Thursday, December 29, 2011

It's Not the Shoes, Mars (but Get the Right Ones Anyway)

Does anyone remember that commercial with Spike Lee and Michael Jordan? For those who never saw it, here it is:

I've always loved that commercial. And I don't even wear Nike shoes. And I've also never believed that anything is all about the shoes. I won't buy the latest and greatest even if they ARE good (I'm mostly against fads or the "stuff" - besides, the "stuff" usually comes with a hefty price). I sometimes find myself coveting the cool shoes, clothes, bikes, and other hardware touted at Ironman and race expos, but in the end, my frugality usually wins out - even when I have extra cash to spend (like, for instance, after Christmas).

Thus, with Christmas gift cash in hand, my first order of business before the new year was to find a new favorite running shoe - one I can rely on for at LEAST two years. Note that I am forced to do this once every two years for this reason: my foot is in the 10% of all running feet - a very high arch with an efficient and neutral gait. I've heard it called the "clunk foot" because it's stiff and doesn't absorb shock - it transfers that job to other parts of my body. Thus, I require mostly cushioning in a running shoe. Two down sides of having my feet is (1) that I get injured easily from overtraining (the lack-of-shock-absorbtion thing), and (2) all my favorite running shoes end up on the discontinued rack (I have to stockpile my favorite shoes to last two - duh! - years). The up side is... I don't need a lot of stability and therefore, my shoes tend to be lighter, faster, and cheaper.

Back to the Christmas cash in hand. I made an appointment with shoe guru (shoe-ru?), Jody Herzog at Fleet Feet Sports in Northfield, Ohio (he has two locations, the other in Pepper Pike). To me, stores like Fleet Feet are proof of the value of a local running specialty store. Everyone who walks in the door needing shoes will get individual attention because Jody and his staff specialize (and delight) in finding the perfect fit. They pride themselves on their knowledge and take the time necessary to get it right so their customers are happy and continue running. After five stress fractures, no one knows better than me that the right running shoe is just as important as the right bike fit (something else that should be done by a local specialist and certainly not online or at a big bulk store).

One of my favorite things about Jody is that he is a shoe geek through and through. He goes to shoe conferences (yes, there IS such a thing). He talks to other shoe geeks. He tests ("runs in") many of the shoes he sells. And he draws pictures of shoe cross sections just to show me how they work (I am not making this up). It's his passion. His knowledge of shoes was uncanny - once he knew my foot type, all I had to do was give him the brand and the year, and Jody could name the exact model of shoe I ran in.

I jokingly tried to stump him: "You know, my first pair running shoes was probably made before you were born: the Brooks Silver Streaks."

Jody's answer? "I saw a picture of those once."

As soon as I walked through the door, we were off on the search to find me the definitive running shoe. An introduction to my feet and my gait started with looking at the shoes I currently run in - the first incarnation of the Asics Speedstar (which I had desperately stockpiled away for over two years). I told Jody my other favorite shoe-that-is-no-longer was the Scott Makani II. He asked me what I liked about my shoes. He took measurements. He watched me walk. Then he went in "the back" and came out with this:

These were shoes that met the requirements. Now the job was to find the ONE.

The process immediately began differently than any shoe fitting I had in the past. Jody took a right shoe out of one box and a left shoe out of another. He explained a little about each shoe and I put them both on:

The idea is ingenious: two different shoes give you an instant comparison. I jogged around the store. I've been a runner long enough to know very quickly what I like and don't like about a shoe, and we started narrowing it down - after all, they're all cushioned, lightweight, neutral trainers. There's usually a tiny something I don't like that eliminates a shoe. Jody was more than willing to run in back to grab a different size or a different shoe that he had left behind based on my preferences (to my surprise, the Nike Pegasus ended up on my foot and it wasn't bad). Unsurprisingly, I narrowed it down to the Asics Gel Excel33 (the black ones in the photo above). Asics has almost always had a shoe in their line that feels "right" to me. Call it familiarity.

But then something new happened. Jody had already asked me if I understood the "drop" of a shoe - he explained "drop" refers to the height delta between heel and toe. Classic running shoes have a drop of 10-14 mm. But all the rage in running shoes these days is the "zero drop" or "minimalist" shoe (read more in this article from Running Times) with a drop of 0-4 mm. You may be familiar with the Vibram Five Fingers which popularized "barefoot" running. The new minimalist running shoes from the big brands have a little more in the way of cushioning - which is good because I have no desire to run barefoot. In fact, barefoot running seems like a very bad idea for someone who has "clunk foot" syndrome.

The Brooks Pure Connect
(my husband says they're the most
"girlie colored" shoes I've ever had)
Jody slipped into the mix one of the slightly-more-cushioned zero-drop shoes: the Brooks Pure Connect (yeah, ok, I wish it had a "slicker" name, but it's part of the Brooks Pure Project). As soon as I put it on, it was like that scene in the first Harry Potter movie when Harry's wand "chooses" him (you know, when Harry is surrounded by wind and a halo of light?). I didn't have to take a single step. I knew right away, this WAS the shoe. It has a thing called a "nav band" that immediately cradled the high arch of my foot.

I took a little jog around the store. Yep, this shoe would, indeed, keep me running on my forefoot - the mark of all the shoes I've loved over the years. I love having help from a shoe to keep me honest in my stride and I knew I would not be able to slack off to a heel strike in this one.

And with that... I was done. I had found my new favorite shoe. The only problem was that it wasn't a winter shoe - the upper is pretty much all mesh (it looks like someone went to town with a hole-punch on it). Fortunately Fleet Feet also carries the other shoes in the Pure Project line and I was able to pick up the Brooks Pure Crit - the trail version of the shoe - to get me through the winter. It has better traction and a wider sole but it remains to be seen whether even that can keep ME from falling this winter.

Jody (right) and Ed, one of Fleet Feet's
fit specialists, at the Northfield location.
I left the store very pleased - and couldn't wait to try my shoes in a hard 8-miler on the treadmill that very night. The zero drop will take a little time getting used to because I have to strengthen the muscles that have been given a break all these years from the sofa-like shoes I've been running in. But my first run in them was awesome. Afterwards, I was immediately aware of something I hadn't noticed - the tongue of my new shoes is a non-entity - it's something I've always found uncomfortable in most running shoes.

In the end, I also want to say that there really is nothing like having a local specialist to help with finding the right equipment for your sport. I can't urge my followers enough to support your local specialty stores - these are the people who are passionate about the business and they will rarely let you down. Both Jody at Fleet Feet and Sherman McKee at Bike Authority in Broadview Heights have been instrumental in my success at triathlon over the years and I was their customer long before I became one of their team members.


  1. Were those 'official' running socks in the photo ?? (I, too, try to keep up with the stylin' triathlete types, ya know.).

    Glad you found shoes !! There's nothing better than a run when your feet feel good....

  2. I need a Jody! They don't make my shoes I adore anymore....and I am going to be needing a new pair soon. I plan to check out the new local place in town...they're supposed to be good. Here's hoping.....

    Glad you found your 'wand'. :p