Crash and Burn

Today’s run was a big crash and burn. Worst I’ve had in a while. I was planning for 5 miles — a decent enough long run given where my running has been lately, especially given that we were headed to the Georgia Aquarium today, where we were sure to get lots of walking in.

To fend off the monotony, I uncapped one of the routes I haven’t used in a while, heading away from the mall where I usually run out toward a side road that goes behind one of the local shopping centers. A really peaceful route actually, and one that’s lovely in the mist that settled in early this morning. And I felt the first twinges in my heel at about two miles.

By the time I hit the farthest point, my heel was screaming with every step. So I was faced with the injured runner’s quandary: suck it up and power through the injury, possibly doing further injury in the process, or take the walk of shame and walk it home. Unfortunately, at a distance of over two miles from home, walking wasn’t a particularly good look. I split the difference, running a quarter mile then walking a hundred yards or so. I don’t think I made the injury any worse. Hours later, a bunch of walking and a healthy dose of ice behind me, and it’s feeling okay. Better than this morning. Okay enough to make me think this morning could have been a fluke: just a tweak and not a major setback.

Still, this is frustrating as hell. I’ve had heel issues for over a year now — maybe more like two — and while I’d had a recent flareup, it’s been better over the past couple of weeks, better enough that I thought I had the injury on the ropes again. And then, just a total breakdown.

The smart play is to cool it on the running for a while, but if you’ve read the blog for any length of time, you might know how hard that would be for me. Partially I fear the loss of momentum, though that’s less an issue for me now than it was a few years ago… running is in my blood these days, it ain’t gonna leave me if I break for a week or three. More of an issue is that running is my mind-altering drug of choice. My day starts from the run. It’s how I deal with stress, it’s how I clear my head and kick around writing ideas and … yeah. It’s an addiction of the worst sort: I need it to feel normal.

My wife is rolling her eyes as she reads this, but I’m probably going to suit up for a run again on Tuesday and see how it feels. If my heel is still jolting me like an exposed nerve, then — then — it’ll be time to hang up my shoes for a bit.

But not before.

For better or worse, I’m stubborn about my runs, and I can accept a little physical discomfort in favor of the mental benefits.

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.