Thursday, April 9, 2015

Storytelling and the Barefoot Running Movement

Are we ready to talk honestly about this yet? This little embarrassment called barefoot running? I think we might be. It's nearly behind us, after all. And a new fad-I-mean-innovation is well on its way, right? Super-cushioned shoes!

Doesn't it seem like barefoot bologna has, for the moment, sated runners' appetites for fads? Doesn't it seem like runners just aren't jumping into super-cushioned shoes quite like they jumped out of their shoes for barefoot running? 

Or maybe it's not about being sated. Maybe it's just that these super-cushioned shoes haven't been served up to runners with a great story, as was barefoot running. Either way, it's tough to be a follow-up fad. Too bad for HOKA ONE ONE.

(An aside: HOKA ONE ONE's cause is not helped by the fact that its shoes look like platform sneakers Jodi Foster might've worn with bell-bottoms to portray her child-prostitute character in the '76 cinematic classic Taxi Driver.)

Born to tell stories

As you all know, the barefoot running craze was pretty much single-handedly launched by the book Born to Run, written by Christopher McDougall. But who exactly the hell is Christopher McDougall?

Well, let's take a quick look at a few high-level McDougallistics:
  • McDougall played basketball in high school.
  • McDougall rowed crew in high school.
  • McDougall is 6'4" and 200 pounds (or so says his online bio; he looks heavier than that).
  • McDougall graduated from Harvard.
  • McDougall worked, for years, as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press.
  • McDougall is the author of the international bestseller, Born to Run.
  • McDougall's bestseller is being made into a feature film starring Matthew McConaughey.

So here's what these McDougall facts tell me about McDougall. And let me know if you think I'm leaping to unsupported conclusions.
  • McDougall is a big guy.
  • McDougall, in his grade school days, played big-guy sports.
  • McDougall is smart.
  • McDougall is a good writer and a traveler who excels at bringing home stories from foreign lands.
  • McDougall is such a hell of a storyteller that even Hollywood got a piece of him.

Wait. Am I trying to suggest that the very progenitor of the barefoot running movement -- the movement that rocked the running industry -- is not an expert runner?

The man who dissected our strides and analyzed shoe geometry so minutely? The man who pointed an accusing finger at the modern running shoe? The man who told us all to take off our shoes and retrain our feet, legs, and minds? The man who turned so many millions into barefoot believers?

That man is not even a running expert? He is not a slender, little distance runner? He is not a great university or high-school cross country or track coach? He has never even run for a high school coach? He is not even, say, an academic doing research on human bio-mechanics? Are you telling me that McDougall's field of expertise stories?

Yes, telling stories. More than that, though. His expertise is telling stories brought home from foreign lands. And, in so doing, enjoying the storytelling "freedoms" that come with addressing an audience that is not, for the most part, in a position to refute what an author claims to have witnessed in those foreign lands.

That's what the AP paid McDougall to do: bring gripping stories home from foreign lands. He is trained in that. He is a professional at exactly that.

How some elite marathoners responded to the barefoot running movement

I have never traveled to Mexico to witness, first hand, the Tarahumara Indians running barefoot on sun-baked lands that are not paved but every bit as hard as paved roads. (Are they as hard as tar roads? Or even harder, like cement roads? They must be something!)

But I know how some elite marathoners responded to the barefoot running movement. And I think their response speaks to the truth and wisdom behind the movement.

Before the barefoot running movement, a whole bunch of the world's fastest marathoners were foolishly racing in the Adidas AdiZero Adios -- one of the more cushioned of the lightweight shoes out there.

And, get this: depending on which of the various Adios models you're looking at (from over the last few years), the shoe has a 10 to 12 mm drop! Holy smokes! Can you believe this? I mean, did these elite marathoners have a death wish?

But then came the barefoot running movement and all of its wisdom. In response, these elite, uh, kept running in the Adios. And, well, Dennis Kimetto ran his world record 2:02:57 in Berlin wearing the Adizero Adios Boost...a shoe with a 10 mm drop.

What? Did he really do that? Hadn't he read Born to Run? Didn't he understand shoe geometry? Didn't he know that lots of cushioning and heel lift are the dangerous tools of the corrupt running shoe corporations?

Wait'll you read what has happened since.

Now that the barefoot movement has quieted down, and the so-called wheat has been separated from the so-called chaff, do you know what these same elite marathoners are doing? 

They are still running in the Adios.

That's right. These elite runners are still yet to respond to the barefoot running movement. They've kept their cushioning. They've kept their heels lifted. They haven't listened to Christopher McDougall at all.

Don't they know that McDougall has been to Mexico? Don't they know that he wrote overseas for the AP, for crying out loud? DON'T THEY KNOW THAT HE RAN BAREFOOT WITH TARAHUMARA INDIANS?

Yes. They know. But Adidas is paying them major bucks to ignore their foot health and remain corporate running shoe conspirators.

Whoops. People got hurt. And sued.

Ouch. One result of the barefoot running movement is that a whole bunch of people ran barefoot (or in those goofy Vibram FiveFingers) on hard surfaces and got hurt. What I mean is that lots of barefoot runners sustained pesky little injuries like, oh, fractured metatarsals and bruised calcaneuses (heel bones).

Of course, the other notable result of the movement is that 155,000 FiveFingers wearers got together and sued Vibram. The company had made the unfounded barefoot-running claims we've all heard -- about reducing foot injuries and strengthening foot muscles -- and had left out the part about fracturing and bruising bones. Vibram paid millions to settle the case. 

Not his fault!

Just to be clear about this: the injuries people sustained while running barefoot on paved roads were not at all McDougall's fault.

These people, you see, were doing it wrong. They all made the switch from shod-foot running to barefoot running too quickly. Their feet were not ready for full-time barefoot running. 

Due to the evil cushioned running shoe with all of that unnatural heel lift (like Dennis Kimetto's shoe), their foot muscles had atrophied and their feet had forgotten how to strike the ground naturally and properly. (Aside: I can only imagine the atrophied, unnatural mess Dennis Kimetto's feet must be!) 

You see? The injuries were the fault of the cushioned running shoes left back at home in the closet! 

I told you McDougall was smart -- smart enough, anyway, to know the old polemics trick of insisting on the very opposite of the truth.

Born to take a slap shot to the nuts?

The barefoot argument is something like insisting that male hockey players go onto the ice without cups so that their balls can become reacquainted with how they were naturally meant to receive a slap shot.

I would like to propose that, just as men were not born to have their testicles struck by a dense little disc of vulcanized rubber traveling at 95 miles per hour, humans were not born to run on tar or cement or any surface anywhere near as hard.

To the extent that people are "born to run," we're born to run on forgiving, unpaved surfaces. Human evolution has not yet caught up with our road and highway departments. It's still lagging by a few million or so eons. 

Of course, we were born to use our brains to invent useful tools, such as axes, spears, space shuttles, and running shoes. You don't have to be brilliant to understand the truth about running shoes. As a matter of fact, I can explain it to you in simple caveman language. Here you are:

Foot soft. 
Road hard. 
Bare foot on road hurt. 
Put cushion between foot and road. Foot hurt less.
Even on soft ground, cushion good.

At least it spurred product development, right?

Right, right...because of the barefoot running movement, shoe companies had to open up their R&D minds and try all sorts of new shoe designs they would not have otherwise tried, and that's a good thing!

Really? Aren't we digging deeply for that one? Maybe to make ourselves feel better about having been duped by a fad?

What's a product shake-up worth, if it comes with misinformation, dangerous products, and broken feet? Do product developers really need all of that in order to do their jobs well? I don't see much good in the reactionary shoe-design nuttiness that barefoot running unleashed. 

I see good in Adidas' sanely holding the course. I see good in its keeping 23 mm of shoe under Dennis Kimetto's heels and 13 mm under his forefeet.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What Kind of Runner are You?

Seeing one runner doesn't mean you've seen them all. There are all sorts of runners out there -- more than one list could ever represent. But here are descriptions of some of the more interesting types of runners I've bumped into over the years.

The Serial Marathoner

You do one or two marathons per year, every year. You train with like-minded friends, and have a whole social life and lifelong fitness program built around serial marathoning.

Between marathons, you throw in a few 5Ks and 10Ks, but you most value the number of "Bostons" or "New Yorks" or "[insert your favorite marathon here]s" you've run, and your total number of marathons completed.

You also take pride in coming close to, or eclipsing, the 3-hour mark [or 3:30, or 4:00...]. As the years roll along, you grow bored with serial marathoning and try ultras or triathlons or both.

The Ultrarunner

You have an under-voice that speaks as follows: "Oh yeah, world? You think marathoners are animals? Well, I'm an ultrarunner, and I think marathons are baby shit.

"I just got up the other day and thought, 'I'm bored. I think I'll run a marathon.' And I did. I found this nice little point-to-point marathon, drove out there, ran it, and came in ninth overall 
and first in my age group. 

You know what I did then? I turned around and ran the 26.2 miles back to my car. Who's the animal now? Ha!"

The One-and-done Marathoner

Marathon, marathon,'re sick of everyone around you who's run a marathon and has that "26.2" sticker on the back of their car. So you decide to run one for yourself.

You get a training plan from the internet. You go to a running store, have a long conversation with an articulate, knowledgeable little dude, and you buy a couple hundred bucks worth of stuff.

You train. You run your marathon. It hurts much more than you thought it would, and takes much longer than you thought it would. You limp around for a few days, and you slap a "26.2" sticker on the back of your car.

Then, without ever thinking, "I will never run again," you never run again. When people notice the sticker and acknowledge that you're a marathoner, you say, "Yes, I'm a marathoner, but I'm not training for anything right now."

A few years pass and you gain a few pounds...maybe forty. Now you add to the above response, "I really should get back to it."

The Running Addict

Training and racing is your whole life. You train every day and race every weekend at any and all distances. You love to race, and you know you'd perform better if you didn't race so often, but you can't stop yourself. 

You might race two 5Ks on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday. You're not a "Great Distance Runner" (see description below), but you're not slow either. Every once in a while, you win a local 5K fundraiser. 

You are nearly always somewhat injured. You make a living at something or other; it doesn't matter. You have no spouse or kids. You have running. You live with your elderly parents, or a generous sibling, or over your cousin's garage.

The Race-only Runner

You run only in races, and you never train. You are not fast, but you don't care. You just love being in races.

You're not particularly prone to injury, because you don't race hard. You just trot, sometimes smiling, through race after race after race. You watch the fast guys speed out of sight, and you're happy. You finish behind two thirds of the pack, and you're happy.

At home, you have a walk-in closet devoted to your collection of race shirts. It's divided into sections: long-sleeve and short, cotton and tek-wick. When friends come by for drinks, you show them your closet.

The Relay Runner

REACH THE BEACH, BABY! WOOHOO! [Or insert your favorite two-van, 12-person, 200+ mile relay running experience.] The Reach the Beach Relay is your bliss! And it's what makes you a runner. 

You love the intense group experience, the history shared by team members, and decorating the vans. Over the years, you've seen injuries, affairs, divorces, skinny-dipping, middle-of-the-night roadside arguments, and illnesses. And you've made such good friends!

You wear your Reach the Beach jacket, shirt, or running hat anytime you're around athletic people, and you call yourself a runner. Actually, though, if you think about it,'t really...technically...exactly...actually run all that much.

In fact, you typically run just a few times before the big race, then you race, and then you pack it in for the year. And it's getting harder and harder to do this as you grow older.

The Expectations Manager

At road races, before the start, you are the person most likely to go around telling everyone that you are injured, or that you've been sick, and that there's no way you are going to race well today. 

To you, having everyone hear this is a great comfort. If you run poorly, everyone will have a plausible reason for it (other than, "he/she isn't as fast as I thought"). And if you run well, everyone will think you're a beast for having done so under such trying circumstances!

When managing expectations doesn't leave you feeling okay after a race, you like to pull this card out of your back pocket: "I was pretty tired from the race I ran earlier this morning."

The Tough Mudder

When you are disappointed with your running performance, you try to improve by doing extra sets of bench presses, military presses, and curls. You firmly believe that that which does not kill you will make you stronger, and that pain is weakness leaving the body. Semper fi, man. Semper fi.

The Color Runner

I know you exist, because I have seen your "color runs" advertised online. But I have never met you. If our paths ever cross, I think I will know you.

The Weight-battling Racer

You took up road racing to lose weight, but it wasn't working. You were actually gaining weight. You weren't sure why, until a running friend helped you crunch some of your racing stats. Turns out, your average 5K time was 49:03:01, and your average time spent in the food tent after races was 55:34:22. Aha!

The Spiritual Runner

"Competitive" is a dirty word to you. It suggests "shallow" and "immature." You would not go anywhere near a road race -- especially not one of those big party races they hold nowadays, with beer served in the morning, and all of those...what would you call them? ...runners.

You are wiser than all of that, more subtle. You run for the "now" -- for all of those wonderful moments you discover on every journey.

The one thing that bothers you? Every once in a while, ego infects your running and takes you out of your here and now. 

You'll be running, and you'll begin to wonder how fast you might be if you were to ever race. The thought of this makes you speed up, right then and there -- a sort of spontaneous testing of the race-training waters.

Then you feel a horrible, desperate pain, and you become afraid. You slow down immediately and return to your usual, mellow, meditative pace. Then you become frustrated, because you know that some would mistakenly interpret this as your not being able to handle the pain of hard running.

You're so dedicated to running, yet you receive no recognition for being a real runner, just because you're not a shallow, competitive jerk. It's not fair.

But then you catch yourself and see where your mind has gone. You detach -- let go. You get back to your space, your center, those moments, and the sublime nothingness that contains them.

The Great Distance Runner

You freaking love to compete. And you love crushing the competition. You ran for your high school and college, and you've kept training and become even faster since. You train knowledgeably and compete hard, every year, from early spring till late fall, at all sorts of distances.

Years and years of experience and training are now paying off in a big way. You train and race at speeds that are unimaginable for 99% of people who call themselves "runner." 

You've done a few marathons (in times that most runners would want to trumpet across the lands), and they were good experiences. But your favorite distance is  ___ [insert either 5K, 5 miles, 10K, 15K, 10 miles, or 1/2 marathon]. That's where you really kick ass.

You belong to an exclusive running club, and your closest friends are fast runners. You've known plenty who've made it to an Olympic trials event, and you've crossed paths with several Olympians over the years. 

Novices who toss the term "elite" around toss it your way all the time. In your circles, though, "elite" means what it means, and you know you're not quite that. But you're happy with what you are. You love this sport. And you're pretty damned good at it.

The Deewee Runner

You used to drink a lot. A lot. You no longer drink at all. You have no license. You ride your bike to road races. Sometimes these races are 20 or 30 miles from your home. You have become very fit. You are not fast, but not slow either. You race your best when, instead of riding your bike to a race, you catch a ride with another runner you know. He has a license.

The Advisor

You haven't been training and racing for long, but you love it, and you read about it constantly. Then you go into the world and give advice to every runner you meet, and even some non-runners who you think should be runners. 

You recommend everything from shoes, to winter wear, to workouts, to races, and even types of racing that you think people should be doing.

You're in the habit of giving unsolicited advice to people who are faster and more accomplished runners than you are, and this sometimes rubs people the wrong way. You mean no harm or disrespect! You just love the sport. And want to bond with runners. And share all the good stuff you know.

If, however, you ever found yourself standing in a bar next to, say, Ben True and Sam Chelanga, you'd probably recommend a couple of your favorite workouts and tell them how their feet should be striking the ground. So maybe you do have a problem.

The Having-an-Affair Runner

You have fallen in love with running all over again. Your dedication to training and racing has suddenly, inexplicably skyrocketed. (...the rocket penetrating the receptive, moist clouds above, over and over....)

You regularly drive off for long training runs -- which you say you do either "alone" or "with running friends" --  and you've become fond of far-away "destination races." You claim to be in need of "me time."

Others often first identify you by online race results distributed by the club secretary. The discovery may go something like this:

"Hey, over the last three weeks, Gerry's wife and Susan's husband have both run in the same three races. And those races were in Oshkosh, Chattanooga, and Key West. What are the odds? I think I know a couple of people who should buy lottery tickets this week...hey...wait a minute...."

The Non-runner Runner

You don't run. But you know a lot of runners. So many that you are pretty much a runner yourself, except for the running part. 

Once, while out to dinner with friends, you found yourself sitting across the table from some big-shot runner or other. Well, you showed him that you're perfectly comfortable with runners. The two of you talked about running the whole night! 

Actually, the runner didn't speak at all. You talked the whole time about all the runners you know from the gym, and how accomplished they are (they do marathons), and how this runner you were speaking to just had to meet all of your running friends, and that you would arrange it. 

Ever since that evening, Meb has avoided you.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Is Running the Sport for You?

Running isn't for everyone. But it sure is right for a whole lot of people, and for a whole lot of different reasons. If you've been wondering if running could be the sport for you, read on.

Is something eating at you?

It could be anything really. Unemployment. Underemployment. A boss who tortures you. Concern about a loved one. A controlling spouse. A sourpuss spouse. A cheating spouse. A pending divorce....

If you have anything like this eating at you, becoming a runner and exhausting yourself at crazy times of the day, in crazy weather, and in crazy places (How did I end up in this icy, snowy alley at 5:15 AM, and is that guy asleep or dead?) could be just the thing you need to forget your troubles.

The reason this works can be explained by the psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Depriving yourself of basic physical necessities -- like rest, personal safety, bodily warmth, and oxygen -- makes things like marriage trouble seem relatively unimportant!

Are you in pain?

Do you suffer in life? If so, you might as well participate in a sport that rewards suffering with tee shirts and medals and shit.

Yes, life has made you familiar with suffering; it steeps you in it. Do you think it has made you tough? Why not suffer competitively and find out how good a sufferer you really are?

Few other sports so thoroughly test one's ability to suffer -- from tempo runs, track workouts, and hill work, to race pain, running injuries, and overwhelming fatigue that strikes daily at 8:30 PM. Suffering aficionados generally feel they have arrived when they discover the suffering playground that is distance running.

Have you been trying to heal a wound since you were six?

Are you stuck in what Freud called a "repetition compulsion"? Go ahead, dig into your unconscious and have a look. 

Do you operate under the erroneous impression that life would be paradisaical if you could somehow go back in time and heal that one big hurt that you and your loved ones all felt when you were a small child? (e.g. dad's philandering, mom's drinking, disabled sibling, etc.) 

If so, running could be the sport for you! You just have to convince yourself that there's some magical, causal relationship between your running fast and your healing your family's ages-old archetypal wound. Easy, right?


Are you imaginative?

Could you motivate yourself with concocted daydreams about, say, an estranged family member or an unappreciative ex, colleague, or boss suddenly appearing as a spectator at one of your races, cheering enthusiastically for you, and then offering you warm, teary-eyed, and deferential praise and admiration afterwards?

Could you make yourself believe that such an event will actually happen and that, when it does, people will finally view you as they should and life will finally have the richness and reward you know in your heart that you deserve? If so, start training!

Are you in need of revenge?

Did the big guys pick on you throughout your childhood because you were little and slender? If so, welcome to distance running -- the great leveler of sports.

Here's the simple beauty of it: most (not all, but most) big people suck at distance running. Running is the sport that most rewards slender, wispy, little dudes and chicks who lack the heft and brute strength that are so useful in other sports such as football, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, and beating the shit out of you. 

Many of the world's best male distance runners are built like your 9-year-old niece. If you are too, maybe running is the sport that will allow you to finally stick it to those big bastards. Go for it!

Are you insane, as Einstein defined it?

Do you tend to do the same thing over and over again while expecting different results? Perfect. You'll be great on training plateaus. Run.
You know this guy.

Are you willing to pay too much to get high?

If the following conversation resonates with you, by all means, take up running.

Shady looking guy with neck tattoo: Psst. Hey, buddy. Wanna get high?

You: Waddya got for me, man?

Guy: Just run 40 or more miles per week for the next twenty weeks, and then enter a race and force yourself to run it like a murderer is chasing you so that you cross the finish line in so much pain that you pretty much don't care if you die. Then, once you stop, for a few minutes, you'll feel high.

You: That sounds like a trip, man.

Do you fear the aggression competitive sports sometimes engender?

The aggression, intimidation, and even occasional fighting that's integral to so many other sports has little to do with distance running. So peaceniks and wimps can have at it and remain in their comfort zones.

Running is essentially a nice sport for nice people. In the history of distance running, only one fist fight has ever broken out. It was last year. I saw the video. The punches thrown in that fight were the silliest, most effeminate looking punches ever thrown in the history of sports brawling. The sight of that fight could have stopped a good NHL fist fight in its tracks, and given the two on-ice brawlers occasion to share a comradely chuckle and a friendly whack on the shoulder pads.

If a fight ever breaks out at a race you're in, it'll be only the second time it's ever happened (you'll be witnessing sports history), and it'll be about as dangerous as toddlers scrapping at day care. If you were looking for a safe, non-aggressive sport, you've found it.

Are you just plain crazy?

That's not a nice word, "crazy," and I apologize for using it. I know better than that. What I mean is: is there a voice that will not leave you alone? Do you maintain a normal facade, while knowing that you are hiding, inside you, something profoundly, deeply, frighteningly wrong? Well, GET OUT THERE AND RUN!

Go, go, go, and never stop! If you fall after 25 or 30 miles and bloody your knees and face, pick yourself up and keep running. You may stop for water and food, maybe a little spontaneous sleep on a bench or sidewalk, and any necessary vomiting. But don't stop for anything else. Especially not therapy, which can be devastating for your running. Don't worry about work, relationships, your home, or your belongings. Just keep running.

Eventually, you will win an Olympic marathon. Later in life, you will reveal your emotional struggles to the world through a reality TV show...or maybe an article in Runners World.

Go get 'em

If you answered "yes" to any of the above questions, you and running could have a bright future together. If you answered "yes" to more than one, you may even become a distance running star. If you answered "yes" to all of them, good luck.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Runners Group Email Messages

[Runner 1, emailing the group, which includes several dozen guys, a few women, a few people who ran with the group once and never returned, and a few former group members who moved out of town years ago.]
Looks like great weather for tonight. Who's in for 6? Let's get a good group out there!

[Runner 2]
Yeah, the weather looks sweet. I'm in for 9, with 4 at a 7:00 pace. 

[Runner 3]
I'm in. I was planning 10, with 6 in the middle at 6:45, but I'll hang with the gang.

[Runner 4]
In. Was thinking 13 with 7 @ 6:30, but I'll go early and bang out 3 before you guys start. 6:45s will be okay with me because I swam and cycled this morning.

[Runner 3]
I swam and cycled this AM too.

[Runner 5]
Boys, my plan calls for 20. I'll arrive early and do that 3 beforehand. Anyone up for an extra 7 after their 10?

[Runner 6]

I would, but I'm still recovering from that 100K, plus I'll be cycling 35 miles to the run tonight and 35 home. Just an easy 15 for me. Can anyone lock my bike in their car while we run?

[Runner 1]
Guys, will anyone be running just 6 miles at around an 8:30 pace?

[Runner 7, who is the best runner in the group]
Hey, John. I'll do 6 with you. See you there!