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    Wednesday, August 06, 2008

    Why Huaraches?

    (*note: you can now buy huarache sanals, both kits and complete >> www.lunasandals.com)

    Yes, most of you know me as a barefoot runner or a runner who endorses Vibram FiveFingers barefoot shoes. Both of these things are true. But I have been fascinated by the Tarahumara (Raramuri) Indians' footwear known as huaraches (or in the native tongue akaraches, ah-ka-ra-cheese) for a long time. Some old hippies call them Jesus Sandals, and some history buffs might think of them as gladiator sandals. But that's another story.


    Running in Huaraches

    My fascination with huarache sandals goes back to when I first read about some Tarahumara who had run the Angeles Crest 100 mile trail race wearing such seemingly unconventional footwear. How could it be done? Didn't they need more support? What about cushioning?

    My research eventually led me to try barefoot running. A decision that led to great improvements in my running ability. Learning how to run well barefoot seems to be a fundamental first step in finding the best way to move your body on two legs, a fundamental step that is the beginning of a path of stronger and healthier running and living.

    But what about rocky trails? What about urban environments and hard surfaces? Is barefoot always best?

    Some folks enjoy being purists. They want to be barefoot everywhere and always. It can be done and is a viable option. However, I think some of the purists make the mistake of assuming that ALL footwear is bad in All situations. True, so much of the sports shoe industry has been built on junk science and mass marketing, but does that mean all footwear is bad? No, I don't think so. I am looking for balance.

    My thinking has led me to study indigenous people and the footwear they use. You can learn a lot by studying shoes worn by people who survive on their feet, people who rely on their speed and agility for survival. The Tarahumara of Northern Mexico are such a people. They don't use footwear because of brands or logos, they pick it for practicality and effectiveness. It is always quite comforting to find shoe designs that have lasted for generations, footwear designs that are made by the people who wear them. The huarache or akarache is such a thing.

    Other times and places have come up with designs and materials best suited for those environments. Yet, the huarache is designed and worn by people known for their long-distance, mountain running skills, worn by a people whose name for themselves, Raramuri, means fleet of foot. The fact that these proud running people wear huaraches made it clear to me that I was going to have to give them a try.

    My first opportunity to try huaraches came in March 2006 on my first visit to the Copper Canyon. I was invited to participate in the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon put on by Micah True a.k.a Caballo Blanco (see his site here) in the town of Urique deep in the heart of the Sierra Tarahumara. While on the trip, I spent a lot of time trying to understand the huaraches. I even got so lucky as to have famed Tarahumara runner Manuel Luna make me a pair of huaraches. That started my love affair with these amazing sandals.

    So, starting in April 2006, I began trying to run in the huaraches that Manuel had made for me. It was not easy learning how to tie them. I made a lot of mistakes. Furthermore, the pair he made for me were quite heavy, for he used the thickest, most expensive tire tread available (you buy section of used tire tread in little shops in Urique. They display the pieces like dried fish on hooks...He picked the best for me, so he thought).

    I started imagining that perhaps there was a better material to make huaraches. I talked with one of Vibram's sole designers and asked if he had any material that he thought might work as a sandal sole. He sent me some stuff that I tested and liked. I have been experimenting ever since trying to find the perfect balance of lightweight, grip, cushion, style and strength.

    Then I went back to the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in 2007. This time I ran the race in a pair of my own huaraches. I also paid even more attention to the Tarahumara, learning the nuances of tying and designing the huaraches. This was a fantastic experience and greatly deepened my understanding and appreciation of the sandals.

    I started selling huarache sandal-making kits and started making custom huaraches, learning as I went. I started experimenting with different sole materials and different strapping materials and different ways of building the sandals. I shared what I knew as I went forward and learned a lot from others on the internet.

    At the same time I kept testing and using Vibram's FiveFinger shoes. They helped me to complete the Angeles Crest 100 mile race two years in a row. Something that I knew I could not do barefoot, and something that I was not sure my sandals where ready for.

    Now I have come to the point where I think I have learned how to make a sandal that can handle the rigors of a 100 mile trail race. My newest huaraches sport a leather top footbed to add strength to the sides and comfort. I am also quite intriqued with a new neoprene sole material that is lightweight (less than 4 ounces) with surfside sand-like cushioning and strength. I think they are the best ever.

    I believe that there are a growing number of runners and outdoor enthusiasts who are looking for time-tested solutions to the challenge of traveling on foot over rugged terrain. The huarache is a viable alternative, and it is an alternative that you can learn how to make yourself.

    The sandals I am wearing in the photos above are my 6mm Vibram neoprene soled huaraches with leather footbed (for strength) and leather laces.

    BFT


    PS. You can get a kit to make your own huaraches >> www.lunasandals.com. There are also instructions on how to make a pair to download for free.

    PSS. You can learn how to tie you huaraches here.

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