February 7, 2012

The low spark of high heeled boys

Is there a runner on the roads whose life hasn't been altered forever by Chris McDougall's Born to Run? The book goes down so smooth, like the four or five beers it would take to hear this born storyteller recount how Indians taught him to run like Adam in Eden.

You get two breathtaking epiphanies for your money: compassion and competition are closely linked, and so are running shoes and running injuries. The first point has been lost in the hoo-ha sparked by the second. Yes, the book inspired me to sign with a charity in my first marathon. But what really fired me up was the barefoot revolution. I imagined flying down the road, feet naked as God made them. "Running should be free, man." Halleluja.

In the chill light of dawn I did have a few questions, though. Could barefoot running alone really cure my soft feet of decades in hard shoes? Our efficient ancestors grew up barefoot and I didn't. Starting now sort of felt like painting my face and joining a drum circle in a national park. Cavemen are born, not made.

And yet. The big, waffly motion-control shoes I was running in at the time were, as McDougall points out, anxiously overprotective. The dense lugs defended my ankles from growing stronger, and the heel, 13mm higher than the toe, helped me to put my heel down too far in front of my knee.

Maybe what stood between me and greatness was only this superfluous stack of rubber? While I wasn't about to be slow and barefoot, the time had surely come to cast away my fancy high heels.

At first my resolve was weak. I marched back to the store that a year or two before had prescribed those motion-control monsters. The same young salesman manned the treadmill, ready to zero the videocam on my overpronating left ankle. Armed with Chapter 25 of Born to Run, I demanded to try some minimal running shoes, and, just to check them out, some Vibram Five-Finger foot gloves.

The lad furrowed his unlined brow, as if I'd asked for some crack and a pipe, or rather, as if I were the tenth person that day to ask him for crack and a pipe. Tersely: "We don't carry the foot-gloves."

Fine. I persisted with the low-cushioned shoes, mumbling about running naturally and strengthening my ankles.

"Ever since that book. . ." he sighed. He looked me square in the eye. "Do you know the shock will go straight up into your soft tissue?"

My soft tissue! I didn't know quite what that meant - wasn't the soft tissue exactly where you wanted shock to go? - but I blushed like I'd been trying to sell a crack pipe to kittens. I left with motion-control shoes.

After a few months I found a store without a treadmill, where the staff could be tricked into selling me a pair of low-heeled shoes. I trained in the Kinvaras once or twice a week, and ran the fastest race of my career in them eight weeks later.

By that time Mr. We-Don't-Carry-The-Foot-Gloves was hosting in-store barefoot running seminars with Chris McDougall, while I very gradually moved toward neutral, low-profile shoes. I was an agnostic minimalist rather than a barefoot evangelist, but 1,500,000 years of evolution was getting me to paradise a lot faster than 13 millimeters of EVA foam ever had.

The road to Eden is bumpy, however. After a period of several weeks of not running and not stretching, my Achilles tendons shrunk up a bit, and I've had a host of heel problems since. My solution of course is to double my mileage. Either because of or in spite of that, the heels are gradually healing. I've had to make one big compromise though. To take the stress off my Achilles tendons I bought - you guessed it - high-heeled running shoes.

It's a trade-off. In the short term, what these heavy rubber hoofs take away is far outweighed by the speed and happiness high mileage gives back. One day soon though, maybe after the Boston Marathon, I'll cast off the heels once more.

In the meantime, while I wait to free my feet again, I should sign with a charity for Boston.

For spirit is something that no one destroys, and the sound that I'm hearing is only the sound of the high spark of low-heeled boys.


  1. I've read a lot about barefoot running and cushioned shoe running. I think it's important for each runner to find what shoe, or lack there of, best fits his or her run. I have a really high arch and have found that barefoot running hurts like mad. I end up with knee and hip problems, less than heal and ankle issues. On the other hand, I've heard from flatfooted runners that barefoot or low cushion running feels like a dream. The point really is that it's not easy to make a hard and fast rule for all runners. An open mind and persistence gets the best runs. But this is just a little opinion. Best of luck with more runs and the marathon!

  2. Tasty, you couldn't be more right. I grossly simplified the old debate to suit my own purposes. Wonderful multi-part coverage of the issue here: http://www.sportsscientists.com/2008/03/running-shoes-part-iii.html

    Thanks for your comments!

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  4. So those shoes are fake Nike shoes, where can you get genuine shoes like those, not necessarily from Nike. Apparently they don't make those.

  5. Enjoyed the amusing account and the difficulties that come with convincing running store employees of what you want/need. The transition can take a bit but no different than soreness felt when lifting for the first time after taking two years off.