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Manchester native runs the Chicago Marathon barefoot

Overcame pain disorder to finish just over five and a half hours

Sophie Guetzko, center runner in orange, running the Chicago Marathon in October. Guetzko, a Manchester native, ran the race barefoot. (Sophie Guetzko)
Sophie Guetzko, center runner in orange, running the Chicago Marathon in October. Guetzko, a Manchester native, ran the race barefoot. (Sophie Guetzko)
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On a foggy day early last month, Sophie Guetzko was one of almost 45,000 people to run and finish the Chicago Marathon. But there were two things that set her apart from the rest of the pack: she ran it while coping with a debilitating pain disorder, and she ran it without wearing any shoes.

Guetzko, 24, was born in Manchester, Iowa, where she ran cross-country until eighth grade. That year, she was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), an uncommon disease that manifests itself as bouts of extreme pain and swelling in parts of the body. Medical research has yet to find a consistent cause for the syndrome.

Guetzko’s pain was so great that she had to quit running for a decade, and struggled to walk throughout high school.

“My doctors said I would probably never run again,” she said.

She said her pain while walking subsided in college, and she decided to resume running despite the chronic illness returning as she ran.

Although she could barely run two miles at the time without being in serious pain and feeling the urge to vomit, she set her heart on running all 26.2 miles of the Chicago Marathon.

Earlier this July after weeks of training, Guetzko said she was sitting in a church service barefoot, kicking off her flip-flops to stay cool in the summer heat, when she felt overcome by a religious experience.

“Something just occurred to me when I took off my shoes, I just looked down at my feet and thought maybe this was what I needed to do, and it just felt right, I can’t really explain it,” she said. “I just felt at peace, and I just tried it.”

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When she began to start running without shoes, Guetzko said her pain was gone, and the worst injuries she picked up were blisters that went away after a day or so of healing time.

Guetzko said a physical therapy student friend she asked didn’t have a direct explanation for why her pain suddenly disappeared. She did say she naturally tends to run on the balls of her feet instead of the heel-toe strike that most people use to walk and run, which she felt was better suited to running without shoes.

Research reviewed by Stanford Medical School shows barefoot runners tend to hit the ground with their forefoot first, which produces less shock than when runners hit the ground with their mid-foot or heel. However, runners with flat feet or high arches may not be able to withstand that shock as well, and are better suited to running with shoes on.

Anyone considering barefoot running or beginning any type of physical activity regimen should consult with their doctor before starting.

During the marathon itself, Guetzko said she didn’t feel her pain return, and the miles seemed to fly by her without much issue.

Guetzko crossed the finish line at 5 hours, 37 minutes and 21 seconds, placing 37,919 out of the 44,571 who finished the race.

It’s not clear what exactly happened to Guetzko that helped her overcome her pain, but she believes her Christian faith helped her regain her ability to run.

“My race didn’t really make sense to any great degree, it was just fueled by God’s power and what he wanted to do in it,” she said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; dan.mika@thegazette.com

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