Tag Archives: barefoot running

Terrible Reviews: Born to Run

I know, I know. I just wrote about Natural Born Heroes, and here I go, writing about another Christopher McDougall, granola-crunching, you-are-your-own-gym dissertation.

Sorry about that. But Natural Born Heroes didn’t float my boat the way I hoped it would, and in reflecting on why, it made me wonder if I was just remembering Born to Run the way you remember the girl who broke up with you in high school, who you still stalk on Facebook every now and then to see if she’s still married or not. So I went and read it again. (Born to Run, not my ex’s Facebook.)

Born to Run starts with the writer’s own hangups about running, detours into the Copper Canyons of Mexico to meet a tribe of hermetic but seemingly superhuman distance runners, and crisscrosses running history while dipping its toes into evolutionary theory and an analysis of the modern running shoe.

If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. The book is lengthy, but I think its length and its hype are well-earned. Let’s dive in.

The Good:

McDougall covers a heck of a lot of ground, and the book would seem scattershot if not for the throughline of McDougall’s fascination and interaction with Caballo Blanco (White Horse), the near-mythical figure at the heart of the story. Caballo is alternately venerated and vilified in the book; on the one hand, he’s a gringo on a quest for self-discovery like so many runners, on the other, he’s a grouchy, flaky, off-putting sort. He’s weird, but he works, because he feels like fiction, even though he isn’t. Too strange to make up sums him up nicely.

What also works for the book is its grounding in a couple of places: specifically the Leadville 100 Race and the underground race that takes place in the Copper Canyons. Multiple chapters are given over to these two races, which gives the reader a sense of the sprawling nature of distance running and the time and introspection that such an endeavor invites.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the two chapters that keep me coming back to the book the most (and which have nothing to do with its narrative … more on that later): the chapters on the history — and indictment, really — of running shoes and on biomechanical evolution (chapters 25 and 28, respectively). These two chapters have done more to change the way I think about running as a whole and the way I run than a couple of years’ subscription to Runner’s World magazine and endless hours trawling running and exercise forums. In short: the human body evolved as a paragon of distance-running, and it didn’t evolve that way with $200 motion-controlled shoes on its feet.

The Bad:

McDougall describes talking with Caballo Blanco as a dizzying experience: he introduces a story, then detours into another, then goes back to recall details on the first while starting up a third, then has to stop and correct a mistake he made on the second … exhausting to listen to.

Well, the book is a little like that, sometimes. You’ll be cruising along, neck-deep in McDougall’s first-person narrative as he explores the Copper Canyons, then — whap! — you’re in the Leadville 100 race following rags-to-riches distance runner Ann Trason. Or, at the drop of a hat, you trade charting the bizarre course of Emil Zatopek for a rundown of the finer points of the Tarahumara diet (basically corn). I’ll go ahead and say that all of the book is well-written and fascinating to read, but following all the threads in the novel feels like McDougall took a big plate of spaghetti and flung it at the wall. The individual strands are great, but as a whole, it’s kind of a mess.

Then there are the characters. I get what McDougall is doing: trying to show the reader the breadth of distance running’s soul by showing us all sorts of runners from all walks of life and all parts of the world. But my goodness. If you simply compiled all the names he lists in the book, you’d have the beginnings of a phone book for a decent-sized suburb. There are coaches, biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, nutritionists, writers, mathematicians, gurus, weirdos, mariachis (really), and business executives. Then there are the runners: small-time recreationals, olympic hopefuls, collegiate athletes, nature-bound escapists, and then, of course, the tribe of unknowns in the depths of Mexico who can outperform the best the distance-running world has to offer. Trying to keep up with all the characters is like putting your head in a blender and trying to chomp that one grape that’s going around and around. The only characters that really matter outside of the chapter that focuses on them are Caballo and Arnulfo. The rest is all window dressing (but fascinating window dressing, at that).

The WTF:

This book, much like McDougall’s recent Natural Born Heroes, feels like it’s trying to be all things to all people: part human interest, part scientific treatise, part evolutionary textbook. Like I noted above, it works, but only just. I wonder if the story of Caballo Blanco couldn’t be its own autobiography, but then I wonder if McDougall could have gotten throngs of people to read his scientific spiel otherwise.


If I had a fiery pen, I’d emblazon it all over every copy of this book: PSEUDOSCIENCE.

I love this book. I really do. And I want to believe every word of it. But McDougall goes way beyond what’s hard and fast and ventures into the wispy realm of the whimsical. Running can cure obesity, diabetes, cancer? All anybody has to do to become an excellent runner is take off their shoes? Adopt a diet of 90% corn, live in the mountains, run from dusk til dawn, and solve all of life’s mysteries?

Mmmyeah… maybe. These are certainly things that a lot of runners and practitioners believe, but it’s a hard thing to call them truths. Humans are biomechanically optimized to run long distances? Sure. But that doesn’t mean that any and everybody can train up for a marathon in the space of a year. Shoes get in the way of our naturally-evolved gait? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should chuck out our Chucks and never run a shod step in our lives, either. It’s thinking like that that gets us to the Vibram Fivefingers lawsuit of a couple of years ago, or that causes ridiculous and avoidable stress-related running injuries.

On the other hand, qualified statements don’t sell a lot of books, either. I can’t imagine the book would have had the impact it has had with a title like Born to Run — most of us, anyway, but be sure to consult with your doctor before beginning any new diet or exercise program.

Make no mistake; there’s good science being documented in this book. But McDougall presents running as this magic bullet solution for all the world’s ills, and, well. It might be true, but it moves from the scientific into the philosophical realm.

The Verdict:

By and large, “running” books are crap. I mean, what can you really say about a sport the heart of which is putting one foot in front of the other until you can’t anymore? You either detour into a long and sprawling narrative that only occasionally features running (a la Once a Runner), or you fall into tedious blow-by-blow accounts of training and races and eating and the myriad ways that your coworkers treat you like an insane person (a la Ultramarathon Man). The competition, therefore, is not particularly stout when it comes to running books.

Warts notwithstanding, Born to Run, I think, takes the flying leap from being a good book about running to being a good book. If you’re going to read a book about running, this is the one to read.

4/5 sharp rocks in your bare feet.

First Run in Hokas – A Terrible Review

I have a history of conducting really bad science when it comes to fixing myself. For starters, I’m balls awful at self-diagnosing, whether it’s writing or running or dadding or whatever… see, to fix a problem, you first have to know what the problem is, and I’m pretty bad at that. It’s why I married a woman much smarter than I am — so that I have somebody to point me at the right targets. Then, I tend to take on too many things at once or dive headfirst into new things rather than easing in, to the effect that whether I succeed or fail, I never really know what to attribute the success or failure to.

But I’ve got this injury. In my foot. For a while I thought it might have been tendonosis, but lately it feels like good ol’ plantar fasciitis, but one way or another, my freaking foot hurts, and it’s been hurting for a while. And I’ve tried a handful of things to fix it, including seeing a podiatrist, taking breaks from running, stepping up my running, eating only fried chicken on Fridays, consulting with spirit guides… and it still hurts. So it’s time for drastic measures.

I’m not the kind of guy that believes in magic bullets, but there comes a point — and that point in my case is when I’ve been dealing with more-or-less chronic pain for the better part of a year — where you’re willing to try just about anything. So among the many things I’m trying to fix the pain right now are some new shoes.


I know, I know.

They look ridiculous. But I got a pretty sweet deal on them and, like I said, I’m willing to try anything.

If you don’t run in running circles (haw) you might not be familiar with Hokas and their ilk, so to put them in a nutshell (which is impossible, I mean, just look at the size of them), they are a new thing in running, the inverse pendulum swing from the minimalism trend that happened in the late aughts. Where minimalist shoes aimed to make shoes feel less like shoes by dint of removing padding and stabilizing elements and “putting you more in touch with the road,” Hokas and other so-called “maximalist” shoes take the opposite tack: they add frankly ridiculous amounts of padding to desensitize you to the surfaces you’re running on entirely. (I should note that “desensitize” is my word, not theirs.)

Now, I think minimalist shoes are the bomb. I think they are the way and the truth. They may have contributed to my injuries, and I’m willing to own my part in that, because I probably jumped in too fast and didn’t give myself the appropriate time to adjust. That said, I still believe in minimalism, because I believe in evolution, and I don’t think that millions of years of adjustment to the earth below our feet would have crafted a foot that needs perfect shoes to make us good at, you know, walking or running on said earth. Shoes being a construct of the past couple of millenia of human development, I’m going to trust natural selection and say that probably our feet are just fine as they are, and maybe it’s the way we’re treating our feet that’s fargoed up. But I digress. I’m not here to argue minimalism vs maximalism, I’m not here to open the Born to Run debate or touch on barefoot running or any of that.

I’m here because in desperation I ordered these shoes, and I’m going to try them out as part of my latest effort to fix my feet so that I can run pain-free again.

Let me make all appropriate disclaimers: “maximalist” shoes are too new for there to be any studies drawing far-reaching conclusions about their effectiveness at preventing or recovering from injury. However, there is a ton of anecdotal evidence out there, and much of that anecdotal evidence comes in the form of gobsmacked distance runners who are amazed that these shoes have allowed them to start running pain-free after extended bouts with hip pain, knee pain, ankle pain, back pain, foot pain… you name it. So I ordered them, and they got here, and I took them for a run yesterday, and here’s what I learned.

  1. They are huge. I’ve sat at 5’11” my whole life, and these shoes put me comfortably in the 6’3″ range. My wife, a demure and delightful 5’2″, tried them on and was able to look me in the eye for the first time in her life. The air just feels a little thinner while you’re wearing them, and maybe that makes you a little lightheaded, and maybe that’s why the pain goes away.
  2. They are soft. Boy, are they soft. Reviewers often describe them as “like walking on clouds”, which is the most overused simile in shoes, and I won’t be using it, because it’s nonsense. You can’t walk on clouds in the first place, and no shoe is going to remove all the groundfeel from your feet. That said, even just stepping into them and taking a few tentative steps around the living room I could feel my feet sinking into their pillowy depths. They compress like a worn-in tennis ball, which is to say, quite a bit, but not so much that you go right through it like you would with a down pillow or, if you must, a cloud. The padding underfoot is sensational, and it really does feel awesome just to walk around in them.
  3. They are bouncy. That tennis ball analogy I used was not a mistake. I thought hard about the best way to describe what running feels like with these things on, and it struck me. Every step is like landing perfectly on a tennis ball. You land, you feel the resistance, the resistance gives more than you expect, and then as your weight transfers over, there’s a spring effect that feels like the shoe is catapulting you forward just a little bit. That effect was disorienting in the first half mile or so, but once you get used to it, it feels normal.
  4. They are grippy. Here’s my primary concern about these shoes, especially having tried minimalist shoes and even my bare feet: you get used to feeling what’s under your feet and adjusting accordingly. That’s impossible in these clunkers. My kitchen floor feels exactly like my lawn feels exactly like my driveway feels exactly like pavement feels exactly like the rocky mudfield out back of the tire shop I run past every day. My concern is that I’d end up slipping because I can’t feel the little rocks or sticks or tiny bumps in the ground or whatever, but this concern broke apart in the atmosphere before I got to the end of the street. The sole of the shoe compresses so much that it actually seems to conform to whatever’s on the ground like a coat of paint going on over my shoddy drywall work in the bathroom. In short, the entire sole gets down on every step. It even makes this sound, like you’re running on velcro, with every step. The sound will probably go away as the shoes break in, but it demonstrated pretty clearly what the shoe was doing: bending and flexing to every contour of the road/lawn/tire lot.
  5. They are light. Enormous as they are, they’re as lightweight as any traditional shoe I’ve had, which seems counterintuitive I guess, until you begin to think about the composition of that sole that bends and flexes and compresses like silly putty.
  6. They are snug. Shoe sizes vary depending on manufacturer, yeah, I get that, but these fit me oddly. The length is fine, but it’s almost as if there isn’t enough room for the height of my foot in the shoe, which makes me wonder about taking out the insoles, even though I’ve never had to do that with any other shoe. Also, the toe box is — for my taste — exceedingly narrow, and my toes feel pretty squished in there. I can’t say I love that feeling. It’s hard for me to imagine running five or six or ten miles or more that way, but maybe they’ll loosen up as the shoe breaks in.
  7. They are huge. Did I say this already? It bears saying again. They’re enormous.

The question is, how did they do on the run?

First impressions only, but they felt pretty damn good. The pain in my foot lately feels like a needle going up into my heel, and I had a bit of that at first (as I do on every run). But by the end of the first quarter mile or so, that pain was gone completely; so completely that I switched to a heelstrike briefly to see if the issue was still there (spoiler alert, it was — and the shoes didn’t protect me from feeling the pain in a heelstriking stride), but as soon as I readjusted, it evaporated again. Lovely. Now, my aches and pains have a tendency to work themselves out after the first mile or so, so my good feels might be attributed to that alone, and not the shoes… but I didn’t have any additional pain later in the evening like I’ve had after my last few runs.

There’s more to be seen, here, but at least for the moment, I’m hopeful that the Hokas are going to help me out. It’s my hope that I can use the Hokas to start getting some regularity back in my runs — start pushing my distance up again, in other words — while allowing my feet to “rest”, while I can continue to use my minimals once or twice a week to keep strengthening my feet. We’ll see how that plays out.

In the meantime, however, there is no cure for how goofy they look. Temper that, of course, with the fact that I much prefer wearing something like this…


Min/Maxing my Footwear

If you’re a regular at this blarg, or if you know me, then you know that I’ve been struggling with foot pain in one form or another for… ehh… erg… about a year and a half.

It started when I tore up my foot on a nail in our back porch, continued when I recovered from that injury and promptly blew up my left heel with plantar fasciitis, and continues further still when about a year ago I did something (doctor never did tell me exactly what was going on) to irritate the heel and Achilles in my right foot. The other injuries have all healed, but I’m still battling my right heel. The pain ebbs and flows like the tides. I’ll have good weeks and bad weeks, solid months and shaky months. One day I can go run a brisk eight miles and feel no ill effects, another day I can shuffle through a low-intensity three miles and be hobbling for days afterward. It’s maddening and frustrating.

And of course, it plays havoc with my running. It’s impossible to set any long-term goals because I don’t know if I’m going to have to slow down on my training to accommodate my injury throwing a tantrum. Over the last several weeks, I’ve been trying to fit in some speed workouts again, and it’s been going fine… until Monday, when I tweaked the heel again and spent the rest of Monday and Tuesday limping.

My wife — ever incisive and ready to call me out when I’m being dumb (thanks honey) — pointed out that I started having all these issues about the time I went bananas over minimal shoes and started trying to do a lot of my runs in my Vibram FiveFingers. Shoes that I love. I’ve written about them before. For good measure, she points me to stories of marathon runners, like, just off the top, this one from the NY times; marathon runners, plagued by injuries, who have tried this new shoe and had their chronic injuries vanish like students in the bathroom when the principal walks by.

And I’m conflicted. I’m wary of the magic bullet, and I don’t want to believe that simply buying “the right pair of shoes” is going to solve my problems. By the same token, I don’t want to believe that wearing “the wrong pair of shoes” is responsible for the issues I’m having.

And that doesn’t even touch my bias. I got into running when the minimalist trend was flying high. I read Born to Run and bought into the hype. The thinking was “less cushioning, more natural mechanics”, and boy oh boy does that keep in touch with my philosophy in general. Or at least the philosophy I try to believe in. Less stuff gumming up the works. More focus on what you control. Letting the body do what it’s meant to do without gadgets or ridiculous footwear getting in the way. All that hippy-dippy treehugging kind of stuff.

Maximalist shoes, from my vantage point, seem to go against everything that I thought was neat about minimalist shoes. Minimal shoes strip out the cushioning so that you feel more of the ground beneath your foot. Maximal shoes cram more and more cushioning in there to further insulate you and make every step feel the same. Minimal shoes allow for fuller range of motion so that the leg and foot can follow the circuit nature designed for them more closely. Maximal shoes cut out the motion of the ankle instead, keeping you “locked in” to a “better form”. (I’m air-quoting those because those are my unstudied perceptions. Make no mistake, I’m not an expert, and I’m not nearly impartial.)

Also, and this cannot be stated heartily enough, maximal shoes look RIDICULOUS. Honestly, they look like elevator sneakers. Just look.

The thought of even putting those on my feet makes me feel like I’m going to topple over like a tower of tinker toys. (We won’t say anything about the goofy toe-gloves I prefer.)

Still, the demon of doubt is in there now, clanging off the inside of my skull and raising all sorts of argument. Much though I love my minimal shoes, I really don’t want to accept that this pain in my foot might just be something I have to live with for the rest of my life.

I love my minimal shoes, and I loved the thought of unburdening myself from conventional shoes. For a while, it was great. I want to believe they could be great for me again, but the possibility that my minimal shoes have done this to me is getting hard to ignore. Could there be something to this maximal movement? It’s all anecdotal evidence at this point, but could it work for me?

I have to find a way to make running work for me again. When I run well, I write well… when my running suffers, so too does my writing. Could these land-whales be the way to get it back?

I have to think about this.

Winter is Coming

Summer is hot in the South.

“Hot” isn’t even the word.  “Miserable” is more like it, or “inhospitable for humans”, or “plague-level discomfort”.  Something about the proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, the overabundance of trees and grass, and the jetstream blowing clouds and moisture in our direction causes the weather to do some truly remarkable things in the South, like making seventy-degree nights feel like the inside of a pressure cooker, and ninety-degree afternoons like the surface of the sun, if the surface of the sun was also bathed in a thick, damp mist.

It’s uncomfortable, to say the least.  And it’s not a small part of why I run in the mornings — because if I get up before the sun, at least I don’t have to deal with the radiant heat of our nearest star pummeling my poor scalp into submission in addition to very nearly swimming through the morass or water-air that hangs in our atmosphere from April til September.

And I noticed, on my run this morning, something really unusual, which is that yesterday, when my wife headed out for her run at 5 in the afternoon, it actually felt cooler than it did on my run at 5 in the morning.  Now, human experience is subjective, and maybe I was artificially inflating my own misery, but a simple google search tells me that she completed her run in weather of 86 degrees with 54% humidity, and I completed mine in 70 degrees with 96% humidity.  I’m going to be totally honest here and admit that I don’t really know what the humidity scale means, because it seems to me like 100% or anywhere near 100% should basically mean that the air is literally liquid water.  Nonetheless, it felt a damn sight more uncomfortable when I stepped out my front door this morning than when I came in from work yesterday night.

But that doesn’t stop me.  I got my 5k in this morning, albeit a bit slower than I like (I blame the humidity because that’s what I do), sweating like a hog and not feeling any cooler as I did so.  Funny thing in weather like that — you’re immediately coated in a thin film of liquid when you step outside anyway, so you almost don’t even realize you’re sweating.  What you do realize is that it doesn’t do you any good (the film OR the sweat).  So I’m running and sweating and feeling like the inside of a tauntaun’s abdomen when out of nowhere, my brain reminds me that this heat wave, this godawful humidity, this really miserable weather won’t last forever.  It’s almost September, when the leaves will start to change and the temperatures will start to drop and stepping outside will begin to feel refreshing again.  Winter is coming.  For me, that’s a good thing.

Then, another thought crept in, like a cat darting around the door as you come in with your arms full of groceries.  “What about your shoes?”

See, I’m about 95% of a convert.  I started making the switch to Vibrams for my daily runs about a year ago and I’m finally there.  I think I used my “traditional” shoes three times over the summer: once for a really muddy race (VFFs give me blisters when they get wet), once when it was pouring rain (again, moisture), and once because my foot felt tweaky and I wanted to see if a bit more cushioning would help straighten it out (it didn’t).  They are a totally different running experience, and I think they’re awesome.  What they don’t do, however, is insulate your feet in any way.

What I mean is that, in addition to putting you very much in touch with the surfaces you’re walking on (still nothing to going truly barefoot, I know), VFFs make you just as aware of the temperature of those surfaces.  Wearing them on a blacktop in the summer feels not unlike walking across the stove on low heat in bare feet.  A chilly breeze — I experienced a few when we had that lovely bout of cool weather about three weeks ago — slices through them like paper.  Now, a little bit of heat is no problem; feet generate their own heat anyway, and I’ve never run when it was more than 90 out.  But when the temps drop down to 30 and below, am I not going to make like the T1000 from Terminator 2 and snap off at the ankles?  I have this vision of getting about a mile into a run and my foot just icing over, locking up and breaking off.  That may be hyperbole, but my honest concern is groundfeel (is that a word?  I’m calling it a word) when my feet start to lose sensation in the cold.  I’m also a little bit concerned that I might not be as aware of the movement of my feet in the cold — because of the decreased sensation — and, as a result, re-injure my foot.  (Show me a runner once injured who isn’t a little scared of future injury and I’ll show you a dolphin with a donut hat.)

Probably a bit of overthinking.  Not that I’m ever guilty of that.  I imagine as I run in the cooling temperatures of fall, I’ll adjust; and besides, I won’t have that many sub-freezing runs anyway.  It isn’t like I run with the caribou in Canada like some of you lunatics.  Still, I’m definitely going to miss my socks.

Anybody out there running in VFFs or even completely barefoot?  What’s your experience when the temps start to drop?

8 Reasons Why Vibrams are Awesome, No Matter What the Lawsuit Says

I wrote yesterday about Vibrams and why I’m not going to apply for my portion of the class-action suit against them (and why you shouldn’t either, for that matter).  But I got so angry and sidetracked thinking about how dumb the whole situation is that I didn’t have the time left over to talk about why the VFFs are awesome.  Nope, not just awesome, why the VFFs are my favorite shoe that isn’t a shoe.

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