Michelle Bolhuis contacted me in early 2011 on the recommendation of a mutual friend. She was looking for a local barefoot running coach to help her improve technique and power. At that point she had just started to experiment with running barefoot and was in need of coaching. I had been running and racing barefoot since 2005 without injury after giving up on ‘coffins’ (so called ‘regular’ running shoes). Michelle joined my indoor gym barefoot training clinic in the winter of 2010 and shortly thereafter retained me as her coach. This transitioned into her commitment to iM races, marathoins, ultra races, Around The Bay and the Egg Nog Jog (exceptionally tough, hilly races) – all done barefoot!
My challenge was getting Michelle to run tight, light, compact and forward barefoot whilst increasing her cadence foot turnover and fatigue tolerance. To this day, we continue to do drills running barefoot on hills, in the marshes, on gravel, stone and river rock – all the while building her strength, power, speed and endurance.
Here’s Michelle’s story in her words:
“In 2000, my bank manager died of a massive heart attack (she was 51 – my age as at 2014). I re-evaluated my life and priorities, deciding to make drastic changes for what I believed were the better. Having sold my business, I had the time and financial resources to pursue a new way of living – training for and racing in Ironman competitions (swimming, bicycling and running). Over the next 12 years, I worked hard to become proficient in all disciplines. I realized good results in the swim and bicycle components but I couldn’t figure out how to run without getting injured. It turned out that I had a slightly torn anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee that was aggravated by running in shoes BUT did not bother me running barefoot. Strange but true…!
Three years ago (about the time I started working with coach Jeff), I started running barefoot. Nothing good is easy! However, I found that if I concentrated on coach Jeff’s Squat-Scoot method of mid-foot, barefoot running, I could run injury-free. Since I could thus train more frequently and consistently, I became a stronger overall iM competitor (especially in the running segment!).
In the fall of 2013, I began incorporating coach Jeff’s 10 week T-Team circuit training into my routine. From a fitness and performance standpoint, things progressed quickly in a positive direction. My race results improved dramatically (as an example, my iM Arizona race time in November, 2013 improved by 60 minutes from my 2012 result). I actually completed iM Arizona and iM Florida in the fall of 2013 (2 weeks apart) with a piece of glass lodged in my foot. It was too deep to remove; thus, I ran with the glass imbedded and had it professionally removed post races. In the winter of 2014, I developed rather severe frost bite in the toes of both feet. This DOES sound terrible BUT these are only superficial challenges that can be easily rectified. As coach Jeff says “these are minor things to overcome if it means running injury-free! Skin heals quickly”.
I’m not sure what the recovery time is from plantar fascia surgery or if you can run again after a hip replacement but I was headed for both before riding myself of running shoes – the diagnosed source of my running injury problems. After watching a 2014 video of the Canadian Death Race (which I competed in, running barefoot) and seeing all of the avoidable injuries, such as blisters the size of chestnuts, caused by competitors wearing running shoes to cover 125 miles of mountain terrain, I firmly believe that I get off easy by running barefoot . I found that there were significant advantages to running barefoot through bogs, down steep power line paths and over rocky cliffs – I simply had to learn the most effective techniques to do so. After attending the Canadian Death Race pre-race training camp in May, 2014, I came home overwhelmed and somewhat discouraged. After 1 hill training session with coach Jeff (as a long time barefoot runner and coach, he has developed an arsenal of tricks to help you control any unique race terrain). With my confidence buoyed, I have been able to run barefoot over glassy, gravelly, steep surfaces with no fear. By concentrating on bracing my whole core, keeping in the squat-scoot position and staying in the moment, I am now able to run barefoot on any surface faster and injury-free.
Having said all of that, the most important thing for me about running barefoot is the speed of recovery. It is instantaneous for me (I also can vouch for this!). How else could I race iM Louisville, iM Wisconsin and iM Maryland within 4 weeks and do so without injury nor performance drop-off??? Indeed, my feet got chewed up somewhat doing 3 marathons in 4 weeks as part of the iMs. However, as I said to coach Jeff, just think how tough and strong the soles of my feet are now.
I am racing the Rocketman 70.s 1/2 iM as this is being posted – my journey at times seems to be my personal attempt to reach the moon (and maybe even the stars!). In the words of John F. Kennedy (Rice University speech on Sept. 12, 1962), “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do other great things – not because they are easy but because they are hard! That challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone AND one we intend to win!” I will strive to win.”
A special thanks to Michelle for this. I personally applaud her commitment to barefoot running – the change that allowed her to compete injury-free! Here’s to a successful 2015 iM season for you, Michelle!