Tag Archives: minimalist running

Trail Fail Becomes Trail Win


The wife and kids have been out of town for almost a week, and daddy has been able to get a lot of things done. Lots of writing (on the novel, if not so much around here), lots of things around the house (knocking a few things off the ol’ honey-do), lots of things I don’t normally get the chance to do.

Like trail runs.

Living in suburbia and working a more-or-less typical 9-to-5 schedule, then coming home and being a daddy, I don’t have a lot of time to get away. I love running for its simple step-out-the-front-door-and-go nature, but of course, stepping out the front door gets me to only a limited number of possible routes I can run. There’s the mall loop, which I’ve completed more times than even bear counting. There’s a slightly longer circuit that takes me around the local strip malls. Then, on the weekend, I stretch that loop out and roll through downtown, over to the train tracks and past a bunch of mom n’ pop businesses over closer to the railroad tracks.

But I’ve run all of those routes dozens, if not hundreds of times. My feet practically slide into their own custom-made grooves in the pavement. Not much adventure there, outside of dodging the traffic, of course. So the chance to switch things up without having to hurry home for my daddy responsibilities is too tempting to pass up.

We have some good parks and good trails around here, and I’ve run several of them during races and the occasional weekend sneak away, but not nearly regularly enough. There’s nothing quite like trading in your roadside stomps for covered bridges…

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Cascading rapids…

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And enough greenery to make you feel like hugging a tree, or maybe eating one:

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So I’ve set off for a few of them over the past few days. And I’ve learned a few things.

First of all, trails are hellish and heavenly on your feet. Hellish because you hit all kinds of rocks and roots and bumps and sudden drops and hidden steps and any number of obstacles that you don’t hit on the roads. I’m embracing my minimalist shoes again when my feet feel fit (which has been a lot, lately), so I really feel all the bumps in the road. The trails are leaving me with hot spots in my feet — not pain, but soreness and tenderness — which is actually rather a good feeling despite the discomfort. Like a scar after a knife fight, sort of a badge of pride, a proof that I was there and I went through something. Then again, the trails are heavenly, because there’s none of that non-compactable asphalt or concrete underfoot. It’s all dirt or grass or a lush, springy bed of fallen pine needles and leaves pillowing my feet along, like the fingers of angels ferrying me to happiness. Sweet and sour.

Second of all, and more importantly: with trails, you have to know what you’re doing. I checked out maps beforehand and figured I knew pretty much what I was looking out for — the trail goes in such and such general direction for about a half mile, then follows the river for a bit, then cuts back inland toward the rocks shaped like a couple of donkeys humping — but the problem is, when you’re out there surrounded by nothing but green, one donkey hump rock looks pretty much like another, and judging distance is about as easy as cross stitching blindfolded. (Is that hard? It sounds hard.)

Long story short, I got lost. Day 1 I got a little lost and increased my estimated distance by about a half mile, running 3.7 when I meant for a little 5k. That’s no big deal. Saturday, though, I was aiming for 4 miles and ended up running almost six. Which is fine if I’m in shape, which I’m not, because I’ve been nursing my plantar-fasciitis beset right foot back to health. Not only did I increase my mileage spontaneously, but I did it over some of the toughest terrain around: the riverside trails of Sweetwater Creek State Park. Now, there’s beautiful scenery to be seen, and in fact, you’ve probably seen some of the terrain I was running on…

That’s the New Manchester Mill Ruins, and Katniss and what’s-his-beak make an appearance there when they’re in District 13 in Mockingjay, Part 1. (Let’s not talk about the nonsense of splitting any of the books in that series into two movies. Let’s just not.) The trails at Sweetwater go past this relic and up and down some sheer rock faces as they follow Sweetwater Creek past rapids and on into lonely meandering stretches of the river. Really, really gorgeous area.

And I got so lost. My first warning sign was these stairs:

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It’s hard to get a sense of scale, but I’m pretty sure those stairs are equivalent to a seventeen-story building.

I had just gotten finished climbing what felt like a 30 degree incline for about a quarter mile up — so steep and so long I was literally pushing my knees down with my hands to keep going — when I realized I had absolutely no idea where I was or which way was back. Luckily, about that time, a guy and his dog (seriously) came running through a field of brilliant sunny daffodils. He and his pup are regulars, and he was able to point me back to relative civilization: “Oh, just go that way for about two miles, and you’ll see the signs guiding you back in.” This, when I was already at the 4 mile mark for my 3-and-a-half-mile run.

Well, not to belabor the point, but I did make it back. My feet were trashed from six miles in my minimal shoes and I was sweating like the traditional whore in church, but man, there’s something to be said for the journey. I ran almost six miles and did some serious hiking for at least an additional mile in there, and it was simultaneously the toughest workout and most rewarding and enjoyable running experience I’ve had, maybe since I ran my first half marathon. Just pure fun and happiness, despite how beat-up I was afterward. I’ve heard the term “runventure” before, and I always thought it was a little dumb and ridiculous, but this particular run, I think, qualifies.

Anyway. Point is, if you’re going to go running a trail — especially if you don’t usually go running trails — maybe bring a map.

Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, maybe don’t.


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.

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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…

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The ToeBags (or, Why Vibram FiveFingers Aren’t Evil) (or, There Is No Miracle Pill)


If you’re anything of a running nerd like me, you’re probably aware that Vibram has received some dubious press of late, vis-a-vis a class-action lawsuit that went against them a few weeks back.  They are one purveyor — probably the biggest — of those barefoot-style shoes, the ones that look like fancy socks.  (My wife and I call them the Toe-Bags.)  They’re cashing in, hard, on the minimalist trend that’s coursing through the running community like an electric shock through Frankenstein’s monster.

Toe-Bags.  Little bags for your toes.

Toe-Bags. Little bags for your toes.

Apparently Vibram made some claims about things their non-shoes can do without proper science to back it up.  And that’s not cool.  Sorry, if you’re selling a thing, it’s not okay to tell me that your thing can turn me into the ubermensch, make me able to leap tall buildings and sharknado like that, when it does none of those things.  If you’re doing that, as a company, shame on you.

However.

Vibram’s guilt in this goes only so far.   Continue reading


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