Barefoot runner takes on the world

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.







Jessica on Jane (me)

The end of the world with Jane

published in Connect Savannah, Dec. 27, 2016

By Jessica Leigh Lebos
MAYBE IT wasn’t the best idea to go looking for comfort on the darkest day of a very dark year from another misanthrope.

“It’s cold and miserable and I want to throw up,” Jane Fishman informs me when I knock on the front door of her Parkside bungalow.

“Yeah, well, perfect weather for this dumpster fire of a year,” I growl back, brushing the dots of mist clinging to my coat.

We both laugh, because being mildly depressed during winter is such a cliché, as is already the term “dumpster fire” to refer to 2016.

Jane doesn’t do clichés. She prefers—nay, champions—unconventionality both in her writing and her other favorite endeavor, digging in the dirt and planting stuff. The two converge once again in her latest book, I Grew It My Way: How Not to Garden, a hilarious, informative collection of local herbal lore and urban horticultural adventure that heralds appreciation for nature’s overlooked gifts.

I figure I’ve brought the perfect offering, a few Meyer lemons purloined from the ungated backyard of a vacant house on my block. Or not.

“Oy, I’m up to my ears in citrus!” she says as she adds the deep yellow orbs to a basket overflowing with oranges and grapefruits. “The orchard over on 38th Street is going nuts.”

We head towards the kitchen, Pavarotti hollering from the record player.

“Maybe your mood would improve if you didn’t listen to opera in the morning,” I suggest, taking in the dining room table full of partially-wrapped holiday presents and indigo seeds ready to be sorted.

She shrugs and squeezes me a glass of orange juice from her grandmother’s ancient steel countertop contraption, a pulpy shot of straight-up sunshine.

“There, that’s better, isn’t it?” she says after we toast, the twinkle that’s been temporarily robbed by the dreary weather returning to her eyes.

I saw that same sparkle the first time I visited Savannah—exactly 20 years ago this week, come to think it—when the dear lady who would become my mother-in-law (God rest her sweet soul) dragged me over to meet Jane at the synagogue social hall. My future MIL thought it remarkable that she knew two newspaper columnists (back then I was a cub scout at Northern California’s Pacific Sun, one of the country’s oldest altweeklies) and seemed a little star struck by Jane, who shook my hand, bemused.

I remember telling her that any town that can deal with a sassy Jewish woman writer is my kinda place. (When I tell Jane this story, she giggles. “What the hell was I doing at Mickve Israel anyway?”)

When I moved here for good a decade ago, it never occurred to me to wonder if Savannah was big enough for the both of us. Instead, I read her books and columns religiously (“oh my god, stop it with the religion already,” she groans, rolling her eyes) and basically followed her around (not easy, since she likes to hide out in three different gardens around the city and sometimes on Ossabaw Island.) I still haven’t figured out how to grow a banana but I did pick up a mysterious, three-pronged jumping lily at one of her bi-yearly plant swaps.

Jane rides her bike everywhere and wears blue nail polish to cover the crud under her nails. She spends her Social Security checks on local art and healed her own broken kneecap with a paste made from a comfrey plant growing in her driveway. She once got arrested for keying a street sweeper and had to do 40 hours of community service pulling weeds at the Bamboo Farm.

She is the eccentric, DGAF auntie my children always needed and probably the closest thing to a mentor I’ll ever have.

“Oh pssssht.” Jane waves off my sentimental drivel and hands me a cup of sorrel tea made from the deep red petals collected from the sprawling bush on the city-owned side of the back fence.

We sip the hibiscus-flavored brew and talk shop instead. We’re both best motivated by deadlines and agree wholeheartedly with Dorothy Parker, that grouchy scribe supreme who put it best: “I hate writing, I love having written.”

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Jane must love the past pluperfect tense a lot, because she’s already working on two more books, Something about 70, which promises to be a most unconventional treatise on aging, and an homage to her late mother, When Did You Get So Jewish?

“My mother always thought it was hilarious when I started putting Yiddish in my columns,” she recalls. “Who knew people would think being Jewish was so funny?”

We get all subdued again as we consider that might not be the case in the coming alt-right assault on the media and beyond.

“Let’s go see the chickens,” she says.

We visit for a few minutes with her menopausal girls, only giving up a single egg every other morning between them these days. Then we head out the back gate to the lane, where Jane has fashioned an amazing garden in the strip of earth between the wooden fence and the garbage truck route.

Frilly skirts of kale, proud crowns of broccoli, sweeping fans of collards are lined up in surprising order (in her book, Jane loves to brag about how disorganized she is) next to turmeric shoots and garlic toes pushing up green stalks. This incredible winter bounty is fed by compost heaps of broken egg shells and carrot ends moldering into magic a few yards down, waiting to be shoveled and spread directly onto the ground.

“I hate raised beds. They remind me of coffins,” she grumbles, pulling a stray weed in an area marked off by a Barbie leg.

That sets off my misery again, flooded with frustration about Savannah’s pernicious problems and the heartbreak of Aleppo and watching Clown Voldemort and his Sinister Council of Ignoramus Deatheaters usher in the end of the world.

“Oh, Jane, what are we going to do?” I cry, feeling the cloak of darkness hovering above in the slate-colored clouds.

She hands me a comfrey leaf. “We wait until spring.”

This is the solace I’ve come for, I realize as she continues to poke her blue nails around the plants, humming with contentment.

This is what I need to hear from the wisest person I know on the darkest day of a very dark year: That nature always comes through no matter what, and the days only get longer and brighter from here.