Winning the Boston Marathon, With or Without Shoes

For the first time in 27 years, an American male just might snatch the laurel leaf at Monday’s Boston Marathon. An unlikely combination of factors have come together to increase those odds. A massive cloud of dangerous ash, issuing from a volcano in Iceland, has closed much of European airspace, forcing an estimated 500 to 600 runners to withdraw from the race, including 2008 Olympian Abdellah Falil from Morocco.

Kenyan runner Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, course record-holder and four-time winner of the Boston marathon, is skipping this year’s race, due to a hurting right hip. The injury—unfortunate for Mr. Cheruiyot—opens up the field for potential winners from multiple nations. Since 1988, Kenyan runners have won 17 of 22 Boston Marathons.

The favorite American is Meb Keflezighi, who won the New York Marathon in November. To find the last time Americans dominated the race, we have to go back to the decade 1975-1984, when seven times out of ten American runners were first to cross the finish line. Four of the races (’75 and ’78-80) were won by the legendary William “Boston Billy” Rodgers. But in the 35 years since Rogers set a course record, elite runners from around the world have been coming to Boston and making off with the prize. Based on this recent history, the odds the winner of the Boston Marathon will be American are 1 in 5. The odds it will be a Kenyan? A resounding 1 in 2.06.

An oft-mythologized advantage of African marathoners is that they train barefoot. Many do not, but, according to a January 2010 Harvard study, the ones who do may indeed earn themselves an edge, as well as a longer athletic career. Being “unshod” is found to be better on the joints, as it forces a runner to run on the balls of his or her feet, instead of thudding down on the heels.

Barefoot running has been in and out of fashion since 1960 when Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon gold with no shoes on. Adidas had provided him with an ill-fitting pair; Bikila ran without them, having trained shoeless anyway. His win made him the first black African gold medalist in Olympic history, and started a training fad: taking the clogs off the dogs. It came around again in 1985, when Zola Budd, a South African, shaved 10 seconds off the women’s 5,000-meter track record wearing not a thing below the knees.*

Born to Run, a current bestseller by Christopher McDougall, a contributing editor at Men’s Health, profiles the Tarahumara, a Mexican indigenous tribe with a secret. Calling them “superathletes,” he reports they can run over 100 punishing miles non-stop, through Mexico’s Copper Canyons, wearing nothing on their feet but thin leather thongs. Claiming that even octogenarian tribal elders routinely accomplish this feat, McDougall ascribes the Tarahumara’s freakish running ability—and near-total lack of joint wear and tear—in part to being almost shoeless.

The Boston Marathon has seen its share of barefoot runners, including Americans. In 2004, “Barefoot Rick” Roeber, running his third Boston race, started off shoeless. He found the asphalt quickly turned burning hot, forcing him to stop every couple of miles to cool off his swollen feet. Out of the 26 miles, he ran approximately 21 miles barefoot, a feat which, despite the pain, has spurred him to continue the practice. He ran Boston again in 2009 completely shoeless, and has even run a New Year’s Day race barefoot—regardless of snow and ice on the ground. Roeber does it to raise money for charity, but he also reports that in the nearly seven years since he shed his shoes, his running technique has improved and his knee problems have been alleviated.

Many historians believe that the ancient Greek runners went without shoes. Witness the very first marathoner, a Greek named Pheidippides. In 490 BC, after an unlikely triumph against the Persians in the Battle of Marathon, he is said to have run straight from the battlefield to Athens to convey the news, a hot, waterless 26 miles. Reaching the capital, the soldier-sprinter burst into the assembly yelling Nenikēkamen! (“We were victorious!”), and promptly dropped dead.

The story, historians say, is probably apocryphal—but it started a tradition. This year is the 2,500th anniversary of the marathon. Odds are that the upcoming Boston Marathon will see at least one barefoot runner, and maybe an American win. What about someone dying on their feet? The odds a person will die from overexertion or strenuous activity in a year are a minuscule 1 in 23,030,000An entrant in this year’s Boston Marathon is almost 1,000 times likelier to win the race than to die running it.

*Note: Women were not officially allowed to enter the Boston race until 1972.The first to run it—unofficially, and without a racing number—was Roberta Gibb in 1966. Katharine Switzer used her initials, “K.V.,” to become the first woman to run with a number, in 1967. An official famously tried, and failed, to rip the number off her shirt. She finished the race. Also of note: four-time Women’s champion Catherine Ndereba of Kenya will not be running in this year’s marathon due to injury.

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