Monday, November 29, 2010

"They're RACING flats dammit, not TRAINING flats!"

I recently started an email dialog with RunBlogger's Peter Larson, and found a kindred spirit concerning some of the more technical issues of running. Here's a slightly edited version of what I sent him:

Hi Pete,

It's been 4 weeks since I broke a 2nd metatarsal running on hard surfaces in my racing flats. I got my flats in early September in preparation for my first-ever Olympic-distance triathlon (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run). The shoes (Saucony Kilkenny) gave me the Winged Feet of Mercury, immediately slicing 30 seconds per mile from my 4 mile training runs, taking me to a 9:00 PR pace for the distance (with rolling hills).

My last prior 10K was nearly 25 years ago (I'm now 54). I stopped running when the pain in all my leg joints didn't go away for days after even mild training runs. I was a hard heel-striker then, with flat feet, skinny weak ankles, and slightly bowed legs. Getting into triathlon 2 years ago meant I needed to find a new way to run.

First I went with shoes that would keep the road as far from my legs as possible (Mizuno Wave Creation 10), which made a return to light running possible. But I was physically unable to go much faster than a fast jog. I added orthotics, which helped a little. Then I got knee pain (chondromalacia caused by ITB Syndrome), and I searched for a new stride. I read about POSE and Chi Running, adopted a mid-sole strike, and 3 months later my PRs started to improve, though they soon topped out again.

Then in August of 2009 I lost my L5-S1 disc: It simply degenerated away, leaving no padding and lots of pain behind. Since I had by then become addicted to each of the triathlon sports, I refused the offered spinal fusion surgery and endured months of physical therapy to learn how to live with a damaged back. And in February of this year I became a forefoot runner: Any significant heel contact would cause intense pain at the site of my degenerated disc, so I had no alternative, since I refused to give up running (and triathlon).

My initial web searches failed to uncover any useful forefoot running resources. I had to feel my way into forefoot running on my own. The first thing I noticed was that the towering heel of my Mizuno Wave Creation 10 was hitting the ground way too early, and was forcing me to run either on my tip-toes or in a slight squat in order to avoid a painful heel impact, each of which caused other problems.

I switched to a cheap pair of Asics that had a much softer and slightly lower heel. By mid-summer my PRs again started to improve. Since I wasn't placing as much weight on my midfoot, I removed the heavy orthotics, and saw another improvement in my PRs. At this point, I was much more comfortable running a mile than walking one!

When a friend suggested racing flats, I went to each of my local specialty running stores, tried everything, and when I finally tried the Kilkenny, it was love at first step. I got the shoes, trained well, did my race, beat my optimistic goal time, and kept on running in my racing flats. I searched the local shops for road shoes that would have a low heel compatible with a forefoot strike, but found nothing that fit my narrow flat foot.

In hindsight, a stress fracture was inevitable. Sure, it was not smart to run exclusively on hard surfaces in racing flats. But I also must share some blame with the shoe market, for not having a road trainer available that would fit my foot and running style, and also be stocked by local shops.

I somehow didn't find your blog until today, when I was again searching for road shoes. I've read a dozen of your general posts, and am working my way through your shoe reviews: We appear to generally think alike regarding technique and equipment, though we approached our beliefs from very different paths.

While I now consider myself to be a minimalist runner due to my forefoot stride, I also realize I'm a 'maximalist' runner: Maximally ignorant, that is. It took me way too long to learn the running vocabulary, which is the only way to get useful search results (when entering any area of specialization, first becoming 'buzz-word compliant' is mandatory). Where are the running glossaries?

I've reached the point where I'm willing to believe that my ideal road shoe, a padded racing flat, may simply not exist. And I'm wondering what I can do about that situation. So far, I've come up with five options:

1. Accept the situation: Do what's needed to adapt to the best fitting shoe available that has an acceptably low heel-to-toe (H2T) drop. But I'm concerned I'll have to adapt my stride to the point that I'll have problems switching back to my racing flats before races. And I refuse to give up my racing flats!

2. Find a shoe that's ideal in all respects OTHER than H2T drop, and have a cobbler slice away some foam to remove the excess heel height (a trivial task for any qualified cobbler). This would require a shoe with minimal heel structure, lacking things like wave plates and air/gel layers. The Brooks Green Silence may be a candidate, which I'll try out after my foot finishes healing.

3. Eliminate all hard-surface running, except for final race training and race day. Which means I keep running in my racing flats, but only on sand and turf. Not an easy thing to accomplish in my densely packed suburb, but not impossible (just impractical).

4. Add a thin Sof Sole gel cushion to the forefoot of my racing flats. I've already done this, just for insurance, but I doubt it is enough to prevent another stress fracture. And I haven't yet run in the modified shoe, so it may prove unworkable.

5. Create my own shoe.

As I've wailed and moaned about my shoe situation to friends, family, and members of the Triathlon Club of San Diego (TCSD, the Best Damn Club on the Planet, no lie), I found some kindred souls, one of whom is a mechanical engineer, and another who is a materials engineer with deep knowledge of polymers and foams. Me, I'm a software engineer with lots of simulation experience, and I also know my way around a sewing machine.

Unfortunately, we're all either lazy, time-crunched, or both, and would much rather work with an existing manufacturer than go off on our own. We simply want the shoes we want, and don't necessarily want to get into the shoe business.

Yes, I'm finally getting to the point:Some questions for you!
- What do you think of my options above? Did I miss any?
- Does my dream shoe already exist?
- What would you like to see in a new minimalist shoe suitable for forefoot road runners?
- Which manufacturers do you think would be most willing to work with motivated amateurs?

We've also discussed a shoe with a negative static H2T drop that would become zero when the forefoot sole is compressed. The shoe design would vary not only by foot size, but also by runner weight (possibly by swapping the insole). This would allow us to add sophistication to the forefoot without having to thicken or complicate the heel. It would be a shoe designed exclusively for forefoot hard-surface runners, though we might also be able to market it as a butt-lifting, leg-toning walking shoe!

Time for me to get back to reading your blog. Thanks!