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Stephen Rauch was waiting for the start of the recent Harvest Fair run in Santa Rosa when a boy standing behind him asked the obvious: "Where are your shoes?"

"It's a long story," the barefoot Rauch replied, in what has become a familiar refrain for the 45-year-old software engineer.

The married father of two is accustomed to getting stared at or even teased when he runs shoeless or in glove-like booties that seem a better fit for frogs.

But funny thing is, the idea is catching on.

Spurred by a bestselling book, more striders on the North Coast and across the nation are hitting the streets and trails without their shoes, and in the process, turning a lot of heads.

These minimalists are kicking decades of running orthodoxy to the curb by arguing that shoes interfere with a person's natural gait and increase the risk of injury, primarily by encouraging runners to strike the ground heel-first.

Lose the shoes, they say, and runners land more softly on the middle or front of their feet, as nature intended it to be.

Needless to say, there are those who consider these arguments heresy, leading to raging debates in running clubs, online chat forums and in the pages of running magazines.

Rauch defended his choice in a lengthy essay in the October newsletter for the Empire Runners Club under the title, "What's up with the Shoes?"

But club president Bob Finlay said Rauch probably won't get many converts, saying club members, who number more than 500, have seen "fads come and go."

Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and an editor for Runner's World, was even more pointed in his appraisal of what he called a "passing fancy."

"I wish we lived in the same pristine environment that existed two million years ago, but we don't. Most people are going to want protection under their feet when they run," he said.

Perhaps, but interest in barefoot running appears at an all-time high, thanks in large part to "Born to Run," Christopher McDougall's best-selling book about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, who are known for epic 100-mile runs with nothing on their feet but strips of rubber.

Popular training methods like ChiRunning and the Pose Method also promote running with a more "natural" gait.

Stores are selling out of Vibram FiveFingers, the thin-soled rubber booties that Rauch favors for most of his runs. Officials at the Italian company that makes the booties figured they would appeal to boaters, kayakers and yogis. But runners have been snapping them up, at a cost of between $75 and $85 a pair.

"We can't keep them on the shelves. It's ridiculous," said Joe Kurtzweil, a sales associate at Sonoma Outfitters, where wait lists have been created because of the demand.

But watching Rauch pounding the pavement in his booties during a lunchtime run from the Tellabs facility in Petaluma brought to mind a single word: "Ouch."

Can running on asphalt in nothing more than a thin layer of rubber really be good for the body?

Rauch is convinced that it is, after having studied the issue with an engineer's attention to detail. Besides inspiring a few of his running buddies to give it a try, he also bought Vibrams for his kids, Nicholas, 12, and Katherine, 9.

Others are jumping on the bandwagon. Near where Rauch and a few friends ran during lunch, two other software engineers who have never met Rauch ran up a dirt path wearing Vibrams on their feet. One of the runners, Dev Jain, said the experience reminds him of running barefoot in his native India.

"I've never felt so good after a run," he said. "The feedback was immediate."

That's not to say converting to running barefoot or in thin-soled shoes is easy. In his essay, Rauch recalled suffering severe cramps in his feet, calves and shins the first several months after he made the switch. But by building up his mileage slowly over time, he said he now runs pain-free and, he believes, with a more efficient gait.

Running this way does not aggravate a chronic problem Rauch has in his right knee. Ironically, that hurts worse when he bicycles. His times at races also have steadily improved.

Skeptics will point out that Rauch isn't running enough to really demonstrate that Vibrams are a good alternative to shoes when it comes to long-distance running. He maxes out at 15 miles a week, which is what some runners do in a day.

Others argue that most people don't have the time to commit to restructuring their strides, and that in any case, people can learn to correct imperfections in their gait while wearing shoes.

Said Danny Aldridge, a world-class master's runner and co-owner of Heart and Sole on Brookwood Avenue, "I don't want to go back to square one at age 52."

Mark Schakel, an orthopaedic surgeon in private practice and the director of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital's Foot and Ankle Trauma Service, said there are no definitive studies showing that running with shoes is any better than running without, and vice versa.

He said running barefoot likely won't decrease the risk of developing plantar fasciitis, a common running injury that involves the band of tissue from the heel to the toes.

"That's going to happen whether you are striking on the heel or not," he said.

As counterintuitive as it sounds, Schakel said the risk of developing a stress fracture might actually decrease running barefoot than with shoes, because shoes can promote overuse and harder landings.

Unless a person is injured or has another issue such as diabetes, which can result in reduced sensation in the feet, Schakel said he sees no reason why people can't run barefoot or with minimum support.

"People just need to find something that suits their body and works best for them," he said.

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