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Barefoot Running, Naturally by Ngae Koh Hieng

I encountered a rather unique experience from 31st April to end May 2009 (see Simon Cross’s blog). I thank God that I am able to share my experience with my friends, especially those who have been anxious about me.

I had to have a brain operation on 31st April 2009, a month after I completed the Langkawi Ironman 2009. The doctors said that I could have easily had a seizure while doing the Ironman this year, given the condition of the temporal lobe of my brain. It could have happened during my 1.8 km swim in the sea where I would have sunk without anybody knowing. After the 4hour-plus brain surgery called craniotomy, I felt invigorated when I woke up. According to the neurosurgeon and my doctor friends, I am in my second life. I am so happy the surgeon cleared me to run again one and half month after the op and I ran the New Balance 15k, though slowly. I feel that our awesome God has given me a second chance, so I have thought out my missions for Him. My focus has become crystal clear. I now feel free to speak about things I have always felt in my heart, without any inhibitions.

Michael Gan, the editor and Wong Li Zren from Nike recently asked me to share my experience on barefoot running. The fact that Nike is selling a line of “barefoot” running shoes called Nike Free tells me something is stirring.

Please understand that I am not a podiatrist and my writing is purely based on my own experience as a long time runner. I shall not be responsible for any outcome should you want to try to walk or run barefoot.

I was away from serious running for many, many years and came back to it in March 2003, just missing the K L International Marathon in February 2003. I reverted to run naturally then – barefoot. After training for 3 months with some friends, I ran barefoot in my first marathon, the Penang Bridge International Marathon 2003 in 4 hour 58 minute. I have never been a fast runner, but I have endurance. My fastest marathon time so far is 3 hour 56 min. Barefoot running does seem to make me a bit slower because I am more careful in my steps.

I feel running or walking barefoot restore the natural posture of our body. I am conscious that the modern surface we run or walk on is hard. The hardest being concrete pavement while the softer surface is tarmac. You will realise this when you attempt a barefoot walk or run.

A slippery surface is best felt with bare feet. When we were young, the children who I grew up with used to cross over water on big logs which had been in the water for long periods and which were covered with green slime. They were really slippery, but we could go across the rolling and slimy logs carrying our school bags, barefoot.

I grew up in the then pristine nature of rural and jungle areas beside the majestic Rejang River in the 1950s and 1960s. I was in the cuddle of Mother Nature, witnessing very little destruction by humans. All the children walked and ran around barefoot. We went to school barefoot. I only wore my first piece of footwear at age 12 when I entered the secondary school in town.

The missionary schools at that time helped us buy our school shoes. However, on sports day, we still ran barefoot, except for some rich kids who owned and showed off spiked shoes with thin soles (there was no such thing as modern running shoes then). Most of us could not afford to use the only pair of canvas school shoes for running. God blessed us. We could run and run on the best biomechanics – in our bare feet.

As the years went by, we began to notice changes around us. “Progress” of mankind. I came to KL, leaving behind Borneo Island in 1975, already brainwashed about the "normal" way of life. In the University of Malaya, where I obtained my first degree, Bachelor of Economics (Business Admin), I was further indoctrinated on "progress". I climbed the corporate ladder and lived a corporate life from the 1970s to 1990s. I call it my corporate life period. I became a busy lawyer in the 1990s after having my second degree.

During my corporate/busy lawyer life period, plastic, aircon, electric/electronic gadgets and four wheeled tin cans (car lah!) became essential parts of my life. Chasing luxuries became the aim of my life. Deep in my heart, the want to be in the cuddle of Mother Nature remained. Often, I felt disturbed and confused about the corporate life in the big cities. As an outdoor person, I was into ball games (badminton, squash, tennis, golf) and sailing. My running was only useful in my games/sports. In the early 80s I bought a pair of running shoes made in US. I wore once in a while and used it for a marathon. I can’t recall if I completed it (I did not train for it) but it was a gruelling experience of over 6 hours. I put away those shoes for good and was disinclined to run another marathon. I did not feel suited to run a marathon in modern running shoes on the tarmac.

In 1984, Zola Budd in the LA Olympic caught all runners’ full attention. She was a young and fast barefoot runner. She is now back running in marathons.

I was then reminded of Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia, the first black African gold medallist in the Olympic Games. He won the gold in the Rome Olympic marathon in 1960 running barefoot. I was 6 years old in 1960 and only heard about Abebe later as we did not have TV then. He won again in the Tokyo Olympic Marathon 4 years later, wearing ordinary looking shoes.

Modern running shoes came about in the 1970s when jogging boomed in USA. Running shoes elevate the heels and change the running gait. Common sense tells me that from the 1970s to now is too short a time for the body to evolve to a new running gait (as we know, evolution takes millions of years). Our body formed through evolution needs to re-evolve for a long time for this elevated running gait.

Related to this bare feet issue, the wearing of high heels concerns me too. Despite the risk and long term effect of high heal shoes, well-educated females still slip into high heels and wobble around on them. Women also don high heels to compete in a sport called Dancesport (ballroom dancing in competitions). It does not seem logical to me. However, ballerinas, in the ultimate dance, wear flat thin-soled shoes with reinforced tip for the pirouette. That is sensible. It is all very much “POWER OF THE MIND vs POWER OF MODERN MARKETING”, so it takes power of the mind to resist the prevailing fashion. The want for fashion and style is probably important for many beginners in the selection of good running shoes.

About half the number of bones of our body are in our feet. In my mind, God must have put them there must be for a reason. Running shoes are new (since the 1970s). Hard road surface and harder pavement are also new. Do thick-soled running shoes cope with the new situations better than bare feet or the thin-soled shoes? Running shoes makes the runner land on the heels whereas being barefoot or wearing thin soled shoes allow natural landing more in forefoot or ball of the foot, thereby allowing natural shock absorption of our flexible feet.

We are different individuals and each of us is built differently. Our walking and running gaits are different from each other. All modern shoes are manufactured on some standard dimensions. Some are made purely to satisfy the desire to defy the natural walking gait to make us look taller and sexier!

Similarly, fashion plays a part in the design of running shoes. However, they are better than all other shoes, because, to satisfy the runners, they are made with special attention to different kinds of sole design, different widths and other technical stuff with the aim of improvement every year. Common sense says that you should find a pair of running shoes that can fit you well without regard to its fashion design.

My athletic friends have told me about custom made insoles for running shoes to suit each individual. There are even custom made running shoes. Of course, both are very expensive.

Once, in my early days as a lawyer, when I had to move a lot around the courts wearing my official attire (including black leather shoes with the usual hard sole and heel), I had ankle pain. The orthopaedic doctor who I saw told me “Mr. Ngae you walk around too much”. I went “huh?” in my heart. I never had that kind of pain even though I ran much more in training. After thinking for a while I realised that I walk around too much in the wrong kind of shoes i.e. the hard leather shoes. I needed more comfortable footwear but I can’t be working in slippers, sandals or bare feet!. I then asked around and managed to buy special UK made leather top shoes with soft rubberised sole, which are quite level from the front to the heel. Those shoes helped to get rid of the ankle pain.

From the articles I read over the years, there is a large agreement that barefoot running is good. All should try it, BUT do it carefully. We should pay attention to the running surfaces and broken glass. I have been poked badly on many occasions by rusty nails and broken glass in the wild. This is my suggestion for beginners:

  • Run with your feet protected in thin and flexible sole shoes. I learnt to trek and run in black, Johor made, thin sole rubber shoes from the Kadazan porters who carried 35kg loads up and down Mount Kinabalu (These shoes are cheap, were only RM3.50 a pair before, and now, RM6.00). I have run both 100 km and 200 km in them. In the Ironman Langkawi 2009, which included a marathon run after 3.8k swim and 180k bike, I ran 3km in them, then balance 39km, barefoot. For new runners, besides considering new running shoes, they should also try these thin sole rubber shoes when they train.
  • Light canvas shoes used in Tai Chi with thin and flexible sole are also an option. These are cheap. I have also run long distance, up to a marathon, in socks. However, socks will not last for more than 20km and the bottom will disintegrate. There are now socks with rubberised sole from UK for “barefoot” running and are available in Singapore but I was told they are expensive. Nike Free model comes with a tag line “run barefoot” and which is light with flexible sole but I was told by some people these seem not constructed as tough as normal trainers but were very good to let you experience the benefit of barefoot running.

There is another established fact. Many runners experienced black toenails often, not to mention blisters.

Jenny (my current trainee), went straight into barefoot running, and now, after about a month of run training, runs for as long as one and half hours, especially around the Lake Garden. I have noticed a couple of others in the Lake Garden have started to run or walk barefoot.

My comrade, barefoot runner is the famous Mr. Tan Wah Sing from Kuantan. Unlike me, who use the black rubber shoes sometimes, he never uses any type of shoes in his run for as long as I have known him. He is always a podium finisher and much faster than me (except once in my best Singapore Marathon, in 2007, when he was not in form). You would be able to learn a lot from him.

If you still do not find barefoot running beneficial, you are sure to agree that if we do not wear running shoes, there is nothing to wash; there will be no stinky smells in the car and the shoe cabinet in the house.

Lastly, I am will be happy to run with anyone who is convinced after reading my story and wish to try running barefoot.

More reading on barefoot running:
RunnersWorld | Daily Mail UK (This one gives some insights into the background of why Nike introduced their “barefoot” running shoes)


Ngae Koh Hieng




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