It Was the Shoes

by Mario Vittone

I have a confession to make. Despite the annoying fact that I have spent a significant portion of my life doing it, I have always hated running. Even in my youth when I was lean and fast and unstoppable and could run six-minute miles without effort, I hated it. It was just this thing I did for one reason or another. When I was 16, it was a way (the only way at times) to get to my girlfriend's house. Then the Navy made me do it and later, the Coast Guard made me do it....alot. Hate it or not, since I was going to plod down the road anyway, I figured I should know something about what I was doing. So I learned all I could about running stride and stride length; about how to breath, what to eat, how much to drink, rest and recovery, and all the other crap that the people who liked running where saying.

For all I knew, and for all the things I tried, none of it was helping to avoid the thing I hated most about putting one foot in front of the other at speed: it hurt. When I was a young man it just hurt the muscles in my legs, which I thought was normal so I just got on with it. As I got older, other pains started. My left hip would hurt so bad at times after running that walking became painful. Then my feet started to hurt. While at the CPO Academy, I developed a case of plantar fasciitis that had me on crutches. After that healed it would be something else. When I found myself having to manually pull my left leg into the car because my hip flexor was too hurt to do the work, I decided I was done.

Armed with the completely valid excuse (often used by has-been rescue swimmers) that my duties had simply taken their toll , I quit the idea of running altogether. I was happy with that decision; I was happy to find other ways to exercise; I was resigned to say "I'm too old to run anymore." Then a friend handed me a book and ruined everything.

In "Born to Run" , Chris McDougall finds a way to challenge everything you believe about something in a way that reminds you that you had a problem believing it anyway. The modern running shoe was invented in 1966, the same year Bill Bowerman published his book "Jogging" that introduced the idea to America. Bowerman believed that if runners could step out farther - increasing their stride length - they could run faster. Bowerman and Phil Knight, the co-founders of Nike, had started a running revolution by 1975. Turns out they may have unintentional invented something - running injury.

Plantar fasciitis, hip flexor injuries, as well as ankle and knee injuries all took a slide up the scale around the early 1970's. (For those of you thinking that more people were running, so of course there were more injuries - the research is based on injury to athletes who run or jog as a percentage.) As the padding and motion control technologies hit the market, they were accompanied by another increase in injury rate. Today, 80% of those who run experience an injury (major or minor) annually. 8 of 10? - Seriously. In 2007, Harvard (no - that doesn't make them automatically right.) started researching running injury rates among athletes and discovered that runners who wore shoes priced over $90 were more likely to experience injury than those wearing shoes under $40. Additionally, the more used and worn out the shoes were, the lower the injury rate.

(Note: As a guy who was given $100 running shoes every six months prevent injury...I was finding this all a little tough to believe. For more on "Cognitive Dissonance - come to the USCG Human Performance Technology Conference this week. Letting go of what you believe is hard for a reason.)

54 year-old Victoriano Churro - a caveman from Mexico - wins the Leadville 100. His 41 year-old partner comes in 2nd.

There is too much research on the subject to get into it all here, but the conclusions all sound like this: Running shoes do not absorb impact, they mask pain. Changing the way we were meant to stride, while removing our ability to feel the surface we are running on, modern running shoes cause injury, they don't prevent it. After reading about a 54 year-old Mexican tribesman winning a 100-mile ultra-marathon against the fastest American competitors - while wearing nothing more than strips of leather on his feet - I had to come to the conclusion that there is a chance that I have been wrong about this running thing. Was McDougall right? Was it the shoes? Two months ago I started to find out for myself.

My new running shoes - and yes - those are some ugly feet.
Starting slowly, with short runs through the grass behind my house, I started to learn to run all over again. Landing on the balls of my feet, landing them just under my hips, the atrophied musculature of my lower legs were brought back to life. Increasing my distance weekly, trading off between shoes and no shoes, I eased into a completely new (though apparently ancient) running stride. There was some initial and moderately substantial soreness - but two months later, I have ditched my running shoes altogether and now run wearing the homemade pair of Mexican huarache sandals pictured above. Yes - I look like an idiot. True - I get some very strange looks. Also true - I haven't experienced ANY of the pains I used to in my $100+ custom-fit, motion-control running shoes. Nothing hurts anymore. I have not gotten plantar fasciitis; my ankles don't hurt; my hips feel great and the only consequence to my health is that I am....well...healthier.

So am I on to something? I'm not sure - I'm still working on it. But what I do know is that everything I knew before about running shoes and running, I don't know anymore. For now, I'm not going to worry about it too much. I'm jut going to keep running and slowly up the miles and see how it goes. Starting tomorrow, I am upping the daily miles so I can run the first 25 mile week I've done since Rescue Swimmer school all those years ago. I can't wait. I had to talk myself out of running this morning - forcing myself to take a break. Easing through five mile days wearing just 6 mils of recycled tire under my feet - for the first time in my life - I love to run.