Though barefooters initially run more slowly than they did in shoes -- the body has to accommodate to the new forefoot form and pay more attention to the ground to avoid rocks and other obstacles until the soles toughen up -- barefoot feet can be quite fleet.
And the winner? Romero's 24-year-old brother, Barefoot Alex, also a Caltech doctoral student, who finished in 2:40 in his second barefoot marathon.
"I like being a role model for barefooting, but for the right reasons," said Alex Romero, an evolutionary biologist. "Not to be a freak, but because it's good for you. Humans evolved to run barefoot over millions of years. In 20 years, we have not adapted to these huge, cushioned running shoes that cause us to underuse our calves and all the muscles in our feet." In 2005, after he got a stress fracture in his tibia while on the college track team, he read an article about Saxton and mentioned it to his brother.
Injury-free Julian -- needing a break from his dissertation research in microeconomic game theory -- started barefooting first, intellectually intrigued by its less-is-more benefits. After just three months of running unshod, an unusually rapid adaptation period for today's artificially shortened calves and Achilles tendons, he completed the 2006 Las Vegas Marathon.
"One bad thing about barefooting in Vegas that day was all the attention; I didn't like it," says the now 7,000-mile barefooter. "But on the plus side, I met Barefoot Ken at the finish."
All barefoot roads seem to lead through Saxton, regularly referred to as "the guru" or "the godfather." But now even he is being eclipsed in barefooting circles, some say, by a force he helped nourish: Barefoot Ted McDonald -- the hilarious, stream-of-consciousness ultra-running barefooter profiled in Christopher McDougall's 2009 bestseller "Born to Run."
"I get thousands of e-mails from around the world now," says McDonald, 45, who couldn't run for longer than an hour without pain until he visited Saxton's site six years ago and began barefooting. Last fall, banking on his growing fame and a tsunami of publicity from "Born to Run," McDonald left his family's Pasadena carousel business for Seattle, where he is now a full-time coach and motivational speaker.
"Ken and I are buddies, but he's too dogmatic," relative newcomer McDonald says. "He's why barefooting for too long appeared to be eccentric and not more mainstream. He says your foot is enough. But it's not."
McDonald is referring to the Vibram FiveFingers, the individual-toed "barefoot shoes" that he wears almost every time he runs. The non-padded, virtual second skin of 2-millimeter rubber is made by the renowned Milan, Italy-based maker of rubber hiking boot soles and has become a sold-out sensation among barefoot and shod runners. They were introduced by Vibram in 2006 as water shoes for kayaking and sailing, but became a hit with runners seeking the benefits of barefooting with protection from rocks, glass and twigs.
Running stores are scrambling to get FiveFingers, which come in various models, including a trail shoe, but Vibram is so swamped that it is supplying only a few L.A. area stores.
"FiveFingers started taking off last summer, and went through the roof in June, after the word about them got out and 'Born to Run' gave them validity," says Thac Lecong, the footwear buyer at FrontRunners. The Brentwood running store was the first in the region to carry FiveFingers.
"At the end of 2007, when Vibram tried to convince me that barefooting strengthened feet and muscles, I knew it made physiological sense. But they were so strange-looking," Lecong says. "Now, I look like a genius for taking a chance on the order. Everyone wants them -- runners, water people, gym-goers, yoga. Some even want them just because they're cool. But I've been in the business 17 years; this is not just a fad. There is a broad-based interest in the benefits it conveys."
The mad-scramble success of the FiveFingers -- Vibram has a patent on the individual-toe design -- has unleashed a gusher of minimalist shoes. Finland's limited-distribution FeelMax is rushing out new models. Nike is reportedly expanding on its minimalist Free line.
The buzz on Skora, a shoe set to debut in spring, is so hot that owner David Sypniewski, a Canadian who moved to Florida to launch the brand after he "discovered the joy of running through Ken's site," already has been interviewed by numerous running magazines.
This rush to "barefoot shoes" rolls the eyes of Saxton, who a decade ago, as the newsletter editor of the Snail's Pace Running Club in Orange County, irritated people by continually writing about barefooting.
"Anything you put between your feet and the ground desensitizes and weakens your feet," he says. "And if you don't learn how to run barefoot correctly to start with, you'll eventually have problems with Vibrams."
Which is why he did not allow them at the Saturday workshop.