Do You Wear High Heels?

After racing a cumulative 4,130 miles in marathons and ultramarathons, you’d think my feet would be messed up, but actually they’re quite beautiful, don’t you think?

Whose feet are these?

Just kidding.  Those feet belong to my friend Cindy Koch.  My feet are almost as beautiful, but I don’t wear high heels.

To the contrary, my wardrobe consists entirely of “zero drop” footwear, meaning shoes where there is zero difference between the height of the sole in front and in back.  Zero drop shoes have no heels, they’re flat.

I run in Inov-8 minimalist style road and trail shoes, generally the lightest-weight versions available, over distances ranging from one mile to one-hundred plus.

INOV-8 roadXtreme-138
INOV-8 roadXtreme-138
INOV-8 TrailRoc-150
INOV-8 TrailRoc-150

At work, I wear dress shoes made by Vivobarefoot.  They have a thin rubber sole and a large toe box, but no heel or arch.  My wife thinks they look odd (I agree) but I haven’t been fired for wearing them.

Black leather dress shoes by Vivobarefoot
Black leather dress shoes by Vivobarefoot

After throwing away a pair of sandals with arch support and thick cushioned heels, I’ve started walking and running in LUNA Sandals and am enjoying them immensely (no, those aren’t Cindy’s feet).

Author's feet in LUNA Sandals
Author’s feet in LUNA Sandals

My shoes are considered “minimalist,” meaning that they offer little in the way of structure, support, or cushion.  I started running in minimalist shoes after reading Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run.

Inspired by the book, I conducted a simple experiment — and I recommend it for anyone who’s questioning their current footgear.

Pick a trail that’s not too rocky and run around in your shoes.  Then take off your shoes and run barefoot for a couple hundred yards — do you notice any difference?  Then put your shoes back on and run — what do you feel now?

When I tried this, the experience was very powerful.  Without shoes, I felt like for the first time in my life I understood how to run.  Instead of slamming the ground with my heels, I found myself placing the balls of my feet on the ground, paying attention to the texture of the path and the location of gravel and rocks.  The sensation of pounding vanished.  Instead, my focus shifted to picking up my knees, using legs and feet as levers, and engaging the core.

Then, when I put my shoes back on, the lightbulb went off again.  I could no longer feel the ground.

I decided on the spot to go 100% minimalist.  If it meant less running while I got used to using different muscles, so be it.  And it did take me about two years to fully transition.  Along the way I struggled with very sore calves and a couple of bouts of plantar fasciitis, and once I strained the achilles tendon and had to take two months off.  But that was four years ago. Since then, I haven’t had an injury that took more than a week to heal.  And I love the sensation of running naturally.

The problems with heels, at least for some of us, is that by tilting the body forward, they transfer mechanical load from the calves to the shins.  As a young man, I suffered from chronic compartment syndrome, a form of severe shin splints, which eventually required surgery.  I was running in conventional running shoes at the time with very large cushioned heels (New Balance 990), and these shoes evidently put too much pressure on my shin muscles, which would swell and go numb after about ten minutes of running.

An interesting study found that people with chronic compartment syndrome in their shins can reduce symptoms and avoid surgery by switching to minimalist shoes which encourage striking the ground with the forefoot, rather than the heel. The sample size in this study was small, and there wasn’t a control group, so don’t take it as gospel.  But it sure makes sense to me.  After I made the switch, my shins were happy, but my calves were quite sore, until they got used to doing their fair share of the work.

That’s my experience.  But I’m not going to tell anyone else what kind of shoes to wear, because we’re all different.

Life is an experiment of one.

— George Sheehan

I thought maybe I should warn Cindy about the perils of high heels.  But she seems to be doing just fine.  Earlier this year she ran in the Badwater Salton Sea 81-mile ultramarathon.  Here’s a picture of her running in a 24-hour race.  All smiles.  Nice work, Cindy!

Cindy Koch running in the 2015 Pacific Rim 24-hour race
Cindy Koch running in the 2015 Pacific Rim 24-hour race
Do You Wear High Heels?

A Manifesto for Minimalist Races

As we all know, the best trail races are well-marked and have great aid stations.

So why would anyone offer a race with neither?

Last year, my friend Todd Jennings and I organized a race to celebrate the Shawangunk Ridge Trail (SRT), a magical footpath that traverses the entire 74-mile length of the Shawangunk Mountains in New York’s Hudson Valley.  For those not familiar, the trail starts at High Point State Park in New Jersey at a junction with the Appalachian Trail, follows the western edge of the Great Appalachian Valley, passes rare pitch pine barrens and glacier-polished cliffs and talus fields, and ends just beyond a restored railway trestle high above the town of Rosendale, NY.

The Shawangunk Mountains
The Shawangunk Mountains

I had discovered the SRT by thru-running it, and the idea was – rightly or wrongly – to provide a format where other runners could experience the adventure of following the SRT through the wilderness, unassisted.

That meant no aid stations and no supplemental course markings.

Frankly, I was happy to do away with aid stations.  I don’t feel good providing people with highly processed sugary foods.  This stuff is increasingly linked with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia.  At the same time, the kind of food I personally favor isn’t necessarily the right answer for others.  If my goal was to lay out a smorgasbord of high-quality tasty foodstuffs, I would have opened a restaurant instead or organizing a race.

There’s an easy solution:  Let each runners take responsibility for managing his or her nutrition.  After all, that’s what people do when they head out on the trails on their own.

I don’t have a problem providing water.  But why would people who love nature want their water collected in plastic bottles?  Here’s a lower-impact answer:  Let runners bring water filters.  After all, the SRT passes streams, ponds, rivers, lakes, and the incredible Bashakill, which is southern New York’s largest wetlands.  This isn’t Death Valley.

Filtering water from a stream in the Shawangunks
Filtering water from a stream in the Shawangunks

Just because we don’t have aid stations for the SRT, doesn’t mean we have a casual attitude towards safety.  We have checkpoints to ensure accountability of all participants, and we work with highly-trained search & rescue teams should it be necessary to extract someone from the course.  As race director for SRT, I wasn’t hanging out at the finish line; rather, I was out on the course for 36 hours straight just to make sure everyone was OK.

What about course markings?

The SRT is blazed with paint splashes and plastic disks from start to finish.  I verified this by thru-running the course two times, taking detailed notes along the way, and then working with volunteers from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference to clean up certain portions of the course.

Even so, running a blazed course is surprisingly difficult.  We runners tend to look down, so we don’t trip.  That makes it easy to miss a blaze at a key intersection and head off in the wrong direction.  Trust me, I’ve done it plenty of times.

Typical paint and disk blazes on the SRT
Typical paint and disk blazes on the SRT

To help runners stay on course, we provided paper maps and a free smartphone app which shows where you are relative to the SRT at the push of a button.

The goal of the SRT event is not to lure unsuspecting participants into an orienteering challenge or a bushwhacking adventure for which they are not prepared.  After all, if someone gets lost, the race director bears the responsibility for finding them.

What’s required is that you pay attention.  Call it being “mindful.”  And, yes, it’s an added mental challenge on top of the physical.

But we feel good asking runners to step up to this extra challenge, because being mindful is a critical component of moving through the wilderness safely.  So why not practice it in races?

Another reason not to like supplemental markings:  I can name races where the volunteers put up the markings in the wrong spots, course marshals steered people in the wrong direction, or vandals even took down the markings and put them up heading the wrong way.

Plus I happen to think trees look nicer without orange tape.

In the future, racing might be an altogether different experience.  Maybe there won’t be blazes or markings.  Maybe you’ll just see turn signals flashing on your Apple Watch or in your Google Glasses.  That’s OK.  However technology may evolve, the principles of Minimalist Racing should remain the same:

  • respect for the wilderness in as close to its natural state as possible
  • an expectation that runners will be responsible and mindful

(If you’re interested in minimalist racing in New York’s Hudson Valley, check out the SRT Run/Hike or the Ellenville Mountain Running Festival.)

A Manifesto for Minimalist Races