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Monday, August 30, 2010

The Greatest Ultramarathon Finish Ever! And a few more stories from the North Country Trail Races...

The North Country Trail Races held in Manistee, Michigan proved to be a memorable experience.  Personally, the race was an abysmal failure (more on that later).  Despite my own poor showing, this was a weekend filled with great stories.

The 50 Mile Finish

The headline HAS to be the finish of the 50 miler.  Jesse Scott, my occasional training partner, pacer at Burning River, and friend was running his first-ever 50 miler.  He battled with Brad Hinton over the last miles of the course that culminated in a neck-and-neck sprint at the end.  See the video here:

After some delay, Brad was awarded first (Brad in white), Jesse second (shirtless).  In my biased opinion, I think Jesse crossed the finish line first.  Unfortunately the officials (I believe the decision was made by Bart Yasso) ruled in favor of Brad.  Both Jesse and Brad were absolute class-acts and perfectly epitomize the sport of ultrarunning.

The finish was even more dramatic as Brad had went off-course very early in the race.  Apparently a marker had been pulled where we were supposed to make a turn.  Most of the field missed the turn, including Brad.  A small group of runners had familiarized themselves with the course or looked at the map posted at the turn and took the correct route.  Jesse was among this group.

For the record, I was among the group that missed the turn.  I was following another runner.  When we came to the intersection, he actually asked me where we were supposed to go.  Since there was no marker in sight, I assumed we continued on.  It did not occur to me to check the map.  Needless to say, I am not a good trail racer. :-)  The fact that Brad had to run more than 50 miles to catch Jesse for this finish was VERY impressive.

A dark shadow was cast over the moment by another runner that dropped out of the 50 miler earlier in the day.  Moments after the finish, this individual started yelling at the officials.  the gist of his rants revolved around Brad having went off course, therefore he should be given the win.  Moments after barking at the judges, the same individual got in Jesse's face and told him he had to concede because Brad went off course.  It was one of the most despicable sights I've encountered in an ultra.  I would give this individual some latitude for being caught up in the moment, but the same individual was repeatedly yelling at his crew and volunteers in a another recent race we both participated in.  I can accept acting like a tool on occasion, especially in the heat of the moment.  I can't accept someone being a douche globally.

Anyway, it was truly an awesome moment.  Jesse confirmed what I have long-suspected... his early successes in the ultra world were just a preview of things to come.  It was entertaining to listen to the rest of our "cabin crew" after hearing of Jesse's 3:45 split at the haf-way point.  I think most people underestimated his abilities... maybe because we often refer to each other as "hobby Joggers".  His progression as an ultra runner has been a huge inspiration for me to make a serious attempt at becoming a more competitive runner.

The Marathon

The marathon was won by Sam Darling, who was staying with us at a cabin nearby.  He produces a dominating performance of 2:55 on a fairly technical trail in hot, humid conditions.  I got to pick Sam's brain after the race... he gave some good advice that should help me in my quest to become a faster runner.

Alex Poulsen, another person camping at the same cabin, placed second.  Alex and Jesse often train together.  Alex is definitely a talented runner as this was his longest run ever

One of the perks of DNFing so early- I got to see Shelly finish her second trail marathon in two weeks.  I am very proud of her accomplishments!  Here's the video of her finish:

Our "cabin crew" had many other great finishes, including Mark Robillard's time of 4:27.  While lounging around and catching up with many of my runner friends, I had the opportunity to see many people finish including Liz Bondar, Phil Stapert, Tim Adair, and Andy Grosvenor.  

My Own Race

As I mentioned before, I DNFed after the first loop.  While I would like to say I suffered a catastrophic injury, I simply didn't feel like continuing.  Physically I was okay. Mentally I was shot.  I will be spending some time assessing exactly what happened, but I think I am just severely overtrained.  My decision to run so many long runs over a relatively short period of time has taken a toll.  Here's a rough breakdown of my long runs:

July 3rd -36 miles
July 8th- 68 miles
July 31st- 101 miles (Burning River)
August 14th- 26.2 (Fallburg marathon)
August 28th- NCT- (26.5 miles since I went off course)

There were several shorter runs thrown in there, but it was the long runs that took a toll.  I felt very strong prior to Burning River, but that race really wore me down.

I will be spending the next month or two running some easy, short runs to maintain fitness while recovering.  I will have the opportunity to test three or four new minimalist shoes over this time, so that will become a major focus.  I will also work on distributing the second edition of The Barefoot Running Book.

Of course, school will start tomorrow, which will take a chunk of time.  This gives me an opportunity to switch to non-running mode for awhile to give myself a mental break.  
Crossfit Endurance for awhile.  All of my short race PRs came after following their daily programming.  In the absence of a speed training group, CFE should be an adequate template.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Barefoot Ted's Luna Huaraches: A Review

For a barefoot runner, I spend an inordinate amount of time testing shoes.  Even though I prefer to run barefoot, there are times when the protection of shoes is a welcome luxury.  Sometimes shoes are an absolute necessity.  My philosophy of shoe use is simple- run barefoot when you can. If you need the protection of shoes, use the most minimal shoe for the job.  The only way to assess the best shoe for any given situation is to test all options repeatedly. 

Over time, huaraches have proven to be a great catch-all solution for almost every situation requiring shoes.  The genius of the huarache sandal is the simplicity of function.  It is a piece of material suspended below your foot with a piece of binding material, usually leather or twine.

With every other minimalist shoe, some element of the shoe design interferes with foot function.  Vibrams unnaturally separate your toes and fit can be an issue as your foot must conform to the predetermined shape.  EVOs are snug around the ankles which limits some movement.  Racing flats tend to prevent your toes from splaying.  Reduced shoes like the Nike Free raise the heel.  Newtons have a very thick sole that prevents good ground feel.  Huaraches suffer none of these problems.  In essence, it is the perfect minimalist shoe.

I've been using huaraches for about three years.  The first pair were homemade.  They were complete garbage.  I used them about once a month just for variety, but I did not enjoy the fit or feel.

Earlier this year, I reviewed a pair of huaraches from another manufacturer.  The quality was improved over my home made version, which made a huge difference in function.  I used these huaraches for a series of long runs with great success.

About six weeks ago, Barefoot Ted McDonald started selling the production model of his latest huarache sandal- the Luna.  I have been following Ted's fascinating adventures since his days of training for a triathlon using 1890's era equipment and setting a world record for skateboarding distances over a 24 hour period.  He has been producing huaraches for years.  Ted learned the craft from the Tarahumara themselves (as told in Born to Run), and has been diligently working for years to improve the design.  The Luna is the culmination of these efforts.

The Lunas have several available options.  They can be ordered with or without a suede foot bed.  They can be ordered with leather laces of various colors, or with hemp laces.  The sandals are sold in standard US sizes and customizable for sizes smaller than 6 or larger than 14 (men's sizing).  The sandals can also be custom-made if you provide an outline of your foot.  I opted for the suede top with both sets of laces.  Shelly also ordered a pair with the same options.

Yeah... they're kinda sexy, too.

They arrived after only three days.  My first impression was positive.  The craftsmanship was far better than I expected.  The Vibram sole material was meticulously cut.  The suede foot bed was securely bonded to the rubber sole material.  The lacing holes were perfectly cut and symmetrical.  The sandals were laced with the leather cord, so I tested that first.  I laced them on my feet using a slip-off method and wore them around the house.

A Note About Tying

Tying Huaraches is an art.  It took a fair amount of experimentation to find the exact amount of tension needed on the various parts of the sandal.  One loop expends from between your first and second toes to the medial side of your foot.  Another loop extends from the medial side, around your ankle to the lateral side of your ankle.  The final loop extends from the lateral side of the ankle and around the original loop.  In essence, the three loops form a triangle that suspends the sandal below your foot.

If the tying is too tight, the cord will cut into the skin between your toes.  If it is too loose, the sandal will fall off.  It takes practice and experimentation to find the perfect fit.  Once discovered, the sandals are easily and quickly tied.  Unfortunately some people do not take the time to find the ideal tying tension and prematurely abandon huaraches as a minimalist shoe option. 

Ted provides directions to tie here (slip on method- more or less what I use) and here (traditional- what Shelly uses above).

Back to the Review

My early tests around my house and yard was pleasant.  The suede foot bed felt great, the laces worked well, and the sole material provided a good combination of protection and ground feel.  My first attempts at tying were a bit too loose.  After some reooling, I found the sweet spot. 

Since I was recovering from the Burning River 100 Miler (where I ran 2/3 of the race in huaraches- read my novel-length race report), I had to wait a few days to take them for a run.  I was curious about the leather laces; my other huaraches have nylon lacing.  My first attempt at running was not too successful.  The slip-on knot I used was not tight enough to keep the sandals on my feet.  I tried re-tying, but I was running with a group.  I didn't want to hold them up longer than necessary while I experimented with various tying methods.  I finally took them off and ran the rest of the route barefoot.

My second attempt was much more successful.  I swapped the leather laces for the hemp laces.  Not only did the hemp remain snug, but it did not rub quite as much as the leather lacing.  The huaraches performed exactly as expected.  The sole material was pliable and allowed for exceptional ground feel. Foot proprioception was excellent. 

Performance on hills was better than expected.  The soles do not provide tremendous traction, but the design allows you to recognize if your foot begins to slip  going uphill.  This allows you to subtly shift your weight to maximize traction and energy expenditure. 

I have been using a slightly different downhill technique lately, which involves bending my knees slightly more than my previous method.  The Lunas performed well on down hills, also. 

Some people have commented about the suede foot bed would become too slippery when wet.  I purposely chose a route that would take me through a stream and mud.  Much to my surprise, the sandal performed much better than reported.  The foot bed did become more slippery, but it did not dramatically hinder performance.  Even hills were easily traversed with the wet, muddy foot bed.

If I were using the Lunas for an ultra, I would probably use Injinji toe socks to reduce the chances of irritation from lacing.  I have previously used this combination for very long runs with great success.  I think the design of the Lunas may allow me to abandon the socks, but I haven't had the opportunity to test this yet. 


It is immediately apparent that Ted designed the Lunas as a performance sandal.  Being a barefoot and minimalist shoe ultrarunner himself, his sandals MUST be built to withstand the rigors of prolonged running over difficult terrain.  His craftsmanship is readily apparent.  The Lunas are both aesthetically-pleasing and designed to be rugged workhorses. 

I am often asked for minimalist shoe recommendations.  This is somewhat difficult as each runner will have specific preferences.  Having said that, the Lunas are as close to the ultimate barefoot alternative as I have found.  Simply put- they are my minimalist shoe Nirvana.  The Lunas simply give you some protection in exchange for a minimal reduction in ground feel.  Foot function is not affected.  Every other shoe on the market today will provide some protection in exchange for a loss in ground feel, but they also interfere with the foot in some way. 

Compared to other huaraches, the Lunas stand alone.  Their quality of materials, craftsmanship, and aesthetics are superior to every other huarache available today.  I have been using this sandal as my primary casual shoe since they arrived.  The best part- they felt great in the beginning, but get more comfortable as they conform to your feet.  When I begin the school year (I'm a teacher), this will be my footwear of choice until winter arrives.  When I require the protection of a shoe for running, the Luna is my current leading choice.

Ted has developed a more rugged version- the Leadville.   The Vibram sole is thicker (10mm) and has a more aggressive tread pattern.  Ted wore these for this year's Leadville 100 Miler.  They also feature a 10mm wide specialty lace.  I will be testing these in the coming weeks.  I am very excited as these may prove to be an excellent winter running option.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Changing of the Guard: A Sociological Analysis of the Barefoot and Minimalist Shoe Movement

Human behavior fascinates me.  Human behavior in relation to barefoot and minimalist shoe running fascinates me even more.  I have been in a position to observe the progression of this phenomenon for a number of years.  The entire movement can be framed within the context of the sociological/anthropological concept of the diffusion of innovations

The concept outlines the progression of any given innovation within a society.  It is somewhat odd to consider barefoot (BFR) and minimalist shoe running (MR) as an "innovation", but it does represent a significant change in our society's collective thoughts on running.  After all, we ran barefoot or in minimalist shoes for tens of thousands of years.  The modern running shoe has been around for thirty. 

The idea of framing BFR/MR within the context of the diffusion of innovation came from repeated discussions with individuals within the running shoe industry.  Over the years, I've had the opportunity to discuss BFR/MR with shoe marketers, designers, sales representatives, and retailers.  My interactions with the general running public confirms what I've learned from the running shoe industry... we are in the midst of a significant paradigm shift.

For years, running form took a back seat to shoe design.  The idea was simple- runners did not have to bother learning good form, they just ran.  If they had serious biomechanical deficiencies, shoe manufacturers would design a shoe to correct the problem.  It is through this process of correcting imperfect running gait that we developed the neutral, stability, and motion control shoes that define the current running shoe industry.  We developed a set of criteria (wet test, pronation control, fancy gait analysis software,etc.) that allowed retailers to fit runners with their "ideal shoe". 

This idea that technology can be used to solve problems is pervasive in our society.  In general, if we have a problem we would prefer to purchase a solution than resolve the root cause.  If we are depressed, we don't resolve the underlying issues.  We prefer to pop a pill.  If we are overweight, we don't try to reduce our caloric intake or increase our level of activity.  We have doctors remove our excess fat via liposuction.  If we have a wicked slice, we don't work on our swing.  We purchase a 1,200cc driver that resembles a globe on a stick.  Shortcuts are our specialty.

Why?  There could be many causes.  Humans are inherently lazy... generally speaking, we save energy where we can.  It is easier to buy a solution than take the time and effort to go through a self-improvement process.  We could blame our capitalist society.  From an early age, we are conditioned to have a positive response to purchasing "stuff".  Many of us spend our lives collecting "stuff" because we get a little bit of a rush.  To repeat this rush, we work hard to earn more money.  The result is a cycle of consumption that fuels our economy.  We could also blame our love of technology.  Maybe this is a result of our meta-cognitive skills.  We have the ability to plan, assess, and contemplate the future.  The drive to advance seems to be hard-wired in our brains.  We're a relatively weak species.  Our cognitive ability is our best survival tool.  We have a belief that technology can transcend our biological limitations.  That belief is what allows our species to survive.

The BFR/MR movement represents a shift in thought.  For years, most of us were comfortable with the "let's not bother learning to run, we can buy a shoe that will correct our deficiencies" paradigm.  This solution seemed to work for the vast majority of runners.  As we are beginning to learn, this paradigm is imperfect.  Some runners would experience injury despite using the latest and greatest shoe.  The idea that their running form may be flawed was not considered.  Instead, we sent them to specialized doctors that develop customized devices to correct their poor form.  Again, we're caught in the trap of searching for easy fixes versus solving the underlying problem.

A handful of these statistical outliers that were not helped by the modern running shoe took a radical step... they ran without shoes.  This forced a change in their running form.  Unsurprisingly, better form eliminated their injuries.  The barefoot running movement was born. 

The Innovators

The diffusion of innovation concept defines the stages of any given innovation.  This small group of "radicals" are what we call innovators.  These are the people that are the risk takers of our society.  They are willing to disregard social norms in favor of finding improvement.  These people blaze the path through uncharted wilderness.

In the barefoot running movement, I consider Ken Bob Saxton, Rick Roeber, and Ted McDonald to be the innovators.  There are others I would place in this category, such as barefoot runners Victor Palma and Preston Curtis or researchers Dr. Steve Robbins or Dr. Joe Froncioni.  These people have been barefoot running for many years.  They were willing to disregard the prevailing opinion of the running community.  They took incredible risk.  They also developed a foundation of knowledge that reacquainted us with barefoot running. 

The Early Adopters

The next wave of barefoot runners followed the lead of the innovators.  Early adopters were generally unhappy with modern running shoes and found a solution in barefoot running.  This group did not have to take the risks of the innovators because the path had been blazed.

I consider myself to be a member of this group.  There were a bunch of us that wrote about our experience on our blogs or websites, we participated in Ken Bob's Yahoo group, and we communicated via email.  We did some innovation, but mostly relied on the teachings of those that had done the "heavy lifting". We helped expand the ideas of barefoot running, and we helped set the stage for the rapid expansion we see today. 

The tipping point in the BFR/MR movement came with the publication of Chris McDougall's "Born to Run" in early 2009.  This engaging book presented a convincing argument that the modern running shoe was fundamentally flawed.  "Born to Run" was the conduit for the information gained by the innovators and early adopters to the larger running community.  It planted the seed that would bloom into a discussion on the nature of running shoes.  

Interestingly, I think Nike could be considered among the early adopters.  The Free line came about prior to the wave of publicity generated by Born to Run.  While I do not think the past or even current Free lineup qualifies as true minimalist shoes, Nike DID begin exploring this market well ahead of their competitors.  

The end of this stage was marked by the widespread creation of online communities.  There were a handful prior to Born to Run (Ken Bob's Yahoo group, Rick's Yahoo group, Ted's Huarache/minimalist shoe group via Google, etc.)  I consider the creation of the Runner's World barefoot running forum to be a watershed moment in the movement.  Runners World, long known as the champion of the modern running shoe, took a leap of faith and created a haven for barefoot runners to connect.  Unlike the existing communities, this community drew tremendous traffic from non-barefoot runners.  TJ Gerken, the person responsible for initiating the creation of the forum, deserves tremendous credit for this initiative.  This particular forum became the meeting place for the group, spearheaded by TJ and Cameron Guthrie, that eventually created the Barefoot Runners Society.  This national non-profit organization has already proven to be an instrumental force within the running world, and has become a valuable resource for new barefoot runners that make up the next wave of innovation.

This stage also brought about the greatest degree of criticism of barefoot running.  Since the theories were largely untested, many of the "old guard" took the offensive and criticized barefoot running as a dangerous, foolish endeavor.  The arguments were mostly topical and often entertaining.  Who can forget the CEO of Road Runners Sports warning of the grave dangers posed by pea gravel?

The Early Majority

This wave seems to have begun around summer or early fall of 2009.  Traffic on my website and blog saw a significant increase.  Sales of minimalist shoes like Vibram's Five Fingers began accelerating at a rapid pace.  Interest in barefoot and minimalist shoe running was spreading like wildfire.

Prior to this wave, new barefoot runners tended to be injured runners looking for a solution after the more traditional routes failed.  While many in this new wave fit this category, it also attracted uninjured runners, runners bored with their normal routine, and novices with no running experience. The BFR/MR movement began attracting people that had more aversion to risk than the innovators and early adopters.  The numbers of barefoot runners enjoying the benefits began to swell, which was enough to convince more to begin experimenting.

By this point, many people were aware of barefoot running as a viable option.  New research was being conducted.  Shoe manufacturers were working to develop "minimalist shoes".  News stories about barefoot running were widespread.  

Criticism continued, but some of the former critics began to shift their understanding.  The shift in opinion of some of these thought leaders brought about an even greater acceptance of BFR/MR.   Of course, critics remain.  The content of the criticism has shifted, however.  No longer are most critics blindly attacking BFR/MR with silly arguments.  The critics have initiated logical, intelligent discussion on the merits of barefoot running, minimal shoe design, and the role of the modern running shoe. 

I believe we are still at the early stages of the "Early majority" phase.  Clearly, the majority of runners are NOT running barefoot.  However, a sizable number of runners are beginning to experiment with some barefoot running, trying more minimal shoes, or at least doing their own research on the practice.

The current state of BFR/MR is debatable.  Some would say this is merely a fad that will end soon (usually those most aversive to risk, having a financial stake in traditional running shoes, or the cohort of runners that firmly believe running form is not important as long as you have shoes to correct the problems).  Some will say this will remain a small subgroup of the larger running community.  Finally, there are those that believe the BFR/MR movement will cause a wholesale change in the way we think about running in general and the role of shoes in particular.  

I am firmly ensconced in the latter category.  I have considerable contact with the running community.  I also have contact with many individuals that have tried BFR/MR and enjoyed considerable relief from chronic injuries.  While I think we need to continue dialogue and research on the exact causal relationship between shoes and injury, the evidence that the gait used by the vast majority of BFR/MRs helps reduce injury is becoming progressively more indisputable.  

The shoe industry is taking notice.  Almost all major manufacturers are developing or have already released at least one generation of minimalist shoes.  Some are good, most are bad.  The key, however, lies in their willingness to develop and market these products.  Over the last six months, I have been contacted by several manufacturers seeking input.  I see that as an incredibly positive sign.  The old guard that continually churned out clunky "high tech" shoes is losing momentum in favor of the "new guard" that is actively investigating the role shoes play in running injuries.  This new guard understands a deceptively simple idea- shoes that allow good form will always out-perform shoes that inhibit good form.

Evidence of this shift in manufacturer design is apparent throughout the industry.  The single best example may be this article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  Pete Larson did an excellent job of assessing this research, check it out here.  Essentially, one of Nike's researchers coauthored a study that cast doubt on the "old guard" method of shoe design.  Is Nike preparing a wholesale abandonment of the neutral/ stability/ motion control paradigm?  I believe they are.  Nike is in an excellent position to be the innovator of the shoe manufacturers.  The marketing geniuses in Beverton, Oregon could be preparing to position Nike as the leader in true minimalist shoe development.  If this happens, I believe we will see another substantial wave of runners exploring the BFR/MR movement.  

This next wave will signal the fulfillment of the "early majority" phase.  We could see up to half of all runners using a true minimalist shoe within a year.  Once that shift occurs, it will user in the next phase- the late majority.   

The Late Majority

If the Nike prediction comes true and we see a wholesale shift in the shoe market, other manufacturers will follow.  Market forces will dictate this shift.  Those that follow will likely survive.  Those that continue to cling to the Mesolithic "old guard" ideas of running will die a slow, painful death.
By the time the late majority phase is in full swing, research will have thoroughly explored the issue of running gait.  We will likely have found a strong correlation or causal link between injuries and the "old guard" style of shoes.  Most of the critics will have accepted the new ideas based on overwhelming empirical and anecdotal evidence.  A few critics will remain as they will be unwilling or unable to abandon their antiquated beliefs.  

The incidence of running injuries will go down as we begin focusing more on prevention than reactive treatment.  The BFR/MR paradigm will have infiltrated the medical ranks led by a cavalier group of physical therapists, podiatrists, and other such specialists.  While this industry will be somewhat slow to change, they will ultimately accept and internalize the principles of the importance of proper form over corrective shoes and inserts. 

By the end of this stage, the vast majority of runners will be using true minimalist shoes.  We will probably see most using some barefoot running as a training tool, but full-time barefoot runners will remain a small minority.  

There will be a tiny group that stubbornly clings to the archaic "old guard" way of thinking.  Maybe they were the most vocal opponents of the BFR/MR movement.  Maybe they represent a shoe manufacturer that refused to change.  Maybe they have a very strong aversion to change.  Regardless, they will eventually come around.

The Laggards

This is the group that were using rotary phones in the early 1990's.  They refused to purchase a computer until 2008.  They still have mullets.  There will always be the group that refuses to change despite being presented with overwhelming evidence that their way of thinking is undeniably wrong.  These people exist in the running industry.  Maybe it is the CEO of a shoe company that continues to produce heavily-padded foot casts.  Maybe it is a track coach that enjoyed success in his glory days anchoring the community college relay team while wearing Nike Shox.  Maybe it is your neighbor that still has orange counter tops, olive green appliances, and Marmaduke wallpaper. 

Some of this group will eventually come around.  Some will not.  Those that do not will continue to loudly voice their criticisms of the BFR/MR movement.  Unfortunately for them, their rants will fall on deaf ears.  The rest of us will be having too much fun smiling, laughing, and running injury-free.


Maybe this analysis and subsequent prediction is a pipe dream.  I could be wrong.  The BFR/MR movement could fade as quickly as it surged.  Those of us that have worked to develop and fully understand the BFR/MR movement could be wasting our time.  It's a chance I will take.

I sincerely believe the "old guard" way of thinking is fundamentally flawed.  I sincerely believe the BFR/MR movement will continue to be the impetus of change within the running community.  We will continue to see more and more people explore a new, less injurious style of running.  We will see manufacturers quickly shift development and production to meet a growing demand.  We will see a surge of injured former runners returning to the sport after being disappointed by the offering of the "old guard".  The perception of running will change from a painful, difficult activity only enjoyed by a minority of "biomechanically gifted" individuals to a healthy, fun pastime enjoyed by the masses.  Who knows, maybe this is the potential cure to the obesity epidemic currently plaguing our society.  

I love running.  My only goal is to spread that love to as many people as I possibly can.  It saddens me to see so many people that have a love/hate relationship with this wonderful sport.  Hopefully the BFR/MR movement can fundamentally change the "old guard" way of thinking.  Hopefully others will rediscover the simple joy of running without the specter of pain and injury.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Zensah Leg Sleeves- A Review

Over the last year or so, I began seeing more and more runners sporting various leg and arm compression sleeves.  I tend to shy away from things that appear to be fad-like, which is where I placed compression sleeves.

My opinions changed after Shelly purchased a pair of matching pink arm and leg sleeves.  She bought them for the UV protection aspect, though I'm sure the aesthetics of the pink color swayed her purchasing decision.  She tried them on various runs and wore them for a few races.  She praised them often, but I wasn't convinced.

During a long run, she commented that she felt faster when wearing the sleeves.  Hmmm... that piqued my interest.  I was considering giving them a try, but couldn't quite pull the trigger.  The clincher came when I read a blog post by my friend Dr. Scott Hadley (the physical therapist that gave my the calf-rolling self treatment from his TrekoClinics site).  He discussed an article that appeared in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.  The runners in the study were able to run longer, farther, and faster when wearing calf compression sleeves.  While a single study is but one data point open to debate and replication, it gave me enough reason to begin experimenting.

Admittedly, I was also fascinated with the idea that compression sleeves could be a solution to my kilt dilemma.  In my opinion, the kilt looks A LOT better with kilt hose, but they are socks.  That's an obvious problem for the barefoot runner.  Compression sleeves could be a barefoot runner alternative to the traditional Scottish attire.

I contacted Zensah, the same brand Shelly uses, and they graciously agreed to send me a pair for testing.  They arrived after two or three days.  Since I was recovering from the Fallsburg Marathon, I did not have any runs scheduled.  I was eager to try them out, so I wore them around the house the rest of the day.  And at night.  And the following day.  I even wore them when Shelly and I joined our running crew at the local Buffalo Wild Wings that night. 

When worn casually, the feeling was familiar.  They felt much like my compression pants I wear during the winter, only isolated to my lower legs.  I feeling was pleasant, though I did not experience any positive effects.  I did seem to drink beer faster at BW3's, but I suspect that was not an effect of the sleeves.

I didn't get an opportunity to use them for a run until several days later.  The real test came from a vigorous workout.  Shelly and I planned a hill running session.  The course starts up a 150 foot sand hill at a 20° grade.  Once we reach the top, we immediately run a quarter mile down an asphalt hill at a 10° grade, run about 100 yards on flat ground, then back up another asphalt road of the same length and incline.  Once we reached the top, we ran down the same sand hill.  We would repeat this route four times. 

The sleeves felt good, but were not really noticeable... until I started running.  For the first time ever, I was able to run to the top of the sand hill.  I usually make it about 2/3 of the way, then power-hike the remainder.  The run to the bottom of the asphalt, back up, then finally down the sand hill went well.  I could feel the gentle compression the entire distance.  

Much to my surprise, each "lap" seemed easier than the previous one.  After four laps, my legs felt strong.  I kept the compression sleeves on for about an hour after the workout ended. 

These results were repeated in two more shorter training runs.  I am still undecided if the compression sleeves are actually causing physiological improvements, or if it is some sort of placebo effect.  If it is a placebo effect, it is nonetheless improving my performance. 

The true test will come this weekend during and after the North Country Trail 50 miler in Manistee, Michigan.  I will be running a distance that normally induces considerable fatigue, soreness, and swelling.  I will give a full report after the race.  Until then, I am tentatively giving Zensah's compression sleeves a resounding thumbs-up! 

For those readers in the West Michigan area, Zensah's products are available from Gazelle Sports.  Gazelle has retail locations in Grand Rapids, Holland, and Kalamazoo.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Common Question: Should My Heel Touch the Ground?

When running barefoot, the foot strike (I prefer the term foot "kiss") often receives unnecessary focus.  New barefoot runners will spend so much time trying to master the nuances of the "perfect" foot strike, they will ignore more important elements such as posture, relaxation, etc.

I routinely instruct people to do whatever feels natural.  The idea is simple- if you follow my advice of starting on a smooth, hard surface, foot strike will take care of itself.  If you land with a heavy heel strike or overstride, pain will ensue.  Giving detailed instructions cannot account for the natural variation in anatomy.  We're all different.  As such, our foot strike will look slightly different.  

I land on the lateral side of my sole and roll my foot inward.  Others land more towards the center of their midfoot.  How you do it is mostly inconsequential as long as you can accurately react to the feedback from your feet.

There is one issue that arises repeatedly.  many new barefoot runners (or minimalist shoe runners) have a tendency to tense their calf muscles throughout the gait cycle in an effort to prevent their heel from touching the ground.  Generally speaking, this is bad.  By keeping your calf muscles actively engaged, you put undue stress on your Achilles tendon and the musculature of the calf.  The result can be a damaged Achilles, damaged soleus (or other calf muscles), bone spurs, or plantar pain that is often misinterpreted as plantar fasciitis.  

Biomechanically, your feet and legs are not designed to keep the heel off the ground through the gait cycle.  Doing so eliminates the effectiveness of the longitudinal and transverse arch, quickly tires the calf muscles, and as previously mentioned, unnecessarily increases the chances of injury.  Early on, it will also place added stress on the metatarsal bones of the foot.

Simply put, your heel should always softly touch the ground with each step. The exception to this rule is running fast.  As speed increases, there will be a slight natural forward shift in weight that keeps the heel off the ground.  The Pose method of running explains this phenomenon especially well. 

If you're new to barefoot or minimalist shoe running, please heed this important advice!  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

News and Notes- Wednesday, August 18th

With so many things happening, it is impossible to write a single post about each.  Instead, I will occasionally write a quick summary of current happenings.

The Barefoot Event at Schuler

Thanks to everyone that attended the Schuler Books barefoot running event in Grand Rapids last night!  We had a great crowd!  Thanks for Dr. Dave Asselin of PT 360, Tiler Webster of Gazelle Sports, and Emily Stavrou of Schuler Books!  I had the opportunity to meet a lot of great people.

The Seven Day Minimalist Challenge

Beginning today, I am going to start a seven day challenge to continue my journey to a more minimal lifestyle.  I'm still in the "getting rid of junk" phase.  The difficulty is allotting the time to cull my possessions.  This challenge will help towards this end.  Here's the plan:

Over the next seven days, I will throw out, donate, or recycle 100 of my possessions each day.  Hopefully this will seriously reduce my clutter.

Update on the Paleo Diet

So far, so good.  Shelly and I have been following our version of the diet for about five or six weeks.  The results have been very positive!  I am still surprised the cravings for bread-based carbs have all but disappeared.  It is also shocking that eating any sort of wheat-based food makes me feel absolutely horrible for about 24 hours.  I'll be writing more on this in the near future.

The Barefoot Running Book: Retailers Needed!

Now that I have the second edition of the book on-hand, I am beginning to reach out to retail establishments that may be interested in carrying the book.  If you own or work at a retail establishment that may be interested in carrying the book, please contact me at robillardj "at" gmail "dot" com!  I'm offering very good wholesale pricing and a low minimum order (10).  

North County Trail 50 Miler

On Saturday, August 28th, Shelly and I will be running at the North Country Trail Races in Manistee, Michigan.  We know a lot of people that will be at the event.  If you are planning on attending or will be in the area, say hi!  I'll be the dude in the kilt. :-)  

Upcoming Barefoot and Minimalist Shoe Running Clinic

Next Tuesday (August 24th), I will be conducting another barefoot and minimalist shoe clinic at Crossfit Grand Rapids (  The clinic will be a hands-on workshop where I will teach the basics of barefoot running.  We do some running and drill work, so come dressed appropriately!  The clinic only costs $10 and promises to be a good time!  To register, email Brandon Armstrong at, or call him at 616.916.7210.  Space is limited, so please do not hesitate!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Second Edition of The Barefoot Running Book: Availability and a Giveaway!

The second edition of The barefoot Running Book is now available!  For those that pre-ordered, the books should ship on Wednesday.  They are currently available on the Barefoot Running University website.  For those of you that prefer Amazon, they will be available very soon (see page here).  

The cost is $14.95.  I kept the price the same as the first, but it expanded from 61 to 188 pages.  Check out the BRU book page for more information!  

To celebrate the finished project, I am holding a contest to give away two books.  Here's how it will work:
  1. Think of your best barefoot running tips.
  2. List each one as a comment under this post.
  3. I will send one copy to the person that lists the most legitimate tips, and I will send one copy to the person that left the last tip when I wake up tomorrow morning.  For those of you that like strategy, it will help to know about what time I normally wake up.  Facebook friends, you may have a bit of an advantage with that one... :-)
Good luck! 

Barefoot Workshop/Talk in West Michigan

If you happen to be in the West Michigan area tomorrow (Tuesday, August 17th), stop by Schuler Books on 28th Street in Grand Rapids!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Best Worst Run of My Life: Know When to Hold Them...

August 14th, Fallsburg marathon, Lowell, Michigan.  I set a personal worst for the marathon distance.  I experienced things in this race I have never experienced before.  


Dead legs. 

Extreme nausea.

To top it off, I missed a turn and ran an alternate route for about a mile.  I have a seriously painful bruise on the arch of my left foot.  My body feels the cumulative effects of being beaten up repeatedly, and is not responding well.

Despite all this, Fallsburg proved to be one of the most fun races I've had the opportunity to participate in.  I got to watch Shelly finish her first marathon (read her race report here), which she totally rocked!  I was exposed to an entirely new set of trails I had never run before.  I got to catch up with several people and meet many more.

Shelly and Jen Jordan finishing

Before the race, I was able to chat with a bunch of people including fellow Hallucination 100 finisher Tim Adair, Barefoot Runners Society Michigan Chapter president Andy Grosvenor, Katie Swords from the Runners World Trail Running Forum, and Matt Plecher, a fellow barefoot/ minimalist shoe runner from Grand Rapids.  

Shelly before the race

During the race, I chatted with many of the great aid station volunteers.  Many were interested in barefoot running, which is always my go-to conversation starter. 

Me before the race

After the race, I milled about and talked to a few others, including Joel Pennington, Katie's husband, marathon winner Ben VanHoose, Andy again, Mark, a fellow minimalist runner who's last name I cannot remember, and a few other great people.

Andy finishing

The Race

So the race... while I could write a complete, detailed recap, I'll spare my readers the painful details.  Here's the quick synopsis:

The race started well.  The first 5 miles (fairly technical trails) went exceedingly well.  Around mile 7 or so, the course hit a gravel road.  It hurt.  A lot.  The wheels came off at that point as I hit a serious low.  The next 19 miles were a cascading cycle of negativity interspersed with occasional bouts of not-quite-as-bad negativity.  I've never run a race where the actual running part elicited so little intrinsic joy.  I did not want to be out on the course.  

Me during the race.  Note- I felt good at that point.

I reverted to "ultra survival mode" for the majority of the race.  I reduced my running gait to my slowest ultra shuffle and slogged through the mileage while conserving as much energy as I could. 

Around mile 24, I missed a turn.  After about three quarters of a mile, I realized I hadn't seen a course marker in some time.  I backtracked about a half mile, but still did not see any markers or other runners.  Not knowing where I was in relation to the actual course, I turned around and continued on.  I knew I was off course, and I knew how to get to the finish line.  At that moment, I was content with a DNF (did not finish).  

After about a mile, I came to the course.  I jumped on the trail and finished the last mile.  The rough day seemed almost comical as I trudged to the finish line to collect my DNF.  When I emerged from the woods to the cheering of a few onlookers, I felt a mix of relief (the run was almost over) and guilt (hey, I cut the course... I didn't deserve that adulation).

As I approached the finish line, that dichotomy of emotions grew.  I entered the chute and crossed the finish line.  A woman (I think it may have been RD Dan Droski's wife) congratulated me.  As Dan handed me my finisher's towel (awesome finisher's reward, by the way) and medal, I tried explaining that I had missed a turn and about a mile of trails.  He said it was okay since I hadn't placed in my division.  

I couldn't in good conscience take the finishers' medal.  I checked my Garmin.  With back-tracking, I had run 26.22 miles.  Still, my peers that stayed on the course ran an extra mile of trails instead of the asphalt and gravel roads I had.  I didn't accept the medal.  Dan wouldn't take me off the finisher list.
As I talked to people at the finish, I finally understood why.  About half of the people I talked to had wandered off the course at some point.  Early in the race, I saw Shelly running in the opposite direction as me.  A group of people she was running with took a wrong turn and ran a loop in the opposite direction as the rest of us.  To make up for that, the entire group had to run an extra quarter of a mile.  A handful of people ran a lot longer... some as much as 31 or 32 miles.  Others had cut several miles off their race.  

Apparently the problems stemmed from last-minute changes to the course.  One of the bridges we were supposed to run across was out and the local officials had assured Dan that it would be fixed. It wasn't.  This forced the organizers to completely reroute the first half of the course.  Even though it was very well marked, there was some confusion between volunteers on the course.  My mistake was my own stupidity... I was in a mental funk and ran past the trail marker. 

Despite that, I still have a hard time accepting this as an official finish.  For all those that finished after me, consider your place to be one position higher. 

Know When to Hold Them...
"You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run." -Kenny
I ran this race barefoot.  It was not as barefoot-friendly as I remembered from last year.  The first section of gravel elicited an internal debate about barefoot running.  It was the exact same discussion I had during the especially harsh section of Burning River... why do I keep doing this? 

Just like Burning River, I feel I could have done much better in this race had I worn some type of shoe.  The gravel forced me to slow my pace considerably.  It took a toll on my feet, which translated into a less-than-enjoyable experience once I got to smoother trails.  

For years, I've run barefoot in conditions that were not barefoot-friendly.  That includes gnarly gravel.  It includes sub-freezing temperatures.  It includes hot asphalt.  It includes chip-and-seal asphalt.  It even includes broken glass.  You name it, I've probably tried running on it barefoot. 

Why did I do it?  I wanted to push my own limits.  I wanted to find out what I could tolerate.  Also, I wanted to hone my technique.  Nothing builds skills like rugged, pain-inducing terrain.  

There was also part of me that wanted to prove that you can run barefoot pretty much anywhere.  You don't need shoes... they're just a useful tool to be utilized in some situations.

After doing this for a number of years, I've learned my limits.  I'm now faced with the dilemma of wanting to test my limits of speed and endurance, but I'm being held back by my insistence on foregoing shoes.  

I still love running barefoot... when conditions are favorable.  The issue arises when conditions are not favorable.  I think I am going to start using my stable of minimalist shoes for more than just workshop props.  I think I am going to start using them for racing when being barefoot is a known liability.  In almost all cases, huaraches will be my preferred shoe.  I may break out my EVOs or KSOs, and I may even pick up a pair of Treks.  I may even consider one of the new shoes the bigger manufacturers are producing.  The rule- use the most minimal shoe for the job.

I will still test my limits... I'm stubborn like that.  I will reserve my "testing my limits" runs to training.  This realization is both personally disappointing yet liberating.  I'm sure I will have to say on this matter in the future.  

For now, I must make a decision.  I will be running the North Country trail 50 miler in two weeks.  Fallsburg was humbling.  My body was not ready for a marathon two weeks after a 100.  NCT will be tough.  Even with two full weeks of rest and recovery, I doubt I will be at a physical peak.  I was planning on running barefoot.  I know the course... it is much more barefoot-friendly than both Burning River and Fallsburg.  Still, huaraches may improve my finishing time.  What to do, what to do...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fundamental Ultraruning Skills: The poo in the woods

My good friends over at Ted's Google Group started a thread on paleo wiping.  This reminded me of several questions I've received over the years regarding the delicate issue of pooping during ultras. 

I am always a little surprised this question does not come up more often.  Here's the situation- you're thirty miles into a 50 mile run.  You're surrounded by nothing but untamed wilderness.  You have to drop a #2.  Since there are no porta-potties for another 20 miles, you are left with no choice but to drop drawers and let loose. 

I always assume everyone has the benefit of being raised in the sticks.  I sometimes forget my suburbanite friends have probably never had the opportunity to hone their wilderness bowel movement skills.  I am also somewhat surprised at the amount of anxiety some people feel at the thought of dropping a deuce outside the friendly confines of the plastic vertical coffins neatly lined up at the start line of races. 

My first bit of advice- practice.  Don't wait until race day to attempt a torpedo launch in the woods.  Next time you're out on the trails, find a secluded spot and give it a go.

So how do you actually go about jettisoning some excess weigh?  Instead of explaining the process in detail, I'll refer you to this video posted in the Google Group:

Here are some additional pointers not covered in the video:
  • When actually squatting, it can be beneficial to hold your cheeks apart.  Sadly, I have to credit Mtv's The Real World for this tip.
  • Keeping a small piece of biodegradable toilet paper in your pocket can help with the final cleanup procedure.
  • When choosing a location to squat, most people simply wander a fair distance from the trail.  Make sure you don't inadvertently walk too close to a different trail or road.
  • Know what the local poisonous plants... don't squat in them.
  • Avoid plants with thorns, too.
  • Same deal with bees.
Experienced wilderness dumpers... have any additional tips to add?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A bunch of randomness...

Over the last few weeks, I've been busy with my various adventures, then documenting said adventures.  There are a lot of happenings occurring in the very near future, lots of news to share.  Let's begin!

My Achilles Injury

When running in the Burning River 100, I tweaked my left Achilles.  As of last week, it was still sore and inflamed.  My plan was to simply rest in preparation for the Fallsburg Marathon this upcoming weekend.  Late last week, I was emailing Dr. Scott Hadley, a barefoot running friend of mine.  He had read my race report about Burning River and suggested I try a self-treatment he developed on his TrekoClinics site.  I felt a bit foolish; I had forgotten I had access to one of the leaders in the field of diagnosing and treating.  

Based on Scott's recommendation, I used the treatment he described in the sample video on the site's main page.  After three days, the Achilles feels perfect!  The tightness and pain I had felt completely disappeared.  I tested it with a four mile tempo run yesterday at a 7:20 pace.  This would constitute one of my two training runs before tapering for the marathon.  The Achilles was 100% both during and after the run.  Bottom line- the treatment worked.

Barefoot Track Meet

My friend, occasional training partner, and Barefoot Runners Society Michigan Chapter president Andy Grosvenor is helping to organize a barefoot/minimalist shoe track meet this Friday in Rockford, Michigan.  The idea is simple- it's a fun event to help raise the awareness of barefoot running.  I'm still working on my schedule, but am planning on being in attendance.  I'll be running the longest event, but doing it very slowly.  I'll be happy to answer any questions people may have about barefoot or minimalist shoe running.  Additionally, there will be at least a few more VERY experienced barefoot runners in attendance.  It will be a great opportunity to learn.

All are welcome!  Here are the details:

WHEN: Friday, August 13th, 7pm
WHERE: Rockford North Middle School Track,
397 E Division Street Northeast, Rockford, MI
WHAT: 440, 880, 1mi, 2mi, and 3mi in nothing but the bare of your barefeet [or some interesting MINIMAL footwear, if your feet can't take it...]
WHY: because we can, to raise awareness of barefoot running, and for a groovy homemade medal!

Book Signing/ Barefoot Workshop
I will be leading a discussion on barefoot running at Schuler Books in Grand Rapids on Tuesday, August 17th at 7:00pm.  I will be joined by physical therapist Dr. Dave Asselin and Gazelle Sports.  The workshop will be more topical than my usual workshops due to time constraints, but we will have ample time to answer questions from the audience.  The event is free!

This will also be the first opportunity to purchase the second edition of my barefoot running book.  Twenty percent of the proceeds will be donated to the Barefoot Runners Society!

Barefoot Running Workshop

I will continue my series of regular barefoot/minimalist shoe running workshops at Crossfit Grand Rapids.  The next workshop is scheduled for Tuesday, August 24th from 7:30pm to about 9:30pm.  This is a comprehensive hands-on (of feet-on) workshop that involves actual drills and running.  Cost is $10 and you can reserve a spot by contacting Brandon Armstrong at or 616.916.7210.  Spots are limited and fill up rather fast, so it's usually best not to wait until the last minute.

616-916-7210 begin_of_the_skype_highlightingend_of_the_skype_highlighting

Paleo Diet

Shelly and I have been following a quasi-paleo diet for about a month now.  This will be a topic of a future post, this is just a quick update.  It is going VERY well.  Effects noticed:
  • No intense food cravings, especially cravings for breads or sugary foods,
  • Decrease in body fat percentage despite no reduction in caloric intake,
  • Even energy levels throughout the day
The results are striking enough for me to continue with the experiment.  Again, I will write more about this in the near future.

Fallsburg Marathon

As mentioned before, I will be running in the Fallsburg Marathon this upcoming weekend.  I will be joined by at least two other barefoot runners (Andy G., the organizer of the barefoot track meet and Shelly, my wife).  The course is relatively barefoot-friendly, and they do have a 5K and half marathon option.  If you're in the neighborhood, check it out!  My goal for the race- beat my marathon PR of about 3:55.

North Country Trail Ultra

On August 28th, I will be running the North Country Trail 50 miler.  I'm looking forward to this event as it will reunite Shelly and I with our road-trip crew of Mark Robillard and Jesse Scott (among a lot of other friends).  This is a VERY barefoot-friendly course.  We will have at least six or seven barefoot and/or minimalist shoe runners, possibly MANY more.  If you plan on being there, look for me (I'll be running in my Sport Kilt again).  My goal for this race- complete my trifecta of PRs (100 mile, marathon, and 50 mile) in one month by running a sub-10:20 time!

Woodstock Running Festival

Shelly and I are planning on attending the Woodstock races this year.  My tentative plan is to crew/pace for Jesse.  Shelly's plans are still up in the air.  Like the North Country Trail races, there should be a fairly large contingency of barefoot/minimalist shoe runners on hand.  This is another great event with a large range of races  from a 5K up to a 100 miler... if you're in the area, check it out!


In the very near future, I will be reviewing a variety of products.  I will continue to document my experiences with running in the kilt, I will give a few review of Barefoot Ted's Luna sandals, and should be reviewing a pair of GoLite minimalist shoes, Inov-8 minimalist shoes, and eventually some New Balance minimalist shoes.  I may be reviewing some Zensah compression sleeves, too.

Life Simplification

I haven't posted much about this topic lately, but I am continuing to simplify my life by purging excess material "stuff".  My goal is to eliminate half of my possessions by the end of summer.  I am about 75% done.   The long-term goal is to reduce my family's possessions substantially (down to about 25% of our current possessions) by the end of spring 2011.  Part of this process is culling our crap.  The other element is being EXTREMELY selective on new purchases.  So far, so good.


If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you know I am a HUGE proponent of weight training as a form of crosstraining.  I have been training with Brandon Armstrong and John Devries of Crossfit Grand Rapids for about six weeks, and have been training with my friend Pete Kemme for several years.  Pete recently added a HUGE list of exercises and accompanying videos to his site. I credit these workouts for my ability to finish 100 milers despite a relatively low number of running miles (average about 40 miles per week over the last three months).  If you are a runner, you should seriously consider this style of workouts as cross training.  It's tough, but I guarantee you will not be disappointed.


I mentioned it earlier, but the second edition of my barefoot running book will be officially released in two weeks.  The book is available for pre-order right now at a discount ($9.99 versus $14.95) and should ship in about two weeks.  Once it is released, it will be available via Amazon.  For those that prefer Amazon, I will post the link as soon as it is ready!