If you've ever run or walked along a beach without shoes, you know the tactile pleasure of firm sand squishing under your bare feet.
It turns out that you can almost re-create that feeling right here in Minnesota, even in the middle of winter.
Introducing wool sock running, a new winter activity being promoted in Finland in which people run, walk and race on the snow wearing nothing but wool socks on their feet.
"Running in snow feels surprisingly free and wild!" enthused Ulpu Aho, a Finnish ambassador of shoeless winter wool sock running, or villasukkajuoksu as they call it there.
"It really makes good for your feet and for the whole body! At the same time, you get a foot massage and your mind will be relaxed," Aho wrote in an e-mail message from Orivesi, Finland, a small town where she is the "wool sock coordinator."
Orivesi, which has a population of about 9,000, describes itself as "capital of woolsocks" and recently started the first "Official Woolsock Run Finnish Championship." More than 300 people competed in the inaugural event in 2019.
I decided give it a try because we've got all the necessary ingredients right here in Minnesota: snow, wool socks.
Encouraged by the Star Tribune's Embrace Winter Challenge, I wanted to try a new winter sport. Plus I was bored and willing to do something a little crazy to break up the monotony of a pandemic winter.
It was 9 degrees when I headed out to St. Paul's Como Park to trot a few miles around the golf course wearing three pairs of wool socks — thin, medium and thick.
"First, a touch of Finnish madness is needed," advised Aho. "Then enjoy a light, happy, free, worry-free state of being!"
Surprisingly, she was right.
A sockcessful run
When I ran on the edge of a trail that had been prepared for cross-country skiing, the snow was firm but not pavement-hard. Without shoes, I could feel the corduroy texture of the groomed track under my toes.
It was more work running through the deeper, unpacked snow, not unlike moving through loose sand at the beach. But the fluffy fresh snow often had a pleasurable pillowy give under my stocking feet.
Throughout a 40-minute run, my feet felt warm and dry, yet unrestricted by shoes. And the snow under my feet never seemed to melt and soak the socks because the snow was too cold, my feet were well insulated by the wool and I was moving most of the time.
It was pleasurable enough that I decided to try again the next day, running on the hard-packed mountain bike trails at Theodore Wirth Park and on Cedar Lake in Minneapolis.
Imagine what it's like to run through the woods in your bare feet but not worry about stepping on a sharp rock or stick. That's how it felt because everything was blanketed in a thick layer of protective snow. The traction wasn't much different from running in trail shoes.
St. Paul resident Erik Skjon hasn't run on the snow in wool socks, but he does try to get outside in bare feet or sock-like footwear as much as possible.
"I go barefoot simply because I find it to be a superior way to walk, run and stand, both physically and experientially," Skjon wrote in an e-mail. "My posture is better; my feet are never sore or tired; I feel more stable and balanced and never roll my ankles."
"Running in socks resembles barefoot running," according to Aho. "It allows you to step naturally."
Aho said winter wool sock running may actually have been around for decades in Finland.
Legendary Finnish cross-country skier Juha Mieto, an Olympic medalist who competed in the 1970s and 1980s, reportedly ran just in wool socks while training.
And wool socks are typically all you wear on your feet when you scamper across the snow from the sauna to dip into an icy lake, according to Finnish native Ahvo Taipale, owner of Finn Sisu, a Twin Cities cross-country ski and sauna shop.
So maybe it's not surprising that the Finns are trying to turn those sauna sock dashes into a distinct sport.
"They do it because they really have a good sense of humor," said Elaine Kumpula, the honorary consul for Finland in the Twin Cities.
"It's just to create some excitement in the gloomy dark winters," said Taipale.
Richard Chin • 612-673-1775