Are barefoot runners and parasites BFF?

Allison Loudermilk

Runners compete during the Bondi Barefoot Race at Bondi Beach on May 24, 2009, in Sydney, Australia. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

There's a movement afoot in the world of running: shucking your sneakers and loping along barefoot. If you head over to the Web site of Running Barefoot (motto: We don't need no stinkin' shoes!), you'll find a whole series of events catering to folks like Barefoot Ken Bob and other devotees of minimalist running.

That last part cracks me up. Isn't running a minimalist sport already? What do you really need other than shoes and shorts? I might argue for a few creamsicle-flavored gel packs, the Nike chip for your Asics, the special headphones that won't slip around, hi-tech socks -- OK, maybe it's not so minimalist for me after all. That's why I'm curious about running barefoot. If you're curious, too, I recommend reading Greg Downey's expansive post on the Neuroanthropology blog.

But here's what I don't get. Regardless of where you fall on the argument that the naked foot provides the best stability, don't you have to worry about running roughshod over parasites or fungi? Haven't public health advocates lobbied for us to wear shoes for a reason? Namely, to protect you from creepy crawlies like hookworm, which infested the South during the late 19th century and early 20th century, or fungal infections like sporotrichosis? And yes, they're both still very much around, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC's parasitic division estimates that hookworm is the second most common human helminthic infection (a helminth is a parasitic worm). No numbers on sporotrichosis that I could find, but people who handle thorny plants, sphagnum moss or baled hay are at increased risk of getting the infection.

So I ask you, barefoot runners, is the risk of infection worth it? Or does it pale in comparison to the joy of feeling the ground move beneath your feet? (Full disclosure: I've run five marathons -- in shoes.)

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