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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Why Huaraches?

Yes, most of you know me as a barefoot runner or a runner who endorses Vibram FiveFingers barefoot shoes. Both of these things are true. But I have been fascinated by the Tarahumara (Raramuri) Indians' footwear known as huaraches (or in the native tongue akaraches, ah-ka-ra-cheese) for a long time. Some old hippies call them Jesus Sandals, and some history buffs might think of them as gladiator sandals. But that's another story.

Running in Huaraches

My fascination with huarache sandals goes back to when I first read about some Tarahumara who had run the Angeles Crest 100 mile trail race wearing such seemingly unconventional footwear. How could it be done? Didn't they need more support? What about cushioning?

My research eventually led me to try barefoot running. A decision that led to great improvements in my running ability. Learning how to run well barefoot seems to be a fundamental first step in finding the best way to move your body on two legs, a fundamental step that is the beginning of a path of stronger and healthier running and living.

But what about rocky trails? What about urban environments and hard surfaces? Is barefoot always best?

Some folks enjoy being purists. They want to be barefoot everywhere and always. It can be done and is a viable option. However, I think some of the purists make the mistake of assuming that ALL footwear is bad in All situations. True, so much of the sports shoe industry has been built on junk science and mass marketing, but does that mean all footwear is bad? No, I don't think so. I am looking for balance.

My thinking has led me to study indigenous people and the footwear they use. You can learn a lot by studying shoes worn by people who survive on their feet, people who rely on their speed and agility for survival. The Tarahumara of Northern Mexico are such a people. They don't use footwear because of brands or logos, they pick it for practicality and effectiveness. It is always quite comforting to find shoe designs that have lasted for generations, footwear designs that are made by the people who wear them. The huarache or akarache is such a thing.

Other times and places have come up with designs and materials best suited for those environments. Yet, the huarache is designed and worn by people known for their long-distance, mountain running skills, worn by a people whose name for themselves, Raramuri, means fleet of foot. The fact that these proud running people wear huaraches made it clear to me that I was going to have to give them a try.

My first opportunity to try huaraches came in March 2006 on my first visit to the Copper Canyon. I was invited to participate in the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon put on by Micah True a.k.a Caballo Blanco (see his site here) in the town of Urique deep in the heart of the Sierra Tarahumara. While on the trip, I spent a lot of time trying to understand the huaraches. I even got so lucky as to have famed Tarahumara runner Manuel Luna make me a pair of huaraches. That started my love affair with these amazing sandals.

So, starting in April 2006, I began trying to run in the huaraches that Manuel had made for me. It was not easy learning how to tie them. I made a lot of mistakes. Furthermore, the pair he made for me were quite heavy, for he used the thickest, most expensive tire tread available (you buy section of used tire tread in little shops in Urique. They display the pieces like dried fish on hooks...He picked the best for me, so he thought).

I started imagining that perhaps there was a better material to make huaraches. I talked with one of Vibram's sole designers and asked if he had any material that he thought might work as a sandal sole. He sent me some stuff that I tested and liked. I have been experimenting ever since trying to find the perfect balance of lightweight, grip, cushion, style and strength.

Then I went back to the Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in 2007. This time I ran the race in a pair of my own huaraches. I also paid even more attention to the Tarahumara, learning the nuances of tying and designing the huaraches. This was a fantastic experience and greatly deepened my understanding and appreciation of the sandals.

I started selling huarache sandal-making kits and started making custom huaraches, learning as I went. I started experimenting with different sole materials and different strapping materials and different ways of building the sandals. I shared what I knew as I went forward and learned a lot from others on the internet.

At the same time I kept testing and using Vibram's FiveFinger shoes. They helped me to complete the Angeles Crest 100 mile race two years in a row. Something that I knew I could not do barefoot, and something that I was not sure my sandals where ready for.

Now I have come to the point where I think I have learned how to make a sandal that can handle the rigors of a 100 mile trail race. My newest huaraches sport a leather top footbed to add strength to the sides and comfort. I am also quite intriqued with a new neoprene sole material that is lightweight (less than 4 ounces) with surfside sand-like cushioning and strength. I think they are the best ever.

I believe that there are a growing number of runners and outdoor enthusiasts who are looking for time-tested solutions to the challenge of traveling on foot over rugged terrain. The huarache is a viable alternative, and it is an alternative that you can learn how to make yourself.

The sandals I am wearing in the photos above are my 6mm Vibram neoprene soled huaraches with leather footbed (for strength) and leather laces.

BFT


PS. You can get a kit to make your own huaraches here. There are also instructions on how to make a pair to download for free.

PSS. You can learn how to tie you huaraches here.

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ted, inspiring as ever !

Question: I know you have been experimenting to make the weak points of the huaraches stronger. Such as grommets to prevent the laces to 'tear' the sole. Also, the laces themselves can/will wear out. Are you working on solutions on that?

Second question: do you still make the sole short so your toes can touch the ground or do you now have them longer, like the traditional sandals?

Thanks. Pieter

Thursday, August 07, 2008

 
Blogger Barefoot Ted said...

Answer 1:

I have come up with an excellent solution. I am using a oblong punch for the side holes. Plus, I am adding a leather top.

Answer 2:

I can make them either way. Actually, after spending a lot of time running with the Tarahumara, I have found that each runner has their own preferences as to huarache size. Some like toes out. Others don't.

BFT

Thursday, August 07, 2008

 
Anonymous Rebecca said...

I would love to have my Dad read your post about huaraches.

In November 1961, my Dad purchased a suit and a pair of shoes for my grandfather (whose ancestors were Raramuri) to wear on his wedding day.

On that special day, my grandfather had chosen instead to wear with the suit his old, familiar, comfortable huaraches.

When I run I prefer to be "almost" barefoot. I must take after my Raramuri ancestors...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

 
Anonymous CW said...

Ted,
Thank you for your kind and informative site. I appreciate you sharing your sport and tips with everyone.
I was so inspired by your sandal designs I made my own prototype minimalist shoe.
I had the idea of coating an injinji sock with a silicone bottom and it actually worked!
I first ran 1 mile on the streets to make black marks where my feet go.
Then I put some circles where any hot spots/ blisters started. I made a plaster gauze mold of my feet in the standing position. This is easy to do and if you research belly casting you will find plenty of instructions. I pre cut a lot of strips of various sizes and put them on up to about ½ “ on my feet and in between my toes. Then I poured liquid plastic called Smooth-Cast 300 into the mold. I cut out all the plaster with an xacto knife and sanded the positive foot cast.
Then I got some easy to use durable silicone called Dragon Skin Q. I painted a few layers on the bottom of the sock making it a little thicker over the areas I marked and did not want to move. What I ended up with was a very light , custom fit, extremely flexible primal sock thing that really works! You should try it. The Dragon skin sticks to the fibers and is very grippy on the road and you can still feel everything, but stuff like gravel does not really hurt that much.

I had one more idea that I have not tried yet. Make a sandal out of leather, and then paint on a mixture of Barge cement and powdered recycled tire rubber. Imbed Kevlar strips over the strap ends under the rubber to help stop the ripping problem. This might work.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

 
Blogger Barefoot Ted said...

Keep up the great work CW!

Sounds very interesting indeed.

BFT

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

 
Anonymous Christine in Sac said...

i am a beginning barefooter/minimalist shoe-er and am very intrigued by your huaraches. about how many miles can they go before they need replacing?

thanks so much! you are an inspirations!

Sunday, November 01, 2009

 
Anonymous JimmyTH said...

We just put our second pairs of huaraches together, this time to use on the treadmill during the winter. Both Alice and I had severe foot problems a couple of years ago and were advised never to go barefoot again. Doctors didn't convince us they were right about any of that and we eventually figured out that our problems were caused by expensive running shoes. Your huaraches have made all the difference in our foot problems, though we are just now getting back to the level we had before we crashed and burned.

I do have some problems running all the rough country roads we used to run in armored feet. The light huaraches don't give enough protection on sharp road gravel scattered over hard packed ground. When I take that old course I always come back with deep bruises. Plus, there's always a spot where I have to stop and curse for awhile until the pain subsides. The new huaraches are of the thicker material and I'm expecting them to work better in the rough spots.

Anyway, thanks to Ted for providing the simple solutions.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

 

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