Saturday, January 2, 2010

the Disencumbered Athlete

It starts out fun: running, biking, swimming, working out. You make huge leaps and notice improvements daily. Then, we get greedy. We buy better shoes, lighter tires, slicker wetsuits, tastier shakes. That's when the trouble starts.

I entered the world of "multisport" a tad over two years ago, when a friend invited me to try my hand at a triathlon with her in Long Branch, NJ. I already had decent fitness on a bike, having bought a road bike the summer before as a way to save gas by commuting to work, so I simply needed to make sure I could run and swim well enough to finish. Oh, there was a small goal I had to accomplish, too: our coworkers made it clear that if Heather beat me, I'd never live it down.

Training for your first race can be easy, if you're ignorant; lucky for me, I was. A few times on my 8-10 mile ride home from work (which led over one of the tallest of the small northwestern NJ mountains of Sussex County) in the month preceding the September race, I'd dismount my bike, swap my cleats for the Nike Air-somethings I picked up at Marshalls, shoulder the bike, and run for about a mile or two on a back country road, my riding gear stashed in my pack. Oh, and I stopped once at the YMCA and bought a one-day pass to practice my swim.

I almost dropped out of that race, late September in 2007. I exited the water dead last, my cheap surfer's wetsuit dripping freezing water as I walked from the ocean that I thought would claim my life. My friends, noticing my frustration, talked me into getting on the bike and making the most of it anyway. Then I passed someone. And someone else. Suddenly, I realized that the swim, which was cut short due to the current, wasn't long enough to damage my time very badly. By the end of the bike leg, I was passing groups of riders, and felt like a man on a mission. In the end, my overall time was enough for 4th place. It may have been an unofficial, fun-style event, but 4th in a race of over 400 was enough to get me hooked.

After that race, I began to take training more seriously. I rode and ran throughout the winter. I got a membership at the gym to use their pool. I upgraded my bike. And, to help me run better, I bought my first pair of 'real' running shoes, complete with dual-density medial posts to help my horrible running form.
Things were going great. I placed often in my age group at various local events. I entered a few cycling races and didn't do too bad. Then, in late 2008, after moving to Philadelphia, I heard about the National Duathlon Championships, which was a qualifier for the World event, held in the US in 2009. I was determined to enter and do well, so I began the most intense training plan I had ever undertaken.
I wasn't concerned about my skills on the bike; I could hold over 24mph on a 40k course, so I would have more time to devote to my running; I'd have to turn myself from a 6:20ish paced 5k'er to a sub-6 paced 10k'er. The more I ran, the faster I got, but the more I hurt.
The pain started little; callouses started to form between my toes, which eventually started making my toes swell and ache. The aching became worse; I began to limp when I wasn't running. By the time the race came, my best form had come and gone; I wasn't able to run seriously for most of the month of April, and my foot even hurt on the bike. When race day came, though, I gave it all I had, and qualified for Team USA by the skin of my teeth (via a roll-down spot).
My dreams came true, but I was dreading my next step: I'd have to face my fears and check out my foot. Before seeing a doctor, I went to my friend, the owner of custom bicycle shop and very knowledgable about the world of multisport racing. He said he had good news: plantar fasciitus. Easily cured by the use of proper shoes and lots of barefoot therapy, involving stretching and working out sans shoes. I took his advice one step further.

After moving to Philly for school the previous fall, I got a part time job at a sports store, and had been selling shoes for quite a while. I also had the opportunity to test plenty of shoes while I was there, but I couldn't find what I was looking for: I wanted a modern shoe with a flat sole. You see, as a kid, I ran fine in Chucks. I didn't heel strike until I really started trying to raise my mileage, but for some reason, I couldn't stop, even though I really believed this was where my problems stemed from. I tried cross-country shoes, but the pair I had were too narrow. In my store, there were two other shoes left to try: the Newtons and the Vibrams, and both had been intriguing me since I started at the store. With working out barefoot a new part of my plan anyway, I took the plunge and bought a pair of KSOs. And just like that, I saw the light.
Really! I had always imagined they'd be great for the track, and knew if I had them I'd try them on the road, but at that time, I hadn't heard of anyone actually using them for this. Our store might have sold 6 pairs since I started there, but I think it had been much less than that. Still, I believed in them, and I knew inherently that I should start out easy. By the end of my second week, though, I was using them on every other run, and running up to 5 miles at a good pace in them, rubbing my calves intensely afterward. I didn't care if the soreness ever left my muscles, though- the battle was already won for me. 6 months of foot pain was a distant memory by the end of that second week; it would only rear its ugly head again if I spent many hours in a shoe.
Around that same week, people started coming into my store asking about the "toe shoes". I heard stories of a book, and of television interviews, and of people all over changing the way they thought of running shoes. And then they'd notice I was wearing them. The funny thing was, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for the shoes that freed my foot, but thought I'd have a hard time doing it; instead, I soon found that our customers couldn't get enough of my own success story. But that was only the beginning...

By the end of summer, I was running sub-5:30 miles in short course duathlons, though I still wasn't ready to race without my flats; the Vibrams were only for training. When the World Championships rolled around, though, I was seriously doubting my shoe choice; I really thought it would be a mistake to pull out the flats when my Vibrams were what made me so fast. Still, I ran in my Sauconys. I averaged 6:05s for the first 10k; not my best, but not bad considering the rain. My bike time, too, was respectable; I averaged over 24 despite the downpours, tight turns, and slick roads. It came down to the final run, and I was feeling fast. I took off into the course expecting to pull 5:30s, but instead I was brought to a standstill with a hip pain I couldn't deal with. The worst part was that I knew what caused it. I took off my shoes, and I felt good enough to run. Even though the rock-strewn road made good times impossible, I finished the race- with my shoes held high. I swore I was done with them, and I am.

Don't get me wrong; I don't hate shoes, and I'm always looking for something good to come out. Maybe one day I'll get a free pair of Newtons to try, or maybe one of the companies will offer that modern shoe with a flat sole I've been looking for. But why wait? I ran my first marathon this year- in KSO Treks. I crossed the line in Philly with a 3:36; not the time I had hoped for, but not bad, either. I'll work on that this year, with better eating habits (I lost 10 minutes during my two portapotty stops!) and more experience. And the duathlons? This year, I'll be leaving five toeprints on the way out of transition. I might even try some fancy new platform pedal on the bike. I've been disencumbered, and I feel great.

If you've read this far, you have an idea where I'm coming from. I'll blog about running. I'll blog about barefooting, proper form, and the choices I make. I'll blog about biking. I'll blog about eating, drinking, racing, training. I'll blog about jogging with the dog, through the town, or in the woods. I might even blog about the weather. Respond to anything, ask a question. But if you haven't done so in years, throw off your shoes and run for a bit. How good does that feel? Fun? It should be. I may not be the first to say this, but it bears repeating: the fun is where it's at.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome story! I look forward to reading more of your posts. I got my first pair of KSO's last spring and have never looked back!