Bare your soles

By Evan Short

As someone who sees running as only to be used in life or death situations, it’s with no little bemusement that I look upon the spandex clad army of joggers pounding the streets of North Belfast with scrunched up faces getting whipped to death by the February wind.

It’s not that I haven’t tried, even getting up to a respectable 5k jaunt around my local streets in 2013, but, well, it’s just so boring, isn’t it?

Adrian Mallon agrees, oddly. He has agreed to speak about his unusual running routine – he runs barefoot – and sitting down I wasn’t really expecting him to agree that running isn’t even his favourite sport despite his infamy within the world of local running clubs.

“No, I hated running. Whenever I did sports it was to do Tae Kwon Do to get fit because of a back injury I have from cycling,” he says.

Althugh sporty, the 59-year-old Allworthy Avenue academic said he had never been interested in pounding the roads.

“I love hill walking and was always out walking in the Mournes. I loved it, but used to see guys running in the hills and thought ‘I should be able to do that’.

Swapping hiking boots for running shoes was not as easy as he thought, however.

“I soon found out it’s a totally different thing. I found it tremendously difficult and I kept on getting knee injuries as well, so I decided it wasn’t for me.”

The difficulty caused by niggling injuries meant he couldn’t run for weeks at a time. But rather than give up running, he set about doing it a different way. Inspired by a book loaned to him by a physiotherapist friend, he kept the sport up -but this time without socks and shoes.

“Around that time I was loaned a book by Christopher McDougall where he described how he kept getting injuries but by barefoot running they cleared up, so I thought, maybe I should try that. I also liked the idea of doing something a bit more extreme because it’s more craic. It seemed to work for him anyway.

“He actually advocated running in sandals based on the Tarahumara Tribe from South America where the men and women run for days at a time.

“The book shows evidence that modern footwear teaches you to run by landing on your heels, when humans aren’t designed for that. Modern trainers soften the impact so your heel goes even harder down – it encourages you to put more impact down.”

So the theory is sound, but preparing yourself to go out for a run is hard enough on a cold winter’s night, never mind in your bare feet.

Adrian says this was part of the challenge, but when he headed out for the first time he didn’t know what to expect.

“It was a filthy day but the book was so good to read and I thought if you could bear it on that sort of day, it couldn’t get worse. So I drove to the top of the upper Cavehill road and started. I thought it was so crazy, but so fun too. I was sliding about the place but it really was great fun.”

Running without shoes is a world away from ordinary running he says. And yes, it’s painful.

“It teaches you to run more slowly – you run in a different way.

“The difference is that it is sore, there are stones and you’re worried about dog dirt and broken glass, but I also discovered it was bearable.

“I could see naturally how your body worked. You tend to take shorter steps, wider steps and quicker steps because your foot is in contact with the ground less.

“If you go over a hard surface you kind of dance along to reduce the contact and the suffering, so it’s a natural way of running. You are looking a few feet in front of you instead of 20 feet as normal.”

A visitor to the trails of the Cave Hill twice a week, Adrian says he has no plans to transfer the barefoot running to the roads.

“It’s too painful. If I were do to five miles on the road my feet would be black and blue.”

So the roads are out. But bad weather is no barrier for Adrian, and when the snow fell last year, he was back on the Cave Hill.

“I looked out and thought, ‘It’s cold, but again, I ask; can I bear it?’ By the time you’re up the hill and down again, you’re only out for about an hour.

“I have been up there running through the snow a couple of times and one of the guys I work with in the tech, who’s a runner, asked me if I had been out running in the snow. I told him I was, and asked him how he knew, and he said he had saw my footprints in the snow!

“He actually saw them and the pleasure it gave me was really really nice. I was so tickled.”

Adrian cuts quite a sight as he moves along the paths of the Cave Hill. His running attire is unusual (his wife Bride chastises him for his choice as we go to take pictures) and he admits to fielding questions from onlookers during his runs.

“I am not doing it to draw attention to myself but then it does bring that. Maybe you are presenting yourself as a nut, but everyone is interested in it.

“A lot of people stop me and ask me why am I doing it, am I on some pilgrimage or something like that, and you get some silly comments, but people are curious.”

For Adrian, running is more about mental wellbeing than fitness.

“Eating choices are more beneficial than running, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

“All the walks I went on before that were spoiled by getting wet feet I now think, how stupid?”

So after two years of pounding the trails au natural, have his feet hardened?

“Quite honestly, it’s still sore,” he says.

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