BORN TO RUN
It was a long and windy road to running happy in my Brooks Shoes, but every kilometre worth. After reading Christopher McDougall’s excellent must-read ‘Born to Run’ – http://amzn.to/IKqLU4 – and determining for myself that there was probably no need for running with Orthotics, I dispensed with them and my longstanding and much loved Mizuno Waveriders and embarked on a long and planned switch to a more minimal style of running. This involved buying 2 pairs of Vivobarefoot shoes and a pair of Inov-8.
The plan was to strengthen my feet, calves and ankles by wearing (not running in) the Vivobarefoot as often as I could, to do a range of proprioception, balancing and strengthening exercises, to decrease my normal mileage substantially and to start running in the Inov-8’s and slowly build that mileage back up, listening carefully to my body along the way and taking care to avoid injuring anything.
This ‘retraining’ period lasted the 6 months between Comrades 2012 and December of that year and after a 3 week layoff in January due to an inebriated New Years Eve accident, I entered the New Year feeling confident about how the ‘switch’ had gone and planned my pre-Comrades events.
I really enjoyed the Inov-8’s throughout the process. Without going into too much detail I purposefully chose the Road-x 255 (a 3 arrow shoe on their ‘grading’ system with a 9mm drop), to facilitate a gradual transition from my 12mm drop Mizuno to something flatter with a plan to move on to the 2 arrow (a 6mm drop) at some stage.
By way of a quick explanation at this point, the term ‘drop’ is used to describe the difference in height between the heel of your running shoe and the toe. Very simplistically, the less the drop, the greater the likelihood of a midfoot strike – what you should be aiming for in a more efficient running style. This link provides a more detailed explanation – http://www.gearinstitute.com/getschooled/item/what-is-heel-drop
As I continued my transition, I was delighted when I finished the Old Mutual Om Die Dam Marathon (50km Ultra) in March with no issues. It was validation that my transition plan had worked and that I was on track to run Comrades in the same shoes. The only minor gripe was that the soles of my feet got quite sore in the last 10-15kms’ of the 50, something I’d not felt before in my running career.
I didn’t think too much about it, but 6 weeks later I ran the Slow Mag Marathon in Benoni and clocked a very happy PB of 3hr36mins. Again I felt very comfortable with my new running style, my legs felt strong and I had no real complaints other than that in the last 10km’s the soles of my feet were again pretty sore.
CAN I CHANGE SO CLOSE TO RACE DAY?
This unexpected development started causing me concern that if my feet were sore at about 40km’s into a race, what were they going to feel like in the latter half of Comrades. To compound matters, I was only 6 weeks away from Comrades and conventional running wisdom dictated that only the fool contemplated changing his shoes so close to the event. Even so the fear of carrying aching feet over 45 km’s of tar weighed more heavily on my psyche and so I began to explore my options in earnest.
After a number of calls to various Johannesburg retail outlets, I ended up speaking to Marc Price of Troisport in Johannesburg who allayed some of my fears as to the fact that there was still enough time to wear-in a new pair of shoes and encouraged me to come into the shop and try some options.
After filling Mark in on how I’d taken a lengthy approach to retraining myself how to run but how I’d just recently found the Inov-8 to be too hard a ride he was confident I could move from the 9mm drop of the Inov-8 to the 4mm drop of one or two other types of shoe with a more forgiving sole.
He then showed me 2 pairs of shoes he was convinced would sort me out – a pair of Asics and a pair of Brooks. Both were light and neutral with a 4mm drop and both looked pretty cool too. I tried them both on a number of times and did a little jog through the shop with Mark watching my footfall and the way that I ran in each shoe carefully. The Brooks felt slightly more comfortable and when, before communicating this to Mark, he independently informed to me that he thought I looked better and more comfortable in the Brooks, the decision was an easy one.
THE BROOKS PURE PROJECT
The Brooks we’d settled on were a pair from what they call the Brooks Pure Project – see http://www.brooksrunning.com/Brooks-PureProject/. It’s a newer part to their full range of shoes, designed for those that want a more ‘natural’ run in which they can feel their feet in closer contact with the ground.
It was interesting, because while my wife has a pair of Brooks shoes and I was aware of Brooks as a brand, in terms of all the running I’d done in the UK and in South Africa, it was not one I’d ever contemplated buying. Who knows how marketing and branding sculpt one’s impression of various products? Brooks just hadn’t featured on my radar. And how delighted I am that they eventually did.
And so I left the store with my good looking pair of blue Brooks Pure Cadence in hand, both excited and apprehensive as to whether I could pull off this late change.
Lacing up on the first morning for a brisk 5km run I was intrigued as to how they’d feel. I’d discussed with Mark how I should approach the switch and he was confident that with the way he’d seen me run in the store, that I probably just needed to do 2-3 slightly shorter runs to see how I got on but that if they went without issue, I could jump back into my usual program and usual mileage.
On the first run, the difference was palpable. Put quite simply, the shoes just felt softer and more comfy. I concentrated as always on running with a high cadence and striking with a flat foot and they just felt right from the start.
I completed the next 2 runs without a hitch and focused on upping the mileage. As there were only 5 weeks to go at this stage there weren’t too many long runs left. All I fitted in before race day was the 32km Colgate Road Race and the Randburg Harriers Pork Kwai 21km and my Brooks Pure Cadence handled both with absolute aplomb.
And so even though I’d genuinely loved every minute (well except maybe for a few minutes of hill sprints along the way) of running in my Pure Cadence, there was still a tiny bit of doubt in my mind while lacing up on the morning of Sunday 2 June 2013. What if the soreness of feet was merely an unavoidable symptom of excessive mileage that couldn’t be alleviated by different shoes. What if some other shoe issue manifested itself during this beast of a race.
Well aside from a massive Bonk at kilometer 68 that almost caused a DNF – read my official Comrades marathon post –Ultrabloke Broke – the Brooks Pure Cadence were cool and comfortable and an absolute treat from start to finish.
I was a complete Brooks convert – so much so that I decided that for my next big challenge of the 65km Salomon Sky Run Lite – I simply had to try the well named Brooks Pure Grit, a trail running shoe in their Pure Project range. I’d had a long chat to Clive Chowles, the head of Brooks SA, at the Comrades expo and had told him of my love for my new shoes and we had a lengthy chat about Brooks, their general business philosophy, their various ranges and shoes. Clive’s enthusiasm and pride in his brand were tangible and so it sparked a series of discussions thereafter that eventually led to Clive providing me with a pair of Pure Grit and a pair of the Scott Jurek influenced Cascadia’s to try / test / train-in and run the Sky Run in.
AND NOW FOR THE TRAILS
I am very blessed to live right on the edge of the Braamfontein spruit, the most convenient trail running / mountain biking option in Joburg. The terrain is pretty varied and in Joburg terms offers a great trail training ground on which you can piece together a variety of different distances between Parkmore up towards Emmarentia dam. My biggest dilemma between August and November was which pair of Brooks I was going to run the Sky Run in. And so I began a sequence of different length runs to try and determine just that.
The first thing I noticed was that both pairs of shoes offered the same degree of comfort I felt in the Pure Cadence. The Pure Gritare particularly comfortable. Like the Pure Cadence they have a unique Anatomical Shape that contours the foot and allows the shoe to hug the foot snugly from the top and hold them firmly in place (something I find particularly important in a trail shoe to stop it shifting around) without impinging on the top of the foot.
In the Pure Grit in particular, with the relatively flat sole (4mm drop) the issue I’d had with my previous shoes (a very high toe box and higher lugs on the sole which meant that I kept catching my toe and falling forward) disappeared completely and on my first few runs I felt a bit like a gazelle.
The Cascadia were also extremely comfortable, perhaps even slightly more so, but what did seem to keep happening was that I kept rolling over my ankle, sometimes even on very innocuous little changes of gradient. Initially I didn’t assign it to the shoe and it was only later in my training that I realised that it was only in the Cascadia that it kept happening.
This caused me a lot of confusion, particularly just before the start of the SkyRun when consultation with Accuweather as to the forecast conditions for raceday highlighted that they were expecting thundershowers from the Thursday night right through till Saturday lunch time. I knew from some of my runs that the Cascadia had bigger lugs on the bottom of the shoe and provided more grip in nasty wet and muddy conditions and with that amount of predicted rainfall had to be a serious option.
I managed to get hold of Clive in Germany and asked him which shoes he thought would be right for the conditions and he confirmed that he thought the Cascadia were probably more suitable. So on the Wednesday afternoon before raceday I headed out onto the Spruit in my Cascadia for a brisk 7km run to test whether maybe my theory on the ankle twisting was possibly unfounded. RESULT: A slight roll of the ankle twice in those short 7 km’s.
CAN’T RISK MY ANKLES ON AN ULTRA
Thankfully I had to pop past a good mate an hour later to borrow his head lamp and when discussing my dilemma with him, he set me straight by telling me I couldn’t under any circumstances risk a more severe ankle twist in a 65km trail run and that I should stick with what I know. If grip did indeed become an issue, it would be one I’d be able to handle.
When I dwelt on what might be causing the twists / rolls, I came to the conclusion that having re-learnt to run in a more natural shoe I definitely need a more natural / minimal shoe (with a lower drop) so that my feet are in closer contact to the ground. That allows my feet to more quickly and accurately feel any inconsistencies in the terrain quickly enough that I can then make the appropriate correction and avoid twisting my ankles. That’s what proprioception is in essence all about – the foots ability to relay signals to the brain when it connects with the ground, so that the brain understands what it’s dealing with and can act accordingly.
When this theory eventually dawned on me it made complete sense. Before I had bought any trail specific shoes, I’d run my first 2 trail runs in my conventional Mizuno road shoes and had suffered 2 twisted ankles – one severe one – as a result. It would appear that in my case the higher the heal and therefore the greater the drop:
1.) The less I can feel and therefore react to inconsistent ground
2.) When I roll, the greater the height from which I roll and therefore the more difficult to stop / limit.
FULL OF PURE GRIT
Anyway, I am delighted that I went with my mate’s advice because my Brooks Pure Grit performed superbly in the Salomon SkyRun. Despite the worst weather conditions in the history of the race – please keep an eye out for my race review – resulting in the 100km being stopped late afternoon, my shoes were all Grit as even completely drenched and caked with mud they carried me comfortably over 65km’s of hard, cold and severe terrain. Unfortunately getting lost for 2 hours with 4 other weary souls severely limited (for fear of getting lost in the mist again) my ability to run as much as I should have and so I only got to run about 20% of the distance.
And so to date – to paraphrase from Brooks’ strapline I’ve ‘Run Happy’ in my Brooks Pure Grit through opposite extremes of my trail-running ability from:
1.) A mostly quick-paced walk through 65km’s of severe mountainous terrain in the most wet, cold, misty conditions imaginable, AND
2.) A bust-my-balls / hard-as-I-can-run 22km loop up the spruit in good dry conditions.
I hadn’t seen many Brooks shoes in my first year of more serious trail running, but noted that I wasn’t the only person in Pure Grit on the day seeing one other person in our eventual train of runners in the same. I did however see a lot of pairs of Cascadia along the route making me realise even more how personal a shoe preference can be.
I love my Pure Cadence and Pure Grit and they’ve just cemented for me that much like I ran in my Mizuno Wave Rider for about 5 years, I’m highly likely to spend the next few years in Brooks.
If I can stay injury-free, I look forward to Running Happy for many years to come.