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I’ve been a runner for probably 7 or 8 years now, but it wasn’t until this past January that I finally started ‘barefoot running‘. The funny thing is that I still wear shoes when I run, but I’ll get into that later…. The story starts about a year ago with the purchase of a new pair of same-shoe-new-model Nikes that trashed my knees and ankles and spiraled me into not being able to run, gaining a few pounds, struggling to keep up my capoeira game, and dealing with the thought that I’m just going to have to face the fact that I’m getting old.

Luckily my mid-term memory is better than my short-term memory, and I kept thinking about the book I’d read over Christmas break in 2009: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall.

Hype generally turns me off (and there is certainly a lot of hype right now around barefoot running), but this book touched all the right nerves: anthropology, natural fitness, shifting paradigms, sticking it to the man, history and culture, a great story, good writing, running, and being barefoot. It finally hit me, after 6 months of joint pain, that I could blame everything on those damn Nike shoes and start over.

Meanwhile, 2 of my brothers had also read Born to Run. My youngest brother has always been a slender, healthy runner. My middle brother is tall, super muscular and has perpetually complained that his bad joints prevent him from running. Without even knowing it, the three of us were on the same barefoot running track.

My middle brother and I spent last Fall obsessively sharing information about barefoot running on Facebook, dropping articles and videos and instructions back and forth. My youngest brother would chime in now and then, though he was already easily doing double-digit mile runs in the San Francisco hills.

Finally while I was visiting my middle brother in New York in December, he and I decided we’d both get serious, invest in some official barefoot running shoes, and (re)train ourselves to run.

‘Barefoot running shoes’ (oxymoron much?)

This is where I explain that most people who ‘run barefoot’ actually wear some kind of ‘barefoot running shoe’. Normally this means Vibram Five Fingers, which look like a wet suit glove for your feet; huarache sandals (apparently the ‘next big thing in barefoot running’); or some kind of minimalist shoe, as in the photo below.

All this footwear is designed to be as minimal as possible while still protecting your feet from concrete or glass or whatever you might find on the ground while running. Part of the logic behind barefoot running is that the overdone structure in most running shoes weakens the muscles in your feet and calves (kind of like putting your foot into a plaster cast). Regular running shoes also encourage you to land hard on your heel rather than gently on your forefoot, causing all kinds of knee, ankle, back and hip stress and injury. Running with proper form (see graphic below) reduces shock to the joints and allows you to put less stress on your body. It is one of the main reasons that people learn to ‘barefoot run‘.

A Wired Science article (To Run Better, Start by Ditching your Nikes) by Dylan Tweeny notes “strong evidence shows that thickly cushioned running shoes have done nothing to prevent injury in the 30-odd years since Nike founder Bill Bowerman invented them, researchers say. Some smaller, earlier studies suggest that running in shoes may increase the risk of ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis and other injuries. Runners who wear cheap running shoes have fewer injuries than those wearing expensive trainers. Meanwhile, injuries plague 20 to 80 percent of regular runners every year.” (Unfortunately, now the shoe industry is going to make a killing out of making those cheap shoes really expensive…)

(Ditching the Nikes – The new model of Nikes that I mention in the first paragraph were Nike Frees. I had been wearing Nike Frees for a long time, but the new model had a slightly different design and more spongy cushioning than the old model, and this turned out to be a bad thing for my ankles and knees.)

According to a 1997 study in Sports Medicine (Hazard of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear), “Athletic footwear are associated with frequent injury that are thought to result from repetitive impact. No scientific data suggest they protect well. Expensive athletic shoes are deceptively advertised to safeguard well through “cushioning impact”, yet account for 123% greater injury frequency than the cheapest ones.”

A team at Harvard is dedicated to “comparing habitually barefoot runners with runners who normally run in modern running shoes with built-up heels, stiff soles and arch support”. Their research notes that “barefoot runners experience a shock of only 0.5 to 0.7 times their body weight, whereas shod heel strikers experience 1.5 to two times their body weight–a threefold to fourfold difference.” (Unfortunately much of the ‘barefoot running’ research is funded by shoe companies like SOLE and Vibram, so I like reading around and finding testimonies by real people who aren’t trying to sell me shoes, too.)

Social fitness and apps

So anyway, my brother got the funny looking Vibram shoes and I went for the less obnoxious-looking ones (in the photo above). As of January 1, we started re-training ourselves to run with a proper ‘barefoot stride’ for short distances on the treadmill. We’d regularly text, message and email each other about our progress. By March it was warmer and we both got to running outside. Whenever I am in NYC, we plan our days around long runs together over the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.

My eldest brother who lives in Los Angeles had also started running (though we’ve yet to evangelize him to go barefoot). He and my middle brother started using the Nike+GPS app to track their routes, distance and pace. I started seeing all kinds of comments on their pages from friends and fellow runners, barefoot and not.

I resisted the Nike app for a number of reasons but eventually caved. Once I started using it, I joined the group of motivators and found myself motivated too. I was more aware of my pace because the app was notifying me each half mile how fast I was running. I’d always run a slow and easy pace of 10 minutes per mile over a maximum of 5 miles and had no real interest in picking it up or pushing myself. I still can’t totally keep up with my brothers and their friends in terms of pace, but I’m now running more hills and I’ve shaved 48 seconds off my mile average in the past month since I installed the app.

On top of running better and longer and faster, I wanted to ditch those few extra pounds that had accumulated from my months of not running. So in early January, I downloaded a free app called “Lose It,” which allows you to research and track everything you eat and to plug in calories burned through exercise. It helped me pay better attention to what I was eating, make healthier and more natural food choices, and ensure that I was not eating more than I was burning off through exercise. My daughter downloaded it too, and it’s been a helpful neutral tracking tool for us to motivate each other. Being lighter is helping me to run more gently, and it’s also meant my speed and agility in capoeira have picked up. Not to mention, my knees and ankles feel great (knock on wood).

The barefoot running obsession is not only mine and my brother’s. My son was with us at the shoe store in December and hinted around that he needed a new pair of running shoes. My brother told him that if he read Born to Run, he’d give him $50 towards a pair of Vibrams. Deal complete, my son got his shoes in March, worked on his barefoot stride a bit, and is off and ‘running barefoot’ as well. Via Facebook I discovered a few other friends are into it, including a college roommate I hadn’t seen in 4 years and a fellow development worker, Weh Yeoh, who does barefoot running training in Phnom Penh and has even done a “Nerd Night” talk on it. (Check out Weh’s awesome other project here). Below is his video on how to run with proper ‘barefoot’ stride.

I’ve never been someone who needs to have the latest shoes or apps or gadgets.  But since January, this perfect storm of  information, communication and technology (books, videos, articles, blog posts, social networking, improved shoes and a couple of mobile apps) along with self-motivation and the encouragement of family and friends, has allowed me hit my sweet spot and reach my health, fitness, running and capoeira goals.

For some really interesting research, reasoning and background on barefoot running, check out this 2009 post by fellow anthropologist and capoeirista (check out his book) Greg Downey – Neuroanthropology: Lose your Shoes: Is barefoot running better?

And by the way – new research is showing that running (and other exercise) makes you smarter too :-).

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People often ask me 2 questions.  How did I end up spending the 90s in El Salvador and how did I get into NGO work?  I usually give the 140 character verbal version. But the turning point was 20 years ago this week. So here is the longer story.

Back in 1989, I was in my senior year of college, studying anthropology at the University of Southern California (USC) and living in the mid-Wilshire district, home of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang and one of the most violent sections of Los Angeles.  The 5th floor window of my 1920s apartment building overlooked a mini-mall where the “underground economy” (as my anthropology teacher liked to call it) took place.  (I suppose today you’d call them “anti-social entrepreneurs”? J) Stolen credit cards were used at the public phone on the corner to call El Salvador and Guatemala.  Newly initiated teenaged gang members stole handbags and necklaces.  Older, tattooed MS smoked cigarettes and observed their territory, or took out bags of brown marijuana at the outside picnic tables, rolling joints and smoking them in public. Throwing up the 18th St. hand sign would get you in big trouble as this was MS territory.

On the other side of the mini mall parking lot, gunshots would go off now and then on Normandie between 7th and 8th, where the MS ran crack.  Dealers and buyers used the apartment buildings there, gorgeous old style art deco places that had lost the battle, to hide from police.  One morning I was awakened by a crazed, dreadlocked squatter leaning out a window singing Sly Stone at the top of his lungs.  I was fascinated and decided to do my senior anthropology project about this ‘underground economy’. I didn’t imagine it would be dangerous since I was part of the neighborhood and no one ever bothered me, aside from saying “hola mamacita” when I passed through on my way to the mini-mart.

I first needed an informant who wouldn’t harass me, and I decided on one of the guys that I would see often in the parking lot, hanging around chatting people up.  He worked in the local video store.  He wasn’t tattooed and didn’t seem like a gang member, but he seemed to know everyone.  He didn’t call me mamacita or make kissing noises when I walked past; he’d just flash me a dazzling smile and say ‘hey-lo’.  So I started asking him about the neighborhood, the structure of the MS. Who did what and why.  Where people came from.  What the graffiti meant.. Though he wasn’t a gang member, he knew everyone.  (“That’s how you stay safe here. You has to know them so they protect you.”) His cousin was ‘in the business’ so I got the lowdown on the structure and business strategies of the drug trade in the neighborhood. My Spanish was virtually non-existent and his English was only about 2 steps above that, but we managed to communicate.

Guillermo, “Memo” for short , was 24 at the time.  He had come into the US via Mexico when he was 18, during the peak of the civil war, because he felt trapped by parental disputes and the bleak situation in El Salvador. He feared being recruited into one or the other side of the conflict raging in his country.  Despite horrific human rights abuses — massacres, death squads, tortures and many disappeared, the US was pouring billions of dollars into supporting the rightwing military government.  US policy was that El Salvador was a ‘democracy’ thus it was virtually impossible for Salvadorans to seek entry to the US legally or be granted refugee status.  Nicaragua and Cuba?  Quite another story.

Memo had grown up in the room of a meson (a U-shaped one-story building made of adobe and tin, with 8-10  rooms surrounding a central courtyard and shared latrine/bathing area/washing area) in one of the oldest barrios in the heart of San Salvador. Some people in the barrio sold tortillas or juice.  Some sold fruits and vegetables in the Central Market, shined shoes, or dealt in metal pieces dredged up from the bottom of the Rio Acelhuate, the river-turned-sewer running alongside the barrio, or stolen side view mirrors at the hardware market. There were impromptu car repair shops and tiendas. Some women in the barrio went door-to-door selling freshly made snacks, and some were sex workers in the red light district a couple blocks away. The local economy was mostly informal, supplemented in large part by money sent home from relatives in the US or Australia.

Memo was a handful as a child. His upbringing was difficult but upright, notable from his good manners and clean-cut appearance.  As a boy, he’d studied up to 9th grade. He had passed his afternoons locked in the small room at the meson, kicking a soccer ball around with his older brother while his parents worked. They did their best to keep their sons out of trouble. Memo’s mother was a seamstress and his father a hired driver in the Central Market. Memo had begun working as an apprentice in a mechanic shop at age 12.

His journey to the US took place over a period of about 4 and a half months in 1983, most of it spent in Mexico working to save up for the rest of the trip.  He arrived to Los Angeles where his cousin and brother already lived, moving into a one-bedroom apartment with 7 other guys.  He struggled to find work, losing 4 jobs due to lack of papers but finally found a job through the Salvadoran owner of the video store (who was also involved in the drug trade).

I was fascinated by the world I was getting a look into, and by Memo himself …and the feeling was mutual.  We started going out and on Thanksgiving in 1989 we decided to get married. I was only 21, and life was getting more interesting every day. (Credit to my parents for being highly concerned but reasonably hands-off. I only wonder how I’d feel if it was my daughter!) In 1991, we decided to move down to El Salvador, in spite of the fact that the civil war was still going on.

It was my first time traveling out of the States.  My new in-laws greeted me at the meson with a stilted welcome and a brand new toilet seat that I was supposed to carry to the latrine with me to place on top of the ‘stone chimney.’  They were embarrassed at the conditions they could offer to their son’s gringuita.  We set up house in the meson for about a year, and all eventually moved a half block down the alley way into 2 side-by-side apartments. We used our total savings to purchase our place for around $3,000.  (Photo above is the Barrio in 2009).

Memo picked his job back up as a mechanic in the local car shop and we lived on around $3/day for our first 3 years.  Barrio Candelaria was an amazing place.  My neighbors welcomed me with open arms and I easily became part of barrio life. Eventually we bought a refrigerator and some furniture. On weekends we’d walk a few blocks to downtown get ice cream cones or pizza as a treat. I learned to be a Salvadoran housewife. Niña Alicia, my mother-in-law, taught me to cook, clean, go to the market and small talk with the other women at the Sunday soccer games.  She also found Niña Lita, a warm and gentle midwife, to ‘sovarme’ (give me monthly belly massages) and to deliver my son Daniel at home in April 1992. I didn’t trust the conditions at the public hospital. Niña Lita was 70 years old and had been delivering babies since age 15, including her own 15 children, so I felt safe with her. I read voraciously on pregnancy and birth in order to be as prepared as possible.

Three months before Daniel was born, the war ended in Peace Accords and a huge celebration in the plaza a few blocks from our house. Memo enrolled in and completed high school in the evenings and graduated as Valedictorian, moving on to also complete his university degree. I got a job as an English teacher at a private school.  I also started a class at the National University.  It was the first time that 20th century history had ever been taught in El Salvador due to the conflict and government prohibitions to discuss certain events during that time.  A classmate was a Finnish girl, around my age.  Her father was the head of an NGO and they were looking for a translator.  I gave up my teaching job to take this one, and eventually moved into programs and communications. I’ve been in NGO work ever since.

Niña Lita attended me again in 1996 when my daughter Clare was born.  At 10 and a half pounds, it was a difficult birth, and she was so purple that at first I imagined she was dead…. but either Niña Lita was an expert or I got lucky, and we both survived.  The post-war violence and crime continued to worsen. People said that post-war was worse than during the war because it was now randomized violence, and you never knew where it would find you.  I witnessed several incidents on the bus and saw people stabbed downtown in broad daylight for a watch or wallet, but somehow came out untouched.

With my NGO job, our conditions improved over time and we were able to buy a car and send the kids to an affordable nearby private school – the level of education at the public schools near the barrio was very low.  Memo had also gotten a job at an NGO, doing HIV/AIDS prevention and rehabilitation work with inmates in the Salvadoran prison system.  We never considered moving out of the barrio since we felt safe there and Memo’s parents were next door. Every step outside the barrio though, and you knew you might not come home.  The very day I sat in my interview to start work with Plan, my second NGO job, Memo and his colleagues were assaulted on a rural road by 4 masked men with big guns and held for several hours on a plantation.  He came home stunned and depressed, missing his shoes and watch.  The elderly plantation guard, armed with only his machete, was killed in the incident.

Cultural differences and the fact that I worked and traveled a lot began to create friction. The palpable sense of random violence and crime everywhere outside the barrio added to the stress. I started to run up against limits on what I could do and achieve in El Salvador and felt trapped.  So for many of the same reasons that Memo fled from El Salvador in 1983, so did I in 2001. We parted ways and I moved back to the US with the kids. We have remained good friends and keep in touch, and we go to visit whenever we have enough money for tickets, which unfortunately is never often enough.

So, when people ask me what they should study in order to have a job like mine or how I ended up in El Salvador, I’m a bit hard pressed on what to answer. I usually give a short version that goes something like: “well, I got married to a Salvadoran and joined an NGO in El Salvador,” since the long one is pretty personal and my path to NGO work is not quite something you want to hear about at a job fair. What I do tell some people is that it’s really not what you study, it’s how you grab onto the opportunities that life offers to you and flow with them to see where you end up. It’s being willing to take risks, to follow your heart and do what you are passionate about. You don’t know where you may end up, in development or in something totally different.  But the trip will be well worth it.  20 years later… I look back and I wouldn’t change a thing.

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