From pigeon-toed to running excellence

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I was born in 1955 in Auckland, New Zealand, to a teenage mother who gave me up for adoption. As I began to learn to walk, it was observed that I rolled outwardly on the sides and heels of my feet … very pigeon-toed!

I had bone deformities which caused me pain around my big toes and prevented the natural heel/toe motion of walking. Doctors told my parents that they wanted to wait to see how it all developed before considering surgery.  As I grew, the deformities grew, making wearing normal shoes difficult. I went barefoot as much as possible and, fortunately, the Auckland climate is mild. However the cold temperatures of winter did make my feet ache terribly.

My parents did not own a car until I was 12 years old, so I walked two miles each way to school. I also suffered terrible headaches, which often resulted in days home from school.

Fast forward to age 13. The doctors said they would consider surgery. I was in the hospital for three weeks, and the surgery was very painful. When it came time to leave the hospital, the doctors said they had come up with a plan to help me gain a better walking gait as my feet healed. They were not going to give me crutches or a wheelchair. I was in plaster casts up to my knees, and they designed a black leather boot to attach to the bottom, under which was a wooden rocker, like a rocking horse.

Their idea was that as my feet were healing by me walking on them using these boots, I would gain the heel/toe motion of walking.

Now remember, I have had surgery that removed excess bone, and I still have all the stitches in my feet under those casts. It is the middle of summer. I was in so much pain and discomfort, not to mention starting high school.  It was a rough time, but these doctors had it right.  When the casts came off, my feet looked normal, and I had the heel/toe motion of walking.  I immediately found it was easier to run, but still fell back into my awkward walking style at times. I still do!

After one year I asked my parents if I could join a track and field club. The sport was huge in New Zealand then. They were very hesitant but I persisted and found that I not only loved running, but was good at it. In those days women and girls were limited to a mile as the longest distance. In the Olympics the longest distance for women was the 800m.

As I proceeded, I noticed that I never got the headaches anymore and to this day have never had one again. I often wonder whether they were stress related, or if running was making me healthier, or both!

In the beginning, I often pushed my feet and myself too hard and would have to take breaks from running. I still preferred to go shoeless, and fortunately the majority of New Zealand tracks were grass. In follow-up visits with my doctors, they gave me a piece of advice that stayed with me my entire career:  “Run in the nearest thing possible to bare feet.  That is the only way you will keep your feet strong and working correctly.”

Fast forward to 1972. I qualified for my first of six Olympic Games, the 1500m in Munich Germany.

For the next 10 years, I competed for New Zealand in World Cross-County Championships, more Olympics and the British Commonwealth Games. The sport was amateur during those years, so after graduating from teachers college in 1975, I became an elementary school teacher.

Due to many factors, some out of my control, I decided to quit the sport in 1980 out of frustration and disappointment.
I was persuaded to begin again by my second coach John Davies, and the rest is history. I arrived in the USA in 1981, took the stand for professionalism in June of 1981 and soon after signed with Nike for $400 a month and free shoes!

I went on to have a 22-year career, all the time remembering the advice from my doctors. Throughout my career, I raced and trained in racing flats, the lightest I could find. I never suffered any running related injuries.

At age 54 I am still running daily and still in racing flats. I totally believe that those doctors gave me a perfect running style. No heel strike at all.  I still love it.

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Posted in Technique

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