Inside "Impact": The World of Barefoot Running
This week, the Skidmore News will continue its discussion surrounding running on campus by examining how a Sociology Professor at Skidmore uses running as a tool to investigate the culture surrounding Barefoot Running.
For the past few years, Professor Rik Scarce, who teaches in the Sociology department at Skidmore, has been working on making Impact, a feature-film documentary exploring the culture, science, and controversy around Barefoot Running. The Skidmore News decided to sit down and interview Professor Scarce to discuss how he got the idea for this project, what information he has discovered, and what the filmmaking experience has been like for him.
Skidmore News: So tell me a little bit about the documentary you’re working on… So how did you get the idea for it?
Rik Scarce: A lot of what professors study is in some way or another personal for them. Around 13 years ago I was told that I needed orthotics and that I had incredibly bad biomechanics. I was told I had flat feet, that I had bowed legs — which would make my feet go out one way and the arches of my feet in another — and that I was just gonna be well, a wreck. I was even told by an expert that I would never run distance ever again in my life. But he recommended that I get orthotics. So I did. Unfortunately, it cost a whole lot of money to buy new orthotics, so naturally, I started to get curious about alternatives.
As a result, I discovered minimalist shoes, and a week after I began this journey into looking for alternatives to orthotics, I was already over in Utica seeing Chris McDougall (the author of the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen). Minimalist shoes became an extremely important thing to me. In about a year and a half after switching, I had already run a marathon and a half-marathon, and since then I’ve run maybe 10 half-marathons. But the more important thing now is that I run without injury. Beforehand, I had never gone more than about six months without getting injured. In fact, most Americans who run long distance typically end up getting injured at least once within the course of a year. I’ve heard some estimates say that upwards of 80% of Americans who run long-distance distance typically end up getting injured at least once within the course of a year.
Well the people I interview in the documentary argue that it is due to poor form directly caused by wearing thick-soled shoes. With thick soled shoes you are almost inevitably going to strike the pavement first with your heel, and that’s precisely why there’s so much cushioning in modern running shoes. It allows you to strike the ground with your heel and take very long strides. However, when you run with long strides, because of our natural anatomy, the heel has to reach out further, which causes the rest of the foot and the toes to go up, leaving the heel exposed.
That means the impact, which is the also the title of my film, is going to be felt primarily in our knees, our hips, and lower back as opposed to in the foot and the ankle. Which is how primarily we evolved to absorb running impacts. So fundamentally that’s what happens when we run. Modern shoes allow us to do run in ways that we, evolutionarily, should not be doing.
So what made you decide to make a documentary about this topic, instead of taking another more traditional academic approach?
I was wrapping up a joint project — a documentary and a book project on sustainability in the Hudson Region — and decided I needed to find a new research project. Fortunately, that was around the same time I discovered minimalist running, so this idea really just fell into my lap. However, I also do some teaching here at Skidmore on this topic. In fact, my Scribner Seminar this semester is now a running-oriented seminar. Nobody in the class has to run or anything, but we read about running and discuss the issues and debates present in barefoot running culture.
What is the filmmaking process like?
It’s almost exclusively me [filming and] I’ve primarily used camera’s that Skidmore has actually purchased for me. The faculty have something called the “Faculty Development Committee” that we go to in order to request funding. As a result, I film on a wide variety of cameras — even on my iPhone!
I’ve been to a whole lot of running races. I’ve filmed races in Staten Island, Central Park, beaches in South Carolina, Boston, Downtown Saratoga, St. Louis, Chicago, Vermont, here around campus, California, Seattle, and Paris as well. I’m still first and foremost an Ethnographer, so interviews are absolutely essential to me. I’ve interviewed probably a total of 60 people, and around 50 of those have lasted at least a half-hour, and some of the have even gone up to 2 hours long.
On the website for your project you mention that there is controversy surrounding barefoot running. What exactly is that controversy?
There’s controversy within the podiatry community, the exercise science community, and even among the general running community. Actually that last one is the one I attend to the least in the film. You know runners sniping at each other and saying things like: “oh how stupid are you to be running barefoot or in those dumb-looking minimalist shoes.” I’m just not interested in those kinds of uninformed moments of sniping and so forth.
How do you think perceptions towards barefoot running have changed over time?
It really depends on who you ask. It’s less acceptable among runners. In 2012, with the publication and popularity of the Born to Run book, minimalist running shoes really hit their peak in terms of sales. Unfortunately, there’s been a really sharp drop off. Today we’re talking maybe 5% of the overall running shoe market is barefoot and/or minimalist shoes.
Right now sales have stabilized, but some people would tell you that shoe market is still dying a slow death. However, a minority of podiatrists, for example, say that we need to get out of shoes that force our feet to look like a diamond, and instead have foot-shaped feet. A number of medical doctors are arguing for the same sort of thing. They point out that if our feet have not been scrunched up in shoes we’re more likely to maintain our balance throughout our life, which is super important when we get old.
On your website you also have some video snippets of barefoot runners Teague O’Connor and Claire Watts-Webster. How did you get to know them and get in contact with them?
There’s actually a direct link between my meeting the two of them. A guy mentioned that he was working with this woman (Claire Watts-Webster) who had just moved from Burlington, Vermont, and who was a barefoot runner. Initially, Claire was not eager to appear on film. She’s a luddite who despises even having her photo taken, much less being filmed. However, after getting to know me for about a year or so, she finally agreed to an interview. And as you found in the teaser that you saw, she’s a really engaging personality as well as a wonderful runner.
Interestingly, her whole purpose to running is in direct contrast to Teague. Claire is not an elite runner, even though she probably could be. She has no interest in running except as this expression of personal joy. Meanwhile, Teague wants to make the 2020 Olympic Marathon trials. Teague told me about him, and I reached out. I soon realized that Teague needed to become the central character of my film. Claire is gonna pop up frequently, but it’s really Teague’s story that will hold the film together.
What’s the next step you hope to take after the film is finished?
I plan on entering it in film-festivals. There’s a handful of running or sports festivals that would be really nice outlets for the film I think. Otherwise, it would be really cool to have the film picked up by a more general festival, so yeah that’s the dream.
Are you going to share it in an academic setting at all? Or is this more of a personal project for you that you want to share with the general audience?
I will show the film for sure at some point at Skidmore. As the film nears completion I’ll also get help from colleagues here who themselves are fine filmmakers. Especially in the MDOCS department. I have a number of people here already committed to viewing rough cuts of the film and giving me constructive feedback, which is always a helpful thing for any filmmaker. Otherwise, we’ll just have to see where the wind blows.
Shifting away from your work to discuss some more National news in the sport of long distance running, I saw that Eliud Kipchoge set a new world record at the Berlin Marathon this year with a new time of 2 hours 1 minute and 39 seconds. Can you describe to people like me who have no knowledge of running just how fast and impressive that really is?
The easiest way to put it is just slightly over 13 miles an hour. So if you really want to compare yourself to him. Go get a friend to drive your car in a safe place at 13 miles per hour and try to run alongside them for 5 seconds. Then imagine doing that for just over 2 hours. It’s an utterly extraordinary feat, and there’s every reason to think that in 10 years or so, we will break the two-hour barrier for the marathon, so it’s absolutely extraordinary.
If you’re interested in finding out more about the movie, make sure to check out Professor Scarce’s website which has a trailer, exclusive clips from the film, and more detailed information.