Jill Cliff has been running since she was 11 years old. Plagued with injuries she began searching for a solution so she could continue her passion for long distance running without pain. After discovering Vibram FiveFingers she hasn’t looked back and at nearly 50 she’s running better than ever and has even qualified for the 2020 London Marathon.
We caught up with Jill at her seaside home in Kent. Here’s Jill’s barefoot running story.
Running with pain
Like many other runners, Jill’s history includes her fair share of injuries. She had orthotics fitted for her shoes from an early age, an insole designed to modify and support the structure of the foot, and has suffered with bunions. She also succumbed to the common running conditions of blisters, corns, hot feet and broken toenails. When Jill started running marathons in 2005 the problems only got worse.
“The last few miles of the Paris Marathon were quite hideous with hot, sore feet. Looking back, I was probably undertrained and had a lot to learn. There followed several other marathons but most of them ended with sore feet for the last 5 miles or so.It was so annoying because there was always some foot issue. I remember doing the Bungay Dog Marathon and for the last 6 miles my little toenail was catching, it broke off right down to the root. There was always something”.
An operation on her left big toe joint took care of the bunion. Finally her toe was straight and she was out of pain. However finding shoes that didn’t squash her toes together again proved difficult. Before long both her bunion and her bent toes had returned. Jill became increasingly frustrated and began to look at a solution to all her problems.
“I was always looking for a pair of trainers that didn’t have a band of fabric exactly across the point where you don’t want a band of hard fabric. I initially started looking for trainers with a bigger toe box, I hadn’t considered Vibram FiveFingers at that point. I had only seen one person wearing them and I didn’t really take them seriously”.
Finding a solution
Jill’s partner Mark, also a long-distance runner, was suffering too. He started researching on the internet for solutions that meant he didn’t have to rely on expensive orthotics and so Jill could run pain free. He found some videos online of running coaches and experts demonstrating exercises and drills to improve posture and running technique. Then they stumbled across a barefoot running course in London and decided to give it a go.
“When we got on the treadmill and ran barefoot for the first time it was amazing. It just felt so natural.
I had always found trainers so heavy, an unnecessary weight on the end of my leg, like a pendulum being dragged back and forth. I had some lighter trainers but even they felt heavy.
As soon as I ran barefoot there was no weight and running in Vibram FiveFingers is really no different”.
Trying Vibram FiveFingers
Jill ordered her first pair of Vibram FiveFingers in May 2018, the KSO Evo. At first she just walked around in them. But she was keen to take them running.
“I was wearing them on one of my dog walks, I just started running. They felt great. I just wanted to keep running all the way home, although I didn’t. I then ordered a second pair, Vibram FiveFingers V-Trail, and built up my trail running one mile at a time. Finally I ordered a third pair for road running, Vibram FiveFingers V-Run, and then I was speeding off down the seafront! It all happened quite quickly.
The only aggravation I had at first were tight calves but I didn’t seem to have any of my previous foot issues. I think my feet were so relieved to get out of the trainers”.
After building up her miles Jill started entering races again. She remembers how she felt when she lined up at the start for the first time in her Vibram FiveFingers.
“I was so nervous about running in them, it felt like a real risk. But I sped off and did the race faster than I had run in a while. Following that first race I did 3 cross country runs in my V-Trails and then signed up for my first marathon in my Vibram FiveFingers”.
Returning to marathons
Never one to shy away from a challenge Jill’s first marathon was as a part of the Long Course Weekend in Pembrokeshire. A three day annual event consisting of a 2.4 mile open water swim on day one, a gruelling 112 mile hilly bike ride on day two and finally, a marathon on day three. Again Jill was nervous about testing her Vibram FiveFingers.
“I was really worried about running in them, but I’d got to the point where I didn’t like running in anything else. I had only run 12 miles in them up to this point.During the race I was anticipating injury, always waiting for something to happen but it didn’t. In the last 2 miles of the run you go up a steep hill into Tenby and I remember bounding down to the finish.I was so excited that I’d done a whole marathon in my Vibrams. I finished in 3 hours 27 minutes, I was really pleased with my time”.
Qualifying for the London Marathon
Jill’s next stop was in October 2019, the Amsterdam Marathon. The race could not have gone better. Jill’s goal was to finish in less than 3 hours and 15 minutes. This would mean a qualifying place in the London Marathon in the championship start category. The race went really well and she finished in 3.14.59, earning her a qualifying position.
“I was really pleased with the end of the marathon because I felt I had sped up for the last 5 miles. Before running in Vibrams however hard I had trained I would be in agony with my feet in one way or another at that point. However this time I felt like I could still fly along. I had loads of energy, I was gripping with my toes. It wasn’t my fastest marathon but for the training I had done I was really chuffed".
Never looking back
One of the comments many people make after wearing Vibram FiveFingers is how comfortable they are. Allowing your feet to behave just as they would if you were barefoot. Jill’s experience is no different and she now wears her Vibrams for everything from running, to Pilates, dog walking and even going out for the evening. She rarely wears anything else because she finds them so comfortable.
“After the Amsterdam Marathon I had a shower and I put the same Vibrams on that I had run the marathon in. Then we had to walk for an hour to get back to the train. This would have been unheard of in my old trainers.The first thing I used to do after a race was take off my trainers and walk in bare feet because I couldn’t bear my trainers being on for a second longer. But with my Vibram FiveFingers I can just put them back on and there’s no rubbing at all. They are so comfortable”.
Jill now gets stopped all the time by curious runners who are always eager to find out why Jill chooses to run in them. She understands why many people are sceptical at first.
“I think people hesitate to change unless they’ve got foot problems or issues with their existing trainers. If they’re happy with their trainers, they don’t seem to want to break away. I understand that because I was the same, but since changing I’ve realised just how unhappy I was with my old trainers and how amazing my Vibram FiveFingers are.
I look at everyone else running in trainers and think, why would you want to run in those things?”
Finally we asked Jill what she would advise to anyone contemplating trying Vibram FiveFingers for the first time.
“Order some and try them. Start with the KSO-Evos first and just walk around in them. Get your legs and feet used to them, then take it from there. You won’t look back”.
Try the KSO-Evo’s for yourself!
We wish Jill all the best with the London Marathon next year and will be keeping you informed on her progress.
If you’d like to try Vibram Five Fingers for the first time, check out the link below and learn more about the KSO-Evo’s Jill recommends.