Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions

Getting Fitter

Staggering To Mumbai

November 21, 2012 by Richard Wright in Getting Fitter, Journal, Running

These running shoes are my new jam. They’re the current model Nike Free, and they’re brilliant. It’s a bit odd, looking at this photo, because despite appearances the uppers are completely black. Now that I’ve photographed them with a camera flash, I know that the black is also incredibly reflective. It’s like magic, that you wear on your feet!

I recently read a book called Born To Run, an excellent read whether you’re a runner or not. It’s about a reclusive tribe in Mexico who are, quite without trying to be, the best endurance runners in the world (as a community at least). They see ultramarathons as a quick hop to the shops. The book is funny, fascinating, and deeply inspiring (though the core tale, of how the writer got involved in the world’s most exclusive race may well bend the truth here and there). As well as telling a superb tale, packed with unusual characters, the book looks at why this particular tribe are such natural runners.

There are lots of reasons, but one of them is form. They run almost barefoot with just a thin layer of material between them and the ground. It changes more than you think.

For the past thirty years, running shoes have increasingly been designed to protect the foot at all costs, forcing it into the ‘correct position’ while defending it from any stress or strain. It turns out, this may have had a downside. Because it is cocooned in a shell, the runner’s foot ceases to develop. In fact, it weakens. Muscles and bones that could toughen up never bother. Worse still, the foot is supposed to feel and respond to its environment. Your feet, hands and face have more nerve endings than the rest of your body put together, each for different reasons. The foot is supposed to be a sensing organ, able to make constant micro-adjustments in response to the surfaces it’s working with. Trapped inside a heavy duty running shoe it just can’t, which affects your balance and form.

As well as this, heavier duty soles have turned runners into heel strikers. Run barefoot on grass, and you’ll naturally find yourself landing with the centre-front part of your foot. That’s good running – how children run, before shoes teach them bad habits. Thick soles lead you to strike the ground towards the back of your foot. Every time you do, you’re hitting the brakes. Half of your stride becomes about slowing down, and the other half about regaining speed. The strain on your legs and joints doing this is much more than nature ever intended, and accounts for a huge proportion of running injuries. Your joints crunch together with every braking heel strike, and your muscles strain to get you back up to speed afterwards. Running on your forefoot lets you glide (well, not quite, but that’s what you’re aiming for). You’re not braking anymore, and it takes less energy to maintain the same pace.

I’m extremely flat-footed, and as a runner I over-pronate (my feet roll too far inwards when I land) because my arches don’t arch. Since getting into running, I’ve worn ever more supportive shoes to deal with this. The logic put forward in Born To Run, and since explored in more and more research, says that I’ve gone about things the wrong way. I should have been reducing the support, and letting the foot build up strength.

Put like that it’s a bit of a obvious revelation. Build up strength in your body by exercising it? Duh.

The Nike Frees are a step towards reversing things, and I can already feel the difference. The uppers are incredibly soft, and the sole is not just low (doesn’t look it in the photo, but compared to my old ASICs, they really are), but exceptionally flexible. I’m already running on my forefoot without really having to think about it (at least, until I get exhausted and what little form I have falls apart – then anything goes), and I’m running faster and easier without any other significant changes.

For these reasons, the Free is often advertised as a ‘barefoot running shoe’. That’s not right – such shoes exist, and I may eventually try them, but the Free is an ‘Intermediate’ shoe – a step towards barefoot (pun not intended, but I’ll leave it there because it’s so fitting) and away from heavily engineered footwear. I warn you, don’t suggest to a hardcore barefoot runner that the Free simulates barefoot running. I saw the results of people doing so on various message boards while I was researching the shoe. It’s like wandering into a Doctor Who convention and suggesting that Colin Baker’s time as the 6th Doctor on television was the series at its very peak. Such statements can provoke moral outrage, accusations that you are just the same as Hitler, and in rare cases may cause passionate readers to attempt to gnaw out their own eyeballs in denial of your words.

On the other hand, if you’re bored one afternoon, it can be extremely entertaining. Just type in something like “Love the Nike Frees – exactly the same as running barefoot!” into such a forum, sit back with a pot of coffee, and watch the fun.

Anyway, there you have it. A whole blog post, about my shoes. Bet you’re glad you stopped by.

Such matters are on my mind because in less than two months I’ll be running twenty-six miles through the dusty streets of Mumbai. There was a plan through which I intended to accomplish this. I liked the plan. It was a good plan.

It is an ex-plan.

Until today, I’d done bugger all running for three weeks. Not. Part. Of. The. Plan.

Mostly this was due to travel to, through, and from America – I meant to run at least a couple of times while there, but never did – and then the subsequent recovery. I finally got out the door this afternoon for what was supposed to be a gentle three miles, until my legs decided to ignore my head’s suggestion that I take things easy after the break. Three miles ended up feeling like ten. Way too fast out the door, and then I was running on empty. Pun also not intended.

Two months to go. Knackered after three miles. Frightened now.

Time to get my head, or rather my feet, down.

Before I go and worry about it some more, I’m doing the marathon with a group of friends, and we’re running for cancer.

No, that sounds wrong.

We’re running AGAINST cancer, obviously.

All funds raised are going to the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, to be  spent supporting victims and their families, as well as researching treatment. Wherever you are in the world, the research this particular charity does is a critical part of the fight against the disease. Statistically, most of the people reading here have either had cancer, currently have cancer, will have cancer, or personally knows somebody to which that statement applies. That’s a staggering thing to realise.

I’ll be running the marathon whether you give money or not, let’s be honest. However, it’s as good an excuse as any to help the fight against the Big C. You can donate here. We’d appreciate it, but more importantly, the people who’ll benefit directly from the donation will, even if they never get the chance to thank you in person.

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