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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The end of an era (my Vibrams are dying)

I suppose it was bound to happen someday.  Even though I've heard of Vibrams lasting for 1000+ miles, eventually all shoes meet their maker.  I've never really been sad about getting new running shoes.  Usually I'm pretty thrilled.  I'm an admitted running gear junkie.  So getting a shiny new piece of gear to use usually only fuels my passion for the sport.  But coming to the end with my trusty KSOs kind of feels like the end of an era to me.  These shoes really mean a lot to me.  They are a large part of who I am today.

I first heard about Vibram shoes back in 2008, when I read an article on them in Runners World.  I thought the shoes looked absolutely ridiculous.  If anything, they would be great if you wanted to pull off a Swamp Thing costume.  I also wasn't quite sure how you would use them.  The article made it seem like they were  a training tool to strengthen your feet to better run in normal trainers.  Nobody ran in these things full time right? 

I didn't need an $85 pair of rubber feet, so I put the shoes out of my mind.  And I didn't think about them again until I started my annual search for a new pair of trainers.  Even then, they seemed like just another gadget to improve your race times.  I wasn't running more than 10 miles for my long run, and logged less than 20 miles per week.  I didn't need specialty products like that, because I just didn't do anything except run for fun, or log the occasional 5K for the free t-shirt. 

I really didn't even have a reason to start looking at them again.  I could run fine in cushioned trainers.  I never got injured.  I didn't have any weird pains.  My legs hurt after my 10 mile long runs, but that seemed to be part of the experience of increasing my mileage.  I didn't have an overwhelming urge to feel the ground beneath my feet.  In fact, I found the ground to be rather unpleasant, dirty, and cold. 

The whim

But I'm one of those guys that can't watch infomercials.  If someone pitches a product to me well enough, I'm going to have that product in my living room within 6-8 weeks.  That's how we came to have a Bowflex, a series of pilates videos, a Magic Bullet, and a ton of other stuff in our home at one time or another.  I have seriously considered asking the Made for TV store to permanently exclude me from the premises. 

Now I don't just buy anything that is pitched to me.  Otherwise I'd have a closet full of commemorative coins and a Snuggie (which I actually think makes you look like a monk...especially the red one).  I buy in to concepts that make logical sense.  And when I went to the Vibram website to revisit the shoes, that's what happened.

For those of you who are into barefoot or minimalist running, you probably know how it went down.  I read a few articles about how shoes throw off our body's natural movement.  I read about how they significantly increase impact forces on your body.  I read that people were taking off their shoes in droves and running, sometimes for the first time, without pain or injury.  Let's just say that barefoot running just made sense to me.

But even with all of us barefooters trying to spread the message of "barefoot first, then minimalist shoes", I don't think that message will ever fully reach the vast majority of noobs to the sport.  It certainly didn't reach me at first.  That's because minimalist shoe companies promise that same barefoot feel, but with the protection from the ground you really need.  I think that's a really good marketing strategy.  One that beats ours by a mile.  And with my attitude towards the ground being what it was, I brushed off the advice of sages like Ken Bob and went to my local Vibram retailer to try some on.

The revelation

I know that for outsiders to the sport, it's hard to imagine that putting on a pair of new shoes could rival a religious conversion.  And I'm not saying that putting on that pair of Vibram KSOs for the first time was equivalent to The Rapture.  I will say that it is a sensory experience that I will never forget.  For the first time, while wearing a shoe, I felt like I wasn't.  I could feel my toes, I could feel the ground, I could feel the air around me.  And I really...really...really liked it.  I bought the shoes after wearing them for less than a minute.  I didn't even have to walk or run in them.  I just knew they were for me. 

Since I bought them over my lunch hour at work, I couldn't wear them again for several hours.  But the minute it was time for my nightly run, I slipped the shoes on and proudly walked into the living room.  "Something's wrong with you." my wife commented.  She also said something like, "You're going to run in those?"

Actually, I was doubting myself too.  Would I hurt my feet if I went out for a run in these?  How was I supposed to run?  How far?  How fast?  I hadn't really done my homework in that area.  But I figured a little 2 mile run might do the trick.

NOTE TO READERS: My transition story is considered pretty unusual in the sport.  I did not do my homework, and I do not recommend transitioning to barefoot or minimalist running the way I did.  I'm lucky that I transitioned quickly...but I am also just as lucky that I didn't break my feet within a week.  Don't try this at home!

I started out the door, and within five steps, I dragged my left big toe across the pavement.  Wholly shit did that hurt!  I looked down at my foot to assess the damage.  I had ripped a small hole in the fabric upper of my left shoe.  Really?  Five steps and I'm already breaking these things?  What a rip off!

But I decided to see how they would last for the rest of the run before deciding whether to return them.  I started off again.  I noticed that my feet were hitting the pavement really hard.  Almost like a slap.  And it hurt a little bit.  I tried to lighten my step by shortening my stride and putting my foot down softer.  I started along again.

I made the first turn in my 2-mile loop, and assessed how I was doing.  I felt great!  Normally my trainers caused a certain amount of heaviness in my legs.  But with these shoes on, I had a spring in my step.  My stride was short and quick.  I felt like I was flying.  I must have been going at least a minute per mile faster than my normal pace. 

The ground didn't feel hard like I expected.  It felt comfortable.  It was firm, but not hard or painful.  I didn't miss the squishy feeling that I got from the insoles of my trainers.  I enjoyed the textures of the chipseal on the trail, and the unevenness of the still melting ice and snow.  I purposely aimed for unevenness in the road to see how it felt.  I loved feeling different textures beneath my feet.  What a cool new experience!

The conversion

I haven't run in my trainers since.  I had every intention of doing so.  The guy at the store where I bought my Vibrams told me not to use them full-time.  He said that barefoot running wasn't good for anything other than improving your foot strength.  He only used his Vibrams for cool down drills.

But every time I sat down in the garage to select my running shoes, I always ended up in my KSOs.  I ran 3 miles the next day, and 4 miles the next.  I knew I was supposed to allow my feet to rest, but I couldn't.  I ran 6 miles the day after.  My calves were sore, but they didn't hurt.  My feet didn't hurt at all.

Most importantly, I felt really good.  Like I'd never felt before while running.  I felt like I was flying over the ground.  Instead of feeling fatigued the whole time like I did in trainers, I felt light and fast.  I didn't breath hard anymore.  Running was easy.

I went 12 miles that weekend.  I had never run that far before.  In fact, I would describe my previous 10 mile attempts as "death marches".  I would lumber through the first 6 miles, then crawl through the next 2 miles.  Mile 9 involved mostly walking.  By mile 10, my hips and ankles were so sore that I could barely do that. 

But that weekend I cruised through 12 miles like I had been running that distance for years.  I ran the whole way, at the same pace.  I ended the run feeling like I could have gone further.  After that day I knew I was never going to run in normal trainers again.

The transformation

A couple months earlier I had signed up for my first half marathon.  My intentions at the time were to survive it.  Now I was determined to race it.  I was more motivated about running than I had ever been.  I couldn't wait to get home from work to go running again.  Each day, I was more excited about running than the last.

I finished that half marathon and immediately signed up for my first marathon.  Then I did another.  In between I ran all kinds of 5Ks and fun runs.

In the midst of all of that, I also started listening to folks like Ken Bob.  I figured if minimalist running was such a great sensory experience, barefoot running must be even better.  I didn't believe all of that mumbo-jumbo about "barefoot is best" for things like form.  I thought my form was pretty good.  I didn't see how having a bit more ground feel would make it better.  I took my shoes off for the first time to see what it felt like.

It felt weird.  I felt very naked and vulnerable.  I felt like I was doing something I wasn't supposed to be doing.  At the same time, that made me feel very liberated.  And as I started along down my normal 2-mile loop, it felt very comfortable.  I enjoyed the different sensations that I didn't get from my KSOs, the temperature of the pavement, and the subtle variations.  Having nothing on my feet made my muscles relax.  This was even more comfortable and free than my KSOs.

Then I turned the corner onto the chipseal running path.  The pebbles felt like running on tacks.  The pain in my feet radiated up my legs.  My feet burned from the roughness of the trail.  I slowed to a crawl, but tried to keep on shuffling just to be done with it.  Somehow I made it back home.

I looked down at my feet to assess the damage.  Blisters on my toes...blisters on the balls of my feet.  My feet were covered in dirt and blood.  Who does this to themselves?!  I didn't run barefoot much after that.

A couple weeks later I was doing a 9 mile taper run around a beautiful lake in my neighborhood.  It was very humid, and I was melting in the heat.  The sun was baking my feet in my KSOs and Injinji socks, so I decided to take them off.  The trail felt smooth and silky under my feet.  I was 3 miles into my run, and decided that I would put my shoes back on if anything went wrong.  It never did.  I ran barefoot for the first time without incident. 

I loved the new sensations of feeling the wetness and cold of puddles.  The variation of terrain in running over sticks, and dirt, and all of them mixed together.  The subtle differences in terrain and temperature.  I had run around this lake a lot, but with my shoes off I felt like I was doing it again for the first time.

The end of an era?

It was summer time, and barefoot running was starting to click for me.  So I didn't wear my KSOs much after that.  I went from 5 runs per week in KSOs, to 5 runs per week barefoot.  I put my KSOs on for races, and when my feet were banged up from a rough run the day prior. 

But they remained my favorite shoe.  As I sit here today, I still can't recommend a shoe that is better.  The Vibram KSO still stands in my mind as the shoe that can do it all.  Sure there are shoes that do things better.  The huarache is lighter, but tying it is a pain in the ass.  The Terra Plana EVO looks more normal, but it's heavy and has less ground feel.  The KSO will always be king of the minimalist shoes for me.  And my first pair will always have a special place in my heart. 

I think we get that attachment that I have to these shoes when they play a part in some transformative part of your life.  Barefoot running has taken me a lot of places since I bought those KSOs several years ago.  It has transformed my running as well as my personal life.  I have exceeded all of my expectations for what is possible in my running.  I went from running 20 miles per week to looking to run an ultra marathon.  I've taken running from something that I do as a hobby to something I do as a passion. 

I feel like it's responsible for my star rising a little bit in the community as well.  I'm still uncomfortable with being a little more public of a person.  But I also take some pride in knowing that I'm helping people enjoy the sport that I love.  I've communicated with people all over the world who share my passion for the sport.  People in my community look to me with their questions about the sport.  I try to be a good ambassador for the sport.   I've done radio and newspaper interviews.  I became President of the Minnesota Chapter of the Barefoot Runners Society.  I started this blog, which I think has done pretty well.

Do I owe it all to coincidental shoe choice?  You better believe it.  I don't think I could have gotten here without my trusty Vibram KSOs.

Then a week ago, I was doing a winter long run and really feeling a lot of tightness in my right hamstring.  That tightness made my leg swing a bit lower, and I stubbed my toe on the pavement not once...not twice...but three times.  I broke my toenail on my big toe, bled all over my shoes, and made another sizeable hole in them.

I really think that run will be the last day I run in those shoes.  I haven't run in them since, and I feel weird about running in them again.  With all the reviews I'm doing lately, I have a ton of gear lying around.  I'm always reaching for other options. 

I remarked to myself that it was funny that my last day in the shoes was very much like the first...me stumbling around like a dumbass.  At the same time, I consider the event a good way to close out what seems like the first leg of my barefoot running journey.  I've kind of established myself in the barefoot world and got a lot of things going in the past two years.  I'm not a veteran by any means, but it seems like people are starting to listen to me.  I still think the joke is on you guys...but I'm fine playing along. 

The snow is melting, and I'm heading into a new running season for the first time as a barefoot "veteran".  I'm anxious to see what the future holds for me this year and in years to come.

So thank you Vibram KSOs...for everything.  And goodbye...


  1. I loved reading about your revelation and how you got started. You transitioned really quickly! I share a lot of the same feelings that you do. The feel of the ground is incredible and hard to describe to someone who hasn't done it. Great story!

  2. Yeah, I did transition very quickly. I was always worried about hurting myself, but now that I am fully transitioned I don't think I could do it any other way.

    I tend to be of the opinion that your transition doesn't need to take as long as most "experts" say it should. I think that unless you're a complete running noob, you should be able to completely transition in less than a month.

    But of course, I don't recommend that to others...and nobody else will either because they can't give you more aggressive advice because it's their asses if you get hurt following their plan.

  3. That was one of the best BF related blog posts I have ever read. Thanks for taking the time to write it up. I am passing this along. BTW, you think you're paleo? I know a guy...

  4. "I tend to be of the opinion that your transition doesn't need to take as long as most "experts" say it should. I think that unless you're a complete running noob, you should be able to completely transition in less than a month."

    I disagree. I am a year in to the transition and have yet to hit my shod mileage. Folks are different, eh?

  5. Felt the same way the first time I put on my KSOs. The clouds parted, a beam of sunlight hit my feet, the hippies in the health food store that sold VFFs began a wordless chant.

  6. So is there another minimalist replacement?

  7. Thanks to a recent incident on an icy road, my KSO's also have a bloody hole in the right big toe!

    2 years ago when I first bought these shoes, my wife (a vicious heel striker) reacted to my KSOs in much the same way as yours did. My "Five Fingers" were soon referred to as "gorilla shoes" which then got transmogrified to "girly shoes".

    Now, unbelievably, she's encouraging me to buy a new pair.

    Maybe she's starting to see the light? More likely, she is cutting her losses, and just would rather be seen with a nice guy in dorky shoes than with a guy who looks homeless in his beat-up and bloody dorky shoes.

  8. My transition started almost exactly like yours. I did not research. I slapped the KSOs on my feet and did an 8 mile run that hurt like hell when I was done. I was only going to run a mile or two, but it felt so good. My calf muscles were not ready for the transition.

    I retired my KSOs after 6 weeks-split the seams and that was that. I run barefoot, carry my huaraches as a "spare" or run in the Evos when I am on heavy gravel trails.

    I have not run in regular running shoes for 3 months. Don't think I could go back. The Evos and 5 fingers are my only shoe options.

  9. Just starting the barefoot thing-I have VFF Bikilas and LOVe them! But have only put 120 miles on them and have worn the soles completely through! I know they should last longer-anyone out there-what happened -andI love them and wan to run in them-but I can't buy new ones once a month! Help!

  10. Hi Sally,

    I've never owned the Bikilas, but I've heard reports that they occasionally wear out much faster than other kinds of Vibrams. I have heard horror stories of Bikilas breaking after 5 miles! Vibram has been having some quality issues now that they are a bigger company.

    You won't have that same experience with every pair of Vibrams. It was a fluke. But it is becoming more common.

    Thanks for reading!

  11. You are SO inspiring, Christian! I love reading your posts, and it's great having you as a role model!

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