In 2009 Ted McDonald became a central character in Christopher McDougall’s best selling book about natural running and movement, Born To Run. Ted was initially portrayed as the quintessential ugly American, a brash, larger than life counterpoint to the retiring Tarahumara- The legendary distance runners whose McDougall’s party had ventured to the Copper Canyons of Northern Mexico to engage with. Ted’s arc formed the emotional pivot of the book, when McDougall described the bond that Ted and Manuel Luna, a Tarahumara man whose son had been brutally murdered by a drug cartel. Since the book’s publication Barefoot Ted (as he is now widely known) has become synonymous with barefoot running and an advocate for us investigating our atavistic potential for natural movement. Ted discusses that running should be a state of play; joyful and unhindered. First with Five Fingers and now with his own company Luna Sandals, Ted sells footwear that at periods in our history were ubiquitous, however now are considered iconoclastic or niche.
How does barefoot running remain relevant in an industry that has so much delineation and planned obsolescence? Surely selling a simple sandal like Luna is not an ongoing business model?
Early on it became clear that you can’t sell free. In the early days of being a 'barefooter' when a reporter would want to talk to you or whatever it was always an eccentric or bizarre thing as there was no product. That’s why I loved when the five’s came along (Vibram Five Fingers). I was one of the first people wearing Five Fingers and I wrote a blog article back in the day titled “Vibram Five Fingers - The Paradigm Shifting Trojan Horse". The idea was that we must have products in our society, that’s how we identify that’s how we pay homage, that how we vote. Behind all of that, I’m playing the "Emperor has no clothes" role, I realised that that this (barefoot running) is a way. This is an investigation that everyone needs to make as a human being. They need to riff on this very primal part of being a human being and stop believing from the get go that this (our feet) is automatically a thing that we need to fix. That was unacceptable to me, as it turned out that when I tried to do everything that I was told to do to help me move as I was told to (with a succession of supportive/corrective/maximal shoes) those weren’t making it happen for me. And so, when I discovered that “Oh, I already have what I need, I don’t need to buy anything”, that was a powerful epiphany that I’m still talking about to this day and I realised that when I made that discovery that this was something that needed to be talked about in society. Then I realised that the barefoot thing was more like a circus act or something unusual, that you were an eccentric or you were a superhuman or whatever. So when the five finger came out and it was something that would allow people to buy into the idea (of running naturally) I thought that would be a really useful stepping stone for a conversation about the human body, and ultimately, this last ten years has been about starting to think more deeply about what it means to be in a body which has so much success behind it. Instead of working from the premise that we are broken by default, what happens if we start thinking about what we are before we add the mixture of all the things that we are told we can’t do come into play. The idea that Barefoot Ted (the character) and I want to expound is “pay attention to who you are and what you’ve been born with”. In the end I realised that there was a paradox there. How do you sell free? Free in a commercial western culture, doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t have any value. It’s a paradox. Suddenly, the Five Fingers helped people start seeing the value. My own investigation, why I was down in the Copper Canyon (home of the Tarahumara indigenous people of Northern Mexico) was “what did free human beings, in different societies all throughout the world do when they were confronted with the need to make footwear?” I was fascinated by that natural selection process. When you start seeing that simple sandal popping up all over the planet and indeed you realise that more likely it was one of our first human tools, it extended our range without changing our form, you start realising that is an early tool in our tool kit that is as old as time. Sandals didn’t start with the premise that I’m broken by default, they started with the premise of “how can I extend my range?” “How can I bring this little piece of portable ground with me?” What I love about the tool kits of indigenous people is ultimately it’s about “how can I find the simplest solution that works best?” That ultimately is augmenting their ability rather than is a crutch because they didn’t have that ability. So then when I saw that the Sandal was in that space, I had an object. I could become one of that people that can sing the story of “oh, here is some footwear that people have been using for a long time” and matter of fact, these people who taught me about this skill and have kept it alive, as a cohort happen to be some of the greatest long distance mountain runners in the world. What a story to share with people to back up my story of: Number one- don’t assume you’re always broken by default, and number two- sometimes the simple solution is the best. At Luna Sandals we’re like surfers making surfboards. It’s a very basic platform. Most of the cool stuff happens from the person using it. A surfboard doesn’t do much interesting if it’s by itself on a wave. Then the surfers started figuring out all these little tweaks embroiled in the process. I realised that I needed to be embroiled in the process of crafting these. When I grew up in the 70’s surf and skate culture all the companies were in my backyard. All the companies were in California. I was already in a culture that was creating the tools they were using to exuberate themselves that didn’t exist before. It was also the start of building the stories of sorting freedom, where there was no counting or measuring, it’s all about shared experience. I had a friend who wrote an essay called “Bonobo vs. Chimpanzee”. Chimpanzee culture is very hierarchical, Everyone is always worried about who’s on top. Bonobo culture, if you’re part of the group you’re a winner. And I think trail runners have that element that when you’re part of the group, you’ve won. If you’re on the trail, you’re a winner. I feel that with Luna Sandals I can make my contribution, I’ve found my tribe. I finally have an object that I can share with people, that creates value. Being able to have an interface in an object that you’ve created that you’ve put that care in and has that “Why”. The “Why” is what’s important. Not the “What”. The “why” of Barefoot Ted and the “Why” of Luna sandals is what is charming and fascinating, and ultimately, people get to benefit from those investigations that I made.
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Yes. There is one thing that you can say for certain for a person called Barefoot Ted, I’m not a routine oriented, step-by-step goal oriented type person. It takes a series of fortunate events to help people who aren’t routine and structured to become successful. That’s why ultimately, most people will benefit from from coaching or mentoring from someone who has the skill. I didn’t have the luxury of that in my process. I’m not just a runner, but by default I am, because I’m a human being. That’s one of the things I discovered, this is a default, fundamental human skill-set. To not be aware of it, to not have some finesse with it, to not have played with it, to realise that it’s awesome would be a loss. But on the other hand I’ve achieved many of the things in running that you would say are event oriented. (Ted has completed the Boston Marathon and Leadville 100 amongst many other running events) You know, the bucket list ticked off. At some point I started realising through experience, that some of the people in the sport were not driving themselves there, they were being driven there by other demons that they were having and I realised that I needed to give myself permission to step away from that and give myself permission to not just automatically do what everybody expected me to do but to follow my own music over the last ten years. Of course I run, I still run. Some of the things I’m into are these runs in places like Turkey, six day runs on ancient pathways where you are eating great foods and experiencing culture. So being able to develop your body with the tools of marathons or ultra-marathons or anything else that makes you fit and capable, that suddenly gives you a new environment in which to adventure. It’s literally fit to be useful, so now if you can develop your fitness, develop your skills then you can go and when you’re given the big waves of living, which is ample space, things to explore, including moving around in a city, which I love doing. We need to know how to do cities well, and I’ll tell you one thing, cars ain’t the way to do it well. In the end, running was getting me back to roots, developing the power to do these big events and then apply yourself, use the skills that you were born with you can do a lot in in this life.
What is the best thing about being in the business of natural movement?
To have become the spark for a lot of people as the character of Barefoot Ted, to get them to investigate themselves, that’s an honour. In any way, if you have ever been given the opportunity, as I have, through that book (Born To Run). Which is an artefact that continues to inspire people to this day. If I am remembered as the person that made them remember? That’s an honour right there.
What’s the most challenging thing about being in the business of natural movement and do you feel a challenge being ‘Barefoot Ted’?
The hard thing about business is that it’s business, and there are some people in it who aren’t in it from their heart. When I first started making sandals I had a kit that cost $24.95, and some guy created essentially exactly the same kit, using the same materials and charged a dollar less, then used Google Adwords for Barefoot Ted to go to his website. How would that make you feel? How do you deal with that? There is the ongoing pressure with coping with that, and I’ve learnt now to embrace my demons. There is the pressure of having 15, sometimes 20 people working for Luna and that means now I have people riding on this. Barefoot Ted is a shirker or responsibilities in many ways because often, people gather up too many of them to the point where living is not as joyful as it should be and I want to always seek the balance between being successful and being happy. If you have too many responsibilities and that isn’t your thing it gets challenging. My goal isn’t to see how responsible I can get, it’s just not my schtick. On the other hand I want Luna Sandals to be successful. Finding that balance is the hardest part, finding the balance between being authentically me and at the same time being responsible and clever enough to make things work. I love the Howard Thurman quote “don’t ask what the world needs but ask what makes you come alive, and do that, because that is what the world needs”. I want to make sure I’m practicing that, because I want everybody to be practicing that. When you have your own company, there is always and unknown, if it doesn’t work, what do you do now? I don’t have a pension or anything like that. But I’m all in, and I’m not unhappy about that. Authenticity is a legitimately important thing because it takes too much energy to not be. Just let it all out, express yourself and let the chips fall where they may. You’re never ever going to be in a good place if you are continuously trying to be something that you’re not. In regards to the challenge of being the “barefoot ted” character? Do I feel expectation or pressure? More or less, no. This is me. Get used to it or move on (laughs).
Some of the fear isn’t about barefooting itself. The naked foot is the wild part, the animal part of the human. Society is more or less trying to regulate the animal into boxes. Your shoe is your way of tying down and organising and controlling and it’s the sign to everyone else that you are civilised, that you are under control. Taking off your shoe sets you apart in civilised society. Most people don’t want to be set apart. They want to fit in, they don’t want to fit out. There is more of a psychological burden than a physical burden. If you go to the beach, Santa Barbara, where I’m moving back to, no one bats an eye, no one reacts. All you need is a pair of shorts. But if you see a guy in the city with a suit and no shoes that’s a different thing. It’s far more psychological I got so excited by the Five Fingers because it became a tool that would enable you to consider other options. When I started wearing sandals like the Tarahumara wore that’s automatically, people are like “that’s effeminate, that’s not right”. One aspect of helping people become more comfortable in their own skin, the sandal is one of those tools, it’s reducing suffering in the mind and in the body. I’m trying to help people come into this space, but more into a middle ground, so it’s acceptable, that they wont be self conscious. I think that barefooting's biggest disadvantage is its otherness, and secondly, barefooting isn’t best in every situation. There are plenty of situations, like running through a city where barefoot might not be best. Finally, I have no need or desire to make anybody do anything they don’t want. If people don’t have the chutzpah to realise that This (natural movement) is a possibility, if they haven’t been informed or intrigued by things that they’ve come across or even just the very basic thing that i’m a human and this is how I was born. If that is too much of a hurdle to overcome, I feel no need of convincing them more. But making sure that there is a dialogue in our society, and to find if they get intrigued to find people to share with or communities or groups to share with so they don’t lose that ability if they find it bubbling up. Maybe early on I did, but I quickly got past the fact where I felt I needed to convince anybody. What was more important was to stave off the people who told me who I couldn’t do it. Ultimately, if you find something that works for you. Whatever it is, if it makes you come alive and it works for you. Having the courage to stick to it regardless of what people think, follow your passion. And let’s give people the space to follow their passion, because if they are not hurting anyone, you have no right to tell them that they can’t do it, and we’ll be all the richer for it. I think that we’ve come a long way, I mean, people get their PhD’s in barefoot running these days, whereas a while ago, you’d think that everyone was getting their PhD’s in why you should wear orthotics. It’s interesting times, man. And we’re certainly interesting critters.
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