Every step is a tender struggle. Every sensation is heightened by each consecutive strike. Most would not even think about braving a cold winterâ€™s day without a coat, or taking an evening stroll around the block barefoot. So, naturally it would be ridiculous to take it one step farther, and at a faster pace — Ridiculous to everyone, but Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. C. Nuntavong who for nearly a year has been running with nothing between his own two feet and the ground, except for a thin layer of conditioned skin trained to take the brunt of every step.
Itâ€™s called minimalist running or forefoot running, a running style which relies on, uses, and, more importantly, trusts the natural design of the foot to do the work of running without the added padding that shoes are designed to provide. The logic of it is simple â€“ when running directly on the balls of the feet, they absorb the shock of your running, rather than landing on the heels where there is a shock that is sent straight up the leg.
â€œI prefer to run barefoot, completely without shoes, because I feel itâ€™s healthier for my body,â€ Nuntavong said. He said he needed something new to take him away from the monotony of running; the kind of running that he has become all too familiar with throughout his 15 years in the Marine Corps.
Even before he joined the Marines he swam varsity all four years in high school, so when a friend joined the Navy, Nuntavong figured it would be a good fit for him. One evening after school he went to the Navy Recruiting office in Pacifica, Calif., but discovered an empty room. Disappointed, he turned to leave and ran into a Marine recruiter who asked, â€œWhy do you want to join the Navy?â€ When Nuntavong explained his swimming ability, the recruiter said, â€œMarines do that too. We do it all.â€
So began his long journey out of the water, and on the hard surface of the world, as a Marine and runner, one heel strike after another, left followed by right.
â€œUp in the morning with the Maryland sun,Â We run all day until the day is done,Â We love to double time,Â We do it all the time,Â MARINE CORPS!â€
In San Diego he ran. In Yuma, Ariz., he ran. In Garden City, New York, Miramar, Calif., Iraq, Okinawa, Japan, Denver, and Washington, he also ran.
And today, he is running, on a track at Fort Meade. Nuntavong nonchalantly strips his shoes and socks from his feet and takes off running in a silent rhythm. The track is still damp from last weekâ€™s snow, and just an hour earlier the sun peeked from the clouds for the first time in four days. The few other people running the quarter-mile loop double-takes at the shoe-less athlete who passes them. He glides across the ground in short deliberate strides as if he was enjoying a run on a soft-sanded beach.
The Thailand descendent is first generation American and stands at five feet, eight inches. He calmly composes himself with an unassuming confidence. He speaks in a relaxed manner and lets out a scent of humility, especially when talking about running.
â€œRunning is a very individual sport, and it gives me time to think, or even not think. It kind of takes you to this mental plain where you can clear your thoughts,â€ he says. â€œIâ€™ve never experienced, whatâ€™s called a â€˜runners-high,â€™ but I do enjoy running.â€
It shows. Now on his second pass around the track, he seems to find his stride and escapes from the chaos of life. In removing his shoes he has symbolically removed any pressures of responsibility he carries. He is a child with innocence and wonder, who canâ€™t be contained by manufactured soles and laces.
At times it is hard to imagine that this calm, peaceful man is a Public Affairs chief in the Marine Corps who no doubt has encountered anything but calm situations. In August of 2009, he was part of the Social Media Team at Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington D.C., responsible for integrating the Corps into the world of social media.
He said it all started with a Twitter account and the question, â€œWhat do you think we can do with this, Gunny?â€ From there and without any guidance from anybody, the team set out on the venture of liberating the Corps to the World Wide Web. Once the leadership realized that social media was a good way to communicate its mission to the masses, they expanded the strategies that Nuntavong helped plan.
â€œIt was definitely hard,â€ Nuntavong said. â€œWe had to work with different elements of the Marine Corps and work together.â€
In May of 2010 the Public Relations Society of America asked the Marine Corps to be part of its Digital Impact Conference, along with Google and The New York Times.
It is the same ambition and discipline he displays in the Marines that led him to take on the unique endeavor of minimalist running.
His wife of ten years, Jennifer, a minimalist runner herself, introduced him to the style after he hit a plateau in his running.Â It was no longer fun for him. He started by running three miles with shoes and added a half-mile barefoot at the end. Every two weeks he would tact on another half mile.
Weather became a limiting factor. He said, â€œThe problem was I was running in the summer, and I was running on black top. It was like 120 degrees off the blacktop and my feet didnâ€™t like that at all. So when you get moisture and heat together you get blisters.â€Â There might have been a better time of year to start running, he says, but after a couple weeks the blisters were gone.
Depending on the weather Nuntavong runs as often as he can. The key of starting minimalist running is not to do too much, too fast, he says. â€œBones, muscles, and tendons arenâ€™t used to it. You didnâ€™t learn to walk in one day; you canâ€™t learn to run barefoot in just one day.â€
After his second jaunt around the frigid track, he comes to a bouncing stop with a grin of refreshed relief on his face like someone who has just woke up from a power nap. Heâ€™s relaxed, at ease, but the glint in his eyes says at any moment he may spontaneously take off for a few more laps. His posture says he still craves the earth beneath his feet. He desires it. He needs it.
This past fall he competed in the New York City Barefoot Run and the Fort Belvoir Turkey Trot 10k. He says that in both races he could have kept running.
In any sport, pushing past physical and mental trials is part of the game, but for Nuntavong, the social struggle of running barefoot was the hardest part. He hears people whisper their judgments and sees their shocked looks as he speeds by. He says his wife has on an occasion been stopped and asked if she was in trouble.Â â€œI donâ€™t have time to educate everybody who is out there. Hopefully they will get home, do some looking on the Internet and make a decision for themselves, whether or not barefoot running is good for them.â€
It was his own research that led him to an up-in-coming minimalist shoe company.Â According to its website, its mission is to, â€œDesign footwear that encourages biomechanically correct performance with as little interference as possible.â€ Through its simple five-page site the message is clear – it isnâ€™t shoes it is trying to promote; itâ€™s a healthy lifestyle.
For Nuntavong, the company sparked a marriage between his running and social networking passions. When he found on Twitter that they put out a request for a social media manager he jumped at the chance to commit his free time apart from the Marine Corps to this endeavor.Â This was right up his alley, and he was just the man they were looking for. So much so that CEO personally called Nuntavong.
Todayâ€™s welcomed rise in temperature is a mirror of Nuntavongâ€™s post-run spirits. As he walks away from the track with his shoes and socks apathetically in his hands, he says just one thing with a smile on his face, â€œMy feet are cold.â€