Saturday, February 20, 2010

My New BFF, or Why Vibrams Rule

Meet my new shoes!

These goofy-looking things are my Vibram FiveFingers Flows. And they've saved my running life.
Allow me to explain.
One of the reasons I haven't been posting is because I haven't really been running. And one of the reasons I haven't really been running is because after this year's marathon training season, I've been really disillusioned with running. It's not like I'm competitive -- the only way I'll ever win a race is if I somehow manage to trick everyone into running off the course, a la the parade scene in "Animal House," and if you haven't seen the movie lately, watch it. There's not a scene in it where you don't say, "Oh, yes, this is the scene where --" but I digress. I want to feel that when I put energy and effort into something, that there's some payback. Definitely I want to see some improvement in terms of time, distance, endurance, etc. but running for me has neve been so much about that as it's been about releasing stress, having some "me" time, etc. etc. And, of course, for the fitting into the clothes and the ability to eat a brownie without (too much) guilt.
This training season accomplished none of those things. For those of you not thoroughly conversant with my previous posts, this was a really hard and disappointing season for me. I pushed as hard as I could, but with little to no reward. In fact, I got slower and slower, and lost more and more endurance as the season progressed. Training seemed almost counter-productive -- the more I did, the less I could do (subtraction soup, anybody?) I couldn't figure out why. Nothing wrong medically, except for starting "the change," which was admittedly a factor, but still. I was upset with myself, crying after nearly every race. The only reason I continued pushing was Prince Liam, the little fighter who keeps me motivated, and Fred's Team, who gives meaning to the miles. But the fun of running was gone. Now, there's a point in every marathon training season where running ceases to be fun, but this was different. Running was making me sad, and adding stress.
Fortunately, a few trips to a hypnotist helped me overcome my negativity so that I could complete the NYC Marathon with a real smile on my face. Which I did. In my worst clock time, but still, the smile was genuine. And I raised nearly $6000 for the Aubrey Fund for Pediatric Cancer Research, which is really the reason I keep putting myself out there for the distance.
A few weeks off, and the Race to Deliver, which of course I was going to run, since it benefits another cause close to my heart, Gods Love We Deliver, and the Midnight Run for New Years, which I did at more of a walk with some Teammates. Now the weather was ideal for running, and after all, I have a triathlon in July. So I would do a couple of miles, and have to stop every few minutes to breathe. My legs felt like lead. I was running maybe once a week, if that, and not missing it at all.
I had heard about Vibrams from a number of people, including Steve Runner at the Phedippidations website/podcast, and just before the marathon, I tried on a pair. The idea behind Vibrams is to mimic running barefoot. Doing so allegedly strengthens your feet and ankles and improves your form. Many popular books extoll the virtues of barefoot running. So I was curious to see what this was all about. Trying to stuff my toes in separate toe pockets was exhausting, but I finally prevailed and hopped on the treadmill. It was wild -- I immediately started running on my midfoot, which many running experts say is the proper way to run. Maybe because there's no cushioning, I was afraid to put my heel down, but nonetheless. It felt strange. Not bad, but strange. Just prior to the marathon, I wasn't about to do anything different.
As 2010 began and things were getting no better on the running front, I decided to give the Vibrams another try. I purchased a pair of Sprints, which have a strap, but no upper (sort of a Mary Jane shoe) and hit the treadmill. I went almost two miles effortlessly before realizing that a ragged seam on the inside was giving me a blister. My legs, however, felt great. Usually the first few minutes of any run is tiring, as your legs and lungs adjust to the speed. But with the Vibrams, I didn't have the leg ache. Maybe it was the treadmill.
My next attempt with the Sprints were outdoors. Again, the same feeling -- as I started off my run, the familiar leg ache wasn't happening. I wasn't planning on going too long, because I hadn't run more than two miles in about a month, but I felt so good, I ran up to Road Runners and back -- a little over three miles. The only thing that was a little negative was that the bottom of my feet and my toes were a little tingly and sore. The biggest problem with the Sprints, though, is that they aren't a cold weather shoe. My toes were freezing!!
Experiment. Is it the shoes, or is it me? My next run, I put on my trusty Sauconys and headed out. At the usual point, the familiar leg ache, and I had to stop twice in a three-mile run to get my breathing back to normal. Well, I was looking for an excuse to switch shoes. Need I a better one?
Wow. This is something. But if I was going to keep using the Vibrams, I needed warmer ones. A little research pointed to the Flows, which are a cold weather shoe. Fortunately, I was able to locate a pair in my size, and also picked up a pair of KSOs for good measure (a warmer weather shoe, but with a mesh upper for protection.) Had an experimental run in the Flows, and they felt great. Good enough for me to immediately sign up for way too many Road Runners races (hint, don't sign up for races at 1:00 a.m.,) including today's race, the Run For Haiti. All proceeds from this race went to Haiti relief, and it was a double-qualifier to boot.
That combo brought 9400 (!) people out to Central Park this morning. My first race of the season, and my first race in Vibrams. I was more afraid of getting my feet stomped on than anything else. So I really had to be careful. Also, as a result of standing in the corral for ten minutes, waiting for the race to start, the bottoms of my feet started to chill. Ah, well. Can't have everything. Hung with Teammates David and Meg, who I did the Midnight Run with. Both would be running together and also hanging back -- David with an injury, Meg with bad ankles. I told them I'd probably pull ahead, as I wanted to see how I did in the shoes. I have not been running with my iPod or my watch, deliberately not wanting to know what my pace is. So not only is this my first race, it's my first time timing myself in months.
Super crowded at the start, we didn't even move until about nine minutes in. The whole race felt comfortable, even though the soles of my feet did get a little sore -- and my calves, let us not forget, these shoes give your calves a real workout. Be warned. I pulled away from David and Meg after Cat Hill and kept going. No iPod, just the whap-whap of the shoes. They do make quite a noise, since you're not hitting the ground with padding, which is odd for me, a normally quiet runner. They definitely help your form. Besides landing on my midfoot, I can also feel my feet naturally pulling up after the strike, instead of shuffling. I think this is somewhat akin to Chi running.
I chose not to push myself too hard during the race. Between the crowding and my not having run a great deal recently, I didn't want to risk injury. So I had a lot in the tank as we rounded the 72nd Street transverse, a few hundred feet from the finish line. And for the first time ever -- and I mean ever, even at the height of my running prowess --I was disappointed to see the finish line. I wanted to keep going!
My time -- 39:48. Not amazing, to be sure, but for the first time in months, under a 10-minute mile, and more importantly, for the first time in months -- running felt great!! It was everything I wanted it to be. Heck, I even had a great water stop.
I am so glad I tried Vibrams. They may not be for everyone, but they're sure for me. I don't know if they'll make me run faster, or run better, but they've somehow brought the joy back to my running.
Now, about that swimming...