Saturday, December 22, 2012

Five fingers, ten toes

In the latter half of my "run streak," I treated myself to a pair of Vibram Five Fingers Bikilas. I'm not some crazed, go minimal or go home, runner but I was intrigued by a few aspects of barefoot, or rather near barefoot, running. As excited as I was to give it a go, I was also nervous about what might happen. Why? Hell I don't know. It's just different...unknown. The anxiety actually started before I bought them. As I quickly learned, there's more than one model of Vibram Five Fingers. What? Yup. There's thems for walking, and thems for running. Thems with laces, kangaroo hide, for cold weather, for hot weather. And then there's the Bikila, the one for barefoot running. Huh? Thought by design they all were for "barefoot" running. Apparently not though, or not as much. Well I wanted the barefoot experience. Hell if I was going to look like a baby Sasquatch out there, I wanted the fully Monty.

The first thing I noticed is that they're very difficult to get on. At least they were the first day. The sizing is based on the actual length of your foot and not your shoe size. For me this meant a size that's about two sizes smaller than my normal shoe in European sizing, ie a 41. And for me it was not that easy to get my toes in the little individual toes spaces. My toes don't like being separated and I struggled to get them on. It was a little frustrating at first. However once they were on they fit like socks. In fact at first I thought they were too small. However, after my first run I realized they needed to be that way.

The run:
The first run was at Prospect Park, aka the bunny park, with Laddie. The outer loop is about 1/2 a mile mixed grass and coarse blacktop, with some soft spots, railroad ties in the ground, and lots of branches as the park had not been fully cleaned up since Sandy. Here's the deal with these shoes, you instantly run on the balls of your feet. No gradual "promotes a forefoot strike". Let your heel hit, especially on the pavement, and there is a shock wave that races through your spine to your brain! However, this modified foot strike was easy to adapt, as if this was really how I was meant to run. It was cool. The first run was 1.5 miles and the thing I notice most at the end was increased fatigue in lower leg muscles. No pain, just fatigue. Over the next couple of weeks I stretched the length of the runs to about 3.5 miles, mostly on trails. I did run on the road a few times, but frankly I just don't enjoy the road and it has nothing to do with the shoes. After the "run streak" which was mostly trail, it's just not the same.
Then came the real test. I was not feeling the same degree of lower leg fatigue anymore, presumably because the muscles were adapting, so I went for a ~7 mile run, all trails, plenty of muck and standing water. The run was a loop and I contemplated having a change of shoes in the van if I felt I needed it, but then decided no. I was running the whole thing "barefoot" or I wasn't finishing the run. I was curious about two things: could I do it and would the pace be different than in shoes. Here's the run data (no heart rate, I need a new strap) -> . Bottom line, I have never run that loop that well. Granted I may have run it that well on that day in shoes too, but I doubt it. There was quite a bit of mud and standing water, and unlike shoes w/socks the Bikilas have so little going on they did not gain any noticeable weight. They had excellent traction. And remember that snug fit? They did not move around at all. The best words to describe the feeling of the run are "swift", "nimble", "fleet". I still am who I am and I know that shoes will not change my top end speed, but in this instance they allowed me to flow through the obstacles with ease.

A big concern for me was how painful would it be when I stepped on obstacles. I didn't want to spend entire runs on the lookout for debris. With two exceptions, they were fine. In fact they handled a packed gravel path, easily the most uncomfortable section of one of the trails, with ease. The path is sort of like running on a runaway truck ramp, but I cruised through it. I believe the reason for this, and for the improved traction overall, is that as your feet land your toes more or less wrap around whatever they hit. With shoes the angle of your foot is going to be whatever it is and so you may well hit in with a sub-optimal orientation. When your feet become and integral part of the stride, you are more "dynamic". As I mentioned there were two notable exceptions to the decent foot protection. The first was a branch that found its way between two toes. This is the most vulnerable spot of the Bikilas as there is only a thin piece of lycra between the toes. Yes that sucked. The second was a stray chunk of granite. I got me square in the arch. I believe I saw God for a moment there! :) However, had I hit that in my Sketchers Go Runs, I think it would have sucked almost as much. Anything short of trail shoes with a rock plate would have failed.

A month later I really enjoy running in these. Running through forests or through fields feels so natural, primal. That said there are still spots in my running shoe line up for traditional shoes. They have there purposes as well. But like a cyclist with lots of bikes, there is always a favorite, and these are rapidly becoming my favorites. Oh yeah, and for the first time in years I can spread my toes!