Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Running shoes again, and a crabby adenda

It's time for me to start thinking about new training flats. The pair I’m wearing are fine, but they are the last of the multiple pairs I bought the last time I ordered. I used to buy all my shoes from one of two small shops owned by runners, but I got dissatisfied for a variety of reasons, and now generally order online, buying multiple pairs of the “last year’s” model of the Asics GT I’ve been wearing for years.

RoadRunner Sports puts shoes into categories: “Neutral,” “Stability,” and “Motion Control.” I’ve never paid attention to this, because I knew what shoe I wanted. This time, though, I thought I might want to try something a little lighter, a little quicker-feeling. So I perused the catalogue. The first thing I noticed was that my shoes are classified as “Stability”—explained basically as significant cushioning and some motion control for runners with medium arches. I wear orthotics, so I thought perhaps “Neutral” shoes—for runners with high arches, with less motion control, and some cushioning—might be better because my motion control in theory is already handled by my orthotics.

I got on the phone, had a chat with one of the “fit experts” on the other end (always polite and almost always helpful, in my limited experience with them). He confirmed my theory. So now I have a question to answer for myself. Do I leave the shoes that I’ve had a long and happy relationship with but are feeling increasingly dowdy, for a fling with some sexy new Neutral? I may have to go into counseling.

In actually perusing the catalogue, though, rather than simply calling and ordering the usual model, I noticed something that surprised me: A lot of these shoes are sold on the basis of a soft ride. As in, “The men's ASICS® GEL-Cumulus® has long been a favorite of runners wanting pillowy comfort at a great price.” Comfort? Yes, I suppose so, in the sense of no problems, but pillowy comfort? You can have it. I don’t want to sink into my shoes, because I don’t want to waste my increasingly rare and precious energy. I want some protection, of course, but I want to feel the road.

I bought a pair of Nike’s first air-cushioned flats (“Tailwinds,” I think they were called) in the late ’70s, and hated them for sucking away energy. I’ve tried a few other models, including the late, unlamented Air Huaraches (early ’90s), and haven’t changed my mind. In fact, I think gradually increasing “pillowyness” may be one of the reasons I’m becoming less happy with my Asics GTs.

A related article appeared in the New York Times the other day, largely covering issues that have been the subject of a number of recent articles elsewhere. It included this explanation of the development of the modern running shoe:

Things changed in the early 1970s, when Bill Bowerman, a track coach turned entrepreneur, created a cushioned running shoe that allowed runners to take longer strides and land on their heels, rather than a more natural mid- or forefoot strike. Mr. Bowerman and his business partner, Phil Knight, marketed the new shoes under the Nike brand, and the rest is history.

Yeah, bad history. The first Nikes were essentially Tigers (now Asics), Bill Bowerman was “a” track coach as Babe Ruth was “a” ballplayer, the waffle sole he invented wasn’t more cushioning than what had come before (it offered more traction and arguably lasted longer). Any training flat of the late ’60s and early ’70s (by then, the best were, in fact, Tigers) would have let any runner clomp down on his heels if he wanted to. There weren’t all that many runners on the roads then, and most of them were training competitively, and they weren’t heel-strikers. Now most runners are (like me) too heavy and are often horrifically imperfect biomechanically. We run slooow. Try that perfect, fleeting, midfoot strike at nine or 10 minutes a mile. Good luck.

But those wiggly-toe shoes look so cool....

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