In the past four years, you might have seen Jennifer Christian competing in one of countless local road races and triathlons. You might not remember her face or finish time but you’ll certainly remember her feet.
Christian, 47, competes with a pair of Vibram FiveFingers shoes – a minimalist shoe with thin soles that contour to the shape of a foot – or sometimes, with no shoes at all.
A painter who lives in Portland’s West End, Christian started her fitness routine four years and approximately 40 pounds ago at the second Tri for a Cure in 2009.
Her sister, Sarah, had competed at the first Tri for a Cure in 2008 and signed Christian up when she was concerned about her sister’s health.
“I stumbled at first,” she said.
Four years ago, Christian joined sheJAMs, a local community of women athletes of all ages and athletic experience emphasizing support and encouragement, at the group’s inception. Her sister had joined to take their triathlete training class. At first Christian signed up for a running class, but eventually also took the triathlon training class, too.
Christian started running in Vibrams three years ago because her toes were going numb in sneakers. She ran in approximately 10 races in sneakers, then bought a pair of Vibrams, put them on and, “felt like I was flying.”
A slow transition into what’s called “natural running” is important. Experts advise running no more than half a mile at first, and then slowly increasing the distance. For some, going from a traditional running shoe, where you typically land heel first, takes months or years to strengthen the foot and calf muscles required with natural running and a forefoot strike, where each step lands more on the toes and balls of the foot.
“Anyone can run barefoot, but without proper adaptation and surfaces, many people have also injured themselves with stress fractures, Achilles tendonitis and a variety of other injuries,” said John Rogers, owner and president of Maine Running Co.
For Christian, the transition took a week.
“I know that’s not normal,” she said with a laugh. “They were the answer.”
Gone are her numb toes, along with hip and knee pain. Gone, too, are all pairs of traditional running shoes.
“It’s like running barefoot as a child, with a back kick like you’re running through fields. It’s going back to how we naturally run,” Christian said.
Rogers said the difference between running in traditional sneakers and natural running is in the form and cadence.
Maine Running Co. offers clinics throughout the year to teach proper alignment, form and cadence.
Vibrams and barefoot running cause Christian to quicken her cadence, shorten her stride and not over-stride, which is where a lot of problems and injuries come from.
Christian admits she is not fast; in fact, she prefers long distances. Her FiveFingers “got me faster than I ever imagined.”
Nor does she have to worry about replacing her Vibram FiveFingers shoes as often as traditional running sneakers. The support in traditional running sneakers gives out after 300 to 400 miles, while in Vibrams the support was never there to begin with.
“My favorite pair has tears in two of the toes. I’m going to sew them,” Christian said laughing, adding that her favorite pair is the first pair she bought, preferring the worn, broken-in blue camouflage Vibram FiveFingers KSOs to subsequent pairs she has tried.
Christian has competed in four sprint (shorter distance) triathlons, a couple of half-marathons, countless numbers of 5 and 10Ks and the Marine Corps marathon last October in Washington, D.C.
At every road race, there are a few pairs or Vibram FiveFingers on the competitors’ feet, but she only remembering seeing one other pair at the marathon in D.C.
She runs with her Vibram FiveFingers in the winter, too. She ran the Mid Winter Classic 10-miler in Cape Elizabeth this past February. While there are a variety of Vibram FiveFingers to suit different sports and activities, for her winter running she opted for a pair with more neoprene, to keep her warmer, but quickly discovered she preferred the more basic, thinner first pair she bought.
In the winter, she even tried socks made to fit her Vibrams, but her toes felt too stuffed and counterintuitive to natural running.
“My toes get cold at first but they warm up with the increased circulation,” Christian said.
Before the start of the Marine Corps Marathon last November, she did opt for wool socks over her shoes at the start line, though once the start was announced she quickly discarded them.
She competed a 5K barefoot recently, but only after a new pair of Vibrams gave her blisters and it was more comfortable to finish without shoes.
She trains barefoot to work on her form. She hopes to run more races barefoot and especially enjoys running barefoot on trails, safe from the hazards of the city, like glass. She ran the Pineland Farms barefoot 5K last year and hopes to do an ultra-marathon, totaling 50 miles at Pineland or Wolfe’s Neck Farm soon. She also wants to do an Olympic marathon or a half-ironman.
Today, Christian is focused on her favorite of the triathlon activities, running, and still works with her first coach, sheJAMs’ Coreen Lauren. Christian also volunteers with the group and she was a “swim angel” at a Tri for the Cure/sheJAMs clinic on July 1. She swam the length of the course twice, first with more experienced swimmers and a second time next to the women experiencing their first open-water swim.
“It can be scary and I’ve been there,” she said.
Christian signed up again for the 2012 race, making it her fourth consecutive Tri for a Cure. She recently gave up her spot and instead will volunteer on race day at the event that started it all.
“It’s a great first-time race and I wanted to give other people a chance,” Christian said.
Besides, she has a bigger goal in her sites: completing the New York City marathon this November. Christian applied through a lottery and was part of the approximately 8 percent of applicants earning a spot in the race. She hopes to best her previous marathon time of 4:40, ideally finishing around four hours.
“Exercising should be about you and that’s how you stick with it – being alone doesn’t make you keep with something. Some people say I’m obsessed but I’ve stuck with it for four years.”
Rogers said natural running comprises 10 percent of his store’s running footwear sales and it’s about the same percent industry wide for the past two years.
“It will probably stay at 10 percent as more traditional running footwear and brands integrate elements of barefoot running into running footwear product,” Rogers said.
By now, Christian is good at fielding questions. She said that people think they look funny and are curious about every facet of Vibram FiveFingers and barefoot running.
“You never know until you give them a try. I can’t imagine anything else.”
Jennifer Christian’s Vibram FiveFinger KSO shoes. The blue camouflage pair, in need of a little sewing repair, is the same pair she started her natural running adventure with three years ago.
Jennifer Christian, in black, is all smiles at mile 18 of the Marine Corp Marathon last year in Washington D.C. Although not visible, she is wearing her Vibram FiveFinger KSO shoes.