Friday, December 6, 2013

Discovering my Right Big Toe

So it’s been a while since I’ve written for my blog. April 2012 to be exact. But today I discovered my right big toe. And I got inspired to write. It’s been there all the time, of course, my right big toe, but I felt it there in a different way today - fully weighted under my leg taking its share of the load as I ran. It was a significant moment for me because for the first time in my life I felt like I might be able to fix my duck feet. So that excitement was enough for me to write again. My duck feet have dogged me (how’s that for a mixed metaphor!) my entire life, so that’s a good reason to write about it. Linda Barsi and her video blog about writing inspired me too. Check her out here! She’s an aspiring creative writer and the daughter of one of my best friends, Mary Lindahl, a Master ChiRunning Instructor.

But I better back up because my big toe is way ahead of the duck feet and I have to tell the story to connect them. I know it’s complicated, but stay with me here.

As a ChiRunning Instructor and ultrarunner, I’ve been working my form for several years now with the intention to stay injury free and continue to enjoy running even as I age. I’ve made large, significant changes in my running form that have allowed me to run long miles and actually at a fairly decent speed for my age. Enter, the antagonist (how am I doing Linda?): my right foot splay (everted, turned out, duck foot) has been with me since way before the first time it was pointed out to me as a runner in my first Ironman in February 1982. My dad followed me around the course at Kona with an 8 mm camera and went through enough film to document much of my 11 and a half hours out there. It was the first time I saw my duck feet and he was the one to point them out to me. Horrors. I didn’t even look like a runner, let alone an Ironman!

Since those Ironmans, I pretty much accepted the fact that I couldn’t change my duck footed running and left it at that.  I mean, after all I had finished two Ironmans – so why change what wasn’t hurting me. I couldn't have been more wrong. Three knee surgeries later from snow skiing injuries and 20 pounds heavier and I arrived in 2010 feeling old and unable to run more than 3 miles. Then I learned ChiRunning. By improving my feet alignment a bit and relaxing my lower legs to reduce the effect of my everted feet, I was able to fix the knee pain. And I began to run again. Joy!

Right foot eversion in the air with wide arms
My first 50 Mile race October 2011
14 months after learning ChiRunning
I started racing in 2011 and have since completed six 50Ks and the same number of 50 Mile races as well as shorter events where my speed continues to improve. And I’ve remained uninjured despite my noticeable right foot eversion. I’ve just accepted it as something I can’t do much about because of my anatomy and knee surgeries.

Right foot April 2012

Three weeks ago, mid-November, I attended ChiRunning Instructor weekend, along with 62 other instructors from all over the world. We met to learn from each other and work with Danny and Katherine Dreyer, the founders of ChiRunning and ChiWalking. It was an extraordinary weekend and I learned so much! For me, the highlight of the weekend was the work we all did around video analysis – learning more about how to film students and each other; technology, angle analysis, causes of form problems and most importantly, how to fix them.

Lean Angle on right foot Asheville 11-2013
I ran with Danny several times that weekend and he definitely saw my splayed foot and my overstride on hills. He graciously pointed out my form problems to me. About 3 days ago, I had a long conversation with two Master Instructors about how to fix my right foot splay. Mary Lindahl has been a Master since 2006 and David Stretanski has been one for just a couple of months. Both are my friends and brilliant teachers of ChiRunning. There are only 10 Master Instructors out of the over 200 on the planet, so working with David and Mary is like having the best of the best to coach me.
Stride angle Asheville 11-2013

After a beautiful run in the hills near Asheville, NC, we all filmed each other on the road. These are shot through Coach's Eye, a fantastic application that doesn't cost much through the App store.
Right foot splay in air on fully weighted
 left leg (with less splay) and left
arm winging out more than right to
compensate 11-2013
After talking with David and Mary, I went for a run yesterday for a couple of miles after skiing. I focused on keeping my right foot relaxed and straight forward when landing. Mary had commented that my left arm pops out easily so I should focus on bringing it in next to my side – nix the chicken wing. This would compensate for my right sided weakness/imbalance that was causing the right foot to splay. I wasn’t convinced when we had talked the night before, but when I focused on a relaxed arm swing and keeping my left arm in, it worked! My right foot seemed to come in more readily. I was cautiously optimistic and hopeful.

Then today, I ran 6 miles and focused on my arms staying close to my sides, especially the left one, just as I had done yesterday. As I brought my left arm in and focused on feeling pigeon toed (which makes my feet point straight) I suddenly discovered my right big toe. There it was waiting to be weighted! So, I continued to focus on weighting my right big toe while I landed with my foot straight. I felt strength and stability from my hip to my knee that I rarely feel and probably only by accident, not through intention.

I could see it in the shadow as I ran with the sun behind me. I couldn’t see the shadow of my foot splaying out to the side. Happy dance! Happy runner!

My right big toe. I e-mailed Mary the news that I had discovered my right big toe with the same excitement I had after I first met her when she taught me ChiRunning in August 2010 and I was learning pelvic rotation and relaxation. Mary e-mailed back to me: “MarkCuccuzzella (very fast runner and running physician expert) said ‘I understood Chi Running, but I didn't understand my big toe...’ Wow. I wasn’t alone. Maybe I really can fix my duck feet with one of my focuses being on my big toe.

Ok, here’s the serious part. Correcting my feet, and actually it’s my whole leg alignment, will take much more than just focusing on my running form. Strengthening exercises will continue with focus on hip stabilizers. Yoga and skiing are part of the mix to strengthen my quads and hip extensors. I’m also going to check out Rolfing for some deep tissue realignment work.

Ultimately, this challenge has re-focused me to a new level of excitement about improving my running. I can spend the next few months working exclusively on my running form in time for what could be a breakthrough running season next year. I can get better. I can stay healthy and still run long and fast. I can run until I die.

So, here I am at the end of writing for my blog for the first time in over a year. It feels good to get something out there about my running life. 2013 was kind of a bomb year, good running year, but challenging in other ways. How did I do Linda? Dramatic question answered? And from draft to final. yay! here's to 2014 - it will be a great year!

Hey look! they're straight!










  1. Good for you! I completely understand your excitement and I am a brand NEW runner!

  2. Hey, try marching in place (barefoot) like you're about to be in a parade. Simply lift the knees like you're a little soldier. The feet will most likely both point forward automatically. Have you ever seen duck-footed marchers? No. Do this a lot, and it will become ingrained. This fixed my left foot inversion, and stopped a whole host of problems on my left side.

    1. eversion, sorry

    2. To Anonymous, Yes, walking in place does help, but for me it is not automatic. I have always had to focus on having my feet come down straight. Really. And this is true for many people. I know that when it feels like I'm landing pigeon toed, then my feet are straight. I can do it fairly automatically as you suggest, but what has been missing is weighting my full foot (including my big toe) so that when the leg lifts naturally during the running gait, the foot isn't everted in the air. My discovery of my big toe has helped to keep the foot hanging straight in the air and more straight on the ground as a result.

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    4. "would not have been POSSIBLE" I meant.