Capt Seshadri looks at Barefoot world champion athletes who have made barefoot running a trend that has made a powerful comeback.

When it comes to a choice between shoes and no shoes, barefoot runners over the years have given their shod competitors a run for their money. In Rome, in 1960, a long distance runner, finding that the official footwear supplier had run out of shoes of his size and that those supplied to him were too tight for comfort, decided to run the marathon without them. And hit pay dirt. Four years later, in Tokyo, Abebe Bikila, the legendary Ethiopian athlete, successfully defended his title, this time running in shoes, and in the process, set a new world record.

Barely four months ago, on April 28, 2018, the world bid adieu to another barefoot running legend, Michael ‘Bruce’ Tulloh. In the early ‘60s, Bruce was a sensation, regularly winning European and international cross-country championships. Two decades later, his twin teenaged daughters set age records for running. Naturally, they also ran barefoot. Tulloh, who turned later in life to teaching biology, ran a grueling 4,600 km across North America, from LA to NY, in just 64 days. He appeared to have counted his paces since this arduous run was captured in his book titled ‘Four Million Footsteps’.

Bihar, in India, produces sportspersons from as varied disciplines as athletics, hockey and archery, but there is one great long-distance runner who represented the country in the ’76 Montreal Olympics, running the marathon barefoot in a surprising time of 2:15:58. His best marathon effort though was in 1978 in Jalandhar, where he timed 2:12:00, a national record unbroken to this day. In the 42.2 at Montreal, Shivnath Singh was in the van for 32 km, ahead of legends like Bill Rodgers and Lasse Viren. Finally, his finish at # 11 out of 72 participants, was an extremely credible performance at the time for an Indian athlete.

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Barefoot running is not the exclusive preserve of the male. As a school student at the age of seven, Tegla Loroupe, born in the rift valley area of Kenya, ran 10 km to school and back every day. This early training led to her winning several half and full marathons while garnering gold in the 10,000 metres in the Goodwill Games in 1994 and 1998. Tegla, after retirement, was selected to champion the cause of ‘refugee athletes’ as the organiser of the Refugee Team for the Rio Olympics in 2016.

One of the most famous barefoot women athletes gained notoriety for a different reason, although subsequent investigations absolved her of all fault. Zola Budd, born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, migrated to England to escape the apartheid ban, driven by the fact that her world record of 15:01:83 in the 5,000 metres at age 17 went unrecognised. A year later, representing Great Britain, Zola erased her record with a performance of 14:48:07. Her claim to infamy came with her multiple collisions with Mary Decker, leaving Mary out of the competition and a tearful Zola finishing seventh.

While 27,000 km of running, including 50 + marathons qualifies Rick Roeber as one of the most prominent barefoot runners of this era, the real ‘godfather’ of the unshod foot is Ken Bob Saxton of Seattle, who has a century and more of marathons under his soles. And, running barefoot for charity, Ms. Rae Heim covered over 3,000 km across America to raise funds to provide shoes to needy children under the banner of Soles4Souls.

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Ultimately, it’s a long road to run on. Whether for glory or for a cause.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.

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