Three years ago, after he discovered the website of Missouri's Barefoot Rick and then linked to Saxton's larger site, Rose began barefooting in order to toughen his feet and cure his recurrent knee pain and soreness. He's now a committed barefooter with two unshod 10Ks on his race resume.
He woke up at 5 a.m. to make it to the 7 a.m. clinic so he could pick up some tips for his upcoming first barefoot marathon, Huntington Beach's Surf City, which was deliberately selected "because it's Ken's home turf." Rose says the trip was worth it; he immediately picked up his speed, having learned to lift his toes on the landing, track his feet in a straighter line, and maintain a vertical arm swing.
Though barefooters initially run more slowly than they did in shoes -- the body has to accommodate to the new forefoot form and pay more attention to the ground to avoid rocks and other obstacles until the soles toughen up -- barefoot feet can be quite fleet.
"Barefooting does not compromise performance," says Caltech doctoral student and clinic participant Julian Romero, a.k.a. Barefoot Julian, 26. "There's less weight -- no shoes -- less friction, better heat management and automatically better form." Proof: Among his 11 barefoot marathons was a second place finish at this year's Duke City Marathon in Albuquerque in a time of 2 hours, 47 minutes.
And the winner? Romero's 24-year-old brother, Barefoot Alex, also a Caltech doctoral student, who finished in 2:40 in his second barefoot marathon.
"I like being a role model for barefooting, but for the right reasons," said Alex Romero, an evolutionary biologist. "Not to be a freak, but because it's good for you. Humans evolved to run barefoot over millions of years. In 20 years, we have not adapted to these huge, cushioned running shoes that cause us to underuse our calves and all the muscles in our feet." In 2005, after he got a stress fracture in his tibia while on the college track team, he read an article about Saxton and mentioned it to his brother.
Injury-free Julian -- needing a break from his dissertation research in microeconomic game theory -- started barefooting first, intellectually intrigued by its less-is-more benefits. After just three months of running unshod, an unusually rapid adaptation period for today's artificially shortened calves and Achilles tendons, he completed the 2006 Las Vegas Marathon.
"One bad thing about barefooting in Vegas that day was all the attention; I didn't like it," says the now 7,000-mile barefooter. "But on the plus side, I met Barefoot Ken at the finish."
All barefoot roads seem to lead through Saxton, regularly referred to as "the guru" or "the godfather." But now even he is being eclipsed in barefooting circles, some say, by a force he helped nourish: Barefoot Ted McDonald -- the hilarious, stream-of-consciousness ultra-running barefooter profiled in Christopher McDougall's 2009 bestseller "Born to Run."
"I get thousands of e-mails from around the world now," says McDonald, 45, who couldn't run for longer than an hour without pain until he visited Saxton's site six years ago and began barefooting. Last fall, banking on his growing fame and a tsunami of publicity from "Born to Run," McDonald left his family's Pasadena carousel business for Seattle, where he is now a full-time coach and motivational speaker.
"Ken and I are buddies, but he's too dogmatic," relative newcomer McDonald says. "He's why barefooting for too long appeared to be eccentric and not more mainstream. He says your foot is enough. But it's not."
McDonald is referring to the Vibram FiveFingers, the individual-toed "barefoot shoes" that he wears almost every time he runs. The non-padded, virtual second skin of 2-millimeter rubber is made by the renowned Milan, Italy-based maker of rubber hiking boot soles and has become a sold-out sensation among barefoot and shod runners. They were introduced by Vibram in 2006 as water shoes for kayaking and sailing, but became a hit with runners seeking the benefits of barefooting with protection from rocks, glass and twigs.
Running stores are scrambling to get FiveFingers, which come in various models, including a trail shoe, but Vibram is so swamped that it is supplying only a few L.A. area stores.
"FiveFingers started taking off last summer, and went through the roof in June, after the word about them got out and 'Born to Run' gave them validity," says Thac Lecong, the footwear buyer at FrontRunners. The Brentwood running store was the first in the region to carry FiveFingers.