Thursday, April 15, 2010

Freaky Shoes Drive Me to Blog

I've never had a blog. I've been on the Internet consistently since 1992. I write for a living.

Crazy, huh?

It gets more far fetched. You see, the thing driving me to blog is a new pair of shoes. Now, these aren't ordinary shoes. I just bought a pair of Vibram Fivefingers. These are some freaky looking shoes that let your foot work like it is barefoot. They even let your foot look like it is barefoot. 

I've been wanting to get on the barefoot running bandwagon for a long time. The first I really heard about barefoot running was from this whacked-out hippie's web site: He has had a barefoot running site since before I started running. I'm not even sure how I came across it the first time, but I tend to like what whacked-out hippies have to say. Sometimes they are right on the money. Sometimes they are just three sheets to the wind. Since then, there is mounting evidence that shoes (especially shoes that are heavy with cushioning and motion control features) are not good for us in the long run. 

But, there was really just one thing stopping me from loosing the shoes: the Nikeplus iPod feature. I'm hooked on it, along with the slowgeek site a friend put together. Somehow I feel like runs I do that don't wind up logged there just don't count. I love being able to look at it and realize that I'm slow because I didn't really run this winter, dropped a full minute per kilometer in pace since 2006, or even gain some comfort from the fact that March 2010 is the best March I've had (April is shaping up to be terrible). So, I've been hesitant just running without shoes at all. I've also not been interested in the early models of the Vibram Fivefingers because there was nowhere to mount the Marware pouch I use to secure the Nikeplus foot pod to my Asics Gel Kayanos. Plus, I couldn't find a retailer here in Vancouver, BC to try them on for fit. If I had been born in Kenya I wouldn't have these problems...

For awhile I considered simply going for a racing flat, or some other shoe with less structure, but haven't been able to stray from my Kayanos (which I've had many, many pairs of and always enjoyed). For awhile, I was considering ordering a pair of the Terra Plana EVO shoes. These look like fantastic shoes for barefoot running. try to wrap your mind around that sentence They seem like they would be as good as the Vibrams, or at least nearly as good. Maybe there is some benefit to having the toes completely separated. And, they have laces where I could attach my Nikeplus accelerometer. But, again I have nowhere to try them on. If I lived in the states I would have just ordered both shoes in a couple sizes from and sent whatever I didn't want back for free, but that doesn't work in Canada. So I gave up. I decided to leave well enough alone and stick with my trusty runners that have more cushioning and technology than you can shake a stick at.

Then, at a concert the other night (Deerhunter and Spoon, if you must know) I saw someone walking around in the Vibram Fivefinger KSOs. These weren't like the Vibrams I had seen before. The material went further up the foot and had a velcro strap to keep them closed. It brought back my desire to try a more natural form of running. It made me think that would be a fantastic shoe for dancing barefoot at a concert without having to be barefoot. It got me wondering if you could attach the Nikeplus footpod to the strap. So the next day I spent a little time on the Google. The first thing I found was this blog. With a little more poking around I figured out that the local MEC had them in stock.

The Shoes

So, a couple days later I found myself in the local kayaking department of the local MEC. Hiding them in the kayak department was a good try, but it didn't work. There were five runners trying to share the one small bench trying on the Vibrams. NOTE: MEC, move them to the shoe department. After trying a couple sizes and running around the store a bit, I went with the size 44. That left me enough room to put them on with toe socks. The sales guy tried to tell me I should use them with socks, but I wanted to be able to wear them when it is cold, or if I have blister issues. So I wound up with some nice running socks that have separate toes as well. As you can see, the pouch holding my Nikeplus foot pod fits nicely on the velcro strap.

First Impressions

I try not to let my initial impressions of something take over too much. I'm prone to hyperbole.  I can absolutely love a new gadget, only to find the attraction wears off before too long. That said, these shoes feel amazing. I wore them out of the store. My family picked me up and we went out to dinner. My 4 year old thought they were cool, buy my wife was a little embarrassed. Why can't everyone agree with me that these shoes look awesome? They are instantly the most comfortable shoes to hang out in I've ever owned. They are better than five year old Birkenstocks. They are like going barefoot, but better. I feel like I'm a super-hero or a ninja in these things. When I got home I took the dog for a walk and did some light jogging in them: no idea how they will do on a real run. After wearing them all evening and running around a little bit, I have some predictions. I planned to run roughly 4k to work in them the next day, but it made me a little apprehensive. There is no padding. No support. Just some protection against cut and puncture.

After the walking around in them, one thing is certain. My ankles and feet are weak. My left foot in particular was complaining, somewhere under the bones on the outside, above the arch. My gut feeling was that I would not be able to run the entire way. I actually had a tough time sleeping, and laid awake a bit in the middle of the night wondering how it would go.

Run Day

In the morning I decided against wearing the socks. I wanted to get as much feel of the ground and running barefoot as I could. But before I even put the shoes on I felt a little twinge of pain in the pad of my big toe, like a very small splinter or the spine of a beavertail cactus like I used to get stuck in me as a kid chasing snakes and lizards in Nevada. It was there and annoying, but nothing I could see and minor enough to ignore. Next, when I got down to the street and fired up the Nikeplus app on the iPod touch, it complained that my footpod had a low battery. I had been hoping to compare my pace and distance with the footpod on the Vibrams with my existing runs. What are the chances that it would complain on this first run? One of those pods lasts a couple years. Anyhow, I figured it would work well enough for one run. According to the stats, I was slightly slower than usual.

But this doesn't seem to match my perception of the run. Twice when I checked pace, the iPod said I was running at 7:14/km. I know I was running faster than that. The grey line of raw data never even goes that slow. So during the run I was wondering if the low battery was causing it to miss data points. I guess I won't know until I have more runs under my belt with a new accelerometer.

But How Did They Feel?

These were an absolute blast to run in. I felt like a ninja: smooth and silent, no stomping and clomping. I could feel when I went from rough pavement to smooth concrete. I could feel and adjust to imperfections in the road. Cutting through grass my toes would sink in and separate a bit on the kick off. For the fist kilometer or so I was on the balls of my feet, and I was worried that my calves would give out. But once I settled into a pace I could drop my heels a little bit in the footfall, using the whole foot in my stride. If I accelerated, decelerated or had to go up or down a curb then I would naturally pick back up on to the balls. I could feel my brain automatically adjusting my feet and stride depending on what I was doing without having to actively think about it. But it was still there to think about after the fact, and it made the run really interesting. During the run I thought up a couple of analogies to describe it. Fist, it made me think that running in padded and structured shoes was a bit like wearing gloves to type: sure, you wont injure your fingers but you can feel what you are doing. At another point in the run I was equating it to wine. When you drink a wine that is not offensive, but not very interesting, it does the trick. It goes down, and it is wine and it may make you feel a bit warm and happy. When you drink a fantastic wine it engages your brain. From the smell to where the tastes hit on your tongue, to the subtle cherry, pepper, chocolate, or whatever flavors, to the subtle changing aftertaste. It makes you think. The Fivefingers are like that. They make you think about your form. Not in a active "I should now try running like this" kind of way, but in a passive "wow, it is interesting how my body is reacting to this" kind of way. My run was smooth and fluid. It was much more interesting. By the end I was wanting to do all of my runs in these shoes from now on.

But then I started feeling a hot spot on the pad of my big toe. After awhile, I realized it was going to be a blister, and right now it is a huge pillow of fluid. I'll spare you the picture. Is it the fault of the twinge I felt before the run, or is it that my feet aren't yet tough enough to have only a few millimeters of rubber between them and the pavement? Either way, I'm glad I bought the socks and I'll try them next time.

I'm hoping I can build up my feet strong enough that I can wear these shoes for the Vancouver Sun Run 10k. Ultimately, I would like to be able to do any distance (half marathon, of even a full some day) in them.

I guess we'll have to see.

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