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Some BFT Nostalgia from 2013 Scottish Barefoot Conference

by Colin McPhail April 05, 2019



The SBFR&C this year took place in Bruntsfield Links and The Eric Liddell Centre for the second time. This year we
were blessed with exceptional weather, albeit a little cool but wall to wall sunshine. This event is the brainchild of 
Colin McPhail and Donnie Campbell, both advocates of "natural running" techniques. Last year was the first event
of its kind in Scotland and is now the biggest run and conference in the UK if not Europe.

The numbers attending last years event were similar to this year with a total of 112 between the run and the conference. It remains to be seen how the numbers increase in the future but as "natural running" gains momentum there should be a significant increase over the next few years. If the model of NYC barefoot run is anything to go by it will not be long before it outgrows the venue capacity.
During the lead up to this years event there was much discussion with certain leading people globally within the "natural barefoot running" world about who we would invite to talk at the conference. It was decided to approach "Barefoot Ted" as the keynote speaker due to his outlandish pazzaz and extravert behaviour. Ted has a way of maintaining interest and circulating within a crowd to make sure everyone gets to speak with him and find more out about any issues they have about taking off their shoes. I did an interview with Ted earlier in the year and my first question was,
"how did you start out running barefoot?"
Ted replied with a long winded explanation and finally after about 5 minutes, he said 
"No, this isn't right, you asked me; how did I start barefoot running? well the correct answer is, I took my shoes off"
Brilliant, but we had about 6-7 mins of extra footage which now needed edited. The thing about Ted is he has the ability to take on a subject and talk knowledgeably about it for however long it takes. He is a true showman with an amazing way of captivating an audience. If you ever get the opportunity to hear one of his presentations, make the time you will not regret it. 
We also wanted to get more unbiased people involved with this years event as the previous year was headlined by Vibram Fivefingers and Vivobarefoot both of which have a vested interest in making the barefoot footwear market more vibrant, if you get my drift. Little did I realise what a concoction of people I was getting together last year and how much friction there was when you get two commercial companies on the same stage. However they both presented brilliantly and gave us a great insight into the evolution of the foot. 
But, this year we wanted less commercial bias and more about the science going on within the industry and how we get more information over to the runners wearing cushioned shoes. To this end we were given an introduction to Joe Warne who is none other than the 3X Irish 800m champion with a string of running successes. BUT, Joe's claim to fame here is he is a research scientist midway through a PHD in Sports Physiology specialising in barefoot running techniques. Joe has had 3 papers published in the Scandinavian Medical Journal which is famed throughout the world. 

With two speakers lined up we decided to get a third and Jae Gruenke from NYC "Balanced Runner", a specialist in Feldenkrais Technique was available which we thought may introduce an interesting twist to a running conference. Jae is very experienced at working with runners in teaching them ways to get the body parts moving independently but balanced, something fundamental for natural running. 
So we found three speakers of world class calibre all that now remained was to tell folks about them and get the numbers along. Social Media works well with this section of society, I found. Something to do with being open to ideas and willing to change when things become clearer and more evidential research gets published making this social group a leading force in the quest to push forward the new look at the old ideas. Lets face it running has been around for 300,000 years at least and only in the last 40 have we made significant changes to our movement patterns allowing cushioned raised heel footwear to command a place in history, by changing our gait.

Footworks (Natural Running Store) one of the main sponsors erected their new Marquee for the main outside event. The Eric Liddell Centre was used to accommodate the two full presentations from Joe and Jae in the afternoon. The run was the same route as previous years taking the participants through the main sites of central Edinburgh. 

The event opened at 10am and there was a huge selection of footwear on offer from Inov8 for demonstration. Teko Eco Socks had a great display with 26 pairs of socks to give away as raffle prizes. The new boy on the block was AltraZeroDrop Footwear from the states exhibited by former Inov8 man Guy Russell, showing us what there is available from this 2 year old brand that's come into the market with a wide range of zero drop shoes. Vibram fivefingers were sent up by courier for demo purposes and Abdelhadi Elmoustahli our Moroccan champion runner made sure everyone that wanted to try them got the chance. Merrell Barefoot were there being displayed by Gregg Whitehead for the second year in a row, some great product on show here, very popular minimalist/barefoot shoes.

Luna Sandals were in abundance as many of our participants had been to Barefoot Teds presentation earlier in the year and had made the move into sandal running. This was the first showing and sales of the brand new Luna Oso the long awaited hard core trail running sandal which comes with the extra mud strap. The Huaraches Sandal is the oldest form of human footwear and is becoming very popular as a result of Chris MacDougall's book "Born To Run" where Ted is one of the main characters. Ted signed a huge amount of these books in Footworks the day before. He signs with a barefootprint and a stamp pad which is quite unique. 
The run briefing was at 11.30 taken by myself in the absence of Donnie Campbell due to his commitment in Austria running a 100K race for his sponsors. Then, without any delay we were off and this year I decided to join the assembled mass and make some movie footage. The weather could not have favoured us any better and with clear blue skies and some big white fluffy cumulus clouds, to add depth to the picture, we saw Edinburgh at its finest. The first ascent up Salisbury Crag gave some spectacular views, Edinburgh was showing off, Ted could not believe we have such a fine city to run, the day was unfolding into one which was going to put a tick in every box.

Coming off the Crag we had to stop for the "wee photographic moment" with Edinburgh displaying all its beauty to the point of vulgarity. The Royal Mile is always fun to run up but on a Saturday around midday it becomes real fun with street performances in abundance for the massed tourists. We had a fire juggler, a bullwhip demonstration, people on stilts and the customary bagpipers giving us traditional music most of the way. Once at the Castle we dropped down into the Grassmarket crossing over to some steps leading up to Flodden Wall at the side of George Heriots School. This cobbled street would provide some undulating surfaces for the barefooters before leading onto Lauriston Place and into the final furlong. A chance meeting with some of Edinburgh's finest Jaikies would be the highlight of the re-entry into the Meadows at Quartermile. These are harmless men and women of the roads who grace certain parts of town in an alcoholic daze reminding us the importance of staying in control of our lives…… 

And so back to Bruntsfield Links where Isla has got the food ready for the hungry….Costco's finest sandwiches a huge selection of biscuits and enough bananas for a herd of Monkeys twice this size and the statutory run day bottled water. So having enjoyed the run many folks depart at this point and loads more join up for the Conference which takes place at The Eric Liddell Centre. It's very apt that the place is named after one of Scotland's greatest runners featured most recently in a BBC documentay about Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell about the making of the Movie "Chariots of Fire". 

First speaker up, Jae Gruenke, from New York's "Balanced Runner". Jae is a globally recognised Feldenkrais Practitioner specialising in perfecting and refining running technique. Jae got everyone to their feet and started to make us realise the importance of individual movements being used to combine and reflexively work other parts of the body. I certainly gained a huge amount of new techniques which I can work on to improve my weakest areas. We all got an information package that was so well structured and summarised that I would highly recommend everyone to try and gain these skills to improve your overall running balance. It's always a joy to see sports people performing with grace and fluidity, when they look good they are usually in "balance".

Next up was Joe Warne. Joe has a very highly rated background in running but has decided to spend his PHD researching the way in which running footwear affects the performance of runners as well as the injury rates. We all sit back and look at the evolutionary evidence that's available proving "mankind, homo sapiens, was born to run" but for 300,000 years we ran either barefoot or in the earliest form of huaraches sandals. We evolved into using footwear and the plimsole became the standard around Eric Liddells time and right throughout into the early 70's. At which point the New York Marathon became quite big and Fred Lebow's idea was being plagerised all round the world as the boom in distance running started to manifest itself during the 80's. However it would be Jim Fixx and Bill Bowerman who would influence human behavioural patterns to a greater extent. Fixx was the author of "The Complete Book Of Running" and Bowerman was one of the founders of Nike. One, would lead folks through reading that running was as simple as put on a pair of shoes and "Just Do It" to coin a phrase. The other gave us the introduction to cushioned footwear changing the human movement pattern into a heel strike form of running gait. Since then no-one has given us scientific evidential proof that running with a heelstrike is the primary cause of todays running injuries. Take all the facts available and running, without using the plantar surface of the foot and the Achilles tendon in their natural purposeful manner, becomes a risk. One thing is very clear and this is the superiority of the East Africans in distance running. Why should this be, genetics was one of the questions and Yannis Pitsiladis from Glasgow University spent some years on a quest to prove this was the case…..the result suggested that the stop watch had a greater role to play, than genetics, as it proved the results. So with genetics ruled out now studies had gone on to see why the techniques of the East Africans were so different from those adopted by western countries. Diet and poverty become two main factors apart from the fine tuning of the athletes. Most of the Africans would run barefoot until they could afford some form of footwear which then lead the researchers to look at the differences between fully cushioned supported footwear and minimalist/barefoot techniques. The differences in the two techniques are remarkable leading into more research to now try and find out why………….the human is clever and it perceives the heelstrike form of running gait to be easier, "the path of least resistance". So, thankfully, this is where Joe comes in as we now hope to get scientific evidence to help prove that running using one form or another is best. One thing is for sure, and he explained this very well, we all have our own unique way of moving and it's probably right for some runners to land on the heel as they may well have other compensatory movement patterns elsewhere in their bodies that assists in the shock absorbing needed to protect. 

Joe's was a very inspiring presentation leaving everyone with positive thoughts especially us involved within the industry. Lets face it who would ever have thought that the cushioned running shoe could be a corporate conspiracy, just take a look at the tobacco industry. Ah but wait a moment this has yet to be proved or disproved, but my feelings are heavily swayed toward natural running based on the current scientific evidence available.
So to the star of the show Mr Barefoot Ted himself. Ted came across for the weekend from Seattle which in itself is an accolade for Scotland, and the organisation of the SBFR&C. As we only had the Eric Liddell suite booked until 5.00pm I decided, to give Ted the benefit of his abilities in rabbiting on for hours on end, digressing off on various tangents, but fired with enthusiasm and a passion for natural running, the outside marquee for his presentation. We all shared some Barefoot Merlot and Pinot Grigio in a short break and then Ted then took us to the Copper Canyon and back in 1.5 hours. The main theme to Teds talks always comes back to one thing; the human animal is not born broken, parents break the child the minute they administer modern protective footwear as they are now changing the natural movement pattern of the human. A bird flying in its natural state is not broken, a fish swimming in its natural state is not broken either……a human moving in its natural state will not break unless we interfere with the natural movement patterns. I find this exceptional as Chris MacDougall wrote the book "Born to Run" with the primary intention of proving Barefoot Ted wrong. But then, MacDougall writes, in the first line of chapter 25, page 168, "Barefoot Ted was right of course" the worlds greatest written apology. Now I know these guys are great friends and even though Ted gets a character assassination in the book he come out seriously on top in the end. A remarkable man to spend time with who has an amazingly simple outlook on life, he travels light and carries virtually no excess baggage both mentally and physically. Ted started the Luna Sandal company in Seattle some years back and he named this huaraches sandal footwear after the man who taught him how to make the sandal out of an old tyre, a piece of leather and a victorinox knife, from the Tarahumara tribe in the Copper Canyon, Manuel Luna.
I feel honoured to have had the occasion to spend so much time with Ted and look forward to spending some time in Seattle with him and his "wife to be" Irem. If you ever get the chance to go to one of his presentations I thoroughly recommend it because when you understand him the world seems to make more sense!

So the conference was a resounding success and with proceedings now coming to a close it was time to venture off to a local restaurant after dismantling a marquee and tidying up. Our local Indian street food venue called Tuk Tuk was not expecting us and a crowd of 18 folk turned up unexpected. This can cause chaos in a fully booked restaurant but our Indian friends went out of their way to accommodate us and even though it was quite cramped we were fed like royalty. Excellent freshly cooked Indian street food, highly recommended if ever you are looking for somewhere to eat in Edinburgh. The restaurant is not licensed and allows BYOB with no corkage charge…
Joe was booked on an early flight back to Dublin and Teds flight was not until 10.30am back to Seattle so getting these dudes to the airport on Sunday morning was easy bringing the SBFR&C weekend to a close for another year. The Raffle this years raised £1547.00 for the British Heart Foundation and prizes included footwear from Luna Sandals, Vibram fivefigers, Merrell Barefoot, Mizuno Running, Brooks PureProject, and Teko Eco Socks. Huge thanks to all involved, it takes a great team to run these kind of events and all the helpers did a spectacular job. Next years event is provisionally booked for 6th September.

Colin McPhail
Colin McPhail


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