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Shoeless marathons for a cause

Smiling at the end hides the sometimes painful obstacles Eddie Vega faces during barefoot races. Courtesy Eddie Vega

As a barefoot runner, Eddie Vega knows pain.

He's stepped on broken glass, sharp rocks, spiny twigs, nails and screws. He's discovered that harmless-looking pine needles aren't so harmless. He's sought out the painted stripes in the middle of roads, striding from one to the next, to mitigate the searing heat of asphalt in August.

Yet Vega says the little goathead thorns he encountered in New Mexico in October were the worst barefoot landmines of all. Goathead thorns are small but tough, with several sharp spikes. On the first day of the multiple-day Day of the Dead marathon series in Las Cruces on Oct. 27, Vega says he stepped on more than 50 of them.

At one point he says there were so many on each foot, "I didn't know how to stand up." So, he didn't.

"I sat down and took out my tweezers and pulled them out one by one," he says.

Vega laughs as he tells the story. In fact, Vega laughs often as he talks about his yearlong quest in 2014 to become the most prolific barefoot runner in history.

"That's his nature," says his longtime girlfriend, Nilda Birch. "He always makes fun of himself. He uses humor, even if he's hurting."

The 55-year-old IT consultant from Raleigh, North Carolina -- who carries his trusty tweezers during every race -- has completed barefoot marathons in all 50 states since Jan. 1 and will run his 100th barefoot marathon of 2014 on Dec. 27 in Houston. He hopes to finish the year with 103 shoeless marathons, the last on Dec. 31 in Ocala, Florida.

He'll be the first ever to run barefoot marathons in every U.S. state, and he's been working with Guinness World Records along the way to verify that his total and his 10 consecutive days of marathons from June 28-July 7 will be barefoot world bests.

It's not that Vega has a love of running without shoes. He doesn't. He can go much faster with shoes and doesn't have to worry about glass and goatheads. In 2015 he'll go back to running most of his races with shoes, leaving the tweezers at home. But what started with a dare in 2012 became a cause and a challenge in 2014 that he felt compelled to complete.

As a little boy in the Philippines, Vega often didn't have shoes. By running barefoot, he's trying to draw attention to the fact many children around the world don't have shoes. He's raising money to help them.

"He likes to challenge himself," says Birch. "He's always been like that since I've known him. He doesn't sit around. He always finds something to do to challenge himself."

The dare

Vega was born in the Philippines, then spent most of his youth in Guam. He wasn't much of a runner because of his asthma. As an adult he took up running occasionally, but always quit. He didn't run his first marathon until 2007 when he was 48. He was invited to run the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh to raise money for the poor in the Philippines.

Vega, who is 5-foot-6, weighed 185 pounds at the time (25 pounds more than his current weight). He trained five months and completed the race in 5:15:24.

"After that I figured I trained so hard for this one marathon, I don't really want it to go to waste," says Vega.

He quickly entered another. Over the next few years he ran several more marathons, getting his time down into the 4:40s. But he had to take breaks because of various injuries, including stress fractures in both big toes. In 2010, he switched to Vibram "FiveFinger" shoes (the ones that look like gloves for feet), which seemed to help.

Then, in 2012 he met some runners wearing Marathon Maniacs shirts, learned what the group was about and decided to join. That's when his number of marathons took off. In 2012 he ran 50 marathons in 30 different states or countries. Before his last race that year, Vega was joking with friends that he might have to run barefoot because he hadn't brought enough shoes.

"They dared me," he recalls.

So, he ran 26.2 miles in bare feet.

"I thought I was going to finish the marathon all bloody and blistered and everything, but it turned out I did not," he says. "My feet were in pretty good shape. Just some small abrasions. That surprised me."

What also surprised him was the attention he received from race volunteers and other runners. That's when he got the idea he might be able to run barefoot for a cause. He'd been looking to get involved in a fund-raising effort, particularly one in the Philippines.

"I did not have any shoes," he says of his boyhood, "so there are a lot of kids in third-world countries that cannot afford shoes. So that's where it all started."

He did some investigating and found a non-profit called Soles4Souls that collects shoes and clothes and distributes them around the world. He set up a fundraising page on the organization's website. In 2013, Vega ran 19 of his 32 marathons barefoot while he completed marathons on all seven continents. He tried to do a race in Antarctica without shoes, but couldn't. After more than eight miles, the ice and temperatures were too much.

Near the end of 2013, however, he hatched his plan to set barefoot records in 2014 to make a bigger splash, draw more attention to his cause and raise more money. Vega checked with barefoot-running proponents and Guinness to see what records existed, and set out to make barefoot history in 2014.

He set his sights on completing marathons in all 50 states, putting together a streak of at least 10 days and running 100 or more, all without shoes.

On Dec. 7 of this year, he crossed the finish line of the Tucson Marathon in 5:50:03. It was his 50th state this year. And, he says his feet feel fine and look OK. Each has five toes and skin on the soles.

"They look pretty normal," he says. "It looks like I've got some pretty thick calluses on my heels, but on the forefoot area, you can see that the calluses are there, but they're not really as thick as most people would think. When they look at my feet they're surprised to see they're not [as bad] as what they would have imagined."

In order for his barefoot records to count, Vega has to follow Guinness' guidelines: he can't put anything on the soles of his feet to protect them, not even a Band-Aid. And, he had to learn how to take care of his feet. As soon as a race is over, he washes them and applies antibiotics to ensure he doesn't get an infection.

And, if he does get an injury -- a bad cut or swollen big toes, for instance -- he's skipped races so he doesn't make the injury worse. Plus, unless it's a race, he never goes barefoot.

"I wear shoes everywhere else, except to run, to minimize the risk of injury," he says.

"Barefoot Bandito"

Vega says he's met very few other barefooters on his 2014 route across America. He ran with four in Maui and Kansas, and three in Chicago. Often, he's the only one, so he gets plenty of attention.

"I'm like a rock star," he jokes.

Vega was disappointed in the amount of money he's raised this year, though for every dollar people have donated, Soles4Souls can distribute one pair of shoes -- and he's raised nearly $11,000.

But as this year winds down, he's confident his barefoot quest has been a success because he's been able to spread his message and generate help in ways he can't measure. He says when he tells some people about his cause, "It's like their heart melts."

Plus, he'll have the memories of a 2,698.6-mile barefooted trek, including:

• All the slivers of glass he's pulled from his soles. It's not the big shards that are the problem, but the little ones that are hard to see. "Twice I've had to run several miles with a piece of glass in my foot," he says. "Later on, when I had more time, I was able to pick it out."

• Dog poop. About a dozen times, he's stepped in it. It's almost worse than glass. "It's just gross, squishing between your toes," he says.

• That car that hit him at the Kalamazoo Marathon in Michigan in early May. He was knocked flat, and one of the tires narrowly missed crushing his left foot. He didn't finish the race and took a few days off, but had no major injuries.

• His fastest race, a 4:50:47 in Philadelphia, where the conditions were perfect for a guy without shoes: clean streets and smooth surfaces.

• The Bristol Marathon in New Hampshire may have been the most beautiful. "Almost at the peak of leaf-peeping season," he says.

One thing a year of running barefoot has reinforced is how wonderful shoes are, he says.

"Because what I'm running on [in races] is not natural," he says. "These are mostly man-made materials, like asphalt. Some of the roads are just so rough. Pitted rocks stick out. ... They are not made for barefoot.

"And weatherwise, during the winter, when they salt the the streets, you can't really go barefoot. It really makes me appreciate shoes. But at the same time, it also makes me appreciate barefoot. There are times when you go barefoot and times you should be wearing shoes."

In 2015, he'll mostly go back to wearing shoes so he can reach his next goal: qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

"I want to shave about an hour off my time," he says.

Full speed ahead, goatheads be damned.