I used to be a runner. Despite being largely sedentary as a child (focusing on academics, music, and TV instead of sports or athletics), when I arrived at college with no car or bike, I had no choice but to walk wherever I needed to go. Considering the campus covered a full square mile, by the end of my freshman year my body had changed a bit. Instead of gaining the dreaded “Freshman 15”, I actually lost a few pounds during my first year away at school.
In the spring of my third year of college, I started running. Initially I began this task out of necessity (I was training for the military – which is a whole other story…), but by the time summer arrived and my government obligation had ended, I found the activity had grown on me, and I actually kind of liked it. So I maintained the habit, and at the end of my last year of school I ran a half marathon (13.1 miles) with one of my good friends.
Surprising myself with how far I could run, the next year I decided to run a full marathon (which I completed in Chicago in 1999). I formally trained for the race with an experienced group of long-distance runners, and during those months I learned all about speed work, stride and physical alignment, race nutrition, and gear. Many running hours were spent discussing the best anti-chafing products and attire, various women’s preferences regarding sports bra styles and support offered, and of course, running shoes.
Most distance runners are very loyal to the brand of shoes they wear. Some swear by strong motion-controlled sneakers, while others proclaim ultra-light-weight trainers to be the best. Interestingly, a few brave (and somewhat quirky) folks believe that the best shoe to wear is none at all. Citing the incredible speed and endurance of members of the Tarahumara tribe (among others), “barefoot” runners assert that the human body functions best without interference from modern/external containers like shoes. And so, these individuals don’t lace up for a run, but instead hit the pavement with their bare (hopefully calloused) skin.
While the average citizen may think that barefoot running is a little bit (or lot bit) insane, several footwear manufacturers took note of this emerging trend – and these days, several “minimalist” shoes are readily available at mainstream sporting goods stores. One of the more popular/well-known brands of this style of shoe is Vibram.
I admit I was very curious about the notion of barefoot running – but I also know I wouldn’t last even two minutes smacking my poor unprotected foot against asphalt or cement. But wearing a minimalist shoe – that might be a cool compromise. Still, I wasn’t sure how much of the gear’s “effectiveness” was little more than good marketing (or straight-up hype). So I kept Vibram shoes in the back of my mind, but never took any real action to explore them for myself…
Enter the world of blogging. Specifically Carla, a blogger I have mentioned before on this site. I found Carla’s blog through a comment she left on a different blog, which I found on an edition of Freshly Pressed. (Confused yet?) Anyway, what matters in this story is that I found Carla’s blog, and was immediately fascinated with her story.
Back in 2009, Carla hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in one season (i.e., she completed a thru-hike) – and I was wildly impressed that an ‘average’ woman (i.e., a person who was in her 30s, married, employed in a regular ol’ day job, with an everyday level of fitness, etc.) could complete such a feat. At various points in the telling of her AT tale, Carla mentioned her Vibram shoes, commenting about how much she liked them, and how well they were treating her feet during various points amid her very long walk in the woods.
It was reading this personal experience with the shoes that got me to seriously consider trying on a pair of Vibram’s for myself. It’s one thing to hear about a product from the manufacturer, paid enthusiasts, or even an impartial source like Consumer Reports; it’s a whole other thing to hear about the benefits of an item from a source you personally know and trust (even if you’ve never met that source face-to-face). If Carla appreciated Vibram’s on a 2000+ mile trek through tough terrain, perhaps I might find them beneficial for my daily 3-mile walks around the neighborhood.
I went to a local sporting goods retailer, and tried on all of the five different types of minimalist shoes they offered. I found two styles that seemed to feel good on the store’s linoleum flooring – but I was unwilling to pay $80-$100 for a pair of shoes I wasn’t sure I would actually like once I wore them in more real-world (outdoor) conditions. So I went home, and started poking around online to see what I might be able to find. After 45 minutes of searching, I found a pair of Vibram’s being sold at an outlet site for a third of their retail cost. The site was sold out of my exact size of shoe, but I figured I could go up or down half a size with no real issue. (I do this often with regular shoes.) So I placed my order for a pair of shoes one European size smaller than my standard American size 7, and excitedly waited for them to arrive.
A few days later the shoes appeared at my front door. I removed the shoes from their packaging, wrestled each of my toes into the appropriate fabric slot, stood up, and made my way outside for my inaugural walk in minimalist footwear. Three minutes into my exploration, I realized that deviating from the recommended shoe size may have been a mistake. But I couldn’t tell if the discomfort I was experiencing was from improper fit, or if my feet just needed to get used to this new way of moving now that they were not encumbered/protected by all of the padding that standard shoes provide. I decided to return home, and slowly break in the minimalist shoes over the course of several days.
Weeks later, I had to concede that the issues I continued to experience with the Vibram was not because of a lack of acclimation by my feet, but instead was most likely due to improper fit. Sigh. I placed the now-slightly-worn shoes back in their original box, and put the box on a shelf in my closet. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do with these shoes now (because I had used them outside, I couldn’t return them to the site where I purchased them), so I sat back and waited. [Waited for what, I’m still not exactly sure; but I’ve found that sometimes the best course of action is no action at all – and somehow I felt that this was one of those times…]
Interestingly, a few days later I saw a sale for a different style of Vibram shoes – and they were being offered in my proper size. Dare I give this experiment a second chance? After tossing the question back-and-forth in my mind for a bit, a voice inside me said, “Aw, what the hell. These shoes are relatively cheap – and it’s only money, after all. Just do it already!” So a few keystrokes later, I had purchased a second pair of minimalist footwear.
When I worked my body into this new pair of Vibram’s for the very first time, I was pleasantly surprised by how much more easily each toe found its way into each little fabric slot. Taking the shoes out on the road, I was also relieved to learn that walking in them felt much more natural and easy than with the previous pair. I kept my time in the shoes to just 10-15 minutes a day; I didn’t want to shock my feet with an abrupt change in support and cause unintended (and undesirable) consequences.
Sadly, my body had other plans. Due to an unrelated issue, I developed pretty severe shin splints just a few weeks after my purchase of Vibram pair #2. (“Severe” as in I went to urgent care when they opened on Monday morning, because I was concerned I had a stress fracture in my lower leg – that’s how much the shin splints hurt.) Fortunately, I learned that I hadn’t pounded my leg to the point of fracture; unfortunately, I did cause some semi-extreme tissue inflammation that had to be treated in the short term with mega-doses of ibuprofen and 100% physical rest (i.e., walking only when absolutely necessary [such as getting to the bathroom], and wearing a supportive boot whenever I did walk about). After the short-term actions addressed the acute pain, the long-term prescription included improved physical mechanics when walking (i.e., a change in my stride), and properly supportive footwear. As in, high-end, cushioned athletic shoes. No cheap tennis shoes, and certainly no minimalist shoes. No Vibram.
With a bit of resignation, I packed up Vibram pair #2 in their original box, and placed them in my closet next to Vibram pair #1. I now had two pairs of almost-new, semi-expensive shoes that I absolutely could not wear. Ugh.
I am not miserly with money, but I also don’t spend it ultra-freely. I’m willing (and happy) to spend considerable sums of cash on items that are well manufactured, and that will improve my quality of life. (I.e., I readily dole out cash for organic food, massages, well-constructed garments, quality furniture…) However, I work very hard to avoid buying crap: items that I don’t need, items that will wear out or break after a few uses, items that serve no real function in my life. As a result, my home is (mostly) free of clutter, and of possessions that haven’t been used within the year. Every few months I look around, and if I see items that I have outgrown, worn down, no longer like, no longer need, or simply can’t remember using, I move them along. (I take them to be recycled or donated whenever possible, and try to avoid tossing them in the trash as much as I can.) So to have two pairs of non-functional, never-to-be-worn-again shoes in my closet that I paid a decent amount of money for kind of drove me a tiny bit insane.
Then, an idea came to me: Craigslist. What if I tried to sell the two pairs of Vibram’s on Craigslist? I had never completed a transaction on Craigslist before, and honestly, after hearing some of the horror stories of people getting attacked or killed while trying to complete a simple bit of business with someone they found through the site, I was a tiny bit wary of meeting up with a stranger to attempt to sell some shoes. But then I thought about it logically: of the hundreds of thousands (and perhaps even millions) of transactions that have been successfully completed through a Craigslist exchange, the deals that have gone bad likely comprise less than .01%. If I was smart, I would probably be just fine.
So I anonymously listed both sets of Vibram’s on the site, then waited. After a few weeks, two different buyers contacted me within days of one another, each wanting one of the pairs of shoes. After negotiating prices, I arranged to meet each woman in a very public, heavily-traveled area. Both buyers did turn out to be women (you never know…), had exact change on their person, and gave me their cash after I showed them the shoes. It did feel a bit odd exchanging merchandise in public parking lots (one of the women even joked, “Yeah, here we are, making a shoe deal right in front of the coffee shop!”), but at the end of the day two women got a great deal on shoes they have wanted for a while, I got to recoup all of my cash investment in this 101 task, I got to add a bonus experience to my list (namely, “Sell something on Craigslist”), and I got to learn that while Vibram are cool shoes, they just aren’t meant to be for me.
Which is mostly what I wanted to find out all along. Sometimes it just takes a bit of time and patience (and a few detours) to get there.