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McKenzie: Running marathons barefoot helps raise money

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Posted: Friday, August 31, 2012 9:28 pm | Updated: 3:38 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

When the starter’s pistol reports the beginning of Sunday’s Virginia Beach Rock-n-Roll half-marathon, only a real clown would be caught pounding more than 13 miles of city streets barefooted.

And that clown would be Tim Cunningham.

“Running barefoot really has an effect on people. When I ran the [Washington], D.C., marathon, a Navy SEAL — a very large African-American — standing on the side of the route pointed at me and shouted, ‘You! You are one bad [extremely colorful metaphor expressing respect].’ I said, ‘No, you are, sir’ and thought I’d better run faster in case he wanted to hug me,” Mr. Cunningham recalled, sipping a beverage at Para Coffee near the Corner. “When people see you running barefoot, they want to help you. People are amazing.”

Mr. Cunningham is one of those amazing people. He’s a registered nurse, an experienced runner and a bona fide clown.

Not a backyard birthday party, balloon animal, rubber chicken and pancake makeup kind of clown, but president of Clowns Without Borders, an international organization that sends performers into refugee camps, war zones, disaster areas and poor places to “relieve the suffering of all persons, especially children.”

The nonprofit agency has about a $30,000 annual budget and Mr. Cunningham contributes more than $5,000 of that every year by running marathons barefoot, gathering per-mile pledges from other clowns, family, friends and well-wishers.

“People have been using running and bicycling to raise money for lymphoma and cancer and just about everything and I was trying to find a way to make running for a cause interesting,” he said. “When [Clowns Without Borders goes] to Peru or Haiti or other places, we see children who don’t have shoes and go barefoot all of the time and I thought, why not run marathons barefoot?”

The average person has dozens of reasons why not, but Mr. Cunningham isn’t average. So he started his barefoot training slowly, cutting his normal distance to toughen up his feet and lengthen and strengthen sinew, muscle and tendon. He stayed close to the University of Virginia Medical Center, just in case.

“There are some places you don’t want to run barefoot, and around the Corner is one of them,” Mr. Cunningham warned. “There is glass all over, especially on a Friday night or Saturday morning. Downtown isn’t too bad. Belmont is terrible because of broken glass, but Fry’s Spring is great. Glass is the worst. Your feet get tougher and at some point you don’t feel the pain so much, so I have to look down now and then to see if my feet are bleeding. If they are, I wait and see if they stop. If they keep bleeding, I’ll stop and have to walk home.”

His first barefoot effort was in a Charlotte, N.C., race nearly three years ago in 34-degree weather.

“My feet were numb for the first few miles and then the feeling came back — pins and needles turned into excruciating pain for a few miles — and then around mile number 10, it sort of went away and I was left with an amazing feeling,” he recalled. “I felt so happy and at peace. It still hurt. I mean, I could feel the pressure where it should have hurt, but I didn’t really feel pain. I remember thinking that opiates do that. You still feel the pain or the pressure but you’re removed from it. It actually felt great and I found myself smiling. I decided to call the fundraising effort Barefoot and Smiling.”

In his first year sans shoes, he raised $5,000 for the borderless clowns and another $6,000 the following year. This year he hooked up with Worth the Hurt, “a fundraising platform for athletes to receive cash-based incentives to support charitable giving,” and expanded his donation base.

As part of Worth the Hurt, Mr. Cunningham took on back-to-back San Francisco marathons in July, running through the city beginning around midnight and ending about eight hours later.

“It was two marathons, about 52 miles, but it turned out to be 55 because I got lost in Golden Gate Park at 2 a.m.,” he laughed. “We were wearing ‘glow suits’ for our safety and so vehicles could see us and we ran through Haight-Ashbury. A guy stepped out of a building in the Mission district, looked at us and said, ‘Dude, I’m in Tron!’ It was pretty exciting and exhausting. I had a half-hour to rest between the marathons and we took off again.”

As part of the fundraising effort, Mr. Cunningham will race Sunday in Virginia Beach. An even bigger test, however, will be in Wintergreen on Sept. 29 for the 100 K Ultra Race of Champions over hill and dale.

“It’s on trails so I won’t actually be going barefoot. I’ll have some thin, flat shoes that will provide some protection for my soles, but it will be a real challenge,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. I think.”