A movement is afoot.

A barefoot movement. Or, at least a shift toward shedding shoes.

A small but growing segment of the running population is harkening back to the days before sneakers, before waffle shoes, before heel-and-toe hit its stride. These are folks who run either in bare feet or with minimalist shoes that offer little more than sole protection.

“It just seemed like a good way to go,” said Merrill Henderson, 63, of Gorham, “building up the strength in your feet without all that stuff encasing your feet.”

Henderson is one of 49 runners who have entered the Barefoot 5K on Saturday as part of the fifth annual Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival, which continues on Sunday at the New Gloucester facility and includes such events as Canicross (cross country running with a dog) and two distance races longer than a marathon, one of them capped at 13 hours.

“We view these all as significant challenges for different people,” said Erik Boucher, director of the festival. “Five years ago we wanted to create the most challenging races in Maine, so we created the 25K and 50K. Three years ago we added a 50-miler because 50K just wasn’t hard enough.”

This year Boucher expanded the event to a second day and added shorter races to attract more runners. Seminars on Canicross, barefoot running and ultramarathoning are scheduled for Saturday afternoon. Entries, which close online at noon today  but continue in person at packet pickup and on race day, have exceeded 800. Fewer than 500 runners preregistered last year.

“It’s got to be the largest trail-running event on the East Coast,” Boucher said. “And the barefoot (race) I’m sure will be the largest sanctioned competitive barefoot race in the country. It’s so new, the number of barefoot races you can count on a couple of fingers.”

Henderson purchased a pair of five-toed, rubber-bottomed shoes (think gloves for your feet) last summer after becoming intrigued with the idea of barefoot running. She gradually increased her distance and developed more of a shuffling stride with weight on her forefoot instead of her heel.

She also uses the minimalist shoes for Scottish Country Dancing, another of her passions.

“I won’t go back to running shoes,” Henderson said. “Your footfall is different. You feel the lay of the land a bit more than I did with running shoes, especially doing rolling territory. I also like the idea that it’s strengthening different muscles.”

John Rogers, whose Maine Running Company is a sponsor of the Pineland Farms festival, sells the five-toed shoes. He said he’s not worried about runners abandoning traditional footwear.

The movement toward barefoot running, which gained speed thanks to a book by Christopher McDougall called “Born to Run,” is “really about good posture and good foot strike in terms of being an efficient runner,” Rogers said. “It’s making people think more about biomechanics.”

Chuck Hazzard, 49, of Freeport is a member of a local club called Trail Monster Running, which focuses on off-road running. This is his third year of barefoot and minimalist running. He entered both Saturday’s Barefoot 5K and Sunday’s 50-miler.

“I just find it’s a more comfortable way to run,” he said. “But I tell people don’t do what I did; I went total immersion, so I had some pain and suffering at first. …. It takes some training and time, but I think you’ll find people who run barefoot have a quicker turnover and keep their feet under them more.”

After casting out shoes, barefoot runners often find themselves feeling like outcasts among those who wear shoes. On Saturday, they’ll have a chance to go toe-to-toe with sole mates.

“I think everybody thought I was the weirdo until Chris McDougall’s book came out,” Hazzard said.

“Chris’s book did a lot to make people realize there maybe is something here.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

[email protected]

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