abandoning my shoes, I put pink soles to the paved path and followed as Laiti floated away.
A legend of sorts in local running circles, Laiti is known simply as "the barefoot guy," according to Heidi Keller Miler of the Minnesota Distance Running Association. "He runs workouts, races, marathons—everything barefoot."
Indeed, it was nearly 30 years ago when Laiti left his shoes behind for a run. "I do it because I can," said the 115-pound runner. "It psyches people out."
He has trained several nights a week for decades, barefoot on pavement, grass and trails, from April to October most years. Obstacles including searing hot pavement in the summer, goose poop each fall, and glass on race courses have not slowed Laiti down. "I only complain when they re-tar a trail," he said.
My leap into the barefooting game with Laiti—a 1.5-mile run on pavement and gravel—was perhaps an ambitious first go. We cranked quickly up to pace, running past a power-walking couple who squinted at our naked toes, my feet flapping on the path.
"Feeling anything?" Laiti asked.
I was. With each step my toes and forefeet pricked on grit and gravel. The asphalt was forgiving, smooth-feeling, actually, though bumps, cracks and any aberrations caused tension.
But the gait was easy and efficient, a short, quick stepping on the forefoot with little movement of the ankle and no employment of the heel. Laiti and I started to talk and I temporarily forgot about the situation underfoot.
Always in training mode, this October will mark Laiti's 27th Twin Cities Marathon—all but a portion of one year's race done without shoes. He runs shoulders back, confident, feet chalky and calloused from years on the run.
During my initiation run, Laiti and I went three-quarters of a mile before I noticed the blood. A pinky toe, worn through from pavement, dangled sad and injured, a flap of skin signaling my defeat. Pads behind my toes were turning red.
On the phone the following day, I told Dr. Langer about my mishap. He said most podiatrists would not recommend what I had done, listing skin injuries, stress factors and heel spurs as potential results. "I tell people to start gradually if they want to go barefoot and run on grass, never asphalt or cement," he said.
Sitting in my office, bandaged feet propped up on a chair, I vowed next time to take the doctor's advice.
Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eight U.S. newspapers; visit thegearjunkie.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog and an archive of Regenold's work.