Claude By Nyal Davidsson One rainy, drab day in an ivy laced building in the mid 1950s, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss was chipping the final fragments of marble from the critical text that would become his magnum opus, Structural Anthropology. Within the soon to be controversial pages, he attempted to outline a particular riddle of human culture: binary opposition. Wow, that’s quite an esoteric term, don’t you think? And what does it have to do with running sans shoes? Stay with me here. Binary opposition is the apparent tendency of humans to formulate things in terms of an on-off switch, while resolving the two contradictory ideas somehow. Levi-Strauss was addressing the tendency of our minds to view things in opposing terms and then resolving them. In our context, we would speak of the unmitigated triumph of splashing through mud on a record long run while later discovering a bruised bone or sore sole. The tendency of the human mind is to view the pain and the pleasure in equal parts and then recognize the contradiction and attempt to reconcile. In an apparently cruel manner, evolution has created about 7,800 nerve endings within the human foot. Each of these nodes transmit information to the brain which interprets it as good (mud) or bad (gravel). There is no rational reason to interpret the barefoot running experience as either all good or all bad and yet we humans do. But how can something that produces both good and bad be viewed as primarily good or bad? Levi-Strauss posited that there must exist something within a narrative of sorts that would resolve the two. For example, a new barefoot runner is very eager to start running and sets out for a nice long 10K, as a sample. He loves it and is converted to the idea and runs 15K the next day. Rather predictably, he suffers from an injury and is immobilizedfor a time. During the recuperation period, he forms a story, a narrative explaining to himself what had happened. If our runner wants to continue as a barefooter, he will tell himself that he should be more patient and listen to what his body is telling him. He will almost certainly count this ‘lesson’ in the good side of the equation and conclude that barefoot running is wholly good. The negatives have here been changed into positives. The hard ground becomes a teacher. However, if our runner dislikes being sidelined and hates pain, he will tell himself that humans were not meant to run without shoes. That maybe if he had always run without shoes like a lithe Kenyan, it would be possible to run 15K on asphalt barefoot, that humans are not naturally designed to run on unnatural surfaces. Here the ‘lesson’ is negative and counts in the bad side of the equation. Barefoot running is wholly bad and the runner becomes embittered and starts ridiculous websites attacking the practice. The hard ground becomes an enemy. I mention Levi-Strauss because I think he may be on to something. What is the primary factor in determining if barefoot running is good or bad for the individual runner? It is said that each of us are an experience of one and that our mileage may vary, but why? Our feet and legs are formed with the same genetics, not identical but close enough so that the bio-mechanics are very similar. Could it really be something like attitude? With the bifurcation being evenly created in our minds, what seems to cause barefoot runners to reconcile the whole experience in such a fashion? Will runners with positive attitudes have better experiences with barefoot running? Or does the succesful transition rely on something like how well we create and form our own personal narrative? These thoughts pop around in my head quite often when I find myself on a long gravel trail that only seems to promise to get longer and deliver more pain. Each of us has reconciled the good and the bad in barefoot running and have interpreted hard experience and pain as a positive. One runner, who has faced serious troubles and pain associated with Morton’s Neuromas in both her feet yet has persisted through often blinding pain observed, “Running barefoot has taught me to be more understanding and accepting of those things I am unfamiliar with. Sitting in judgement by my shod running peers has taught me to not behave as they do. Don’t preach; instead, support. Step ahead of the crowd, stand tall, and be proud of who you are.” Another runner observes, “Barefoot running forces patience upon me. It’s really hard to go too far when you are running barefoot, because your feet will rebel and force you to call it quits.” And another exults, “Barefoot running has given me more confidence!” Obviously one can learn courage, patience, and confidence in other areas of life, but each of these individuals has reconciled the bifurcation that Levi-Strauss was researching. Each of these runners have walked away from the experience richer and healthier, and it seems they accomplished this through choice. They could easily have gone the other way and quit running, put shoes back on, or become despaired. There is a spirit there, I think, and I am wary of speaking in spiritual terms. They do not lend themselves to rational discourse or to quantitative measurement. They are difficult to interpret and even harder to communicate. But there is something there. Why do each of us who run in this manner interpret the good and bad in this way? I don’t know. Whatever it is, it must be great because gravel really hurts. In many ways it’s a shame that Levi-Strauss never lived to see the recent manifestation of barefoot running. I feel strongly that he would have found great insight into the process of binary opposition and perhaps have been able to communicate in his unique style this zeitgeist of barefooters. The best words that speak to this are found in the mouth of another barefoot runner, and it seems best to close with them: This might sound like I’m reading too much into it, but BFR has taught me that discomfort (those first lovely steps taken wincingly on sidewalk and trails...those arch bruises from stepping on rocks...) can lead to some of the greatest experiences in life. I’m finding that the more difficulty I encounter on the road, the stronger my feet become. Sometimes you have to feel the punishment of the earth to gain the full enjoyment of the earth, I think. Such is life. The hardest stuff is always worth it. I know barefooting has taught me to take the uncomfortable experiences and grow stronger from them.