Savannah Morning News
Jan., 1, 2017
He looks normal enough. Jeans, sandals, t-shirt, jacket, thick, longish brown hair (neatly parted) tucked behind his ears, prone to a sly smile (maybe a little ironic), easy eye contact, friendly, self-contained, under control, not the loudest person in the room, a modest demeanor, a bit of a baby face (though he thinks at 30 he’s getting wrinkles and for that Andrew Snope is glad).
But what do his feet look like, specifically the soles of his feet? This is what I want to know of this ultramarathon runner, this young man who has competed in dozens of extreme runs, including three 24-hour-straight marathons – barefoot – who runs for days at a time on concrete, over bridges, under sprawling tree limbs, through marshlands, past mountains and in rivers, who regularly breaks world records.
He obliges my request and pulls up the cuff of his pants. The top of his feet look healthy, the nails clean and tapered. Same with the soles. I push the envelope (full disclosure: we’re friends) and ask to touch the bottom of his feet. He obliges again.
“They’re smooth,” I say (better looking than my own, I think). No calluses, no corns, no bumps or lumps, no puncture wounds.
“Every once in a while I get a splinter,” he says, not terribly impressed.
He did run across a field of burning coal once at Burning Man in Nevada. And that, he allowed, was pretty scary. But he did it. He also ran across Costa Rica, through the French Alps and, last July, the Vol State 500 K. That excursion took him four days and six hours to run through Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia. Some people checked into a motel. Not Snope. He slept in the woods, under bridges and under church awnings. When lightning threatened he headed for a nearby drainage ditch where he met a legion of leeches.
The barefoot thing started when he thought he might want to run for exercise but he didn’t have any running shoes. Snope’s a minimalist. He likes to live “super cheap.” He likes to say he is not part of the “consumer culture.” He thought, “What if I don’t like running and then I’ve gone and bought these shoes?”
The running thing started four years ago. He had just quit driving a pedicab and started working a restaurant job as a bartender and server. The transition left him with a lot of energy and some strong quadriceps. The initial running felt good. Nothing hurt. So he ran some more, around Forsyth Park, around Daffin Park, through downtown. Still nothing hurt. Distances didn’t seem to matter. That’s when he thought, “Well, where else can I run?” So Snope, an explorer, someone who likes to push the envelope, found new paths: over the Memorial Bridge to Tybee Island, up and down the beach and then back to his downtown Savannah apartment. All this before he went to work. After doing that a bunch of times he thought he’d head southeast and visit his parents, on foot, in Georgetown. The shortest route was the railroad tracks so that’s where he ran.
By then he was addicted. He’d found his style running – short steps, his head in a horizontal plane, his legs directly under his body, no bouncing, no jumping up and down, landing on the middle of his feet.
To train for his first 100-K race he circled Forsyth Park – which measures one mile around – 62 times.
A few weeks ago he ran 138.81 miles – barefoot – in the 24-hour Desert Solstice Track race in Phoenix, Az. Runners can stop to rest, but he did not – except for a few potty breaks. He doesn’t like to break the rhythm and that, said Snope, is the biggest challenge – not the physical act of running (by now he knows he can do that) – but the mental part.
“After the first 20 hours you start to feel that maybe your muscles are sick of what they’re doing,” he said. “That’s when you have to focus on the moment or there’s too much to think about. There’s this voice that says, ‘I can stop anytime I want.’ There’s a constant nagging that the whole thing is pointless. It’s kind of Sisyphean, like it’s an impossible task, especially when it’s on a quarter-mile track and there’s a big clock telling you the time. I wish it wasn’t there; I try to ignore it. It’s hard to wrap your head around what you’re doing.”
When he starts to feel pity for himself he zeroes in on his breath and how it moves with the rhythm of his body. He calls this entrainment, a way to synchronize your brainwaves with your movement. Then he looks at the shadows on the mountains in the distance. He tracks the sun. He thinks of people in his life. He thinks about people who have done epic things – “more important than what I’m doing, far more arduous” – like Ernest Shackleton, a polar explorer who made it to the Antarctic, and Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the globe.
Snope is a reader and a bit of a scholar, but college (“with 200 people in a classroom”) straight out of high school – at Georgia Tech – wasn’t for him. He pursued physics at Armstrong for a while but then he got a degree in liberal arts from a community college in Vermont. For him, learning doesn’t stop. He talks about the Tarahumara, a Native American people in Mexico who excel in long distance running, teaches people how to ride a unicycle and, when he has to, returns to his serving job at The Public in Savannah.
“I’ve met a great group of people running,” he said. “It can be a very social thing. But mostly I run by myself. I want to win. I used to joke I wanted to be a traveling hobo.”
He didn’t know it would be on foot.