Tuesday, 14 June 2016

"Have you read 'Born to Run'...?"

"Have you read 'Born to Run'...?"

So starts the hilarious and oh-so-accurate 'Sh*t Barefoot Runners Say'. An irreverent look at the ridiculous things exponents of barefoot/minimalist running come out with, it's funny 'cause it's true. And yes, I'm guilty of many of them myself.

My first few pairs of running trainers were Asics; having tweaked my knee slightly (despite VERY low mileage... Maybe 15mpw at most?) I was fitted with orthotics and, when the time came to replace trainers, advised by the running shop I visited to go with the most heavily cushioned Asics they had in stock. Clearly, sore knees from running are as a result of impact, right? Right? Well, this was a recipe for disaster for me. 11 miles into my first half marathon and I felt like I'd been stabbed in my left lateral knee. This was the angry big brother of the aforementioned slight tweak, and it brought me up sharp. I hobbled to a disappointing 2:12:58 finish, fueled by bloody-mindedness and a pathological (and, frankly, idiotic) aversion to DNFing, and had a swollen knee and inability to walk properly for a week afterwards. I didn't run a step for 4 months.

Eventually getting seen by a physio, it came out that my knee pain wasn't impact related, it was because of poor alignment; an issue that the highly cushioned Asics made 1000x worse. My already wobbly-kneed Bambi-like gait was desperately in need of some stability and I wasn't getting it from my shoes.

After going through the corrective exercises, I tentatively asked "What do you think of minimalist shoes?" I'd just seen Indulgence, featuring the (at the time) zeitgeist of minimalist ultrarunning Tony Krupicka, and was intrigued.

"Can't hurt to try!" was essentially the response I got, and so off I trotted to Northern Runner, walking out with a pair of Inov-8 Road-X 155s; a very lightweight, 3mm drop, road shoe (I was still primarily a roadie at the time). Some initial calf pain followed; going from Asics straight into a 3mm drop low-stacked shoe like the Road-X 155 wasn't my smartest move(!) However, I adapted pretty quickly and, since then, haven't looked back. I returned to the scene of the crime the following year, running in 1:44:46 (gun time), which I was happier with, and then transitioned into primarily a trail runner. First the X-Talon 190s (brilliant grip but I can't wear the perfomance fit beyond about 6 miles), then the Trailroc 245s, along with multiple pairs of Road-X 155s. All Inov-8, all 3mm drop. Sadly, the Road-X and Trailroc lines have both now been discontinued.

Inov-8 do still offer a low drop road shoe: the 4mm Road X-Treme 220, which I've put about 60 miles on so far. It's alright, but far less minimalist than the Road-X line, weighing in at 65g heavier (the number in the Inov-8 model designation is the weight in grams of a size 9). Happily, however, Inov-8 introduced the X-Talon 200; 3mm drop with the X-Talon sole, but in a standard fit. Hurrah! These bad boys are going to eat the sloppy muddy trails of a Northumbrian winter alive.

Still with me? That was all a very long-winded way of me saying, I'm the kind of guy that 'Sh*t Barefoot Runners Say' pokes fun at. I may not run barefoot, but I do subscribe to that way of thinking, as apposed to the hyper-cushioned 'maximal' Hoka One One approach, for instance. Any time I find myself uttering something my lovely wife considers a barefoot runner cliché (such as absolutely seriously saying "my feet no longer fit in normal shoes"), she responds with "Have you read 'Born to Run'...?"

I hadn't.

Now I have.

For anyone who hasn't heard of 'Born to Run' it's essentially the story of a race organised by the enigma that was Caballo Blanco between the Tarahumara of the Copper Canyon (an indigenous people with something of a knack for long distance running) and Scott Jurek, of Seattle, Washington (who, having won the Western States Endurance Run seven consecutive times has, I think it's fair to say, something of a knack for long distance running!). The premise is that humans were, well, born to run; the Tarahumara's admittedly phenomenal abilities (all whilst wearing sandals known as huaraches, which are basically bits of tyre strapped to their feet) are presented as proof. Much is made of the statistics that show running related injuries actually increasing once Nike introduced cushioning to their running shoes, and the book has achieved somewhat iconic status; there's a bizarre kind of Godwin's Law in effect (McDougal's Law?) whereby, as a discussion on trailrunning grows longer, the probability of somebody mentioning 'Born to Run' approaches 1. 

Verdict? It's... O...K. It was an easy read, enjoyable enough for someone with an interest in the sport, but I didn't consider it game-changing. I found the science in chapter 28 pretty interesting, with its explanation of persistence hunting, and the final "race report" was gripping, though because I'd already read Jurek's autobiography 'Eat and Run' the result wasn't a surprise. Maybe, because I've essentially "grown up" in the sport believing that barefoot/minimalist is the way to go, and therefore it's all I've really known, I don't appreciate the impact. It occurred to me when I had the idea for this post that, in many respects, it's similar to how I feel about the Beatles. People are always surprised when I say I'm not a massive fan; some people look at me like they're about to summarily execute me for blasphemy. The thing is, I don't hear the Beatles as ground-breaking because I've grown up in the post-Beatles era. For the people watching Ed Sullivan that night, yeah, I get it; I get the "WTF?!" moment. I just don't feel it. So, I understand that 'Born to Run' must have created something of a WTF moment, in terms of bringing the idea of barefoot/minimalist running to a population fed a steady diet of cushioned shoes.

I just don't feel it.

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