Running People

Hi movement lovers,

Cool East Market sells shoes inspired by a variety of diverse cultures around the world. We started out with Japanese Tabis and when a customer told us about the natural movement-friendly DIY Kits from Xero shoes, we took a chance and got into minimal shoes. 

Many minimal shoe designs are based on footwear designs that are thousands of years old, including the DIY Kits. In our July newsletter, we took a look into the origins of running sandals, but what about those who are new to us, who weren't on our mailing list last month? This blog will make what we learned available in a lasting and transparent way.

Running People

In the popular book Born to Run, sports journalist Christopher McDougall advocated for wearing barefoot and minimal footwear to reduce running injury, and introduced the huarache running sandals worn by the Indigenous Tarahumara in Mexico to the running community.

Many of the shoes we sell at Cool East Market, all the Xero Shoes specifically, are inspired by the running sandal design mentioned in this book, so we wanted to look into the sandals and the people behind them.

After a little digging, it seems we were already operating under some misconceptions. For starters, it was Spanish colonizers who called these Indigenous people the Tarahumura. They call themselves the Rarámuri.

Secondly, huarache is the modern word used in Mexico for sandals. It comes from the word "kuarache" in the Tarascan language, spoken by the Purépecha Indigenous people of Jalisco, south of the areas where the Rarámuri live. Traditional huaraches have a distinctive handmade woven leather design, unlike the simple running sandals.

So when McDougall and his friends asked the Rarámuri people they visited what their sandals were called, it seems as though they gave them the common word for sandals, huarache, and the name stuck. The Rarámuri call their running sandals “aka,” specifically.

We were unable to find out whether there is a cultural significance connected to the akas, but the few Rarámuri who have granted interviews about their sandals and their running, including the ultra-marathon record breaker María Lorena Ramírez, have seemed fairly blasé about the sandals. This indicates to me that they are likely “just sandals,” a means to an end. You can watch the short Netflix documentary about Ramírez here.

McDougall was interested in visiting the Rarámuri and learning about their sandals because they are known for running incredible distances, even for days at a time. Some sources suggest Rarámuri means Running People, Those With Light Feet, or Those Who Run Fast, though there is some dispute among translators and historians.

Not only are they known for long distance running in rough mountainous terrain, but they often run in sandals made of old tire treads and leather string, with no “arch support,” no “bouncy heel cushion,” none of the “high tech” stuff you see in modern running shoes. McDougall wondered why he was sustaining injury after injury in his high tech Western runners, while the Rarámuri were not. You can read his book for more on that, let us know if you would like us to stock it!

In the 20th century, the availability of used tires as a grippy and durable material saw Rarámuri people repurposing what would have been waste into shoe soles (although we don’t recommend this as tires can leach chemicals into your skin). Before that, both huarache and aka designs had leather soles.

From what we can gather, the Rarámuri started using the material as it was longer lasting and required fewer repairs. It’s important to note that the Rarámuri chose the material for its functionality, rather than assuming all they had access to was scraps of refuse (although poverty is also an issue).

Like many Indigenous peoples in North America, the Rarámuri are not having an easy time of things. Collectively they’ve survived and adapted through about 500 years of attempts on colonization, religious conversion, enslavement, and land “development” for resource extraction. It’s no wonder they’re often described as “shy.” Currently tourism, droughts, mining, logging, and cartels remain threats to their existence on their own land.

When Xero Shoes based the design of their first product, the DIY Sandal, on the Rarámuri running sandal, they saw an opportunity to give back. One of the difficulties for current Rarámuri is children’s health and general access to health care. That’s why Xero started donating 5% of the purchase price of the DIY Kit to the Tarahumara Children's Hospital Fund.

As Xero started developing new models, they started bringing the tensioning straps into a full range of minimal footwear. You can check out all of the Xero models we carry here. We carry a wide range of their products for all kinds of weather and functions for youth and adults.

The running sandal design is likely thousands of years old. It allows your foot to move as if it were bare, especially modern designs like Xero’s using thin, light material for the sole. Here at CEM we're grateful that we can help our community experience natural movement through minimal shoes, and we owe some of that to the Rarámuri.

Wishing you happy and healthy feet,

Hannah and Leslie