Friday, July 13, 2012

Introduction to Huaraches


tarahumara huarache born to run
Tarahumara huaraches--notice the tire tread.
So you've read Born to Run and decided to start living like a Tarahumara. You've started eating chia seeds and running hundreds of miles a week in brightly colored clothing, but something is missing. What's next? Maybe it's time for you to try huaraches, the traditional running sandal of the Tarahumara.  

What's a huarache? 

A quick note on terminology: the word "huarache" is a Mexican Spanish word that simply means "sandal," so it's not the most precise term. Within the running community the meaning is pretty clear, but you should be aware that to most other people the word refers to this:
Somewhere out there is a very confused Born to Run reader running around in a pair of these. 
The traditional Tarahumara huarache is a sandal made out old tire rubber and leather. The sole is cut to the shape of the foot and three holes are cut: one between the toes and one on each side of the heel. A single long leather thong is knotted at the end and threaded through the toe and ankle holes. 
tarahumara huarache born to run

Why should I try them?

As Barefoot Ted McDonald puts it,
"You can usually trust indigenous design when it comes to active footwear. These sandals and others similar have been around for 1000s of years, and I know why. They have no frills, just exactly what you need and not a bit more. Elegant design."
(Ted wrote this a few months after his first trip to the Copper Canyons, well before he started selling sandals).

As he often is, Ted was right. Contrary to popular belief, the professional runner is not an invention of twentieth-century sporting events.  For millennia, people from across the globe (from the Incas to the Iroquois to the Ancient Greeks) worked as foot messengers, frequently running hundreds of miles at a time. 
Apparently over-striding isn't a modern invention either
These were professional ultrarunners who knew what they were doing, and they virtually all ran in moccasins or sandals. Unfortunately for us, the art of making traditional running moccasins seems to be lost today.  However, the good news is that (1) traditional sandal making is still alive with the Tarahumara, (2) people smart enough to recognize a good thing have preserved the knowledge for the rest of us, and (3) huaraches are cheap and easy to reproduce.  (Even if we knew everything there is to know about Iroquois running moccasins, reproducing a pair out of deer skin would probably be a bit ambitious for me). 



So, we have a time-tested footwear with a pedigree that goes back to Pheidippides and is both cheap and easy to reproduce. What more could you ask for?

But...

Even knowing all this, I had my reservations at first about trying huaraches, and it was two years between when I first started running in minimalist shoes (and read Born to Run) and when I made my first pair. There were a couple of reasons for my reticence, and they are likely shared by most of you reading this. For one thing, I knew that I would stand out like a sore thumb in them. Make no mistake, if you run in huaraches you will be "that guy in the gladiator sandals." 
"Boo!  His footwear is anachronistic and we can see his toes!"

Also, as much as I enjoyed Born to Run, I didn't want people to think I was some over-the-top groupie. I mean, I enjoyed The Matrix when it came out but I didn't start wearing floor-length leather jackets or pince-nez sunglasses. (I really should have realized this before, but I am way too concerned with the way people look at me--a bad quality for anyone, but especially for a minimalist runner). A more practical problem is that huaraches aren't available in stores, so if you want to try them out you have to either order a pair online or make a pair yourself. 

Well, I should have stopped whining and gotten a pair right away, because huaraches are by far the best distance running footwear I have ever tried. Once I tried them it's been hard to run in anything else.

Huaraches FAQs


It's pronounced "HUR-a-kees," right?
I'm going to pretend you didn't just ask that. Repeat after me: "wah-RAH-chays" (preferably with a Spanish "R").

Doesn't the knot under your toes drive you nuts?
Actually, not at all. It is noticeable when your sandals are brand new, but once you've run just a mile or two the knot flattens and isn't noticeable at all after that.

Doesn't the lace between your toes drive you nuts?
Generally, no, but it can be an issue. I have gotten fairly bad blisters a few times, but every time was during a long run when I hadn't run much recently. As long as I build mileage gradually it doesn't give me any problems.

Do you have problems with blisters? 
See above. As long as I give my feet some time to adjust to the sandals, I get fewer blisters than in other footwear. Recently I went for a 15 mile trail run in the rain and although my feet were wet the entire time I didn't get a single blister (I can't imagine being able to say that if I had been wearing shoes). Oddly enough, wearing Injinji socks, which I have tried a few times to ward off possible blisters, seems to cause blisters for me under the ball of my foot. I can't explain why, but I don't use them anymore, at least not in warm weather. The most problematic area for me is where the knot touches the top of my right foot (for some reason the left foot never has had this problem). Dirt and grit sometimes get caught and wear a blister, but simply sliding the knot forward or back fixes things (a band aid there would probably be a easy fix as well).

Don't you get rocks and stuff between your foot and the sandal?
Yes, occasionally, but they work themselves out pretty quickly. On the odd occasion a rock doesn't leave on its own, pulling the sandal away from the foot solves things quickly.

What about when it's cold?This is when those Injinji socks come in handy. As long as your feet stay dry (i.e., no snow or puddles), you can run comfortably in fairly cold temperatures. Definitely not any worse than FiveFingers in the winter.

Won't the knot and the laces wear out?
The knot on the bottom will wear out eventually. When that happens, you just tie another knot and go on with your life. As for the lace on the sides, the sole will mold to your foot so that the lace doesn't touch the ground very much. It also makes a difference what kind of laces you have. With leather laces, I can't imagine them ever wearing out. Hemp laces don't wear as well. 

Are they better for road or trail running?
They work great for both. Since the snow melted this year they are all I have been using (I run a mix of road and moderately technical trail). For road running I find them to be just about perfect. In fact, you could make a pretty good case for huaraches being the best road running footwear around. They are also great for trail running. I have had great luck with them, as have the Tarahumara (obviously), who are known for running technical trails in theirs. However, huaraches are better for dry environments than wet ones. Depending on your lacing system (traditional with thick laces works better than a slip-on with thin laces), they can feel insecure when wet and/or muddy on technical terrain. Also, they aren't well suited for climbing or scrambling.

How much do they cost?
See below, but in general, do-it-yourself kits start around $25 and include everything you need. If you have access to free or low-cost materials, you can make a pair for next to nothing.

What are the pros and cons of huaraches?
PROS: cheap (depending on the option you choose), great for road and trails, keep feet cool and dry (sweat can evaporate), toes can splay as much as they like, you feel closer to the trail, street cred among minimalist runners.
CONS: can't try them out before buying, not ideal for cold weather, not ideal for wet/muddy technical terrain, lace between toes can bother some people, people will look at you funny and/or yell supposedly humorous comments.
"ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED BY MY FOOTWEAR?!"

Great! Where can I buy a pair?
Well, first I should point out that you don't have to buy huaraches; you can always do what the Tarahumara do and make them yourself using materials you find lying around. This has the potential to be the cheapest option. The problem is finding materials that work well. Tire rubber is actually not the best option since it is heavy and doesn't have very good ground feel.  Also, most of the discarded tire rubber you will find by the side of the road has steel wire in it and for the life of me I can't figure out how to cut it. Leather is an option but has worse traction than rubber and isn't all that cheap unless you have access to scraps. The same goes for laces--good quality laces aren't all that cheap and shoe laces aren't going to work very well. The bottom line is that unless you have access to good quality, cheap materials you will probably end up with sandals that are inferior in quality to a DIY kit and you could very well end up spending more money doing it than the kit would have cost. 

Which brings us to the next option: buying a do-it-yourself kit and making sandals from that. This is the option I chose (twice) and the one I highly recommend. I bought my kits from Luna Sandals.  Luna has the longest pedigree of the companies around since it was founded by Barefoot Ted McDonald (a barefoot legend in his own right and largely responsible for the popularity of FiveFingers) who learned how to make sandals from the Tarahumara runner Manual Luna while in the Copper Canyons on the trip that formed the basis for Born to Run (triple whammy!). A basic DIY kit (laces + Vibram rubber sole that will last forever) starts at $25 and goes up if you want something fancier (e.g., thicker trail sole, suede footbed, high-tech laces, etc.). Another option which a lot of people like is Invisible Shoes. Their kit also starts at $25.

The final option is to buy professionally made huaraches. As of today there are a number of companies selling pre- or custom-made huaraches or huarache-inspired sandals. Luna and Invisible Shoes both start at $50 (Luna charges an additional $15 for the custom-made option).  Three other companies are Bedrock, Unshoes, and Branca. All three fall into the huarache-inspired category rather than traditional huaraches. 

Lacing Styles 


OK, now that you have your shiny new huaraches, how are you going to tie them?  If you bought Brancas or Bedrocks, or Lunas with one of their high-tech lacing options (elasticized leather, ATS, etc.), then that decision is pretty much made for you, but if you made you own or bought Invisible Shoes or Lunas with traditional laces, then you have a couple of options. The first is the traditional style (sometimes called "gladiator-" or "toga-style"), which is how the Tarahumara tie their sandals. 
This is the way I tie my sandals. It is an elegant design--simple, comfortable, and very secure.

The second style is the slip-on, where you tie the laces in a way that allows you to slip the sandals off and on without retying them. This is great if you happen to be pathologically lazy (which is an odd quality in a runner who probably makes his/her own footwear). Another perk is this makes it almost look like you are wearing normal sandals. There are a number of ways you can tie the laces to achieve this. The first and probably best is to simply tie at the top of the foot like so:
Lunas with what looks like 10mm leather laces
The disadvantage of this method is that you have to cut the laces short, which means that you can't ever change your mind and use the traditional method. To get around this, you can keep the laces long and just keep looping them around and around:
Invisible Shoes in the "around and around" style popular with Invisible Shoe owners
These are the most popular methods but by no means the only ones. There are a lot of people on the internet who enjoy inventing and sharing new styles of tying (especially Invisible Shoe owners for some reason; they really get creative).

Seriously, more questions?

Hopefully that is all of your huarache-related questions answered. If I missed any (or you just think I'm wrong about something), visit groups.google.com/group/huaraches or leave me a comment.

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Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?



12 comments:

  1. Great review - thanks.

    After 2 years in VFFs I made the switch to Luna Sandals this spring, and I LOVE them! But they are a little pricey, and I worry about the leather getting ruined if it gets wet too much, so I ordered a pair of Invisible Shoes last month.

    So far I only have about 10 miles on the new Invisibles, and the jury's still out - it's a very different feel. Good news is they're much less expensive, and since they're made of rubber with a nylon lace, they're pretty much indestructible.

    Overall, I can't picture myself not running in huaraches again. (maybe I'll go back to VFFs if the winter gets too cold?)

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    Replies
    1. That's one of the reasons why I got my Lunas without the leather footbed; I was planning to get them dirty a lot =). From what I've read, the leather footbed is more slippery when it gets wet but I have never read anything about water ruining the leather. Here is a forum discussion on the subject: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/huaraches/D_GZCAJ5xRU

      I'm hooked on huaraches too--I basically retired all of my other shoes this spring. I'm not sure what I'll wear when it starts snowing again but I haven't found VFFs to be any warmer than huaraches + Injinji socks (the VFF toe pockets are terrible in the cold).

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  2. Nice blog :) I have some Bedrock EQ sandals that I am beginning to love. http://bedrocksandals.com/earthquake-sandals.php

    I am still a bit phobic about stuff between my toes though.

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    1. Those look really good. Does the elastic affect how secure they are on rough terrain?

      I think having a lace between your toes is just something that takes a little getting used to. The more I wear my huaraches the less I notice it.

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    2. Define "rough terrain". They get used on the southeast coastal plain, which is not very rough in my opinion but once I get them on the way I want they stay put. Mine are also the custom-made version. The guys who made them use them hiking in Pennsylvania I think. Speaking of rough terrain I had the privilege of visiting Show Low in 2005 for a job interview. Didn't get the job but I'm always scheming a vacation.

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    3. Small world. Most people from AZ have no idea where Show Low is.

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  3. I especially liked Salt River Canyon on the drive up from Phoenix and that Thai place that is between Show Low and Pinetop on the right if you are headed for Pinetop.I was disappointed that I didn't get to see any Western bird species even though I was there for three days. It just means I'll have to come back.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, Mountain Thai. We eat there a lot. The canyon is one of the prettiest drives in AZ, which is saying a lot. It's like they put a highway through the grand canyon. What kind of birds were you hoping to see?

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    2. I really wanted to see a jay, yours are different from the Eastern ones. Now I live a few hours from a scrub jay sanctuary but I've never gone to see one. Seeing something different from a plain old blue jay would be a treat for me.

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  4. FWIW, Invisible Shoes has the only outsole designed specifically for barefoot running sandals (co-developed by the former lead designers from Nike and Reebok).

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  5. I have both the original Lunas and the original invisible shoes...love em both:)

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  6. I must say i desired to view a the writer, your own aren't the same as the particular Far eastern kinds. Today We reside a couple of hours from your wash the author refuge yet I have in no way visited notice 1. Experiencing different things from the the usual jaybird will be a handle for me personally.

    regards,

    hvac training in AZ

    ReplyDelete