Run Over? Part 1
Between November 2009 and October 2010, I enjoyed the best year’s running of my life. I broke PRs (personal records) in just about every distance, in most cases exceeding my previous pace by as much as ten seconds per mile. On the roads, those PRs numbered the 5k, 10k, 15k, half marathon and full marathon distances (and I was only one second off my PR for the mile). On the local trail and idiosyncratic road races, they included the Summer Solstice 15k and After the Leaves 20k, both held at the beautiful Minnewaska State Park, as well as the toughest race on my calendar, the mid-summer 30k, four-hour plus Escarpment Run up and down six Catskills peaks.
Admittedly, I didn’t run competitively until my late 20s, and not seriously until my mid-late 30s, which means I don’t have the kind of unsurpassable sprint times embedded in my log books the way many of my friends do. But still, this is such an emphatic series of PRs, and across so many distances, that surely it can’t be put down to increased focus and fitness alone.
This would be the point at which to note, then, that I ran every one of my road races during this 12 month spell – including two Marathons – in Vibram FiveFingers KSOs, those toe-gloves that you may have seen more of since the publication of Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run (read my review here) turned them into something of a fad. I should also note that, as of last spring, I conducted all my trail running in astonishingly light and deceptively protective minimalist trail shoes, F-Lite 230s made by the British fell running company Inov-8.
How did it feel to make the switch? Well, despite all the warnings about avoiding a sudden migration from hi-tech, heel-cushioned, heavily-gelled, bells-and-whistled running shoes (in my case the ASICS GT series) to what are little more than rubber gloves for the feet, I took to my Vibrams like a duck to water. Indeed, I took to wearing them in the water as well: after all, they were originally designed as deck/yachting shoes, and they offer fantastic protection from rocks and slime when taking a dip in our local Catskills creeks.
Still, there were many differences in form to which I had to adapt. Like learning not to land on my back foot, as is encouraged by “traditional” (i.e. modern) running shoes, but rather, to land more towards the front of the foot. I learned also to step more lightly, a direct product of the fact that I was no longer protected from the world beneath me – and for all that I tried to keep one eye on my next step, I came to endure the short sharp shock of objects on the course, especially pebbles and stones in my neck of the woods. More humorously, I accepted that the flapping noise of Vibrams on tarmac or concrete was loud enough to give away my position in any and every race – though my inability to sneak up on people near the finish line was more than compensated for by the fact that I seemed to be running that much faster to get there.
The post-run recovery provided a more notable difference on the body: pronounced tightness in my calves, especially after hills. But this, I knew, was again a product of getting off my cushioned heels, of learning to run upright, of letting my soleus muscle get out and go for a proper stretch. And besides, this tightness in the calves was no worse than the post work-out pain I used to feel on the quads or hamstrings; it was just in a different place. As for running a Marathon in my Vibrams, I admit that for the last few of those 26.2 miles in Boston last April, I was highly conscious of the hard road under my feet. But though my soles were sore after that run, there were no blisters, no bruises, no sprains or great pains. I even walked home several miles from the post-race party that night. (Admittedly in a pair of ASICS!)
I felt similarly delighted by my smooth transition to the Inov-8s, with which I not only broke a number of off-road PRs but, for the first time in four attempts, avoided a single fall on the Escarpment Run. As with the Vibrams, I found myself that much closer to and more conscious of the surface underneath me, that much more aware of the need to place my feet carefully, and, so it seemed, that much more nimble as a result. It felt like driving a sports car after years up high and mighty in an SUV. All in all, I should be standing – or writing – before you as the poster boy for minimalist footwear.
Except that I haven’t run for three months now.
What happened? In short, at the Mohawk Hudson Marathon on 10/10/10, I almost certainly endured a stress fracture in one of the metatarsals on my left foot. I say “almost certainly” because the limitations of my medical insurance, the typical inability of X-Rays to pick up said stress fractures before they start healing, and my previous negative experience with a mis-diagnosis from an MRI made going through this whole process seem somewhat redundant: as my local practitioner said to me at the end of a five-minute, $115 consultation, “You seem to know what’s wrong and you seem to know the cure.” (The cure being rest. There’s really not much else you can do with any injury like this.)
The metatarsal stress fracture, I hate to have to admit, is the de fault injury associated with running in Vibrams. Indeed, there are those who would (like to) believe it is the inevitable result of running in Vibrams – a recent first-person piece by David Abel in the Boston Globe certainly suggested as much, inspiring a large amount of gloating in the Comments section that was eventually drowned out by equally loud accusations of stupidity aimed at the author himself, for reasons that become apparent if you read the piece yourself. But did the Vibrams cause my injury? That’s the question I have been forced to ask myself. The answers, however painful, would be necessary both for a successful rehabilitation and a positive return to running.