Every step is a tender struggle. Every sensation centered on the uncomfortably naked feet boldly going where feet never thought to go. Most would not even think about braving a cold winter’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, at a faster pace -- Ridiculous to everybody BUT Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. C. Nuntavong who for close to a year has been running with nothing between his own two feet and the ground but a thin layer of conditioned skin.
It’s called minimalist running or forefoot running, and it closely parallels the modest character of Nuntavong . The style 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 – when running directly on the balls of the feet, they absorb the shock of your running, rather than landing on the heels, when wearing running shoes translating that shock all the way up the legs.
“I prefer to run barefoot, completely without shoes, because I feel it’s healthier for my body,” 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 during 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 Recruitment office in Pacifica, Calif., but discovered an empty room. Disappointed, he turned to leave and ran into a Marine recruiter who asked, “Why do you want to join the Navy?” When Nuntavong answered, the recruiter said, “Marines do that too. We do it all.”
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, stride after longer determined stride.
“Up in the morning with in the Maryland sun,
We run all day until the day is done,
We love to double time,
We do it all the time,
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 being barefoot can only bring. The track is still damp from last week’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 steal quadruple-takes at the shoe-less athlete who passes them. He glides across the ground in short deliberate strides as if he was enjoying a soft run on a Florida 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.
“Running 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,” he says. “I’ve never experienced, what’s called a ‘runners-high,’ but I do enjoy running.”
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 can’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, “What do you think we can do with this Gunny?” 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.
“It was definitely hard,” Nuntavong said. “We had to work with different elements of the Marine Corps and work together.”
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 found himself in a “running slump.” 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.
He said, “The 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 didn’t like that at all. So when you get moisture and heat together you get blisters.” He says he thinks there could have been a better time of year to start running, but he doesn’t regret the journey to his new found passion. “After two weeks your feet are fine. No more blisters.”
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. “Bones, muscles, and tendons aren’t used to it. You didn’t learn to walk in one day; you can’t learn to run barefoot in just one day.”
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. He’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 keep 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. “I don’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.”
It was his own research that led him to up-in-coming minimalist shoe company, Skora. According to its website, its mission is to, “Design footwear that encourages biomechanically correct performance with as little interference as possible.” Through its simple five-page site the message is clear - it isn’t shoes it’s trying to promote; it’s a healthy lifestyle.
For Nuntavong, the company sparked a marriage between his running and social networking passions. When he found on Twitter that Skora put out a request for a social media manager he jumped at the chance. This was right up his alley, and he was just the man they were looking for. So much so that CEO David Sypniewski personally called Nuntavong.
Moments like this have come throughout his life. Nuntavong has accepted challenge after challenge, and proven himself through his accomplishments and modest ambition. If history repeats itself, he will tackle any new future assignment with the same passion he has shown on and off the track.
Today’s welcomed rise in temperature is a mirror of Nuntavong’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, “My feet are cold.”