When Theresa Withee, Steve Cartwright and Reade Brower toe the starting line for a road race they, literally, toe the line.

In fact, while most runners wait for the horn, gun or voice command to take off, they quickly glance down to make sure their sneaker laces are tied and, if possible, double-knotted.

More often then not, when Withee, Cartwright and Brower take a peek they see only toes. Well, make that feet. Bare feet. Feet that will carry the weight of their bodies, the movement of their legs, over the coming distance, whether that be 3.1, 6.2, 13.1 or 26.2 miles or more.

The Midcoast trio literally — at least when it comes to their feet — like to run in the nude.

"When I wear shoes, my feet feel trapped," Cartwright said. "They want out."

Running a road race — with sand, rocks, loose tar, nuts and bolts, nails, pot holes, potential glass fragments and who knows what else — with no footwear is not for everyone. The feet of barefoot runners need to be able to take a not-so-subtle pounding, literally and figuratively, or the owner of those feet needs to be extra diligent at avoiding underfoot danger.

To withstand anything its owner — and the road — can throw at it. Blisters and stubbed toes be damned.

Most people have sensitive feet. Sensitive to being tickled and certainly sensitive to being agitated or hurt when walking on anything but the softest grass or coolest sand.

That is the way it is. Human anatomy and nature.

But not for barefoot runners Withee, 52, of Hope, Brower, 62, of Camden, and Cartwright, 67, of Tenants Harbor. To them, barefoot is the only way to travel. The natural, God-given way to make one's way from point A to point B.

Not that the trio has never run in sneakers or other footwear. They have. Many times. Especially, of course, in winter. And they have even run in five-finger shoes and running socks. But, if they had their druthers, they would run au-naturale, give or take a few pieces of tape here or there, when needed.

Essentially, their feet long to be free.

And, collectively, those six feet and 30 toes have covered a lot of ground over the years, with or without the benefit of footwear. The trio has, undoubtedly, run thousands of miles in their lifetimes, which has included all distances up to 100 miles — and added a few triathlons to boot.

For example, Withee, who was a standout runner at the former George Valley High School in Thomaston and University of Maine in Orono back in the day, has, since 2008, run bout 145 races, including more than 40 5Ks, 15 10Ks, four 25Ks, three 50Ks, 11 half-marathons, 20 marathons, three 50-milers and one 100-miler. She again will run the Boston Marathon in the coming days and has done the historic event barefoot in the past.

Brower was a late bloomer to running, as he started at age 40. He has run hundreds of 5K and 10Ks, 50 or so half-marathons and 11 marathons. He has done two marathons barefoot and several half-marathons barefoot as well.

Cartwright, likewise, who has run for most of his life, but more so the last few decades, has participated in a boatload of shorter road races, a dozen marathons and one ultra-marathon

Of course, the trio also has churned up hundreds of miles in training over the years as well, and raced/run on nature trails and Withee even does snowshoe racing — we assume, of course, with footwear and snowshoes.

Most people who walk or run prefer footwear with the most support for what they believe is comfort for their legs and back. Serious runners often look to wear more lightweight, minimalistic sneakers and others — Withee, Brower and Cartwright, for examples — go a bit further with running socks, five-finger footwear or, more often than not, barefoot.

And Withee essentially was the Midcoast barefoot running pioneer, who got Brower and Cartwright to follow suit — by getting them to take off their sneakers.

The trio certainly has gotten their share of weird looks or comments at the start of races. Many other runners seemingly are not quite sure what to think of these barefoot rebels.

"I remember hiding in my car for my first local barefoot 5K, the Friendship 5K in 2008, and getting out just before the start so I wouldn’t have to stand at the start and be questioned about my choice of no sneakers," Withee said. "Of course, I got the 'you forgot something' or 'where are your sneakers?' After a few local races I think most people just thought I was that weird local woman who runs barefoot and stopped being surprised."

Peoples' reaction usually are similar: “OMG she’s running barefoot!' or 'A barefoot runner! Go barefoot runner!' sometimes, 'I could never do that, what do your feet look like?' In a marathon most people are positive and usually say things like, 'way to go!' " Withee said.

"Usually it’s just a simple, 'wow, your feet must be tough' comment," Brower said. "Other times, people ask you about it."

Cartwright said "It's a bit tiresome to hear people say, 'Hey, you forgot your shoes,' but it's fun to hear people say, 'Go, barefoot Steve.' My favorite moment was running on Grand Manan Island, and encountered several children on bicycles. A little girl looked up and said, 'Hi, barefoot man.' "

The following is a summary of why the three area runners prefer to make their appointed road treks with naked feet:

Theresa Withee

The self-proclaimed "barefoot mama," assistant manager of hotel housekeeping at the Samoset Resort, has run since she was about age 12 "when a very persistent coach, Betsy Berry, saw me run in a gym class and recruited me for my middle school cross-country team."

Withee continued to run cross country and track in high school and competed in indoor track and cross country for the University of Maine in Orono. She stopped running when her children were young, but, in 2008, she discovered barefoot running and has been back to running since.

And barefoot running came about in an attempt to alleviate a longstanding health issue — not to be different.

"I started barefoot running as an experiment," she said. "I was trying to get back into running when my youngest daughter was six. I loved running and needed to get back to an exercise program and I needed some kind of 'me' time. Running had always been therapeutic for me."

However, besides the "me" time, Withee needed something to help with a persistent physical issue.

"I was having horrible IT [Iliotibial] band issues and lots of knee pain, I could only run about one mile before the pain would start. I tried a few different styles and types of running sneakers, I tried walking and running, I tried all the stretches, but nothing was working."

She said her husband, Charles Weidman, had read an article written by Dr. [Daniel] Lieberman in a scientific magazine on the biomechanics of barefoot running. Her husband said the article made a lot of sense and maybe I could try barefoot running. So she did.

Withee started to read more by other barefoot running experts who had been doing it for years and had written articles or books or had online blogs on how to properly run barefoot and not get hurt. Her favorite is by Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton.

"I started by running on the grass around the [Camden-Rockport Middle School] athletic field and did that for about two months before I transitioned to the road. I started really slowly with about a half-mile barefoot run on the road every other day."

She said she slowly built up her mileage and was able to run her first barefoot marathon three years later. She ran many barefoot 5Ks, 10ks and a few half-marathons in those three years.

"It was really scary for me to try something new," Withee said. "Nobody around the area was doing this type of running and so many people had so many questions."

Withee said there is a significant difference, of course, between barefoot and sneaker running.

"Barefoot running is more fun — running through puddles barefoot is so fun," she said. "Not the same experience in sneakers. I also feel like my form is better and I have learned how to run with better technique to avoid injury."

She said running in sneakers changes her form, her style, and, may create health issues for her. But she understand how to fix any issues that crop up due to the change in her gait or stride.

"I can run in minimalist sneakers too," Withee. "I love to run on the local trails and usually wear minimalist trail running sneakers. I also wear minimalist sneakers in the winter or if I think the road is not going to be barefoot-friendly. "

She said, for example, the roads in Florida have shells mixed in with the tar and that is a rough surface for bare human feet, so she wore "Vibram Five Fingers" footwear for a marathon in The Sunshine State.

"I have not had a major running injury since I started barefoot running," she said. "And I can switch back and forth between barefoot running and running in sneakers but it has been 11 years since I started the wonderful journey back to the running world and I have learned a lot about my form and training that allows me to do that."

Withee said the best barefoot running surface is newly-surfaced roads. Which, of course, are good for tires and, as it turns out, human feet. The worst is the southern roads with the shells in them. Some dirt roads, with lots of loose rocks, can be bad unless the surface is packed.

"When I run in longer runs I run on the painted yellow or white lines because it is the smoothest part of the road," she said.

Withee said the worst injury she has had to the bottom of her feet was during a half-marathon. "I did not allow myself enough time to transition into the distance. My barefoot form was not good enough to attempt the distance but I did it anyway — lesson learned the hard way. Huge blood blisters on the bottom of my feet. I couldn’t walk for days."

Reade Brower

The self-employed Brower, well-known for his involvement with Maine media companies, started running for one reason. He was 40 years old and wanted to lose 40 pounds. The NordicTrack was fine in the winter, but when the spring came, Brower's wife, Martha, encouraged him to get outside and run for a bit of variety.

"I ran every Sunday, gradually increasing my miles to where I could do nine miles," Brower said. "I then did the Boston Marathon route in thirds and was hooked. Then I started to run with other people and do the 5K races. We soon began to go to races as a family."

Running has turned into an important element of Brower's life, one that helps him personally and has been an important ingredient in the local events he has organized to raise money for others.

"Now I run to try and keep some of the weight off and because it clears my mind," he said. "It is also very social for me; I like running with people and then having a beer or breakfast. Running helps me with my discipline."

Ironically, Withee was instrumental in getting Brower to try barefoot running. "I wanted to run barefoot when I saw Theresa doing it," he said. "I was training for a marathon and couldn’t that summer. The next spring I began; it started with a half-mile and I worked my way up."

Brower said running with and without footwear is like, well, night and day.

"Barefoot running changes your gait immediately," he said. "When you take off your shoes, you begin to run as God or nature intended; on the balls of your feet. With sneakers, I was heel-striking and pounding my knees. Barefoot is a little harder on my ankles but much more gentler with my knees. I was coming off some knee issues from the marathon and was not able to run consistently. Then, I took off my sneakers and the knee pain was gone; instantly."

Brower said barefoot running also transforms him back to another time in his life. His younger days. And, by his personality, Brower likes to be barefoot (he has golfed many times barefoot).

"I like it because it reminds me of childhood and my time in Hawaii during college — both times were constant barefoot times for me," he said. "It is also good for me because running barefoot you need to be mindful; no music, no daydreaming — you need to watch the ground for the little pebbles and the potholes."

Brower said he has had few barefoot injuries or health instances.

"Usually I get some blisters at the beginning of the season but then no troubles," he said. "The worst injury was a small sliver of something in my big toe. I couldn’t see it to get it out and it hurt like hell every step. I had to wait for it to find its way out. It is the small rocks — ouchies — that are the most problematic. In a normal four-mile run I will have a couple of 'ouchies' and one sh…..t and every once in a while a word your mother would wash out your mouth for saying."

Brower said for barefoot runners, new pavement is the best, but concrete is fine as well. Even roads with minimal small rocks are fine. "The worst are roads that have frost heaves and dirt roads with lots of bigger rocks," he said.

Like a guitarist, perhaps, whose fingers become calloused and used to rubbing or picking strings, barefoot runners said their feet become accustomed to being naked and pounding the pavement.

"The more you use [your feet], the more they get used to it," he said. "The key is to start out with lower mileage and work your way up. I just was in Florida and hadn’t run since December; I was able to do four miles the first time out barefoot with no problem. I loved it; it made me feel 50 years younger."

Brower said it depends on the season what his footwear-mode of running will include. In the harsh Maine winters, of course, he runs in sneakers. During the summer, it is barefoot or bust.

"I will run sometimes in the “froggy-toed” shoes and now in what are called barefoot running socks, but only if the running surface is awful — trails, dirt roads with lots of rocks, etc. The biggest difference, in addition to not heel-striking running barefoot, is the length of stride. I run shorter steps and the barefoot slowed me down a little; although now I see little difference in my times whether I’m running with sneakers or barefoot."

Steve Cartwright

The retired freelance writer/photographer has run since he was a teenager, but much more diligently — and longer distances — after age 50. He only started running more than five or six miles after he hit the half-century mark.

"Running has long been a form of emotional therapy for me, and, of course, it keeps me physically fit," he said. "I think the mental part is what's most important to me. I'm a person who can barely sit still, so running is a good fit. I like to move."

And move he does. Cartwright, known for his warm personality, big smiles and sprints to the finish, did not run barefoot consistently until inspired by Withee.

He also credits Paula Jean Lunt as his "unofficial coach" and the person who encouraged him — he called it "friendly prodding" — to run distances beyond a 10K.

And, he added, "I always enjoy a run with friend Reade Brower, who needs no convincing that 'barefoot is best.' "

Cartwright said it is fellow runners who remind him of the "warm and happy community runners seem to create, through the effort and passion we put into running … and because we're social beings at heart."

And Withee, Brower and Cartwright are runners at heart — with or without footwear.

But, of course, barefoot is their preferred mode of locomotion, even if it causes a little discomfort now and then.

"The hard part of barefoot running is rough terrain, such as a gravelly road," Cartwright said. "My feet never feel tough enough to take it painlessly. Attitude helps. The best part of barefooting is the feeling of connectedness. You're experiencing contact with terra firma."

Cartwright said he once had a blister on his foot bust open, "but other than that I haven't had any injury to my feet. Also, no shin splints, cramps or other problems. But when I run in shoes, which I do during the colder months, I experience new aches and pains."

Of course, while most people have sensitive feet, the question becomes, how does this trio of barefoot runners deal with the perceived abuse their tender feet and toes take during a race or training session?

"My feet are as sensitive as yours," Cartwright said. "I think it's about perception. We're brought up thinking you have to wear shoes, so it becomes unthinkable to go barefoot unless you're at the beach. So think how unpleasant it is to wear boxy shoes while walking on warm sand. Wouldn't you rather be barefoot? Extrapolate. You can run on grass, on soft woodsy trails. On smooth roads. You're off and running in your naked feet."