Meet the ‘Dutch Forrest Gump’ who walks barefoot across America to raise awareness for men’s mental health

By | February 23, 2024

Anton Nootenboom, known to many on social media as ‘The Barefoot Dutchman’, is not your typical record holder.

In 2019, he became the first and only person to complete the 80-mile loop hike to Mount Everest Base Camp without shoes. Two years later, he set the 2021 Guinness World Record for the longest barefoot trek after walking 3,000 kilometers on the Australian coast. Now he plans to break that record by walking 2,500 miles from Los Angeles to New York City, completely barefoot.

“It sounds crazy,” Nootenboom told Yahoo News on day six of his eight-month journey, which began on February 17. He even called himself the ‘Dutch Forrest Gump’ when more than thirty people joined him on the first mile. from his hike in Santa Monica, California. The walk is an extension of the #BraveMenTalk campaign, in collaboration with Barebarics barefoot shoes, which raises awareness of men’s mental health and charities worldwide.

For Nootenboom, who served in the Dutch army for ten years and made three tours of the Middle East, it is symbolic of the psychological struggle that many men silently face.

“The roads are tough and every day is full of surprises,” he said. “I tell myself, ‘It’s just a phase. This road will end, and one day the road will be a little better.” That’s how it is in life: when things get hard, it’s never the end. It takes some puzzling, and eventually you’ll figure it out. I have wounds on my feet and they hurt, but I know the skin will grow back faster than before. That’s what gives me hope.”

“The pain is worth it to me.”

As he crosses America’s deserts, mountains and valleys to reach the Big Apple, Nootenboom will stop in several cities to bring educational tools and resources to local communities. He wants to empower men of all ages to “not be afraid to tell your story.”

“The pain is worth it to me,” he said of the mission. “I want this challenge to speak to men and say, ‘Whatever life throws at you, physically and mentally, you can get through it.’”

That’s a lesson he learned the hard way. After Nootenboom left the army in 2015, he fell into a deep depression and never felt comfortable talking to anyone about it. The isolation led him to almost commit suicide on the edge of a cliff in Australia, where he was living at the time. The incident became a wake-up call for him to seek help.

“Being raised by the military to say, ‘Don’t cry, man up!’ I didn’t feel safe talking about what was happening to me,” he said. “It was with great resistance that I accepted the offer to get help and do things far outside my comfort zone,” including therapy and meditation practices.

Nootenboom is not alone. Data from Mental Health America shows that more than six million men suffer from depression every year, and most of them go untreated. That has serious consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is nearly four times more common among men than women — with 39,255 suicides among men in 2022, compared to 9,825 among women the same year.

Anton Nootenboom served in the Dutch army for ten years and made three tours of the Middle East before realizing he was dealing with untreated depression.

Anton Nootenboom served in the Dutch army for ten years and made three tours of the Middle East before realizing he was dealing with untreated depression. (Anton Nootenboom)

Experts tell Yahoo News that men with depression are largely underreported due to various stigmas and cultural norms that prevent them from seeking help.

“Men are socialized not to show their emotions, and the only acceptable emotions are anger and frustration,” says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, psychologist at the Hope for Depression Research Foundation. “This makes it challenging for men to talk openly about their feelings, for fear that they are not strong or that there is something wrong with them.”

He added: “Encouraging other men to talk about their mental health will confirm and normalize that mental health is part of everyone’s lives, including men.”

Nicholas Balaisis, a Toronto-based psychotherapist, applauds Nootenboom for using physical activity as a way to get into the discussion.

“Men often like to help with solvable problems, [but] mental health issues are not so easily solvable,” Balaisis explains, noting that long-distance running can be seen as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations we all face. That provides men with a template to talk more deeply about their “internal life.”

“Men in particular need to develop a relationship with their own inner selves – thoughts about themselves, impressions from relationships, hopes, dreams, regrets,” he said. “This happens best to others.”

The Dutch ‘Forrest Gump’

“After undergoing some healing, I discovered that I was not alone in my feelings,” Nootenboom said. “If there’s one thing I learned in the military, it’s to lead by example. I wanted to share my own story in hopes that it creates a safe space where others can say, “Hey, if you can do it, then I can do it too.”

During the day, Nootenboom walks barefoot with a cart nicknamed ‘Bubba’, a nod to a character from the 1994 film Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks, about a man who develops a cult following by running around the country. At night he sleeps in one of two campers, both driven by the campaign’s producers who follow his trail across America.

The self-proclaimed Dutch Forrest Gump, Nootenboom, walks barefoot across the country pushing a cart he has nicknamed Bubba, a nod to a character from the 1994 Tom Hanks film.The self-proclaimed Dutch Forrest Gump, Nootenboom, walks barefoot across the country pushing a cart he has nicknamed Bubba, a nod to a character from the 1994 Tom Hanks film.

The self-proclaimed ‘Dutch Forrest Gump’, Nootenboom, walks barefoot across the country pushing a cart he has nicknamed ‘Bubba’, a nod to a character from the 1994 Tom Hanks film. (Nootenbloom)

As with his record-breaking Australian walk in 2021, he expects more people to join him as the journey progresses.

“At some point this will gain momentum and more people will start looking for where I am and joining me on the walk,” he said. ‘I have no doubt that there will be a long stretch of road with a lot of people standing there. I’ll be like the ‘Dutch Forrest Gump!’”

Nootenboom chooses to ‘only look ahead’, despite the hills and valleys that lie ahead. Even when it seems impossible, he hopes to inspire others to never “give up when obstacles come your way.”

“I look at a mountain with snow-capped peaks, and I know I’m walking around it. At some point I will go to the Rocky Mountains and I will have to face them too,” he explained. “It will be painful, it will be challenging, but in the end you will be one day closer to achieving your goal.”

Follow Nootenboom’s (and Bubba’s) progress #BraveMenTalk.

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