Thursday, August 15, 2013

Running Shoe Philosophy

Hoka Test Run & Some Personal Thoughts on Shoes and the Philosophy of Running 

Last night I ran 6 miles in Hokas (Stinson EVO Trail, size 12) in Brecksville trails (with the Wednesday night Trail Seekers Group, organized by Vertical Runner of Brecksville – - the shoes were given to us to try, courtesy Jerome of Hoka).  This is how these shoes look:

I would like to share my initial impressions from these shoes, plus discuss some other trail shoes I use  plus share some personal/philosophical thoughts on trail running and shoes.

Background: I ran in traditional running shoes from 2000 to 2011. I started running trails in 2007. My first trail shoes was a pair of Salomons. I liked these shoes and became obsessed with Salomon and eventually settled for SpeedCross as my standard trail shoes. These shoes are now in their 3rd version (I was running in the original no. 1 version). They are rather bulky with a 10mm heel drop and aggressive bottoms as you can see in this picture:

In March of 2011 I developed a pain on the side of my left knee (iliotibial band syndrome, ITBS) after ramping up my road training for Boston, adding distance and hills.

This was my 2nd time battling ITBS. The first time was after my first marathon in 2004 on my right knee. After trying just about everything, I solved the problem with the PatStrap. (Note: The patstrap worked miraculously for me in 2004, but it has not worked for a lot of people with this condition, including myself in 2011... Still worth trying, considering how inexpensive this solution is.)

In 2011 I got ITBS again, but this time on the opposite knee.  I tried the strap but it did not work. I tried ART, it did not work.  I tried different shoes and shoe inserts, making the shoes more padded, and it actually got worse. Finally, the problem was solved when I switched to minimalist shoes (shoes with minimal padding - a pair of Fila Skele-Toes).  ITB became a shoe barometer.  Within minutes of trying a new shoe, I knew if it was going to work or not.  What I found out is that it is the padding not the weight of the shoe that is a problem. Some lightweight shoes (Nike Free, for example) did not work because of the padding.

Since then, I became a big fan of lightweight/minimalist shoes. I tried the Vibrams but they were too minimalist for me (and I got a pain in my left heel trying to run too fast in them.) Finally, I settled for the New Balance Trail Minimus shoes (the original version with 4mm heel drop.)

I used these shoes for all my 50Ks in 2011 and early 2012, plus at the Towpath Marathon and in road races for distances of half-marathon or less (for road marathons I used the NB Road Minimus). The NB Trail Minimus shoes worked very well for me. Since I was coming back from an injury I increased my mileage slowly. The shoes felt really comfortable but after my first long trail runs it felt as if someone had beaten the bottom of my feet with a baseball bat!

Eventually I got used to these shoes and ran some great/fast 50Ks. I got to the point where it was impossible to go back to the Salomon SpeedCross (I tried my old pair and they felt too big and unstable since they were worn more on one side, I threw them away.) One advantage of the lightweight shoes is that they wear more evenly and slowly bring you closer to the ground. Here is a picture of my first pair of NB Trail Minimus after lots and lots of miles.  The uppers are separated and you can see wear at the bottom (still striking my heel I guess).  In a thin shoe, this kind of wear is less of a problem than a thick shoe.

Just before Mohican 50 in 2012 I tried the New Balance MT110 and I liked them. A little more padded than the Minimus but still plenty minimalist.  I like the fact that they have a steel plate which protects my feet and makes running in uneven trails a bit easier. In 2012 I ran Mohican 50 and BT50K in 2012 in record time with a pair of NB MT110, just like these ones:

For Burning River (BR) 100 in 2012 I used the NB110 for the first 40 miles and then switched to Brooks PureGrit (original, not v. 2) for the last 60 miles. The PureGrit are lightweight but have a LOT of padding. I call them “my Hokas”. They work well when the ground is hard with rocks and roots and they definitely cause less pain/discomfort in longer distances. Plus, they have a wide toe box and run a bit larger, so I get no blisters from my standard size 12 pair.

During the winter of 2013 I was experimenting running in roads with some minimalist Inov-8 shoes that are more appropriate for Corss-Fit than running, and started having some issues with my lower foot (heel/Achilles pain on the left foot and general feeling of tireness/pain the next day after running/racing fast). At this point I started running more in the Brooks PureGrit, and also Inov-8 X-Talon 212, seen here:

For Mohican 50 this year (2013) I used the Inov-8 for the first loop and switched to PureGrit (with great relief!) in the second loop. In BR100 I switched between these two shoes (2 pairs of each, 4 shoe switches) and it worked OK. The X-Talon 212 worked very well in the muddy parts of the course (like the “bog of despair” between Meadows and Snowville - the best way to run these sections is fast through the mud with a lightweight shoe with good traction control and the Inov-8 X-Talon 212 is perfect for this.)

Back to the Hokas:

I had a feeling that I would not like the thick padding of the Hokas but I wanted to see what the fuss is all about. I was especially curious since some of my friends are running and racing very well in Hokas.

So, here are my initial impressions for the Hokas:

  • Overall I got a favorable impression, which surprised me. I had no issues running with them (I did not feel unbalanced or at risk of twisting my ankle) and I enjoyed the ride. The shoe fits well and it has a wide toe box so I am sure I will not be getting any blisters from them. 
  •  They are definitely better for running on hard ground with rocks/roots. You can step over the small rocks/roots without worrying about hurting yourself. 
  •  In downhills they are amazing! They promote/support very fast running thanks to the soft landing and not worrying about small rocks etc. Running fast downhill in hard trails in these shoes is a blast!
  •  In flat/soft surfaces and in uphills they do not have an advantage, in my opinion. It seems that I need to lift my legs a bit more than I am used to. In sand/grass/irregular surfaces especially, they are problematic and possibly slower than less padded shoes. 
  •  Racing on a mixed course (up/down, soft/hard), like the one I ran yesterday, I am not sure that I can run faster with these shoes. Whatever I gain by running downhill faster I believe I lose by walking uphill a bit slower. 
  •  Most people say that Hokas are good for recovery runs. Some people switched to Hokas to solve issues with their lower foot. I see how these shoes “pumper” my lower feet but I am not sure on the effect on the knees or hips (I have the feeling that they are harder on these parts, until you get used to them). I cannot forget that it was a knee problem (ITBS) that led me to lightweight shoes in the first place.
  • I see how these shoes can have an advantage in courses like part of the Western States 100 (rocky and downhill). It seems that this is the shoe recommended for this course. But I am not sure about our local (N. Ohio) trails. This year we had a lot of snow and rain so the trails were muddy/wet/soft, not the type of surface where Hokas work best. Still, it seems that some people (like my friends Jim Heun and Jim Mann) race well in Hokas even in muddy trails. 

Finally, there is the philosophical question of trail running. Trails have irregular surfaces with roots and rocks (among other features). Does it make sense to wear a shoe that makes your feet oblivious to these irregularities? Shouldn’t you embrace the rough surface instead of trying to avoid it?

When I ask this question, people give me funny looks. “You mean we should torture ourselves?” No, I mean experience the trail in its full glory. Many runners could get used to running with either type of shoes (minimalist vs. well-padded). I think there is an advantage to running trails with minimalist shoes. Your feet grow stronger and you experience the trail better. If you have a particular issue for which Hokas (or other padded shoes) is the answer that allows you to continue running, then by all means use these shoes. But if you are a versatile runner whose feet can adapt to many different shoes, I’d say go with the less padding which potentially can make you a faster and stronger runner.

One last note on the philosophy or running: Minimalist shoes are a part of my minimalist running philosophy which also includes such aspects of running as clothing, gadgets and nutrition. I find that I enjoy running with a minimum amount of equipment/food. I tried compression socks when I was experiencing calf pain. I think in the end they hurt me (in BR100 in 2012 for example) so no more compression socks for me. I believe that a minimum amount of loose fitting clothing works best. I occasionally run with GPS and some times with music (especially in boring solitary winter road runs when there is nothing to see or hear) but lately I have been enjoying running/racing without GPS. (But a good headlight at night is a must, and carrying a cell phone is a good safety practice.) Nutrition: No fancy backpacks, no gels/electrolytes or processed food for me. I eat a good breakfast before and a good lunch/dinner after a run. I only have real food as needed during the run (and it is not needed for 20 miles or even for a 50K). I carry a hand-held bottle and drink plain water to thirst. Lightweight shoes fit right in with my minimalist running philosophy.

Shoes – My Bottom Line:

There are a lot of shoes out there, with companies coming up with new models every year. Finding a shoe that you like can be confusing. I am sure I could run with just about any pair of shoes that offers decent protection. I tend to stick with pairs that I have used and like and I am not inclined to experiment with new pairs often.

I tried the Hokas out of curiosity to see what the fuss is all about. I enjoyed my test run with these shoes. I see how Hokas can work well for some people who want extra protection and padding, but I will pass on them (and other extra padded shoes that are becoming popular right now) and stick with the shoes that I am using at the present time:
  • Brooks PureGrit (original model, not v. 2) if I need the padding for recovery or in hard trails with rocks/roots.  This is a good compromise for a padded shoe, more than most minimalist shoes but less than the Hokas. These shoes however are slippery and not a good choice on muddy courses or wet rock/wood. 
  • Inov-8 X-Talon 212 (or 190 which feel more comfortable but do not last as long as the 212) for muddy courses where I need a good grip. Note that even these shoes are slippery on wet wood or on ice as I learned the hard way last year when I fell hard on icy ground in a Buzzard 50K training run. I am thinking of putting screws in my older PureGrit pair, to solve this problem next year. Also, the X-Talons 212 have a narrow toe box and I think they run a bit smaller than the 190. My feet suffered (lost nails and some blisters) at BR100 running for long distances (feet swollen) in them. I am now trying size 12 ½ instead of 12. 
These are my main trail shoes at the present time.  But now that my feet have recovered from the heel/Achilles pain I mentioned earlier I will start using again the NB Trail Minimus and NB110 pairs that I have.  I am still looking for a good road shoe for the winter road runs and the upcoming road marathon races.

Hokas or barefoot, run well my friends!

Update (4/4/2014)

I read again what I wrote back in August and my ideas about shoes and shoe selection have not changed a bit.  I still wear the same shoes:

  • New Balance MT110: For lightweight trail running
  • Brooks PureGrit: For padded trail running and also roads
  • Inov-8 X-Talon 212 and 190: For muddy/slippery trails

I am happy I am able to find these shoes new usually under $50/pair.

What has surprised me a bit in the last year is the new wave of maximalism.  Especially the popularity of Hokas (mostly among women, for some reason).   

Here, I am standing in the front line of the Fools 50K race, in what turns out to be snowy, slippery, and muddy (in the 2nd half) race, I look down and see that 3 out of 4 runners around me are wearing Hokas!  This surprised me because Hokas are not a good choice for this terrain.  But, at least I know that the woman who won first female in this race did not wear her Hokas exactly because of the slippery terrain.

I think the most reasonable advice when it comes to shoe selection is not to be married to one type of shoes, but alternate between different types.  This is not a new advice.  I have a book about marathon running from the 70s where the author says (writing out of memory) "while other runners carry a suitcase full of pain pills, I carry a suitcase full of different running shoes."  His advice for healthy feet is to run in different types of shoes.  Mixing different types of running surfaces (track, roads, trails) is a good advice too.

Here is a blog from a minimalist shoe enthusiast which reviews the current state of maximalist shoe invasion and reflects the advice of alternating shoes:

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mohican 50, 2013

Mohican 50 is the easiest ultra marathon I have ever run! 

I know many runners will not agree with this statement but this is how I truly feel about Mohican.  Most runners say that Mohican is a difficult race and that the course is hard with mostly technical trails and lots of hills.  I think it is a wonderful course.  Very runable, very scenic, with soft trails, well drained (no/very little mud), a real pleasure to run.  Hills?  Yes, there are hills…. but there are hills in almost every trail 50K.  I honestly find Mohican easier than the Buckeye trail and easier than just about any 50K I have run in Ohio.

I have run Mohican 50 three times now:  2010 (my first 50 miler), 2012 (my second 50 miler), 2013 (my 4th 50 miler).  All three times I finished under 10 hours.  My best race was last year. I finished 7th overall with 8:37 (see:

I love the new (since 2011) course.  The 25 mile loop is perfect.  It is long enough not to be boring (if you want to see boring, try running a 5 mile loop – 50s for yo Momma, or even a 10 mile loop) but short enough to learn the course if you are running it 2 times (for 50 miles) or 4 times (for 100 miles).  After I get to the Covered Bridge aid station, I feel that the loop is almost over, even though I am in the middle of it.  I can visualize what happens next: A series of steep hills which I will walk, some flat parts that I will run.  Then I reach the top and turn left.  Two miles of beautiful runable and mostly downhill trails follow, that bring me to the last aid station.  From there it is 6 miles to the end, mostly downhill.  If this is my last loop, I will run these miles fast, knowing that “the end is near.”

I was planning to run the 100 mile race this year at Mohican, but, as the time for the race approached, I lost confidence in my ability to run 100 miles.  Why did that happen?

The year started well:
  • Run for Regis 50K in January, I finished with the excellent time of 5:22 on a very muddy course (a heat wave caused all the snow to melt on race day, and turned into mud)
  • Green Jewel 50K (March 2), a road race, went OK
  • Buzzard 50K (March 23), inaugural trail race, 5:01
  • Fools 50K (April 7), 5:17 on a rather warm day (we were not used to that)

Then, cracks started to appear:
  • I did not show up for Forget the PR 50K (April 28) because the previous day I had run the Hermes 10 miler and my feet (and back) were hurting.
  • 50s for Yo Momma (May 11) was a torture.  I finished the 50 miler in 11:18, fighting my desire to quit as early as 25 miles into the race.  That’s when I first started doubting that I can run 100 miles at Mohican.
  • I had a bad training run at Mohican on May 26.  Attempting to run just one loop, I ran out of steam.  That left me thinking: “How can I run 100 miles if I have trouble finishing 23 miles on the same course?”
  • Buckeye Buster 50K (June 1) was a disaster.  A hot day, indigestion, flies eating me alive… I lost my desire to run (how is that for an excuse?) and dropped out after 2 loops (20 miles).  This is my only DNF in many-many years and busted my confidence seriously.

Somewhere along the way I developed a pain in the heel/Achilles tendon on my left leg.  And my back felt stiff at times.  These “failures” and health issues shuttered my confidence. 

The way I saw it, I had two options for Mohican: 1) Struggle to finish 100 with lots of pain and suffering, 2) Enjoy the day by racing 50 miles.

I opted for #2.

Right before Mohican I went to a week-long 3d conference.  I was very busy and in one week I only ran two days, a total of 10 miles.  I came back on Tuesday before the race. I ran 5 miles on Wednesday and took the day off Thursday (I went to the pool for some water-stretching) and Friday (we drove to Mohican in the afternoon.)  So, I went to Mohican well-rested.

Friday was the pre-race meeting.  A chance to meet and socialize with fellow runners.  A new location this year, across the street from the campout.

A nice Mohican benefit: Free beer for two days!

I had a late dinner at the Mohican lodge and the next morning I was not hungry.  So I broke my routine of a good morning race breakfast and just drank water (I was thirsty) and ate an orange.

The 50 mile race started at 6am (the 100 mile race started at 5 am and the marathon at 8 am).  The weather was great, 50s in the morning warming to 80s (but cool inside the shaded trails).  There was a record of about 200 runners running the 50 miles this year, including many local running friends.  I was happy to see Clara Clemens a running friend from Indiana (we had met at the winter BT50K/Run for Regis races).  After a couple of failed attempts at 100 she was running (and successfully finished) the 50.

Here is a map of the course:

As Roy Heger said, don’t pay attention to this map, it will just confuse you.  The course consists of a long ~25 mile loop, which we run clockwise.  Each section (from aid station to aid station) has its own character. 

The first section (Mohican Adventures to Gorge Overlook Aid Station, 4.3 Miles) had a lot of hills.  Considering my low morale (I was not even sure I could finish 50 miles, even though I had an ambitious goal of 10 hours.) I started running conservatively and walked most of the hills in this section.  I remember following a lady with pink socks, and a guy with orange duct tape in his shoes.  It was his first 50 miler and he was walking the hills.

The second section (Gorge Overlook to Fire Tower Aid Station, 4.5 Miles) was a bit easier but it felt long at times, especially towards the end when it felt as if we were circling around the aid station.

The third section (Fire Tower to Covered Bridge, 6.2 miles the first time around – long loop -, or 2.6 miles – short loop), is one of the most beautiful sections, especially the “enchanted valley” of the long loop.  I took my time to enjoy the scenery in this section.

It was also in this section that I started passing some of the 100 mile runners, covering our one hour starting time difference.  Kali Price was one of the first 100 mile runners that I passed. I thought that she was injured, running so slow, but this was part of her race strategy, slow and steady, a strategy that gave her a 3rd place overall finish!  Some other 100 mile runners I remember passing: Ron Ross, and Paul Lefelhocz, both running a clever slow race.  It was also at this section that I heard someone coming from behind and following me. I glanced briefly and I thought it was a Japanese lady or man.  After running like that for a while, I let them pass me… and who do I see?  Sunita Sethia (seen here going down the steps by Lyons Falls):

I met Sunita at the Buckeye Buster 50K when she came from the back, to pass in the 2nd loop and finish first female in this race, her first 50K.  A similar thing happened at Mohican.  She started slower than me and passed me in this section and continued running strong, her first 50 mile race.

After the Pleasant Hill Dam, and while running on a gravel flat road, I lost my balance, fell really hard and skidded across the gravel, hurting my hands, feet, and chest, and slamming my brand new 3d camera on the ground (I was running holding a camera on my hands in the first loop).  I quickly got up, pretending that nothing happened… "Are you OK?"  “Yes, I am fine” I said to the runners around me. But I was bleeding and hurting, especially my chest when trying to breath deep or cough. (It is still hurting, a week after the race.)

Right after the Covered Bridge Aid Station I caught up with Sunita and the guy with the orange masking tape in his shoes.  The three of us ran most of the next section (Covered Bridge to Hickory Ridge, 5.5 Miles).  We passed quite a few 100 mile runners in this section, including Kimberly Durst and Anastasia Supergirl Rolek.  At the Hickory Ridge aid station I caught up with Martini Mike and Jennifer Yaros. They both seemed to be doing well.  Here is Jennifer at the Hickory Ridge aid station:

From Hickory Ridge to the Mohican Adventures is about 6 miles, and this completes the first loop.  I have mixed feelings about this section.  It reminds me of the Buckeye Trail with lots of rocks and tree roots.  It is easy in theory since it is mostly downhill, but, depending on your state of running at this point, this section can feel hard or easy. It felt hard and I walked most of it during my less-than-stellar training run a few weeks ago.  It felt OK (average) during this first loop.  It felt really easy and fast during the second loop both this year and last year.

At the aid station at Mohican Adventures I spent some time to eat and change shoes.  Sue Angell (crewing for Pam Pickel) made me a delicious cheese sandwich which I thoroughly enjoyed (now I know what I want for BR100!) plus I ate some of my own food (nuts, cheese and potato chips), and some fruit from the aid station. 

Regarding shoes, I switched from the very lightweight New Balance MT110 to the more padded (I call them my “Hokas”) Brooks PureGrit. Changing shoes (and socks) was a great idea... It made my feet feel “like new” and the extra padding helped with the rough sections of the trail in the 2nd loop.

In this race for the first time I did not run with a GPS watch or GPS program in my phone. I did not want to know my time or pace or mileage is. I did not care.  I had decided to run as I felt like.  As I left the aid station I glanced at the time on my phone: 11:00.  So, with the break at this aid station it had taken me exactly 5 hours to complete the first loop.  Considering that the 2nd loop is shorter than the first, I thought that I had a chance, with some luck and if I could run the second loop strong, finish in 10 hours.

In the second loop we had to take the trail instead of the road for the first mile.  After that it was "dejavu all over again", except that there was more walking the second time around.  Sunita had moved ahead, so I ran most of the 2nd loop alone. At the first aid station I caught up with Bob Pokorny and shortly after that with Michael Schaffer.  Bob, running the 50, was having some leg cramping problems while Michael, running the 100, was looking fine (he was ahead of most of my other friends running 100 miles, which is part of his running strategy to run fast early on when he has the strength and slow down later.)

A lot of runners report going through "lows" during these longer races.  This happens to me too, but in this race I do not remember any lows of any significance.  I had minor indigestion which bothered me a bit, but did not slow me down. I am not sure what caused this. I avoided pop and Gatorade (which gave me indigestion in previous races this year) but ate quite a bit of fruit (orange and watermelon).  I have to experiment in this area.  Minor indigestion is OK but severe indigestion can be a huge problem. I experienced that during the Fools 50K race.  Not only I could not eat anything, I could not even drink water.

The two important aid stations for eating in this race, as I see it, are the Covered Bridge Aid Station and the Mohican Adventures Aid Station.  At Covered Bridge I had a nice turkey and cheese roll (no bread) and nuts/chips that I had carried with me on a plastic bag in my pocket from Mohican Adventures.  After Covered Bridge I took my time and walked the hills slowly, sipping water and eating the food I was carrying.

At the “top of the hill” I turned left for the two miles of beautiful runable trails.  At this section I passed facebook friend Kyle Fahrenkamp.  He recognized me and said that last year I also passed him in this section.  "History repeats itself" was my stoic response :)

I finally made it to the last aid station.  As I was taking my time drinking and eating fruit, I heard the aid station volunteer say “welcome back runner number 444”. I look and who do I see?  Joan Cottrill.  She grabs some water and quickly leaves the aid station.  I am sitting there speechless, thinking  “Did Joan just pass me?”  I do not want to sound sexist or anything like that… Women passing me is no big deal, but Joan is 51 years old with limited trail-running experience.  So, I am being passed by a relatively inexperienced 51 year old woman.  That’s a bit hard to digest.:)  She looked fresh and I had no doubt she would finish ahead of me… Oh well…. I did not really mind it, but I admit I was surprised but also happy for Joan running such a great race.

I finished my fruit, drank my water, filled my bottle, and started running again.  My pace was slow at first, but, gradually I started running faster.  At some point I caught a glimpse of Joan ahead of me.  My pace increased even more.  I caught up with Joan, passed her, and, with 3 miles left to go, I passed a couple more runners ahead.  At this point I was going really fast.  Not sure how fast but it felt as if I was flying in this last section fueled with energy and enthusiasm. I have read that the brain knows when 90% of the race is completed, resulting in faster pace.  This happens to me a lot, resulting in negative splits, and it is more pronounced since I started eating low-carb.

I was watching the mile markers for the bike trail go down 3, 2, 1, and then presumably zero at the end of the bike trail.  We still had a little bit to go to the finish (around half a mile?)  At this point I saw my friend Jeff Sanders (we first met and ran together at the 50s for Yo Momma) and another 50 mile runner. I passed them so fast that Jeff yelled “what’s the hurry?”  With half a mile to finish, I had no intention of slowing down.  My legs were on fire.  I kept looking behind to see if anyone is following me.  No one.  No one was ahead either.  I gave myself permission to relax and walk some sections on my way to the finish. 

To finish this year we had to run a long section of pavement behind a gas station, and then cross the road to go through a sewer water pipe, and then run a short section to the finish.  This is a bit anti-climactic, especially compared to last year’s finish, but that's OK. 

Here is my photo-finish picture (taken by Sunita):

After the finish I stayed around for while drinking water and taking pictures of other runners finishing.  Here are my results:
  • Finish Time: 9:37
  • Gender Placement: 15
  • Age Placement: 2nd Masters (the guy finishing right ahead of me, Kirk Ridenour, who I met at the practice run, is also 53 years old and we both beat all 40 year olds, except for the guy who finished 3rd overall who is 42)
  • Overall Placement: 21 / 200

(An interesting note about the female runners in this race:  It is unusual that 6 women finished ahead of me... These are great finishing times for female runners.  In previous years an under 10 hours finish would have resulted in one of the top 3 spots.  This year Joan finishing after me under 10 hours was 7th, which is surprising...)

Overall, even though my time was slower than last year by 50 minutes, I am pleased with the relatively even pace between the two loops (thanks mainly to the last fast 6 miles) and strong finish. It was a good run and it boosted my confidence for BR100 at the end of July. I am still nowhere near last year’s running fitness but I think I can do a decent job at Burning River this year.  I also believe I could have finished 100 miles in Mohican this year, but it would not have been very pretty. I really love this race, the course, the organization, the volunteers and the fellow runners, and I want to come back and run the 100 miles next year.

The day after the race I felt a bit like a train wreck but this was mostly due to the pain from the fall.  Thanks to delayed muscle soreness, my quads (and, for some reason, triceps) were hurting on Monday and Tuesday. I was planning to run on Tuesday but I was not in the mood. My first post-Mohican run was on Wednesday.

Next long race:  Buckeye Trail 50K.  Followed by Burning River 100.  Carbon copy of last year.