Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tanner Sandals The Solution Review

The Solution with natural footbed and nylon laces
One of the great things about being a minimalist runner in 2012 compared with being one back in the early days of 2009 (or in the dark ages of 2006) is that the selection of footwear is rapidly expanding. While a few years ago there were just a couple of huaraches on the market, now there are a whole crop of new start-ups making really great sandals. One of these start-ups that I only found out about a couple of months ago (thanks to Barefoot Inclined) is Tanner Sandals, a great little company making fantastic sandals.

Tanner Sandals based in New Hampshire and run by the three Tanner brothers. They've only been in business now for about 8 months, which explains why I hadn't heard of them until recently. Tanner currently offers three models of huaraches for adults, plus one for kids. The three adult models are the Answer, the Solution, and the Timeless. All three feature Vibram rubber soles and attractive leather footbeds. The Answer is the basic model and uses either a 5 or 8mm neoprene rubber sole. The Timeless is the same sandal but with a variation of traditional Tarahumara-style leather laces.

The Timeless with black leather footbed

The Solution, which is the model I decided to try, is a little different. It uses a 4mm dense rubber sole (which seems to be the same material Luna uses for its Leadville sandal) and a smooth leather footbed, with a 3mm "cloud" midsole sandwiched in the middle. The midsole is designed to mold to your foot over time. You have your choice of black or "natural" footbed, and nylon or leather laces.  I chose a natural footbed and nylon laces.

The Solution with natural footbed and leather laces
The Solution sells for $80. (The Answer and Timeless both sell for $70.) You can order the sandal in half sizes or you can email the Tanners a tracing of your foot and they will custom make a pair to fit your feet at no extra charge (several other huarache companies charge for this). Given the quality of the materials and the cost of other sandals on the market, the price is reasonable.

I don't know the weight of the Solution but when I pick them up they feel a bit heavier than most huaraches, probably due to the leather. However, once on my feet they don't feel heavy.

These are really beautifully made sandals. It's obvious that a lot of thought and effort goes into designing and making them. Overall, they have a very polished appearance--they look like something you bought in a store rather than something you made in your garage (which is what a lot of huaraches look like, to be honest).

One unique feature is that the the knot is buried between the layers of the sole so that the bottom of the sole is completely smooth. If you're one of those people who doesn't like having a knot under your toes, these are the sandals for you.

Another interesting detail for sandal nerds huarache aficionados is that the sandal is laced "backwards"--the lace is threaded through the inside ankle hole first and then through the outside hole, instead of the other way around as it usually is. I think it's a clever idea, since this way the buckle tightens to the outside. What this means to you is that the buckle and tail end of the lace will be on the outside of your foot instead of on the inside where they can hit your other ankle.

The one problem I had with my pair is that after 45 miles (mostly rocky trail) the front of the sole is beginning to separate from the midsole.  (I should probably mention that I did kick a rock pretty hard at one point, so that might have contributed.)

I wrote Luke Tanner about it and he said that I'm the first person to have a pair do this in the seven months they've been selling the Solution. Luke also said he's run several hundred miles on his pair without a problem. The company policy if this did happen to someone else would be to repair or replace the pair for free, including paying for shipping both ways. (Luke offered to fix my pair but since I got them for free and the problem is really just cosmetic at this point I declined.) Given this policy and what I've already noted about the overall quality of the construction, I don't think long term durability should be a concern.

Overall, the Solution is pretty comfortable. The leather footbed feels great and molds to your foot as it ages. The soft ribbon between the toes doesn't cause irritation or blisters for me the way many laces do. The nylon laces are also comfortable and don't tend to rub. The only thing I had a problem with was the part of the lace behind the heel which is covered with a firm rubber or plastic sheath. I'm not a huge fan of the sheath. It's not painful or anything like that but I don't find it particularly comfortable either. Part of the problem is that I had a problem with the strap falling down in the back (more on that later) and I had to wear them tighter than I would have liked to get them to stay up. I guess it wouldn't bother me so much if they weren't so comfortable in every other way--it's the one glaring imperfection in something otherwise great (like Jimmy Fallon).

So far, I've run about 45 miles on my pair so far, including a rocky trail 50k (Cave Creek Thriller). I've also worn them around a bit casually. Overall they work really well but I want to start with the negative first.

The one thing I really didn't like about the Solution was the heel strap--specifically, the fact that I had a terrible time getting it to stay up. This was a mild problem when walking (mostly fixed by tightening the laces, though as I mentioned that makes them less comfortable), a moderate problem when running on flat terrain, and a huge problem when trail running down steep hills. In fact, the first time I wore the sandals was on a long run on a hilly trail and I ended up stopping after 9 miles to change into another pair of sandals because the heel strap on the Solution was driving me nuts. It would stay up for a while (sometimes a short time, sometimes a mile or two), then slowly work its way down until I had to stop and pull it up again.

In fairness, it may be me, at least partly. I've had this problem with some other lacing systems (though not with all). I suspect that I may run with a slight twist in the movement of my feet (based on blister patterns and some other things), which may play a part. Luke says that he's found that people with lower insteps tend to have a harder time keeping laces up; that may be a factor as well. Whatever the reason, the heel strap just wasn't working for me.

Fortunately, I found a solution (ha! pun!). I taped some pieces of makeup sponge to the heel strap with medical tape and voila!--problem solved. I no longer had any problems keeping the strap up and the comfort level improved markedly. Best of all, I finally got to really put the sandal through its paces at the Cave Creek Thriller 50k, and I have to say it was a lot of fun to run in. In fact, with my minor tweak to the heel strap, the Solution went from being borderline unusable for me to being one of my all time favorite trail running shoes.

My low-tech Solution solution
The Vibram sole is one that I'm familiar with and really like. Traction is good, at least on dry surfaces. I didn't run in the rain or in mud, but I did run on dirt and rocks--along with the frequently treacherous rocks covered in dirt--and it handled those surfaces extremely well. One thing I was worried about when I first got the Solution was whether the smoother leather footbed would be slick, but this wasn't the case. My feet always felt very secure on the footbed no matter what the terrain. With my modification to the heel strap, the laces are also very secure and keep my foot and the sandal moving as one unit. They also don't rub, which is great if you're blister-prone like I am.

Rock protection is very good. My 50k was full of pointy rocks but my feet never felt bruised. The stack height is only 8 or 9mm (7mm plus the leather footbed) but the leather seems to function like a rock plate. Groundfeel is pretty good considering the level of protection but obviously isn't as good as a road-only sandal like the Xero Shoes Connect.

The Solution isn't very flexible, although I don't consider this a negative. Stiffness is a necessary quality in a sandal and excessive flexibility can actually hurt performance--you want something that moves with your foot, not flops around like a fish strapped to your feet.

Fish flops
What you do want is a sole that will mold to the shape of your foot, and the Solution does that well.

What all this adds up is a sandal that eats trails. The 50k I ran was a loop course and I had brought several other pairs of footwear to change into, but the Solution worked so well I never felt like taking them off. The course was rocky and pretty steep in places but I was happy as a clam in my sandals chugging along next to all the people in Hokas. For the heck of it, I even tried keeping up with some of the 10k runners on the downhills when they passed me. The Solution was as safe and effective while bombing rocky downhills as nearly any footwear I've tried.

The Solution is a competent road sandal as well. It's a bit more shoe than you really need for the road and is heavier than some other options, but it works fine. If you want to get one sandal for roads, trails and casual wear, the Solution is a good option.

The Solution is a beautifully made, extremely capable running sandal that is maddeningly close to being flawless. As you've picked up by now, the heel strap was an issue for me but it probably wouldn't be a big deal for most people (it wasn't for Jeff at Barefoot Inclined) and even if it were, it's a simple thing to fix. I'm really impressed by the quality of sandals the Tanners are producing in their first year of business. They're already making some of the best huaraches on the market, and they're just getting started.

Tanner Sandals are available on their website.

Sandal provided by the manufacturer

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Runners You Should Know: Spyridon Louis

In my post on Pheidippides, I described the invention of the marathon by the organizers of the first modern Olympic Games. What I didn't mention was the man who won that first marathon: Spyridon Louis.
I'm glad to see Pre finally got a haircut
In 1896, the organizers of the first modern Olympic Games were trying to come up with ideas for how to make their event more spectacular and memorable. A French philologist (which is Latin for "not even close to an athlete") and professor of comparative grammar (apparently that's a thing) named Michel Bréal remembered the legend of Pheidippides (you know, the one where the guy dies from running 25 miles) and convinced the other organizers that including an apparently deadly run as the centerpiece of the games would be the perfect way to garner good press for their fledgling sporting event. I can only assume this narrowly beat out a philatelist's idea for a Pompeii-inspired event where athletes would run away from burning hot ash.

"Come on!  We can bill it as 'the hottest event of the games'!"
That March, Greece held a race to select its Olympic team. This would be the first "marathon" ever raced. A dozen men showed up, excited to participate and apparently completely unfamiliar with the legend they would be reenacting.

"I knew I should have paid more attention in Art History"
Finishing a disappointing fifth in that race was a poor water-carrier named Spyridon Louis. 
Basically this guy, but in a fetching skirt and vest combo
Spyridon initially didn't make the Greek team due to his lackluster finish. However, when Greece figured out that no one had thought to limit the number of athletes from each country they added Spyridon along with just about anyone else who wanted to run. When the Olympic race was held the following month there were 17 runners at the starting line, 13 of them from Greece. 

Distance running took a giant leap forward when we got rid of the woolen underwear
There were several runners who had recently medaled in track events and when the race started they took off at a blistering speed. Halfway through the race the leader was the Frenchman Albin Lermusiaux who had reached the halfway point in 55 minutes, which even modern Kenyans would describe as "retardedly fast." (The French were really determined to have someone die in this race.) For his part, Spyridon was enjoying himself at the back of the pack, stopping along the way for some fruit and a glass of either wine or brandy (or possibly both).

Pictured: the 1896 Olympic marathon
Eventually Lermusiaux and the other front-runners slowed, collapsed, and were carried from the course in a melodramatic routine that actually became the norm during the first several Olympics. (Hey, if you're going to DNF, you might as well get a free ride and some attention out of it.) Spyridon, invigorated from his Jeff-Galloway-meets-Bluto-from-Animal-House pacing strategy, steadily picked off runners until he settled into second place behind the Australian Edwin Flack (gold medalist in the 800 and 1500 meters), who his Spydy sense told him would soon fade. Sure enough, a mile later Flack slowed, staggered and (you guessed it), collapsed and was carried from the course.

Now on the home stretch, Spyridon ran through the cheering crowds of Athens and into the stadium, where he finished in 2:58:50, which even by today's standards is an impressive time for an amateur runner (although at 24.8 miles, the course was a little short of IAAF norms.) To the crowd's added delight, the top three finishers were all Greek, although the bronze medalist was later disqualified for having traveled part of the way in a carriage. 

Not looking so bad now, am I?
Spyridon became a national celebrity but he never took advantage of his fame and after the Olympics simply returned to working in his village (hey, the water isn't going to carry itself). According to one story, the King of Greece offered him anything he wanted and Spyridon asked for a donkey and carriage to help in his business. 

Because what more does a man need in life, really?
He also never raced again. In fact, the two marathons in March and April of 1896 were the only races Spyridon Louis ever ran. 

Today Spyridon's memory lives on in a profoundly weird-looking pair of shoes named after him. Somehow I don't think he would mind, mainly because they look like something he would wear. 

"I know just the vest to go with these"

Read my other posts about Runners You Should Know

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Xero Shoes (Invisible Shoes) Connect Review

Back when I first got into minimalist running, if you wanted to buy a pair of huaraches there were basically two companies to choose from: Luna and Invisible Shoes. I've been wearing Lunas for over a year now but had never had a pair of Invisible Shoes until a few weeks ago. How do they compare? Read on.

The Basics
First, the name. Like Stem/Leming, Invisible Shoes is currently in the process of confusing everyone changing its name to Xero Shoes, not to be confused with "Zero Shoes" or "Xerox Shoes" (which is what Emily called them for a while).

Groundfeel doesn't look very good
Since the company doesn't seem to have quite made the switch yet, I'm going to keep calling them Invisible Shoes for now.

Invisible Shoes was started back in November 2009 by Steven Sashen, who among other things is the guy behind the incredibly hilarious Sh*t Barefoot Runners Say videos. Originally, tie-curious runners had two options: pay to have a pair of sandals custom-made, or order a kit (which meant a big piece of hard to cut rubber and some laces) and go through the daunting task of making them from scratch yourself.

Like I said, that rubber's hard to cut
The most recent additions to the Invisible Shoe lineup are the FeelTrue DIY kits, which aren't really DIY kits in the sense that most huaracheros are used to. What you get is two pre-cut soles in your size (you select your size based on the length of your foot in half inch increments), two laces, a hole punch, and a hairpin.

Which to me sounds a lot like what MacGyver would get in the mail if he ordered a pair of shoes.

The pre-cut soles mean that the "DIY kit" is almost completely ready to go out of the box. The only thing you have to do is use the hole punch to (you guessed it) punch a hole between your toes, which will take the average monkey with a hammer about 45 seconds (it took me about a minute). After that, you simply thread the laces through the holes with the hairpin (which is actually the hardest part) and you're done.
If you want, you can trim the outside of the soles to fit the shape of your feet but this isn't necessary. I chose not to, mainly because I'm lazy.

The kits come in two thicknesses: 4mm (Connect) and 6mm (Contact). The Connect retails for $30 and the Contact for $35, though they are both currently on sale for $5 less (if memory serves, they've been on sale for a while now). I chose the Connect since I planned to use my pair mostly for road running.

There are also tons of color options. As has been the case for a while, you can get your laces in any of nine colors. A brand new option is the ability to get your sole in one of a variety of colors as well.
So if you have a pathological fear of not being remembered as "that guy with the hot salmon sandals with the forest green laces," Invisible Shoes has you covered. I got black on black because (1) I'm boring, and (2) apparently nerds can be goth too.

Once you've picked out your colors and gotten your sandals punched and threaded, the last decision you need to make is how you are going to lace them. There are an infinite number of options available but most fall into two main categories. Traditional...

...or slip-on.

(Sorry about the yellow tint in these pictures. I took them inside the Latrix, which is basically the Matrix except lemon flavored.)

If you go the slip-on route, you can either cut the laces short (as in the photo at the very top of this review) or you can find something creative to do with all of the extra lace. I tried just wrapping it around and around the rest, which worked pretty well.

As always, the traditional lacing is going to be the most secure, although the slip-on style I tried worked perfectly well, at least for road running.

All in all, the Connect works well as a road running sandal. As previously mentioned, the sole is only 4mm thick, so groundfeel is about as good as it gets. In fact, groundfeel is so good that especially rough asphalt can be a bit uncomfortable. That's another way of saying that there isn't much protection in the Connect, so if you plan on running trails (or even encountering a lot of gravel) you might want to consider the thicker Contact. Durability shouldn't be an issue though, since the dense rubber seems extremely tough. I think you'd have a hard time puncturing the sole (even with a hole punch and a hammer, it took a couple of whacks).

Flexibility is another area in which the Connect shines. As you can see, the sole rolls up nicely. This makes it one of the better options if you are looking for "backup" footwear to bring on a barefoot run.

Invisible Shoes lists the weight of one sandal at around 3.3 ounces. Since the sole is dense it feels surprisingly heavy in the hands, but at 4mm thick it still feels like almost nothing on your feet. One plus of the FeelTrue sole over the Vibram Cherry of the original DIY kit is that I didn't notice any of the floppiness that people often complained about. Also, over time the sole has molded to my feet a little bit (which the cherry supposedly didn't do), though not as much as some other sole materials.

Comfort is good overall. I don't have anything in particular to complain about, although I don't find them as comfortable as some other sandals. I guess I would categorize the comfort level as "perfectly fine, but not luxurious." The laces are thin enough not to cause problems between the toes, but not so thin as to cut into the skin. The density of the sole material means there isn't that slight cushiness that there is in some of Vibram's rubber (but again, the Connect has better groundfeel, so there is that tradeoff).

Traction is fine, at least on roads. The rubber is reasonably grippy and there's a good tread on the sole (but not enough to be a problem on flat surfaces).

The laces keep the foot sufficiently secure for road running, especially with traditional lacing. The thin laces don't seem like they would do as well on technical trails, although I haven't really tested the Connect on trails due to the lack of protection of the sole.

My only real complaint with the Connect is that there's a bit of a slapping sound when I run on pavement. I've tried different lacing systems, tightening, loosening, etc., but could never make it go away. This isn't really a huge problem, but I mention it because it's a pet peeve of mine and it might be of other people as well.

Overall, I would recommend the Connect for running on roads at any distance and for casual wear. I don't think it would work as a trail sandal, and I don't think it was intended for that. In several aspects (comfort, security, versatility) there are other huaraches on the market that I prefer, but they are all more expensive and/or require more work to make.

The Connect is a very solid road running and casual sandal and a great value. The price is probably going to be the biggest selling point for many people since at $25 it's much cheaper than most minimalist shoes. At that price point the only main competitor is Luna's DIY kit, which is also $25. The big advantage Invisible Shoes has over the Luna kit is that the Connect is virtually a ready to wear sandal. The disadvantage of the Connect is that its fantastic groundfeel and complete lack of protection makes it a bit of a one trick pony. Whether this is a real problem or not depends on your personal needs and preferences.

You can buy the Invisible Shoes/Xero Shoes Connect here.
Sandals provided by the manufacturer

Invisible Shoes in Color - Barefoot Running Sandals Sale

Sunday, October 21, 2012

My Book is Coming Out Soon!

I've been kind of keeping this as a secret for the last few months, but now that publication is getting close I wanted to let you folks know about my book. It's a children's book called "What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?" and it's about a little bear who is very confused about whether he needs to put on shoes before he can go run around outside and his patient mother who tries to straighten him out. Here are a couple of snippets:

"But what about sneakers, should I wear some of those
While I'm running around so I don't stub my toes?"

"No, silly bear--listen to me, please:
To go run around you don't need galoshes or skis.

"You just need some feet and some fur in the breeze
And some grass and some sunlight, and maybe some trees.

"For a bear's foot should be barefoot; it's really the best way
For a bear to run around on a honey-sunny day."

As far as I can tell, it's the first children's book for barefoot runners (which is ridiculous, since most children are barefoot runners). The illustrations are being finished as I write by an extremely talented young artist whom I intend to take credit for discovering. I'm going to self-publish in e-book and print formats through Amazon so I don't have an exact publication date yet but as soon as it's ready I'll let you folks know. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

20% Off Vivobarefoot Shoes This Month

This is just a quick PSA to let you know that between now and November 1, Vivobarefoot is offering readers of this blog 20% off your entire purchase if you go to the Vivobarefoot website and use the promotional code BAREFOOTINAZ20. So, in the words of Shia Labeouf: "Go! Go! Go go go go go go go go go go!"

Monday, October 15, 2012

Quote of the Day - Wisdom from the Penguin

"If you are a runner, it doesn't matter how far or how fast. It doesn't matter if today is your first day or if you've been running for twenty years. There is no test to pass, no license to earn, no membership card to get. You just run."

  ~ John Bingham ("The Penguin")

(Found here)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vivobarefoot Ra Dress Shoe Review

Like most barefoot/minimalist runners, I prefer to wear as little on my feet as possible and refuse to wear constrictive dress shoes except when absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, as an attorney who has to be in court most weekdays, "when absolutely necessary" usually translates to five days a week. That's a lot of hours spent allowing my Achilles tendons to shorten and the muscles in my feet to atrophy, so when Vivobarefoot sent me a pair of their Ra zero drop dress shoe for me to review I had high hopes. Would this be the pair of shoes that would allow me to feel almost barefoot in the courtroom? Read on and find out.

Vivobarefoot (technically VIVOBAREFOOT, but I refuse to enable companies that insist on writing their names in all caps) makes a number of shoes in their "lifestyle" line, the most formal of which is the Ra. The Ra comes in three different versions: pull up (smooth) leather, suede, and canvas. I'm only reviewing the pull up leather version (since that's the only one I've tried), which retails for $130 and comes in black, dark brown, or red brown. I chose black.

The shoe is zero drop (no raised heel), with a 3mm TPU sole. It comes with a 5mm EVA removable insole, which I never used (for reasons that I will go into later). Without the insole, the shoe weighs 6.7 ounces. Construction seems good.
With the insole out (left), and in (right) 

I usually don't dwell much on the aesthetics of the shoes I review (as far as I'm concerned, anything without separated toes is GQ material), but since I was going to be wearing these to court I needed to be a bit more critical. The acid test for me was this: could these pass as dress shoes, and when I spoke in court would people be distracted by my shoes?

The Ra passed this test with flying colors. To my eye (and apparently, to other people's eyes as well), the Ra looks more or less like any other leather dress shoe. It goes well with a suit, and I wore them in court and in a four day jury trial without incident or comment. The only potential issue I can see is that the wide toebox gives the shoe a little bit of that "clown shoe" look that some people complain about in minimalist shoes. I don't consider it a problem, but the Ra definitely doesn't have that pointy look that seems to be in vogue these days.

Vivobarefoot uses European sizes, but fortunately for U.S. customers there is a very cool app on the Vivobarefoot website call "shoefitr." You select a shoe you currently own (say, the Merrell Trail Glove) and input your size in that shoe (9.5), and voila!--it tells you what size you need for the Ra (42). I used the app to select my size (I'd never worn a pair of Vivobarefoot shoes before) and it picked my size perfectly. Very helpful.

The Ra is built on a foot-shaped last and fits my foot pretty well. The toebox is very wide, although the stiffness of the leather means that what you see is what you get--the upper isn't going to stretch to give your toes some extra room like many shoes do.

My one major complaint about the fit of the shoe is that although the toebox is very wide, it's also very low. In fact, with the insole in I found the toebox to be unpleasantly constrictive, which is why I've never used the insole. Without the insole, there is sufficient space above the toes, but just barely. I'd prefer a higher toebox.

So, is the Ra comfortable? I've been debating how to answer that. The short answer is, no, not really. The leather is very stiff, so although the sole is thin and flexible, the shoe as a whole doesn't move with your foot very well. But then, maybe I'm not being fair; maybe the fair question is, is the Ra comfortable for a dress shoe? Well, that depends on what you're comparing it to.

Prior to getting the Ra, I had two pairs of dress shoes that I wore to work, both leather shoes made by Rockport, one black, the other brown.
My black Rockports
My black Rockports are smooth leather, very dressy, and very stiff and uncomfortable. Compared to these shoes, the Ra is a huge step up in comfort.

My brown Rockports
My brown Rockports are more casual looking than my black Rockports, softer, and actually pretty comfortable. In fact, for the past year or so I've been wearing them a lot as a casual shoe. Compared to these shoes, the Ra is much less comfortable. However, the Ra is a more formal looking shoe, so maybe it's only fair to compare it to my other dressy shoes.

I should mention a couple other things. First, aside from the stiffness of the leather, there aren't any major problems with the comfort of the Ra. Even out of the box, it didn't pinch at all. Second, the shoe is designed to be worn without the insoles. The stitching is smooth, so even wearing thin dress socks there wasn't any problem wearing the shoe without the insole. In fact, until I sat down to write this review I'd forgotten that there was an insole to begin with.

Third, I've only had the shoe a few weeks. It's possible that the leather will break down over time and become more flexible (though I can't imagine it breaking down enough to reach a sneaker level of comfort).

Okay, enough whining. There's more to footwear than having your footsies pampered, and there are some real health benefits to wearing minimalist shoes. So how does the Ra stack up in that regard? Pretty well, actually.

First, there is the zero drop heel, which keeps my Achilles tendons lengthened (instead of allowing them to shorten and tighten, which is what a raised heel does) and my spine aligned while I'm on my feet . One strange aspect of the shoe is that it has a bit of a toe spring, which makes that shoe feel like it has a slightly negative drop. It feels a little unusual at first but I don't consider it a problem.

The sole is very thin and flexible, though as I mentioned, the stiffness of the upper prevents the shoe from being very flexible as a whole, which is too bad since I like the sole. Groundfeel is quite good and I can feel the muscles in my feet activating in response to stimuli. Traction is excellent; this is a pair of shoes you could sprint for a cab in without worrying too much about slipping. In fact, I have to say that I've been a lot more solid on my feet while I've been wearing the Ra. Usually when wearing dress shoes I have two left feet, tripping or kicking things a lot, but in the Ra I'm lighter on my feet and less clumsy. It's nice to be able to focus on what I'm saying in court instead of worrying about falling on my face.

You knew this was coming, didn't you? Given I have a hard time trying on a pair of shoes without wondering if I could run in them, I can't imagine doing a shoe review and leaving this important question unanswered. So, in the interest of science, I did an easy 3 mile road run in the Ra.

All in all, the shoe did pretty well. The stiff upper was again its weak point, making the shoe fairly uncomfortable and causing an annoying "clop clop" sound with every step. That notwithstanding, the Ra is a surprisingly passable running shoe. Once again, the upper, though stiff, didn't pinch. The sole is really well made, with good traction, groundfeel, and flexibility. There isn't enough protection for most trails, but if you could stand the "clop clop" sound and the inevitable odd looks, you could probably run a marathon in this shoe if you wanted to. (Why you'd want to, I don't know, but there it is).

The Ra isn't quite my dream shoe (I'm still hoping that someday someone will invent a shoe with the formality of a dress shoe and the comfort of a sneaker), but if you need a true dress shoe and want something zero drop with good groundfeel and a wide toebox, it gets the job done.

This just in: between now and November 1, Vivobarefoot is offering readers of this blog 20% your entire purchase (not just the Ra) if you go to the Vivobarefoot website and use the promotional code BAREFOOTINAZ20.


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

My First Ultra: Paatuwaqatsi 50k Report

Walpi from the north 

“I run in reverence of all living things. In our prayers may we always remember that water is life.”
   ~ Paatuwaqatsi run motto 

"Why are we taught to run early in the morning? Because running not only strengthens you physically, it strengthens you spiritually. A runner would take one of the many foot trails from the village in the early morning to a spring, take a drink from the spring and sprinkle himself with the cold water. This gave that person strength and provided healing for any ailments."
   ~ Bucky Preston, Hopi runner and Paatuwaqatsi founder

This report is nearly a month late. There are a number of reasons for the delay, but mainly it's because Paatuwaqatsi (which is Hopi for "water is life") was such a unique, amazing experience and I wanted to do it justice. Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that doing it justice is not something that is within my ability, so I'm just going to do the best I can.  Here we go.

(Note: I've written previously about Hopi running history and culture. To read those posts go here.)

Since the race website said that packet pick up started at noon and it's around a three hour drive to Hopi from our place, Emily and I left Show Low as soon as we got the car packed Friday morning. Three desolate, beautiful hours of driving later, we reached the mesas on and around which the Hopi villages are built.

The mesas in the distance (click to enlarge) 
We got to First Mesa a bit before noon, so we figured we would have lunch first at the Cultural Center on Second Mesa and arrive fashionably late for the packet pickup. On our way to lunch we saw this roasted corn stand and had to stop.

Sweet corn roasted in the husk. It was the best corn we'd ever had.

We resisted making a meal out of just the corn, but we weren't able to resist some amazing looking melon at another nearby stand. Finally, we got to the Cultural Center, where there is a nice restaurant with a number of local dishes on the menu. I got bean and hominy stew, which came with a fresh, thick blue corn tortilla.

Done with that, we drove back to the race start at First Mesa, arriving around 1:30.

The other car arrived 10-20 mins after we did. 
So much for being fashionably late. As you can see, not much was going on at this point, and it turned out that the packet pickup would be at the Secakuku Diner during the pasta dinner that night... in 4 or 5 hours. Oh well, at least we had time to sightsee.

We decided to drive up to the top of First Mesa, where the ancient village of Walpi is located along with the more modern villages of Sichomovi and Hano ("more modern" in this context meaning late 17th century, when residents of villages at the base of the mesa moved to high ground so they could defend against Spanish reprisals in the wake of the 1680 pueblo revolt).

First Mesa from the north
Sichomovi is a tiny, crowded village of timeless stone houses. (As in all Hopi villages, photography is prohibited, so I unfortunately don't have pictures). Aside from giving tours of nearby Walpi (which visitors aren't allowed to enter without a tour guide), the main industry of Sichomovi is hand carving beautiful kachina dolls, and there were many local artists eager to show us their work. Emily and I spent an hour or so perusing and eventually decided on a simple but beautiful traditional-style cradle doll made by a friendly guy who appeared to be in his twenties. We had a long a fascinating conversation with him about the dolls and tradition and symbolism surrounding them.

Our "cross-legged Kachina" cradle doll from Sichomovi
Hano, the village next door, and usually just called Tewa by locals, has an unusual history of its own. For the past 300 years (again, since the pueblo revolt and subsequent fighting literally sent people running for the hills) it has been the home of the Tewa people, a pueblo tribe who are distinct from the Hopi and still speak their own unrelated language. I had read about them before but it wasn't until I went to the mesa that I realized just how strange and remarkable that fact is. As you can see from the aerial picture, Hano/Tewa and Sichomovi are packed together so tightly that it's impossible for outsiders to tell where one ends and the other begins. Yet despite being in such close, almost claustrophobic proximity to each other on top of a small, incredibly isolated mesa for three centuries, the people have maintained their own unique identities. In fact, when our artist friend mentioned that his wife was from Tewa he said it in the same way that I tell people my wife is from Mississippi, even though he was talking about a place that was only a few hundred feet away.

One of the highlights of our visit to First Mesa was meeting an elderly woman who brought us into her house to show us the jewelry she had for sale. When she found out that we were there for the race she told us about her son who had run it and then insisted on showing us the course. She took us outside to the edge of the mesa (a place where you could see for a hundred miles on a clear day) and showed us the winding paths below, tracing the route with her arm as she told us about it. It didn't dawn on me at the time, although it should have, how differently the Hopi react when we tell them we run. Most non-runners, when I tell them that I'm a runner, are either impressed, or confused, or just want to know why I would do that. Most Hopis, on the other hand, take it in stride, or embrace it as a place of common ground. I've never had a Hopi ask me why I run. When I think about it, that's probably the best proof of how firmly ingrained running is in Hopi culture.

We eventually made our way to the Secakuku diner where I picked up my bib and goody bag (local jerky, how cool is that?) and we had a great pasta dinner. (Unfortunately, Emily had injured herself while soundly beating her brother (who, I might add, is younger and in the Army) in a 5k during a recent visit to her hometown, so she wouldn't be running. On the bright side, I've taken long enough writing this that I can now report that she is fully recovered.)

During dinner we got to meet a bunch of really cool people including Patrick Sweeney and Maria Walton (who were there with a bunch of the Luna monkeys), whom I'd had contact with through facebook but never met in person.

Photo stolen from Patrick
After deviously tricking Patrick into revealing his secret vegan pizza recipe (which is amazing, by the way) we drove back to the race start, which was finally looking somewhat inhabited. We pitched our tent and hit the sack early in order to get a good night's sleep. At least, that was the plan. Since we were all parked in a field with our tents next to our cars, our tent had a number of cars close by. This wasn't a problem until sometime during the night when someone set off their car alarm a few feet from our heads and we woke up thinking the apocalypse was upon us. Shaken, but obviously relieved, we went back to sleep.

I was up before sunrise to make sure I'd have time to hit the bathroom, eat, and get dressed before the 6am start. Once again, my stomach rebelled against the idea of an early breakfast. I don't know why, but I have an easier time eating while running than before running.

I had my clothes and gear already assembled, not that it would have taken too long anyway. Although this was my first ultra, I had resisted the urge to overpack. In fact, I was only bringing four items: shorts, sandals, one water bottle, and a watch. I'd put a lot of thought into my choice of footwear. After the 10k Emily and I had run in Oraibi in August, it was clear to me that closed toe shoes weren't a good idea--the terrain is really sandy and after even six miles my shoes were completely full of sand. Even aside from that, my preference was for my huaraches anyway, since they'd been my footwear of choice for the past six months or so and I particularly wanted to wear huaraches at Paatuwaqatsi because there's something timeless about running in huaraches, and it's hard to find a more timeless place than Hopi. The only problem was that a few weeks back I had kicked a small tree stump on a trail run and ripped my foot open. The wound had pretty much healed but it was irritated by my leather laces, which were the only laces I had. My solution was to steal the hemp laces from Emily's sandals since the hemp didn't seem to bother me. The potential problem with that was that Emily had cut her laces short, so I wouldn't be able to use the ultra-secure traditional tying method that I was accustomed to. On the bright side, I thought it might be easier to slip them off and run barefoot for a bit.

My dirty sandals from after the run. Unfortunately, I didn't think to get a pic of my dirty shorts.  Sorry. 
With the sun just beginning to rise, we assembled at the starting area. There were a couple of quick speeches in English and Hopi. I have no idea what the elderly man who spoke in Hopi was saying to us, but he said it like it was important, and hearing that beautiful, otherworldly language spoken as the rising sun began to illuminate the mesa was yet another reminder of the uniqueness of this event. The same was true of the exhortations in English to "run strong, and remember to pray" and to remember to sprinkle ourselves with water from the springs we would be passing. Finally, there was a brief memorial to Micah True (Caballo Blanco), who Maria says loved this event more than any except for his own Copper Canyon race. (Truth be told, one of the things that first attracted me to Paatuwaqatsi was the prospect of getting to run with Caballo, who was for me--as well as for so many others in the running community--an inspirational figure .) On that melancholy note, the run began.

Of all the pieces of advice that I received as a budding ultrarunner, by far the most common was the warning against going out too fast. So, of course, genius that I am, I proceeded to churn out the first few miles at a pace that would have put me on track for a PR in a road marathon, had this been a road marathon and not a trail ultra. The first few miles took us on a meandering route away from the mesa through corn fields. To this day the Hopi still practice their traditional dry farming, meaning they don't use irrigation but rely solely on rain to water their crops. One of the ways they manage this is by piling dirt around fields to funnel and keep rainwater near the crops, and we spent a lot of this part of the run on top of these berms.

One positive effect of my ill judged pace was that I ended up running alongside Bookis Smuin, co-founder and CEO of Luna. Bookis is a cool guy who's had a lot of interesting experiences (he's run Leadville and the Copper Canyons, in addition to heading one of the first minimalist start-ups), so chatting with him made the early miles fly by. One thing I asked Bookis was how Paatuwaqatsi had seemingly become the unofficial Luna convention (there were close to a dozen people running in huaraches, most of them Lunas). He said he didn't know but that his theory was that the type of person who was attracted to Paatuwaqatsi was the same type who was attracted to huaraches. This made sense to me since as I've said huaraches just felt right on those trails.

At one point the route doubled back on itself and I saw Barefoot Ted a ways back, running along in blue jeans and carrying a walking stick. That's an interesting choice for a 31 mile run, I thought; I wonder how that's going to turn out. I asked Bookis if he knew if Ted was really planning on running the whole thing in those clothes. He said he didn't know, and that Ted's habit was to show up at events and then do whatever his muse led him to do.

It was around this point in the run that I decided to take off my sandals for the first time. The course was extremely sandy and it looked perfect for going barefoot. It turned out I was right, and I spent the next 15 miles or so taking my sandals on and off, depending on the terrain.

Hopi pottery c.1910.  I wonder if I saw parts of those pots...
One place where I always put my sandals back on was around the base of the mesa. If you've been to a hilltop pueblo ruin like Tuzigoot you'll know that while tourists spend most of their time looking at the buildings on top, archaeologists spend most of their time at the base of the hill, because that's where all the trash (potsherds, broken tools, etc.) accumulates. It turns out, the same is true for the base of First Mesa, where there were a thousand years of broken glass bottles, ancient potsherds, and everything in between. Not great if you're barefoot, so I always wore my sandals near the mesa. I also stopped to look at the potsherds a few times. They were beautifully colored with intricate patterns, like something you would see in a museum. And there were hundreds of them; at some points they covered the trail.

Some of them looked like they could have been pieces of this
The trail now led us straight up the side of the mesa via a sort of staircase made out of rocks. If I'm not mistaken, I think it may have been this one:

The staircase took us up into the ancient village of Walpi. We ran through the village, which was almost deserted, and then across the narrow stretch which connects Walpi to Sichomovi. Walpi was beautiful and extremely well-preserved. In fact, here is what it looked like in 1920:

Walpi in 1920
...and here is what it looks like now:

Walpi, present day
Not all that different, really.

The course dropped straight back down to the base and then back up a time or two, then meandered around the base of the mesa. It was around here that I started making what would be an entire morning of wrong turns. In my defense, there were quite a few people backtracking and asking for help finding the path at various times. I don't think it was the fault of the folks running the race, because virtually every time I found where I had gone astray I discovered that there had been clear markings, but for whatever reason some of the turns were very easy to miss. Maybe we were all just enjoying the scenery too much.

We ran past a few natural springs and through suburban Polacca, and then started the only extended paved section of the course. At this point I fell in with Patrick Muldowney and Amanda Amoros, two Tucsonians who were both running in Lunas as well. The three of us started chatting and then we suddenly realized that we were in a quiet Polacca neighborhood with no other runners around. Not again... A woman in one of the houses helpfully pointed us back to the clearly-marked turn a half mile away. It's a good thing I'm so slow; I can't imagine how lost I would get if I were in front.

One aspect of the run which I have left out so far, and which really is the most amazing and unique aspect of all, is the Hopi habit of thanking runners as they pass. Everyone does this, from the volunteers standing in the sun handing out water all day, to the women who stick their heads out their windows, to children playing by themselves. In Hopi, there are different forms of the word for thank you depending on whether the speaker is male or female, so women say "askwali", while men say "kwakwha'" (which they pronounce more like "k'kwoy"). I heard both words more than I could count over the course of the day, but the one occasion that struck me the most was at this point in the run when we passed a couple of small children outside by themselves who stopped what they were doing and thanked us as we passed. Can you imagine that happening at any race you've run?

By the time we hit the 10 mile aid station I was ready for some real food, since I'd had nothing but water and part of a banana since starting. Fortunately, the main aid stations (which were placed every five miles from miles 10 to 25) were very well stocked, including with watermelon, which I ate ravenously. Not only was it perfect on a warm day, but considering that it has always been a Hopi staple crop it seemed appropriate as well.

A Hopi watermelon patch
Not long after this, maybe 12 miles in, I started having my first problems. I was feeling surprisingly fatigued for the distance covered, and my hamstrings were beginning to cramp. Neither problem was something that I had had in training, and I'd tapered adequately, so I was confused and discouraged. I slowed the pace a bit, made a mental note to start taking more salt, and kept running.

The route took us several miles along the base of the mesa, up to the top again, and then across. When we reached the other side, the trail ended abruptly at a cliff. To get down, we had to climb down some rocks to get to the trail 10 feet or so below. From there we went down and then along the base of the mesa, hit another main aid station, and then across some open country to another mesa to the north. At the top of that mesa, as well as at various places throughout the course, there was a solitary person with some water, often apparently packed in on foot. And, of course, that person would always thank us.

After running across the top of the other mesa for a ways, we came to one of the best moments in the race for me. We came to what looked like one of the small water-only aid stations, which was great because for the entire run there had been no clouds and no shade whatsoever and I was completely out of water at that point. When we got there, however, instead of giving us water, the volunteers simply handed out (empty) paper cups and pointed us down toward a small mini-canyon (maybe 20 feet down) with some small trees at the bottom. Near the trees there was a small stream, which led into a small, ancient-looking pueblo-style building built into a rock overhang somewhat in the style of Montezuma Castle. Inside the building was a small, clear pool of water in the middle of the room. Water was slowly dripping off the rock overhang into the pool. The air was wonderfully cool, like a cave. This was our water station.

It was beautiful. The question I couldn't help asking myself, though, was is it safe? Am I going to get sick if I drink this? If I don't drink, though, am I going to make it to the next water station? I'd been out for a while and I was dehydrated to begin with (I was sweating like crazy) so I really needed water. Plus, it looked like everyone else was drinking, and surely some of these people had run last year (and presumably wouldn't be drinking now if they'd gotten giardia the last time around). I decided to drink. And, reasoning that a little bit would probably get me just as sick as a lot anyway, I decided to drink my fill. I filled my handheld in the pool and drained the 20 ounces, then filled and drained it again. It was amazing. Cold, clear, pure. It was the best water I've ever had. Remembering what we'd been told at the beginning of the race, I cupped some water in my hand and sprinkled my steaming head and shoulders. It felt great, so I filled my bottle and emptied the whole thing over my head. WHOA! That was really cold. It did wonders for my core temperature, though, and I felt rejuvenated. I filled my bottle for the road and willed myself out of the dark oasis back into the burning sunlight.

It was at some point during my second bottle that I'd noticed that most people weren't really drinking, or were drinking just a few drops they'd caught from the ceiling. Oh well. I tried to think positive thoughts as the woman running next to me volunteered that this was her second time running Paatuwaqatsi and that she hadn't drunk the water from the spring either time. Not helping.

Spring water notwithstanding, I was still having a hard time of it. I had gone into the run feeling pretty confident since my longest run was a solid 25 miles on fairly hilly trails. That run had gone really well and had been the textbook three weeks out, so it was hard to understand why less than 20 miles in I was feeling much worse than I had after that 25 mile run. I still don't have an answer, though my suspicion is that it was the incredibly sandy course. Sand is a very inefficient surface and one on which I'd had almost no experience running.

Whatever the reason, I was dead tired and my hamstrings were now spasming. Since I was sweating so much I suspected that I might be low in electrolytes so I'd been taking a salt tab every 5 miles. At the mile 20 aid station I was searching for the salt tabs when the volunteer asked what I needed. I told her and she found the bottle and started to get one out for me. I was about to ask for two tabs when she plopped two tabs in my hand; she had taken one look at me and decided that one tab obviously wasn't enough. Great; that's probably a good sign.

One benefit of the sand was that I'd been happily running barefoot for almost the entire middle third of the race. The fine sand felt great on my feet and it was hard not to feel a certain vicious glee as people passed me only to have to stop and watch me pass them back as they dumped the sand out of their shoes. (It was also hard not to feel a certain satisfaction at being the most barefoot guy at a race that included a guy whose first name was "barefoot".) It was working so well for me that I would have stayed barefoot most of the way to the end, but by 11am or so the sand got so hot that my feet were starting to burn. Alas, I had to wear my sandals for the rest of the run.

The rest of the run was fairly uneventful, although it took forever since I kept going more and more slowly. We ran back to First Mesa, climbed it again, and ran along the top for several miles. We then went back down, by another spring, back over the mesa, down the other side, and ran through some small hills that looked like they were from the painted desert (which isn't that far to the south).

Finally, we started winding our way toward the finish.

"No!  This way!"
Oddly enough, the finish was a bit of a surprise since my GPS ended up being several miles short (despite the fact that all my wrong turns had added at least a mile to the course).

"Yes, I've been totally running this fast this whole time"
Also surprising was the fact that I didn't feel all that bad by the end. Well, okay, I felt pretty awful, but I didn't feel that bad for having just run c.32 miles, and only slightly worse than I had 10-15 miles early.

Everyone gets sprinkled with water after finishing
I finally crossed the finish line in 7:18:15. At the time I was convinced that I was in dead last place since I'd only seen a handful of people in the previous ten miles and every one of them had passed me. I later found out that I had actually finished in 40th place out of 63 finishers, which is a result I am very happy with considering how badly (and how early) the wheels had come off.

Best wife in the world and sweaty guy (with Walpi again  in the background)
Emily was there waiting patiently, as she had been for over seven hours. If that's not devotion I don't know what is.

Now it was time to eat!

I forgot to get a picture of the stew
The post-run meal was some of the best food I've ever had. Watermelon, steamed blue masa (sort of like a blue tamale), and bean and hominy stew (the same dish I had gotten the day before, but much better). Delicious!

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to eat as much of the food as I would have otherwise, since I was still feeling like this:

On the bright side, the person in the seat to my right was none other than this guy:

Ted had had his own adventure. He had decided on the spur of the moment to only drink spring water, which was a bold move given that the spring I had drunk from was at least 15 miles in. Ted ended up not finishing but had a good time trying out his experiment before dropping out around mile 20 after cutting his toe open on a rock. (Considering that he was wearing sandals at the time and how many barefoot miles I'd put in without incident, I couldn't help but wonder if the barefoot gods were sending him a message.)

I have to say, lunch with Ted was one of the highlights of the weekend. He's a fascinating guy and the conversation ranged from the growth of Luna, to feral horse leather, to winter socks of the samurai, to the chief end of human existence. One odd moment was when he noticed my sandals. "Hey, are those Lunas?!" he said, picking one up. "Whoa, these are light!" That wasn't the response I was expecting. "You seem surprised by that..."

After lunch, it was time to say goodbye to our new friends and hit the road.

Patrick Muldowney, Patrick Sweeney, Maria Walton, Mike Miller, and Lola
Incidentally, Lola, the dog in the picture above, ran the 50k with Mike--and beat me by half an hour. Emily knew how to make me feel better though: "Well, it wasn't her first ultra."

Packing up the tent, we met yet another friend:

Yes, that's a 4-5 inch centipede camped out under our tent right under where my head had been. Good to know.

Lessons Learned
So that was my first 50k.  All in all, it went pretty well. I finished and I didn't get injured or sick, which is all I was really hoping for. I did learn a few valuable lessons, though, about what to do differently next time, and what to keep doing.

What I did right:
 - Brought soap. This is an epiphany I had at a previous race. Most races have porta potties but don't have places to wash your hands, which is a serious problem if you are going to be eating with your hands all day. I've started bringing hand soap and extra water to all races, and it's really improved the quality of my life.
 - Footwear choice. I love my huaraches, and they were an especially good choice given the sand. I finished with happy feet and no blisters.
 - Ran barefoot. As great as the sandals were, I'm glad I kicked them off for part of the time. It felt great and really added to the experience.
 - Stopped running barefoot. The sand was getting really hot, and if I had tried to keep running barefoot I would have ended up with heat blisters which could have jeopardized my ability to finish. This run was a big validation of my "run barefoot only as long as it's fun" philosophy.
 - Drank the water. Given the limited information I had at the time, this may not have been the wisest of decisions. However, knowing as I do now that it was safe, I'm glad I did. It was amazing.
 - Handheld water bottle. I've become a big fan of handhelds, both in training and especially in races, and my AHTL worked great for me.

What I will do differently next time:
 - Pacing. Okay, I just ignored the most common piece of advice and paid the price. Hopefully, I can do better next time. My plan for my next 50k is to try to force myself to keep to a 12 min average for the first 20 miles.
 - Started in middle of pack. This might have been part of the problem. Next time I'll try starting at the back where there won't be as much of a temptation to keep up with the people around me.
 - No hat, no shirt. Okay, I really thought I was going to be okay here. I'd run for up to 5 hours at a time without either and been fine, so I thought 6 or 7 hours (I was optimistic) wouldn't be a problem. I was wrong and got pretty burnt.
 - Laces. The hemp slip-on style laces were okay for the most part but kept slipping down my heels on steep downhill sections. I'll have to find something different to use next time.

Next up: Cave Creek Thriller 50k, October 20. Who's coming with me?