While he’s best known as his “Barefoot Ted” character, Ted McDonald is much more. Ultra runner, for sure. Entrepreneur, of course. Laid-back philosopher, absolutely.
I had the pleasure of speaking with McDonald, er Barefoot Ted, for about an hour recently. As we chatted, I harkened back to “Born to Run,” the book that introduced the ultra running world to Barefoot Ted, Caballo Blanco (Micah True), Scott Jurek, Luis Escobar, Jenn Shelton (click here for previous interview) and others.
While we did talk about the book briefly, “Born to Run” captures a moment in time from 2006. For McDonald it was a time of self-discovery. To hear him describe himself, he’s still in the process of discovering, testing, learning.
“At the time the book took place, I was trying to crack the nut of running, doing everything I could to make myself a better runner,” he says, noting next May represents 10 years since the book was published. “I’m really a proponent of self-experimentation.”
The ‘barefoot culture’
To understand who McDonald is, one must go back in time before he joined other American ultra runners in Mexico’s Copper Canyons to meet and run with the reclusive Tarahumarans.
McDonald was born in 1964 in southern California, growing up in the surfer and skateboarder culture. “No one is doubting the barefoot culture,” he says. “We’re capable of doing almost anything and we — as kids growing up — knew that through our lifestyle, playing sports, skateboarding and everything else barefoot.”
He enjoyed a life of athleticism. Always being active and good on his feet. “Everything requires running — baseball, football — we were always doing it barefoot.”
It was so common back then, McDonald says, that “if you look at yearbooks from southern California in the 1960s, you will see entire high school cross-country teams all barefoot.”
Somewhere along the way, McDonald lost his away in the protocol. When skateboards changed, and Vans shoes emerged, southern California teens left their barefoot ways. As he approached 40, McDonald set a goal to run a marathon.
Dabbling in ‘proper’ running footwear
But cultural amnesia set in for “Sneaker Ted.” McDonald lacked good running form. He had tried running but he was not having fun. “Running was too painful,” he remembers.
“I have to tell you, it wasn’t working out too well when I was trying to follow the protocol,” he says about what was considered proper running footwear. “I was willing to spend anything. I realized that if I wanted to do this dream of running, since it’s been on my bucket list, I was going to use whatever resources I had. I found that the running footwear was not helping.”
He realized that he wanted to run barefoot, but “the belief then was that you could not run that way because of the pounding. But for me, because of my foot development, once I tried it, it was like a light went off in my head. Oh. My God. Well of course, if you run like this, what can’t you do?”
Meeting Manual Luna
Once he rediscovered barefoot running, McDonald made it his mission to preach his message of foot salvation. He took to writing a blog to promote running in sandals back in 2004.
“Now we are all inveterate story-tellers all trying to come up with an angle, an authenticity to tell our own stories,” he says. “I was doing that with barefoot running and the whole landscape.”
As fate would have it, McDonald met Manuel Luna while in the Copper Canyons in 2006. That meeting drove McDonald to create LUNA Sandals, named, of course, after his inspiration. As he learned more about the simplistic ways of the Tarahumara, he used that philosophy to form LUNA’s methodology — “What’s the least amount that works the very best?”
Today, 15 employees work for LUNA Sandals in Seattle, manufacturing and marketing the sandals, among other professions.
McDonald points out while they were not trained as professional footwear engineers, they get their hands — and feet — dirty in working to find the best solutions for the sandals they produce. “It’s the most interesting thing I have had the opportunity to watch and make.”
He compares his blogging and social media posting to promote LUNA Sandals as “surfers making surfboards style of living where I follow the lead of the natural selection of human footwear in society. Less is more — especially for people who want to move more.”
Experimenting at the Leadville 100
In 2007, the year after “Born to Run” took place, McDonald helped Caballo Blanco run the Leadville 100 after about a 15-year layoff. Then it was McDonald’s turn, and he ran the race the following three years.
“I learned how to enjoy it,” he says. “In 2008, I tried running in a pair of early LUNAs, and I could only run 50 miles in them, and I ran the rest in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. They (early LUNAs) weren’t ideal footwear for that course for most people, not even me.”
In 2009, he ran the whole race in Five Fingers, a kangaroo leather version of the shoe. In 2010, photo at left, he ran it in the first LUNA trail sandal. “It was so measly and flimsy and not ideal for the totality of what that race can give you,” McDonald recalls. “But nonetheless, it was the greatest experience I had in running a 100-mile race.”
Keeping shoes, self trim and efficient
As one learns about McDonald’s past experiences, one can also begin to understand not only his philosophy, but how it transcends to his company.
“What I love about the sandal is the connecting back to native peoples,” he says. “If you can move well through a territory, its limits and its boundaries, you gain a sense of confidence about living in that space that the Tarahumara have preserved. Their running is connected to the successful lifestyles that they have developed. They didn’t rely on the modern world at all. They are a joyful people and they are great runners.”
McDonald and his team have infused that mindset into the minimalist range of performance and lifestyle sandals. “By bringing some of their outlook on life to us moderns is one of our goals at LUNA,” he says. “That’s why I am going back this year to the Leadville 100 (LT100) trail race in Colorado, one of the oldest 100-mile trail runs in the country — and I have no freaking idea of whether I can still run 100 miles enjoyably or not.”
He is beginning to train but has maintained a good fitness level, comparing his approach to sculpting his fitness with his approach to designing footwear. “By working on the same concept that we use with LUNA — ‘What is the least amount that works the very best?’ We aim to keep it trim and efficient.”
When he goes out for a run, it might be at the beach, it might be along rocks. It’s never very long, he says. And, of course, he doesn’t track it.
“Like a surfer surfs and a kid plays, I go out and I just don’t have any idea of what is going to happen,” he says. “I use it to explore my neighborhood or a new area. I want to get closer to the world around me, its contours, what’s growing around me. When I run these days, I want to see how I can become more vitalized by moving well.”
The purpose of his fitness is not to see how fast he can cross a finish line. It’s about achieving a peak level of vitality, as he explains. So, just how does he know when he ascends his personal peak?
McDonald explains that it is part of a large build over time, based on the individual and his or her own experiences. “You are paying attention to these experiences you are having over time, and maybe following some guidelines,” he says. “But then it becomes an inner sense you get through experience, primarily by doing it wrong. Anything that comes at you — your failures, your successes — are all fodder for you to become more aware at what is working for you. Learn through the process and gain where you can. In the end, you become the master of your self.”
Gearing up for the big race, McDonald challenges himself with a combination of running on sand, hiking, bicycling, pulling rickshaws (if you haven’t seen this Billy Yang video, check it out), swimming and body surfing.
“I’m super-curious if I will be able to do what I want to do,” he says. “My inclination is that I can easily, if I had to.”
Learning to run barefoot
As we talked, I became even more curious about running barefoot or in sandals. While I have tried all sorts of sneakers, my favorites would definitely be considered minimalist. My biggest fear of barefoot running stems from an experience I had at the Indianapolis Monumental marathon four or five years ago.
I had been running near a barefoot runner for a decent part of the race. Around mile 18 or 20, he was just ahead of me when suddenly he stepped on a small rock or something and fell down in a heap. A nearby volunteer rushed over but I never saw the barefoot runner again.
“Running a marathon in bare feet can be done,” McDonald assures me. “There is no doubt about it. If someone new were to try it, they would hopefully not have the terrible situation that the runner in Indy had. Running anywhere barefoot, you are extremely vulnerable in your bare feet.”
It’s quite the paradox — the human race evolved to be the greatest runners, yet we are extremely vulnerable in the modern world with uneven sidewalks, loose stones and glass shards.
“Humans must learn to move well in their bare feet,” he says. “Obviously, they should do that in shapes and ways that they feel comfortable and in control. If you don’t use them right, they are not going to get better.”
He compares the human body to a top-of-the-line automobile that lacks proper fueling. “It’s timing is off. Driving that car more isn’t going to make it better. Driving that car harder isn’t going to make it better. You’ve got to get that thing tuned up and start putting better fuel in it.”
He likens barefoot running to a diagnostic check.
“If you can learn how to move well, and gently, in your own bare feet, and get that return of energy and that quicker cadence. It’s super awesome when you feel that.”
McDonald says that those learning to run with bare feet will find a sense of quiet, which then transcends flow throughout their entire body, “When you tune into the space that is the quietest, the smoothest, the flow-iest and all of that, you are rewarded in how you feel.”
So how do runners get there? It’s an experiment of one.
“You need to be in your core. You need to be thinking about your posture, your breathing, all of these things,” he says. “When you get into this sweet spot, it feels so good. With some of your goals for speed or distance, it’s hard to stay there all of the time. Every runner must take and spend as much time as possible with expanding that space, tasting that space, experiencing that space.”
Name: “Barefoot” Ted McDonald
Hometown: Santa Barbara, Calif.
Number of years running: All my life, but got serious in 2004
How many miles a week do you typically run: from 7 to 70
Point of pride: As a character in “Born to Run,” I helped generate some new insights into what it means to be a human.
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Blue Corn Pinole
Favorite piece of gear: LUNA Sandals ;-)
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Santana
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Do Good to Be True
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/barefootted
• Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/barefoot_ted/
• Website: LUNAsandals.com