UM member, Jason Robillard, knows about raising eyebrows more than the rest of us. While we frequently struggle to explain our desire to run really, really far, Jason has the added difficulty of explaining why he does it without shoes. While most of us know of Jason from our forums, from a race starting line, or his web presence, few know how instrumental Jason has been in what is becoming less of a fad and more of a shift in the way we use our most important asset as runners: our feet. UM recently sat down with the author of “The Barefoot Running Book”
to chat about his long journey, plans for the future, and why he “ultras”.
UM: Can you tell us how you began as a runner, and in the days when virtually no one ran barefoot,
you decided to give it a try?
Jason: I started running for enjoyment in high school after realizing I enjoyed the conditioning aspect
of football and wrestling. I never ran track or cross country, though. Through the college years and
early twenties, I was a barely a recreational runner. I probably ran once every two weeks for two or
three miles. In my late twenties, I met my wife Shelly. She convinced me to begin running for exercise.
Together we ran about 10-15 miles per week. In 2005, I entered my first race- a local 15k road race. It
beat me up, but I enjoyed it. After that experience, I set my sights on a 50 miler later that year. I ended
up suffering a string of running injuries and had to settle for a marathon. That winter, in an attempt to find a solution to the running injury bug, I tried barefoot running. It was supposed to be an occasional training tool, but I fell in love with the feeling. I've been running mostly barefoot since that spring.
What is your biggest challenge to running ultras?
Jason: My biggest challenge is the yearly funk I experience during the winter. In fact, I'm going
through it right now! I have zero motivation to do heavy training. Luckily, I have a good group of
running partners. We manage to do enough long runs to keep some semblance of my endurance base. I
usually pick up heavy training around the beginning of March. Aside from that, specific races are always tough. This past year, I decided to try to test my ability to string long runs together. I did a 68 mile training run, a 100 miler three weeks later (Burning River), a hard trail marathon two weeks later (Fallsburg in Lowell, Michigan), and attempted a 50 miler two weeks after that (North Country Trail 50). I barely finished the marathon and DNFed the 50 after 25 miles. I definitely found my breaking point. In retrospect, it was foolish to think I could do so many hard races based on my training and ultra experience... but I tend to do a lot of foolish stuff.
UM: What running accomplishment is your biggest source of pride?
Jason: I would have to say my first 100 mile finish was my proudest moment. It occurred at the
Hallucination 100, which is part of the Woodstock Running Festival in Hell, Michigan. I had serious
doubts about my ability to finish a 100 after crashing and burning at Burning River the previous year.
UM: You have been instrumental in bringing barefoot and minimalist running to the masses on a grass
roots level. How did this start, where are you now and where is it headed?
Jason: As I said, I started because I was looking for a solution to my injury problems. At the time, there
were very few resources available on the 'web. To fill the void, I started a website that more or less
functioned as a blog. At the same time, I had set up an ultra calendar site, The Ultramarathon Store.
The barefoot running site sucked, but I started to develop a little bit of a following. When “Born to Run” was published in 2009, my traffic exploded. People started seeking me out to answer questions and provide guidance. Around the same time, I started posting on the Runner's World Barefoot Running forum. I met a lot of cool people, many of which were exploring barefoot running for the first time. Some local runners convinced me to begin holding clinics, and I wrote a "guide" to use as a supplement. Some of the people from the forum convinced me to send them the guide, and then proceeded to convince me to turn it into a book. Since then, I started a website, Barefoot Running University, began doing some freelance writing for Ultrarunning Magazine, Competitor.com, and a few other running-related publications, and have continued working to educate others about the advantages and disadvantages of barefoot and minimalist shoe running. Lately, I've been working with Merrell to help produce educational material that will accompany their new line of barefoot-inspired shoes.
UM: Do you think there will be a revolution in traditional running shoes, a day when doctors and sports
scientists no longer recommend supportive shoes for the masses?
Jason: Yes. Not only do I think that day will come, I think it will arrive faster than most expect. The
fact is simple- if you support anything on the human body, it weakens. The very idea that we need
support is silly considering humans ran without support for 50,000 years. I think there will be a phasing out of cushioned, supportive raised-heel shoes as more people make the transition. Having said that, I don't think they will completely disappear. There will probably always be a market simply because the pillow-like shoes feel good when tested in the stores. People often ask me if they should try barefoot running. It is a tough call as we're all individuals. For ultrarunners, the required decrease in training volume may not make the benefits worthwhile. There are definite trade-offs. My best suggestion is to do research that will allow you to make an informed decision.
What is the point of ultrarunning?
Jason: I think ultra mean different things to different people. Some do it for the personal challenge.
Others like being on the fringe of what we consider human limits. Others just like to eat junk food for
24+ hours. For me, I like the unpredictability. Running ultras, especially 100s, makes me feel like an an
explorer. You're constantly confronted with new challenges that require problem-solving. I also like to
camaraderie. Almost every ultrarunner, from the elites to the back-of-the-pack crowd, seems to share a
sense of shared suffering that bonds you together. There's something magical about running long distances; it creates strong family-like relationships.
UM: Finally, what is on your calendar for 2011?
Jason: Right now, I have a pretty light schedule. I will be running at Mind the Ducks in May. My tentative plan is to run that race barefoot again. Last year's race was an awesome event. Our contingent of Michigan runners will be attending again this year, along with a few more friends. After that, I will focus on training for Western States. I was fortunate enough to be chosen in the lottery this year. It will be my first mountain ultra, so I'm a bit nervous. Luckily I have a great crew and pacers, many of which have been running with me for a few years. After that, my family will probably start another big adventure. We're planning on traveling around the country in an RV to attend various running events. It should be quite an adventure, especially with our three kids and dog in tow.
Interview by Shelley Viggiano
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