When Joe Barger was so out of shape that he “looked like he’d swallowed a turkey pan,” his daughter Cindy decided an intervention was in order. Try running, she told him.
25 years later, at age 87, Barger is still at it. He’s healthy and injury-free, racing in Central Texas every weekend. And in the past two years, he’s actually gotten faster. He chopped his Congress Ave. mile time from 10-plus minutes down to a respectable-at-any-age 8:37. He handles distance well, too, recently taking just a couple days off after running the 3M Half Marathon.
By now Barger is a Senior Olympian, competing every other year in the National Senior Games. Last year he won the 85-90 age group for both the 5K and 10K. Barger’s older brother and sister, ages 91 and 92, are Senior Olympians too and have won the doubles badminton event together.
Genes surely contribute to Barger’s winning of the race for a long, fit life. But there has to be more. When pressed, he explains he wears the ultra-thin “minimalist” shoes. And oh yes — he’s taken lessons and learned to run in a completely different way.
Every runner has seen or at least heard about the crazy idea of barefoot running. Books like the bestselling Born to Run encourage the concept of ditching thick-soled Nikes for a naked foot, pronouncing it the more natural way. As proof, proponents point to a Mexican tribe whose members can run ultra-long distances well into their old age.
But there is a saner way than barefoot, Barger proves. His minimalist shoes are paired with lessons in Pose Method. Austin trainer Valerie Hunt, who’d once taught aerobics at Barger’s old gym, had become a master Pose coach. She was even a protégée of Nicholas Romanov, the Soviet track coach who developed the method. Seeing Hunt’s name in the paper two years ago, Barger decided to give it a try.
Pose, fall and pull — those are the steps to this natural running technique, Hunt explains. Stand with a planted leg bent slightly and a lifted leg bent much more, its knee up and foot alongside the other calf. Let yourself fall forward while pulling the other foot from the ground. Keep the cadence high — at least 180 strikes per minute. “It sounded like an oversimplification,” Barger says, “but it worked.”
It takes in-person training and doesn’t necessarily feel natural at first. Runners who take Hunt’s weekly clinic at a track near her CrossFit Endurance “box” off Far West often say they feel like prancing ponies starting out. She films them and shows them video to prove they don’t look that way, and to show them how they could do better.
In truth, Pose runners look more like young kids racing down a soccer field. That’s the idea. “Kids learn to move just by moving, so they naturally use gravity to move forward,” Hunt says.
Running should feel carefree, not painful. Hunt found this for herself after getting into long-distance races in the '90s and perpetually pulling her hamstring. “'Running hurts' was accepted,” she says ruefully.
Hunt heard about Pose in 2000, met Romanov in 2003, and never looked back. The next year she ran the San Antonio Rock & Roll Marathon — her first 26.2-mile pain-free race. Soon the CrossFit community adopted Pose as its running technique. Hunt joined them a few years later, becoming a CrossFit Endurance coach.
Retaining an aerobics instructor’s enthusiasm, Hunt is often all big grins and funny stories. When she talks about Pose running, though, she gets serious. Hunt says the best testimonial is that the athletes who’ve practiced have run years without injury. As he approaches the next decade of his life, even Joe Barger has no intention of slowing down.
“All the people who’ve stuck with it,” Hunt says, “are still running today.”
Hunt offers Mondays and Saturday learning classes at $99 for 8 sessions, or $20 for a drop-in. CrossFit and a handful other local coaches, like Linda Tenberg, also offer the technique.