Monday, April 28, 2014

100 Races: Why It's All About The Shoe

On May 17, the finish line at the Brooklyn Half will make it official: 100 official scored races done! It is celebration time on this blog, which has chronicled a devotion to running. I believe that shoes are the most important element in this physical and spiritual journey, and mine is a story of lessons that begins and ends with ASICS. If you read all the way to the end, you'll even find a review of the new ASICS GEL-Cumulus 16, shown in both pictures above.

On December 1, 2006, I moved to the Upper West Side and traded a box of KOOLS for my first box of ASICS. I joined New York Road Runners that day and I took the 1-2-3 train to Times Square and walked into Foot Locker and said I needed running shoes. That's all I knew to do at the time. The salesperson put me in these ASICS GT-2110s:

That is what they looked like when I brought them home. They were size 10 1/2, light and cushiony. With different lighting and 300 to 400 miles of use, this is what they looked like later:

I still have them here right next to me as I am writing this. All the other early shoes in my running career were donated to Soles4Souls in 2011. These I wanted to keep for posterity. I see only memories of Central Park solitude laps on the bridle path as I pull them from a basement storage bin and take these two iPhone pics now. You can see below that I replaced the factory inserts back then with an even more cushion set that I bought from Paragon Sports at Union Square, if I recall correctly:

This is what they looked like inside if you removed the factory insert:

This brings me to the most pivotal moment in my own history as a runner. It is the one thing I most want to get across to aspiring runners who may be just starting as I was then.

It is all about the shoe. So many other things are important: your heart, your willpower, your stamina, your training, your nutrition, your support network, your knowledge buildup, your schedule of races, your goal-setting, your purpose, your gear for all elements among them. But NOTHING is more important than shoes.

That is what decides whether you will be a happy runner or an injured and worried and frustrated runner.

Let's move to the second pair of shoes and my first hard lesson. It was early 2007 and I was feeling a little smarter, having run my first Manhattan Half, a regular on the Central Park path, drinking gallons of water and eating better and losing weight. I headed for Jackrabbit Sports on 14th Street, a short walk from our MLB HQ. They had a video gait analysis, and that was a hot new thing. I needed to rotate in a second pair. Ladies and gentlemen, the ASICS GEL-Cumulus 9, about $90 at that time:

I would have been fine had I just walked out the store with those shoes. Unfortunately, here is where the hard lesson comes in. The Jackrabbit employee was an imbecile. He misread my video gait analysis. He showed me what appeared to be overpronating, so he assured me that I required Support shoes. He said I could have this Cumulus and just replace the factory insert with a support insert that is built-up on the instep. You can see the insert in the picture above. So I had a little hill on the inside of each foot. He said that would correct my "problem."

I was happy to have another new pair of ASICS and I put those new shoes to the Central Park test, race after race after training run after training run. In 2007, I finished 18 NYRR races totaling 139.7 miles, not including an Oklahoma City Half. During that summer, I mostly wore these Cumulus shoes and my problems mounted. I had bad shin splints. Worse, my right arch was starting to burn. And burn. I had plantar fasciitis. To date it is the worst injury I could wish upon a runner. You try to heal it with an ice ball, with a tennis ball, with a Strasburg Sock, stretch stretch stretch...all to no avail. IT'S THE SHOE!

Or in this case, the Support insert that I supposedly needed. My goal was to run a marathon in my first year, so I bought a third pair of ASICS  a month or two before that 2007 New York City Marathon. It was my third different ASICS model in that first year as well. And I used those same Support inserts again. These shoes were beautiful, and finishing a marathon was a feeling like no other, but I cannot forget that I ran it in searing pain, landing each step of the last 14 miles on a different part of my right foot to spread around the pain due to plantar fasciitis. I still had no idea why it was not improving; I was just toughing it out. I was associating ASICS with foot pain that first year and wondering why people raved about ASICS.

Turn the page on 2007, a painful learning year in ASICS. I wore mostly ASICS gear for cold and hot, I loved ASICS, but I was eager to run in someone else's shoes that made me feel good. In February of 2008, while visiting my boys in St. Louis, I went to the Fleet Feet Store in West St. Louis County. Something amazing happened. A young saleswoman who was also a devout marathoner helped me. I told her about my first year and took off my shoes. I will never forget how she got down on one knee and placed her index finger under one of my arches.

"You have high arches," she told me.

I didn't know that.

"You need a Neutral shoe," she said.

I was then given a pair of Brooks Glycerin shoes - a Neutral. No Support shoe, no Support insert. This is what I needed, she said. Go run in them outside the store, she said. I did. I was happy. My first marathon in them was the 2008 GO! St. Louis Marathon, when I ran 5:21 and shaved 40 minutes off my 26.2 time. That fall, my sixth overall pair of running shoes were a yellow version of those same Glycerins and I PR'd again, this time in the NYC Marathon, in 5:13. I was feeling so strong that I even finished the Knickerbocker 60K two weeks later, my first ultra. I went through an extended stretch where I would go to Super Runners Shops around Manhattan and only change color for new Glycerins. My motto: If it works stay.

In 2010, I started looking around. I ran in my first Sauconys, the most cushiony shoe I ever had, until my English Bulldog puppy ate a chunk out of them. In the spring of 2011 I bought my first ASICS GEL-Kayano (16), and it was OK. Not ideal for me at that time, I felt, but I rotated them in as trainers. I would realize later why they weren't perfect for me. Here were my Kayanos:

I tried Nike Vomero, and they had no issues, again mainly trainers. Soon after that is when I donated nearly 10 pair of the shoes that had gotten me to that point. The miles in them meant less to me than the potential of what they could mean to someone in need. Running had brought me to my new wife, to a new home purchase, to happiness in all parts of life. I was content as a runner, finishing marathons in Paris, New York, Miami and elsewhere. I was racking up the miles. I was experimenting with Mizunos, more Brooks, well-attuned to the nuances of running shoe styles. Experimenting with shoes? Look no further than the reason I went through my only other injury as a runner: ITB Syndrome in early 2012. It required 14 PT sessions and resulted from a weak left hip. Everything starts with the shoe. It is all about the shoe. Lesson once again, stop experimenting. Know your shoe and stay healthy.

Then at the end of 2013 I received an email from ASICS. They asked me to be in the ASICS LA Marathon Blogger Challenge on March 9, 2014. There were 11 of us, and ASICS began stocking us up with their gear. It felt like going back to my running roots. I looked in my drawers and realized that I mostly had ASICS gear for years. They sent me a pair of Kayano 20s and a pair of GEL-Nimbus 15s for training through the winter. They even had a pair of the limited-edition LA Marathon GEL-Lyte 33s (pictured) waiting for us at check-in at our Santa Monica hotel. Raceday arrived, and I was happy with my run under the circumstances (87 degrees at the finish for me), but the one thing I noticed was that the soles of my feet ached throughout the second half of the race more than I could remember in recent years. There had no such issue during my long training runs, but this was different. The Kayanos are awesome, but I am a heavier runner and so they are not ideal for me. I needed more cushion, I realized. Here I am finishing the ASICS LA Marathon in my blue Kayanos:


Sometimes in life, things come full circle. Sometimes in running, it happens as well. A few weeks after the ASICS LA Marathon, Michele aka @nycrunningmama and I had dinner with Melinda of ASICS, and I was pleased to hear I would be receiving a new pair of ASICS to review. That next week a pair of the new ASICS GEL-Cumulus 16s arrived at my front door. I have put them to the test on pavement and packed-dirt paths, on training runs and in races, in short and marathon distance, on warm and cool days.

There was a time in 2007 when the word "Cumulus" almost gave me nightmares. I associated it with my plantar fasciitis. What was this evil shoe? Now I had gone from the Cumulus 9 for $90 in 2007 and had been given Cumulus 16s that were retailing on for $115. Let me begin by saying that an increase of only $25 in the course of seven years, in today's sporting goods environment, is appreciated by runners.

The GEL-Cumulus series just keeps getting better. In 2007, it was billed as cushiony heaven because of the way it dispersed gel, unlike the Nike air system or others' use of existing materials. This 2014 version offers a top-of-the line FluidRide midsole and larger Rearfoot and Forefoot GEL Cushioning units. When combined with an updated Guidance Trusstic System and refined open-mesh upper, the product page says, "underpronators to mild overpronators will be treated to the lightest and most cushioned version of the GEL-Cumulus series ever." As I read that, I was stopped in my tracks. It's OK to wear these if you are a mild overpronator. That original Jackrabbit employee should have done some homework, should have checked my arches. It was OK to overpronate a little and still wear a Neutral shoe. I would have avoid injury.

Here is a features checklist worth reposting from the product page:

  • Impact Guidance System (I.G.S.)
    ASICS design philosophy that employs linked componentry to enhance the foot's natural gait from heel strike to toe-off.
  • FluidRide
    The latest evolution in ASICS midsole technology, FluidRide provides the ultimate combination of bounce back and cushioning properties with reduced weight and exceptional durability.
  • Guidance Trusstic System
    This Trusstic System integrates Guidance Line construction for enhanced gait efficiency while providing midfoot structural integrity.
  • Guidance Line
    Vertical flex groove decouples the tooling along the line of progression for enhanced gait efficiency.
  • Rearfoot and Forefoot GEL Cushioning Systems
    Attenuates shock during impact and toe-off phases, and allows movement in multiple planes as the foot transitions through the gait cycle.
  • Discrete Eyelets
    Independently placed eyelets disburse lace tension, creating a customized fitting environment and enhanced upper comfort.
  • ComforDry Sockliner
    Provides cushioning performance and anti-odor properties for a cooler, drier, healthier environment.

Now I am very happy in these GEL-Cumulus 16s. Last week I ran a full marathon entirely within Central Park, simultaneous to the Boston Marathon. It was my "Run For Boston Marathon" as part of the Boston Marathon World Run, raising money for One Fund Boston. Some of it was on the main Central Park pavement 10K loop, and some was on the bridle path or around the reservoir's packed clay -- leaving the dirty ankles you see in the top picture here. These shoes were really put to the test that day. I have been using them consistently, pounding and pounding, driving up and down hills with intensity. They are giving me steady comfort and support, and they feel light in the process. The shoebox is spacious enough, although during the marathon I needed to retie my outer laces as I was feeling some tingling and needed more space in the shoebox. That took care of it. In addition to the cushiony midsoles and terrific gel distribution, I also really appreciate the pillowy feel around my ankles -- look at the thickness of that ComforDry Sockliner in this pic below at the recent NYRR Scotland Run 10K:

I will be around 200 miles on these after the Brooklyn Half, and I know they will have major lasting power. It is so much different than how I viewed Cumulus years ago.

Soon it will be time for another donation, as I have seven or eight pair of running shoes in my house. The Healthy Kidney 10K on May 10 will mark my 99th official scored race since I bought those first pair of ASICS in Times Square, and Brooklyn will be my time to party when I finish on the Boardwalk at the Atlantic Ocean. As I cross that finish line with my arms held high, my face will be smiling, and if you look down at my feet you will see the biggest reason I am still running and specifically running in ASICS. Why wouldn't I smile? Deena Kastor just favorited my @Marathoner tweet to this post!

Coming next: Breaking down the first 100 Races

Question: What is your all-time favorite running shoe?

1 comment:

The running schlub said...

Mark, great post, kept me reading the whole time and loved the product reviews. I just went and got professionally fitted for my first pair of running shoes, and what did I walk out with. ..Asics Gel Nimbus 16, and absolutely love them.