Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Until I met the store that had no shoes

I have never considered myself a shoe snob. I began my adult years with one pair each of dress and sneakers, as young men do. When I ran those first few steps in 2009 and my hip seized up around the screws, I became interested in shoes again. I learned to run again in Vibram Five Fingers KSO, and I currently run in Merrell Trail Gloves.

I love my Trail Gloves, as you can see. Unfortunately, I run almost entirely on the road, and you can actually hear Trail Glove soles wearing away on pavement if your music's not too loud. That line has been replaced twice now, and I'm sorting through pages of TG 3 to find the originals in a men's 8 like some weird Amazon scavenger hunt. I thought it would be smart to try on some replacements.

I've visited two different running specialty stores this season. Greeted warmly by smiling, fluorescent-colored staff, I lay out specifically what I am looking for. These are my current running shoes, but they wear out and are hard to replace. I have an injury history, so I am a forefoot runner. I prefer a squared toe box, zero drop, minimal sole road shoe. Two things follow when you begin the process like this.

First, you cut through 15 minutes of colorful, expensive footie-pillows, designed to put miles on top of bad form. Shoes with extra cushioning for knee relief. Shoes with extra outsole and heel cup for ankle control. Shoes designed for runners who have to walk carefully from the car to the running store, apparently. My salesperson's eyes quickly scanned the display and settled into a wide stare of resignation.

As an aside, you should try knowing this much about your body when you meet with your doctor. Not about webmd.com and the exotic disease you think you have, but your body. My family physician received a printed page of my injury history and 12 months of exercise and physical therapy along with our first handshake. It instantly moved our relationship from drug merchant and consumer to partners. Now when I show up, he takes me seriously. He knows that I've already tried basic physical therapy, and that I'm not seeking drugs, misrepresenting my symptoms, or wasting his time.

Second and back at the shoe store, you get right to the apology that they haven't carried minimal shoes since Vibram settled that class action in 2014. They have a padded sole with a 4mm drop or a minimal sole with a skinny toe box (which seems counterproductive, to design a sole to spread the foot but not provide space). They agree that racing flats would probably be perfect for me, but they don't carry any. (Think about that for a minute: a running specialty store, that doesn't carry competition running shoes or anything like them.) A knowledgeable salesperson will mention that REI sells Merrells, and we're out the door with time to go to REI before dinner.

I try to imagine other sections of a sporting goods store under this paradigm. None of these running shoes are shaped like feet, not the natural human foot. There are plenty of studies and articles about the design of the native, unshod human foot, too many to excuse if one cares even a little. I try to picture baseball gloves and weightlifting belts and genital cups designed to force their contents into a new shape, then surround that shape with motion control and padding to alleviate the pain caused by that shape. Picture that with me for a moment.

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