Back in 2010, Barefoot Ted asked me to pace him over the last 13 miles or so of the Leadville Trail 100. Before you even start that race, there are a few things you can count on:
- if the person beside you finishes, you probably won’t; the drop-out rate every year is over 50%.
- they’re called the Rocky Mountains for a reason
- you’re going to be on your feet for up to 30 hours
- and about 15 of them will be in the dark
Despite knowing that, Ted still planned to run all 100 mountain miles in huaraches, just like the Tarahumara did when they won back-to-back Leadvilles in the ’90s. I had no idea how he’d navigate the swampy muck around Twin Lakes, or ford the Arkansas Rivers, or scramble up the never-ending scree on Hope Pass, but I didn’t have to. All I had to do was sit tight and wait for him to show up — or not — at Mile 87. Before the starting gun, he was kind enough to hand me my own pair of huaraches, which I thanked him for and then promptly tossed on the floor next to my bed. There was no way in hell I was strapping those goofy things on my feet, especially not when I’d be stumbling around in the woods at 3 in the morning. Unfortunately, my conscience had a lot of time to nag at me while Ted was running the first half of the course, so before I set off to meet him, I jammed the huaraches in my pack. I figured he must be suffering out there, so the least I could do was buck his spirits a little by having them on when he arrived at the aid station.
But Ted was having a blast. He trotted into tent at 2:30 a.m. with a grin on his face as if the whole race was a surprise party thrown just for him. Other than the trail grime on his feet and the salt sweat crusted on his shoulders, there was no sign he’d been running up and down mountains for the last 20-plus hours. Most of the other runners were sunk in chairs or crashing out on cots, but Ted was fired up and ready to go. What the hell; I decided to leave the huaraches on for a few minutes and then swap them out. I had a pair of trail shoes in my backpack… and three hours later, they were still in my pack when we crossed the finish line at sun-up.
That night was a revelation for me, and I’ve thought about it a lot since. I’ve even spoken about it a few times (see video).
Two things puzzled me for a while:
- How on earth did Ted handle 100 brutal miles on only 25 miles of training a week?
- And how did I finish my first-ever run in homemade huaraches without a single blister or stubbed toe? On a rocky trail in the dark, no less.
The best answer I can come up with is this: for all Ted’s jittery hyper-semi-freakishness, he’s done a superb job of understanding what makes the Tarahumara such sensational endurance athletes. He figured out that they’re all about testing the limits of pleasure, not pain; and that one supremely pleasurable sensation is giving your feet maximum freedom with adequate protection. He was sharp enough to realize that an engineering design doesn’t last thousands of years by accident, and it’s likewise no coincidence when the same design turns up on the feet of some of the most formidable performers in history. The huarache was the weapon of choice for Greek hoplites, Spartan warriors, Roman centurions, and Apache raiders, and remains the preferred footwear of the Tarahumara. I knew all that, but I still had no interest in trying them until that night in the Colorado mountains. That was some of the best fun I’ve ever had while running, and I think it’s because I accidentally absorbed Ted’s technique: I relaxed and had fun, and my feet were free and alert.
I don’t endorse products, especially not footwear. I think it’s pretty clear that I’m convinced the shoe companies and their see-no-evil/every-shoe-is-AWESOME accomplices have done a tremendous amount of harm to recreational running. One of the ironies of the minimalist revolution over the past few years is the way it’s been focused on footwear, when the whole point is that footwear doesn’t matter. Get your form dialed, and you can wear whatever you want. Emil Zatopek did just fine in army boots, Karl Meltzer seems to love his Hokas, and Ray Zahab just blasted across the entire Gobi Desert in his Inov-8s. These guys know what they’re doing, and they know what they’re choosing. It’s in that spirit that I’ve come to appreciate what Ted has done with his Lunas. I became a sandal convert after that night in Leadville, and there was no better time because a Golden Age of Homemade Huaraches was dawning. Lots of backroom tinkerers coming up with their own innovations. Brancas had a nifty lacing system, Ozarks had miraculously comfy rope soles and great slip-on webbing, and the Lunas suddenly came out with a stretchy heel strap. If you were into sandals, you were in heaven; every few months, someone came up with a smart new solution for the basic huarache shortcomings.
And that’s what has brought us to Ted’s latest: the Oso. I thought he’d taken the art as far as it would go with the Leadville, a seemingly indestructible and super-light sandal that requires no wrapping, no tying, no bottom-lug replacing. I was skeptical when his Monkeys sent me a sample pair of the Osos. I wanted to like them, since they were sort of named after me, but it seemed like too much shoe. And for most runs, it is — unless that run involves knobby rocks, creeks, and 5-plus hours until you’re finished. The Oso tackles the last remaining puzzles in the huarache design: it’s burly enough for ultras, and secure enough to stick to your foot when things get slick. What Ted and his Monkeys have accomplished is impressive, and it’s because they live what they sell. Ted still goes back to the Copper Canyons every year to visit Manuel Luna, his shoemaking mentor and company namesake, and support the race that changed his life. His Luna Monkeys are trail runners, race volunteers, and conscientious corporate citizens. I still don’t endorse products — but I’m sure rooting for these guys.
The Oso is available for purchase now!