So I Got Me These Shoes…
So, I do this thing: I read great books, and I get so worked up that I have to go out and engage in whatever they’re obsessed with (thank goodnees that I wasn’t fully on this kick when I read Carl Zimmer’s “Parasite Rex”). But given that I recently finished “Born to Run,” by Christopher McDougall, I decided on a new birthday gift to myself: some Vibram Five Fingers, the KSO (Keep Stuff Out) edition.
In many ways, Vibrams are essentially the running shoes you buy to rid yourself of shoes forever: their sole purpose is to prevent puncture damage to your feet… and nothing more.
And it’s the “nothing more” that makes all the difference. The theory here is that all the things that traditional running shoes try to do for you are, in the end, a disaster. All that cushioning, the extra protection, the soothing escape from the full impact of foot on ground: all of that is a denial of the human foot’s true potential, its ability to sense the terrain and adjust your gait accordingly. Sure: you deaden the immediate pain of impact, but this simply comes at the expense of causing the long-term knee and foot damage that comes from running with a heavy heel-strike (counter-intuitively, people that wear expensive and well-cushioned running shoes tend to cause MORE impact damage to their knees and legs than they would if they ran in flats: our natural inclination is always to push harder than we actually need in order to seek out a hard and stable surface, thus negating the whole point of shoe cushioning).
Since buying my personal pair, I’ve taken my Vibrams (well, taken my bare feet, really) out on 4 miles of running and a few hours of trail hiking. And I’m already sold on these things. Running in them changed my gait almost instantly: from a pounding heel-centric affair to a light, wicked little step that feels almost catlike. You can articulate and bend your foot the way it’s meant to move, rolling through a step instead of simply pivoting: the very way that solid running shoes try their hardest to prevent. And your toes start to work like little radar antennae again, flexing and creeping around everything you encounter and then pushing off again as you pass it by.
And the hiking… hell, just the walking around, is fantastic. Because Vibrams are essentially built purely to protect your feet from damage, not to trap and cushion them, I can feel nearly every surface I step on in exquisite detail: every pebble, every tree root, every crevice. And that’s a good thing, I’m finding. A really, really good thing. It’s at once both like a constant foot massage and a flood of new and highly detailed information that I’d never even imagined I was missing out on before. When you’re basically just walking around, your feet are really the only real tactile sense you have actively working for you. Wearing heavily cushioned running shoes ends up being nothing short of putting a blindfold over your eyes.
Of course, “barefooting” isn’t just something you can take up after a lifetime of running around in cushy luxury. It takes time to relearn your reflexes, to bulk up the many atrophied muscles in your feet, to get back the “fear” that allows your gait to go light and quick, instead of brutally hard and careless.
But honestly, this process is of re-acclimation has been, to be blunt but family friendly, downright pleasurable.
I recently described the feeling as like having my legs float around on a “delirious cloud of numby butterflies.” And that’s pretty much the best I can come up with. While the feeling is pretty much what you’d expect from working any long neglected muscle and having it end up flat-out sore, there’s something special about the super-sensitive feet. Our feet are uniquely packed with long-neglected nerve endings: they’re simply crying out for some attention. So the stress of barefoot running/hiking is almost as much a sense of relief as anything else.
I’m gushing, sorry. I haven’t had my Virbams long enough to really review them as products, per se. They’ve worked so far as advertised: allowing me to plod around essentially barefoot but without the fear that a nail or spiky rock is going to shoot through my foot without notice. For me, the real test is their durability: how long the traction can last, how long they can go without succumbing to foot sweat and bacteria stank. That all remains to be seen.
But for now, I’m wandering around feeling liberated and wondrous. The shoes look a little silly, I can’t deny that. But I’ve never much minded looking silly, and the sheer pleasure of escaping the smothering embrace of the traditional running shoe is more than worth the stares. Especially when those stares so often quickly turn into questions and discussions on the existential nature of feet.
So, anyway… I got me these new feet…