Solemates’ life motto: No shoes, no problem

As we loped past shi-shi boutiques, galleries, cafés, antique dealers, wellness centers, jewelers, yoga studios and yacht brokers on Main Street in downtown Essex last Saturday afternoon — just before coronavirus social distancing admonitions gripped the nation — crowds of shoppers and shopkeepers turned their heads in a rolling wave of double-takes.

“Why?” one bemused onlooker in front of The Griswold Inn called out.

“Why not?” Ric Villarreal responded without breaking stride.

He and partner Shirley Iselin stood out among the sea of Helly Hansen-clad, Sperry Top-sider-shod pedestrians not so much in response to their spontaneous enthusiasm, but because, as has been their decades-long practice, they were the only ones without shoes.

“On a sunny day, when you’re barefoot you can feel that thermal energy coming up from the pavement. It wraps around your whole body,” Ric explained.

A dedicated distance runner with more than 80 marathons under his belt, he often would cross paths at road races with Middletown’s legendary Charlie “Doc” Robbins.

Robbins, a psychiatrist who won the U.S. national marathon championship in 1944 and had been a member of the 1948 Olympic marathon team, almost always ran barefoot, year-round.

“I remember thinking, ‘Who is that nut?’” Ric said.

Eventually, he befriended Robbins, and then, a few years before Robbins’ death at age 85 in 2006, Ric evolved into a disciple.

“I became that nut,” Ric chuckled.

After a few tentative, short runs, Ric soon decided to put his bare feet through their paces on a longer workout.

With Shirley pedaling her bike alongside while carrying a pair of running shoes just in case, he ran all the way from Naugatuck to Durham, some 23 miles.

No pain, no blisters — just an enormous sense of well-being.

Now 62, Ric barefoots it on almost all his runs, the rare exceptions being when roads are icy or sidewalks buried in deep snow. A few years ago, he also was the overall winner of a race in Essex: The Backwards Mile.

“It was a very small field,” he said.

Ric, short for Ricardo, grew up in the central Connecticut town of Prospect and took over the family swimming pool business before retiring not long ago.

“As a pool guy, I was always barefoot. I hate to wear shoes,” he said.

Ric met Shirley, a structural designer at Electric Boat, at a road race nearly 20 years ago and was instantly smitten.

“I was pathetic. I chased her like a puppy,” he recalled. The two have been inseparable “solemates” since then.

Shirley, a vivacious 76, has spent her retirement joining Ric in a variety of activities besides running, including snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and rock climbing.

“I just want to have fun,” she said.

Shirley took up barefoot running by accident, when she chanced upon the start of a road race but realized she wasn’t wearing running shoes. Undaunted, she ran shoeless and experienced the same burst of psychic energy Ric described.

“It’s like electricity,” she said.

Shirley sometimes starts out with shoes but then sheds them if her enclosed feet begin to hurt. She also steps off the pavement every so often and runs on grass, but then has to watch out for dog poop.

Ric said that after running barefoot for thousands of miles, his soles have developed thick calluses, but even so, he is not immune to minor cuts and bruises, as well as stubbed toes.

“People always ask me what happens if I step on a sharp rock,” he said, "I tell them, ‘I say ow.”

After chatting for an hour or so in their charming, airy apartment a few blocks from the Connecticut River, it was time to hit the pavement. Shirley and Ric shed their shoes; I kept mine on.

We trotted down Main Street, passing the aptly named Dauntless Club, and then approached Essex Town Dock, adjacent to the Connecticut River Museum. Even the ducks bobbing near shore seemed curious.

At Spencer’s Corner, just before the river, Main Street circles back around a traffic island, which we followed for the return trip.

In a few blocks, not far from William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty and the Black Seal Seafood Grille, we stopped at a section of sidewalk paved with smooth bluestone — Valhalla for barefoot runners.

“You’ve got to feel this,” Ric and Shirley urged. “Take off your shoes!”

What the heck, I thought. After all, if Doc Robbins could win the U.S. National Marathon Championship as a barefoot runner, and if Abebe Bikila could score back-to-back gold medals at Olympic marathons in 1960 and 1964, it couldn’t be bad, right?

Off came my Nikes, which I carried in one hand while awkwardly clutching a camera in the other.

“Hey, this feels pretty good,” I remarked.

I expected numbing pain from cold pavement to shoot up my legs, but really it wasn’t all that different from wearing padded running shoes.

Of course, we were only hoofing it a short distance — I’m not sure I’d want to run barefoot for a 5K, let alone a full marathon.

Back at home the next morning, I put my shoes on again for my morning run.

Ric concedes barefoot running may not be for everyone.

“When it works, it’s wonderful. When it doesn’t, it hurts,” he said.



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