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Blissfully Barefoot: Putting her best foot forward

For kinesiology student Ness Madeiros, the benefits of running barefoot are bigger than a marathon.

Ness Madeiros
Ness Madeiros runs barefoot
through the campus mall.

Ness Madeiros doesn’t know what possessed her to start running around barefoot. One day she just took off her shoes and took to the streets.

“It lasted about five minutes and then the bottoms of my feet hurt, so I went home,” Madeiros laughs. “And then the next day I tried for six, and then I just built up that way.”

She’s certainly not the only person in the world who runs barefoot, but her preference has its limitations, especially in Minnesota.

What makes her pursuit noteworthy is that Madeiros, a graduate student in sport psychology in the School of Kinesiology, recently ran the entire Twin Cities Marathon barefoot. Along the way she raised a lot of money to fund surgeries for children in developing countries who need cleft lip and palate repair.

Madeiros has friends back in her native Bermuda with a five-year-old son, Peter, who was born with a cleft lip and palate. Because his parents are able to afford it, Peter received surgeries as an infant and will continue to get the care he needs to live a normal life.

“I was just thinking about kids who don’t have those resources,” Madeiros says. “I thought if I can raise a little bit of money, a bunch of kids who wouldn’t otherwise have surgery will be able to eat and speak and go to school and be a part of society, a chance they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

In the summer, Madeiros began writing about her goals, her divergent training methods, and the reactions she encounters when running around town. Her entertaining blog is called “Barefoot for kids: Raising money and awareness through shoeless-ness.”

Blissfully barefoot

While it may not be for everyone, running barefoot seems to have become a part of Madeiros’s fiber—a second skin, if you will.

“The ‘problem’ with barefoot running is it’s kind of addictive. It’s really, really enjoyable,” she says. “Once you’ve started it’s very difficult to put your shoes back on, so it’s really impractical. Living in Minnesota, it’s extremely impractical.”

Despite her own comfort level in running barefoot, she’s amazed at how many people react with surprise, disdain, even anger when they see her out on the street.

“People get emotional about it,” she says. “They’ll scream out the window, like, ‘Go home and put your shoes on.’ But some people cheer out the window. It’s a mixed bag.”

A successful race

Madeiros heard cheers virtually every step of the way during the 30th Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon on October 2—a golden autumn day. She harnessed all that energy in the air and achieved her goal, finishing the race in 4 hours, 47 minutes.

“The crowds were amazing, and a lot of people asked me about my lack of shoes and what my situation was,” she says. “People were a little bit shocked, but for the most part excited to see my bare feet.”

At one point late in the race, around mile 18 or 19, Madeiros remembered the sentiments of Peter’s mom. She had pointed out that cleft surgeries benefit not only kids, but their families too.

“I totally got all teary,” says Madeiros. “It was a moment where I felt this is bigger than just the marathon experience … people’s lives are going to be changed as a result. So that was a good feeling.

“Then, two miles later I hit my low and there was a different kind of tears,” she jokes.

She’s amazed at the generosity of her donors, who have brought her within a few strides of her fund-raising goal, translating into life-changing surgeries for 30 children so far.

“The number of people who are giving anonymously—which makes me insane because I can’t thank them—that’s really awesome too,” Madeiros says. “It almost has felt like people are just waiting for a place to put their money, which, in this economy, says a lot about people.”

The thought continues to leave Madeiros barefoot and happy.

“The irony of all this is, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a foot model,” she laughs.

In the end, she’s become a model for what you can do with your feet.

Ness Madeiros’s research interests lie primarily in helping girls and women find empowerment through involvement in physical activity. To read about the ups and downs of her training and work, visit her blog, Barefoot for Kids, at barefootadventures.wordpress.com.

Story by Rick Moore | Winter 2012



This article first appeared in Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.
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