I’ve been barefoot running, or minimalist running, since April of 2010. I jumped right on the whole Vibram FiveFingers bandwagon, and I’m still on it now. I’ve been reading about the lawsuit against Vibram because (from Wikipedia): the company ‘claimed that the shoe “reduce[s] foot injuries and strengthen[s] foot muscles.”‘
That statement is only as true as each person makes it. I would have added instead that their shoes “have the potential to reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles.”
A shoe, just like any tool, is not going to work properly if you don’t know how to use it.
That falls upon the runners and walkers who buy the shoes. I have flat feet and I used to suffer from shin splints as well as tendonitis in my ankles. I used to cry myself to sleep every year when I went to disney world and the walking made my feet ache insanely. Switching to FiveFingers shoes has completely changed all that for me, but I believe it was how I switched over that did it, not just suddenly walking and running barefoot and I feel the need to share my story here.
(For those who are curious – these are my shoes of choice for running long distance since 2010 – the Sprints, which are sadly not made anymore so I’m not sure what I’ll do when my current ones fall apart!:)
My running story:
I’ve been in love with running since my father got me into it when I was 13. I loved it at first because it was something my really cool and funny “Daddy” liked to do every day with our dog. And when I joined Cross Country in ninth grade, I remember our coach let us run around the track after completing a 4 mile run in the neighborhoods around the High School. I jogged slowly the whole time, but my coach actually had to stop me because I ran another 4 miles just around the track and he was worried I would overdo it and get an injury.
He was entirely correct, and I had an amazing first cross country season that year, but when I tried Track in spring, I ruined my legs doing sprinting. We didn’t have a great track, but also with sprinting, you are pounding on your feet so much more than just running for a few miles in the woods. Long distance running—slowly—was my destiny, even from way back then, but I didn’t realize it until much later.
Because my performance with cross country wasn’t that great, I couldn’t have run with a college team, but during college and in my mid-twenties, I started running 10-mile races every summer with my father. I loved those races more than any 3-mile race I’ve ever done (and not just because I loved running with my Dad). 10 miles felt perfect to me, but I pushed myself a little too far every time, ran in regular running shoes so I pounded my heels too much, and every 10-mile race left me with injuries.
Everything changed when, soon after it came out, I read the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall:
It really inspired me. It reminded me of that first cross country practice where I ran 8 miles because I was having too much fun to want to stop running. I also love running because I’m a very thoughtful, analytical person, and my thoughts can go all over the place when I’m talking to people (or when I’m just sitting around). But when I run, it’s like I’m in a therapy session with my higher self. I think clearer. I listen to myself.
“Born to Run” also touched upon my desire to be closer to the Earth, to be more natural and closer to animals, too. I read articles about how walking and running barefoot teaches you to step correctly (on the balls of your foot, never the heel), and when I started running after a long winter living on a sailboat in southern Rhode Island and freezing, I did it slowly. If you sincerely listen to the advice from doctors and barefoot runners, all of them will tell you to start with half a mile of jogging barefoot or less. Increase that over time—weeks of time, not days. I started barefoot running in a field down the street from my marina in April, and just kept going. I only ran every other day. I went from running one mile barefoot and two or three with shoes, to eventually running entirely barefoot. And I didn’t even run on pavement until months had passed.
Running barefoot isn’t just about being closer to the Earth and feeling the dirt between your toes—it’s about being closer to yourself and listening to your body.
I love myself more because I run barefoot. I’ve learned that if running a certain way hurts me, I shift my weight, I run differently, and it works. It took me only three months or so of running continuously and with discipline I never had before to eventually do 8 miles runs, and then 13 mile runs from Block Island’s Great Salt Pond down to the southernmost point of the island—all of it on beautiful trails or dirt roads.
When I made it to half-marathon-length runs by mid-summer, I realized that I really could run an ultra marathon. And I wanted to. I decided on the Vermont 50, which was in late September, and I did the 31.7 mile run (50K) in 9 hours. I was one of the last people to finish (I think), but I felt amazing. I walked a lot of the hills, and a lot of the end of it, and for the last 3 miles I actually couldn’t stand the Fivefingers shoes anymore and ran literally barefoot to the finish. I am probably almost as proud of that race as I am of my first novel being published. And I told myself I never have to do another one…but lately I’m not so sure. I’m feeling that ache again to run for 2-3 hours through the woods without stopping. Maybe this summer, I’ll do it again.
Thank you, Daddy, for inspiring me to run in the first place.
Thank you, Vibram FiveFingers, for the shoes my feet needed to run the way they were intended to run—without injury.
And thank you, Christopher McDougall, for writing the book I needed to read in order to start me on this journey.
I was 35 weeks pregnant when I flew from Rhode Island to New Mexico in order to attend the AROHO Women’s Writing Retreat back in 2011. Many people were concerned about me flying alone to spend a week at the high elevation of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, when I was so close to giving birth. I also wouldn’t have a reliable cell phone signal there, and the nearest hospital or birth center was hours away. I listened to my body and I took that risk because sometimes, we are faced with risks that we absolutely need to take, and it’s a personal, private choice that no one else can make for us.
I needed the opportunity of that retreat for my writing, and I needed it as one last trip before my entire life was about to change with the birth of my first child.
The retreat was amazing. I made contacts with other writers and with a wonderful literary agent who has given me a lot of guidance with various writing projects throughout the past two years.
I gave a presentation, called a “Mind Stretch”, while at the retreat. A lot of people enjoyed it, so I am happy to post it here (because I am currently still in the process of my latest YA novel, and I’ve got to get back to it):
I’d first like to begin by saying that most Deaf people who also speak American Sign Language and are part of the Deaf community, which has its own culture revolving around the sign language of its members, do not view deafness as a disability at all. The reason for this is that deafness is not something that limits any of us physically until we encounter a hearing person trying to speak to us. We can all do everything that a hearing person can do and everything we need to survive. In a sense, deafness is like perpetually living in a foreign country where most of the people around you do not speak your language.
I also believe that deafness becomes a disability when a deaf person chooses to be in an environment where they are surrounded by hearing people conversing and expecting them to be part of a conversation. In this instance, deafness is literally a disability because the deaf person cannot follow a conversation. I don’t think it’s possible for a deaf person in these circumstances to ever feel equal to the people around him or her.
In the deaf artist, Susan Dupor’s, painting, Family Dog, she is in the position of a dog under a coffee table while the rest of the hearing people in the room have blurry faces to signify that they are speaking things she cannot understand. Her deafness makes her feel lower than everyone else, like a pet dog that sits on the floor with their tongue hanging out. I’ve often felt this way in groups of hearing people, and I know this is a component to my lifelong attachment to animals and dogs especially. This feeling drove Susan Dupor to paint the scene exactly as she has felt it happen to her, and for me, this feeling has prompted me to fly to India and help stray dogs and to train my own dog as a Hearing dog and companion. I literally do not feel complete without my dog or any dog by my side, and it’s because of how marginalized I’ve felt growing up and going deaf while everyone just kept talking.
As a side note: I wanted to bring my Hearing dog on this trip, but my current disability of being pregnant has basically made me decide to make this trip on my own and have as little as possible to worry about. Although my dog helps me to feel more comfortable and equal in groups of hearing people, he is still like a child in many ways because I haven’t yet been able to train him to feed himself or take himself for a walk or carry my bags for me. So, it was easier to leave him home.
The painter, Frida Khalo’s, disabilities greatly influenced her self-portraits. One example is her painting the Broken Column:
Carole Maso, in her cross-genre work Beauty is Convulsive, The Passion of Frida Khalo, explains:
“Three concerns impelled her to make art,
she told a critic in 1944:
her vivid memory of her own blood flowing during her childhood accident,
her thoughts about birth, death, and the conducting threads of life,
and the desire to be a mother.”
Frida was never able to be a mother and suffered through three abortions before she stopped trying.
Anne Finger, in her short story Helen and Frida, imagines a meeting between Helen Keller and Frida:
“So now the two female icons of disability have met: Helen, who is nothing but, who swells to fill up the category, sweet Helen with her drooping dresses covering drooping bosom, who is Blind and Deaf, her vocation; and Frida, who lifts her skirt to reveal the gaping, cunt-like wound on her leg, who rips her body open to reveal her back, a broken column, her back corset with its white canvas straps framing her beautiful breasts, her body stuck with nails: but she can’t be Disabled, she’s Sexual.”
I think what Finger means here about Frida being “Sexual” not “Disabled” is how Frida has painted her perfect breasts despite all the nails sticking into her skin. She is emulating her sexuality, and was known for her many affairs with both men and women. I find myself wondering if Frida is actually hiding behind her sexuality and using that as well as her art as a means to escape the feeling of being disabled.
In a poem by Kenny Fries, Excavation, he is focusing on the scars that mark his disability, but he is also digging deeper, trying to figure out who he was before such scars were made. His poem reads:
“Tonight, when I take off my shoes:
three toes on each twisted foot.
I touch the rough skin. The holes
where the pins were. The scars.
If I touch them long enough will I find
those who never touched me? Or those
who did? Freak, midget, three-toed
bastard. Words I’ve always heard.
Disabled, crippled, deformed. Words
I was given. But tonight I go back
farther, want more, tear deeper into
my skin. Peeling it back I reveal
the bones at birth I wasn’t given—
the place where no one speaks a word.”
We are left with the questions:
Where do we end and our disabilities begin?
Is it even possible to separate ourselves from our disabilities?
I’d like to call up the concept of disability as something that everyone faces at one point or another in their lives. We all can’t physically do something we want to do at some point, whether it is due to pregnancy or a broken leg or arthritis or old age. I’d like to present disability as something people should be more accepting of rather than marginalizing because of the fact that disability is part of being human.
We live in a society that does help each other and has moved away from Darwinism in the sense that, in the animal world, a disabled animal is a target, it’s something that will die much faster than any other animal in its herd or its pack, and no one will help it. Everyone is focused on their own survival and a disabled creature is a liability to the whole pack if they all try and help it. With humans, we have created a different sort of society here where disabled people often live as long as other people. We do help each other. But I think its hard for us to do this, somewhere inside we are all still animals, and disability is often a social stigmata because its something no one wants to face or experiences for themselves.
Chistopher John Heuer has written a poem called Visible Scars, which details his desire for deafness to be as well-known and as the persecution of black people. Deaf people are just as marginalized as other minorities of America and in other countries, but we look just like everyone else and our language is silent. In many ways, the discrimination against us happens privately, but it’s understandable that Heuer wishes it were more public. I’ll read and sign his poem:
“In my dream the old black woman
said My but ain’t you an uppity nigger
for a white boy,
and threw a copy of the Americans with
Disabilities Act at my chest.
She said What whip were you ever under?
What land did you ever lose?
Then she showed me her back, tugging down
the heavy brown sweater that protected
her oppression. Her scars were black
in the way that skin visibly shudders
when ripped open, black in the way
that melanin reasserts itself in fury.
I reached for my ears but could not pull them off.
I felt in my ears but nothing was there.
I wished for scars like hers.
I wished to stand up and scream Look!
Look, look, look!
I wanted proof to show her, I wanted
centuries of songs to the Lord, I wished
for a hearing overseer
with a whip, I wished for rows of deaf men
in the cotton fields, signing in the sun.
I wished for the hearing man you could see,
so that I could point and shout
Look, look, look!
She said Don’t bring your anger here to me,
white boy, and pointed at the door.
I left the interview with a deaf man’s guilt,
Because I had no proof.”
Disability, for me, can often be frustrating to deal with (especially in groups of hearing people who are not trying to slow down their conversations, or who are trying to over compromise and slow things down so much that I can feel myself holding everyone back)…but if I was not gradually going deaf, I don’t believe my imagination would be as powerful and my writing wouldn’t be the same either.
I’ve learned to use my deafness as a way to reach out to people through both writing and art, as many other deaf and otherwise disabled artists have also done. I think its something everyone can use, regardless of how obviously disabled they are. Think of disabling emotions like fear, anxiety, paranoia, pain, depression…these are disabilities that begin in the mind or the heart but they can easily extend to our bodies… most people have these feelings at one point or another and as writers – we need to be able to tap into these universal human emotions in order to make our characters accessible. So in a sense, I feel that disability is the key to making a character we are writing about more human. It’s about making sure there is conflict in a story or a poem – because without some sort of tension, your reader isn’t going to be interested or feel connected to it. Disability becomes not just how we connect but WHY we connect.
It’s only when you consider a person or character’s disabilities – the things they can’t do – that you are able to figure out what things they are able to do best and what might be the gift or lesson you can learn from their disabilities. Humans often find the strongest communities through the things that they struggle with – like deafness or blindness or depression, or addictions or writing – they come together in support and compassion for each other and are able to help each other really figure out what they can do and where their strengths are.
I’d like you all to consider your characters and fellow humans this way as you write and live. See someone’s disability – but also look past it to find their talents as well, and connect their strengths and weaknesses with your own. We aren’t whole without this balance of disability and ability.
John Lee Clark is a deaf/blind writer and he illustrates the beautiful community that Deafness, other disabilities, and writing, CAN PROVIDE if we are able to reach out and connect with other people. I’d like to read and sign this poem of his to you in closing:
My first dog, Willow, was named for my favorite tree and favorite character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was twenty-one when I adopted him at 8-weeks from the Concord NH SPCA. He was like a “son” to me, just as important as any human being. I trained him as my Hearing Dog when he was five, and throughout his life, he helped me to feel less anxious in social situations (where I can’t hear the words around me) and he helped remind me that I feel part-dog way down in my soul.
Willow was by my side every moment of my adult life, except when I was traveling abroad, and sometimes I took that for granted. I assumed he would live at least fifteen years, not almost eleven. I assumed he couldn’t possibly get cancer, or die before my child would be able to remember how wonderfully they connected, that Willow was his brother, not just a dog.
But last year, he did get cancer, suddenly, and months later, he died in my arms.
I made photo story books to tell my son Ronan about Willow’s life and their experiences together. I made collages of Willow photos to hang around our home. In every room, there is a picture of Willow. These things are necessary. They are soothing. But they don’t make the pain any less. They don’t bring back the smell of his paws, or the softness of his tongue licking my tears, my lips, my cheeks, or the wisdom in his eyes.
Willow understood me in a way that no one else has ever understood me. And now he’s gone, at least physically. Like our home, No Smoking, Willow has left a great gulf inside me that will never be filled. In the language of one of my favorite books, The God of Small Things, there is a Willow-shaped-hole in me. There is a No Smoking-shaped-hole, too. But these vacancies are inescapable. As we grow and age, things around us disappear, crumble, and die. Yet still, we have to go on growing and learning and finding other ways of being happy, other creatures to love. The holes, the things that haunt us, make us better writers and probably better humans. I have to think of it that way, or else, I’ll crawl into those holes and just stay depressed. Sometimes, I do that, but I do my best to turn those holes into tunnels with light at the end. An opening to crawl back out into the world. Because there are millions of beautiful things out there, a million ways to love. But remembering is important, too, even if it makes us despair. In writing, every emotion, every thought, every desire, is a tool we can use to connect to someone else, to share our sorrows, our ecstasies, and to help others feel less alone in the world the way that Willow made me feel less alone.
In the vein of sharing my brilliant, beautiful soul-dog and son with you, here are some of my favorite memories of Willow:
This was the Introduction of my still-in-process poetry collection currently titled: Balancing Between: Deafness, Death, and Other Journeys. I’ve cut it from the manuscript itself, but it’s a fitting first blog post to introduce you to me, Kristen Ringman:
As a younger writer, I wrote in the context of dreamed philosophies yearning towards the natural world I felt humans were losing more each day. Like a proper teenager, I wrote about things I often couldn’t even touch.
Now, as my ears have spent many years deafening, my writing has found its way back to my own body. I’ve explored sweltering countries like India and Kenya, fallen in love with their red soil, their roads that cut through fields like a scar, and the way I suddenly felt at peace beneath their banana palms or banyan branches. I’m always more at home in foreign places. I’ve watched loved ones die of one cancer or another, and whether it was in India or America, the cancer reared its wild head like a lion that knew it would never be tamed. Humans still stood by, powerless to such bodily invasion, holding words or scraps of tissue in their palms.
These experiences I have swallowed, along with the taste of lovers, mangoes, and hot chai, have all shaped my writing as a form of navigation through the margins of the world. I’m always caught between cultures, between words read on lips or hands, between my desire to please myself and my desire to please someone else.
Writing is my way of drawing the right lines between myself and other bodies, lines that are as red as the roads in India or Africa, and just as deaf. Writing the things I have touched.