Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Barefoot Contestant- Change Afoot Part 3

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.
--Charles Darwin

Yes dear readers, if you are still with me and wondering when I was going to get around to describing my experience actually wearing the Vibrams, you are in luck. 

Catch up here for those that missed Part 1 or Part 2.

Thanks to some great training tips from Coach Carl, things eased up a bit on the pain.  After several months and some major life events (new job, moving etc…) I had started working out at Carport Crossfit, in Irondale, and was trying to decide what to wear on my feet.  I knew most regular running shoes weren’t optimal for the type of training they did.  Crossfit style workouts call for a shoe that gives an accurate feel or close grip on the ground for balance as well as lateral stability.   Hoisting heavy barbells, slinging kettle bells, tossing wall balls and pushing sleds around will put the traction of any shoe to the test.  

Additionally, I also needed the ability to run the shorter, more intense distances that were often a part of the workouts.  Most were a mile or less. Ever so slowly, akin to the designated last finisher at a marathon, it occurred to me that the running distances that usually comprised their workouts were exactly what a newly minted, Vibram wearing soul such as myself should be running.   


Decision made.

At the gym the next morning the WOD (Workout Of the Day) required that we run a full mile, to be followed by a round of one legged squats and thanks to an induced state of delirium, I can no longer recall what followed.  As our 5:30am group took off along the railroad tracks, I suddenly found myself at the front of the pack.   My steps were initially tentative since I wasn’t sure what to expect. After a few hundred meters I did a full body “check-in”.  My feet were comfortable and my legs were moving smoothly.  Nothing hurt.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually run “only” a mile.  I had no idea what my time would be. 

I could hear the footfalls of people behind me. 

The chase was on!

I could feel that there was some gravel beneath my feet, but it didn’t stab or feel “sharp” through the Vibram sole.  I paid close attention to the road surface and avoided large chunks of broken asphalt or rocks.   I tried to focus on my form and pour on a little of what passed for Master’s division speed.  The noise behind me faded, and my mind drifted back to assessing how the shoes were doing.  They were certainly different.  My calves weren’t screaming at me like they had previously, and I envisioned that every step taken was restoring strength to muscles that too much civilization had weakened.  Distracted by my thoughts I once again realized that I was hearing the footsteps approaching.  I kicked it into another gear I didn’t even know I had.  As the footsteps faded, I once again focused on my legs and feet.  The pain I kept anticipating never materialized.

I finished that mile in 7:11.  Not an Olympic qualifier by far, but pretty darn good for someone whose normal race pace is anywhere from 8:15-9:00 depending on the distance. 

After that performance I decided to give the Vibrams another full-fledged trial.  Perhaps I’d been hasty in my initial assessment.  Wearing them to my Crossfit workouts was part of the plan.  The running distances were optimal for acclimating myself to the shoes.  Additionally, I thought my adjustment would be further enhanced by wearing the shoes as many hours a day as I could reasonably fit in. I bought an additional, colorful new pair of Vibrams: Women's Komodo Sport, and began wearing them to work as often as possible. This allowed me to spend many more hours per day in them, presumably helping my calf muscles and tendons adjust more gradually.   

In order to be fair to the process expounded by McDougal, I resolved to be more patient with the acclimation period.

After two weeks of Crossfit workouts and all day wear, I figured I’d accumulated enough “time in Vibram” to try running more than a mile. 
I gradually worked up through routes of 3 to 4 miles in my hilly, Crestwood neighborhood.   For some reason, completing the Wednesday night 5 miler in Homewood, loomed large.  Perhaps because it took me “away from home” it seemed more challenging.  I’d be out there in the world, practically barefoot and I’d have to run my way back to relative safety.

It all worked out pretty well, and I had just a little nagging soreness in my left calf.  I hoped that with further adjustment it would resolve itself. 

I challenged myself with my regular, 10k neighborhood route.  A couple of slow morning runs followed by a PR had me completely rethinking my attitude towards the Vibrams. 
It was time to bump the mileage up another notch.  Conveniently, another running group here in town had a 7 miler leaving from Pepper Place on Saturday mornings.  More success followed but the soreness from my calf migrated south to my Achilles tendon and has been lingering there ever since.  
It’s tolerable but not optimal.

It should be mentioned here that I do not wear flip flops.  I do not wear them because I truly loathe (putting it mildly) crap anywhere between my toes.  Wearing shoes that isolated each toe was quite a personal stretch for me, but the journey down the path of minimalist conformity required that I tolerate it.  After a period of time, I would stop noticing the material jabbing my toes, but once the shoes were off, it took quite a while before the deep lines and creases smoothed themselves out.  I dismissed “prune toe syndrome” as “part of the acclimation process” and mentally steeled my feet against all onslaughts.

As I wore them more frequently, I also began to notice that, while they seemed to be well-suited for smooth surface, road running, they were less than perfect in other situations.  Small pebbles, gravel and even small bits of broken glass were not an issue.  The Vibram sole was good protection against those, and I felt less likely to twist my ankle if I did step on something.  Larger rocks and big shards of glass were something else entirely.  I was also uncomfortable with the idea of using them as trail shoes.  Smacking toes on rocks and roots is a common occurrence in trail running.  Add in to the equation the possibility that an obstruction could get jammed BETWEEN my toes, smashing AND parting them simultaneously was too much to bear, so I reverted to my trusty, Adidas Adizero’s, for the Xterra half, at Oak Mtn.

I did indeed smack into a few obstacles which caused me to trip and fall a few times.  My toes were bruised, but the solid front of my “real” shoes protected me from severe injury.  Zealots in the barefoot movement would probably have made the argument that, had I been running more “naturally”, more “in touch” with where the end of my foot was, I might not have hit the obstacles at all.  It is quite possible they may be right, in theory, but I prefer that the rocks be less “in touch” with me.   I’ve had too many broken bones over the years, and I am not willing to sacrifice the sanctity of my feet on this point. 

Additionally, I find that the Vibrams don’t seem to “breathe” or drain water very well.  After a long run, the Vibrams always seem to be sodden with sweat when I remove them from my feet. Since they serve as both sock and shoe, this makes sense. As a reformed triathlete I can tell you exactly where I stand on the socks and/or shoes debate. My personal preference: shoes-no socks.  Given my preference,it stands  to reason why I'm still playing pedestrian gymnastics with the  "shoe that is a sock".  Rainy days and puddles turn them into squishy, noisy messes in close contact with my skin.  After one rain-soaked, puddle-hopping adventure, I couldn’t wait to get the soggy things off of my feet.  When I removed them, I fully expected to see that trench foot had set in.  If it is a rainy day at Talladega, I will rip these things off my feet at the finish line faster than you can say Dale Earnhardt!

Despite pointing out a few imperfections, I can honestly report that my progress has been mostly positive. I fully expect to be able to gradually nudge up my long distance runs to pull off a reasonable half marathon training schedule. 
In the name of science, come rain or shine, I will see you all out at the Talladega Half Marathon

Promotional Considerations:
Under the category of "shameless promotion" I'd like to give a shout out to everyone at Carport Crossfit, especially the 5:30 a.m. crew.
Thanks for putting up with me while simultaneously getting all of me, not just my feet, back in shape.  
Also, Bill, next time we run a mile, "It's On"!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

When More Is Less

“Real difficulties can be overcome. It’s the imaginary ones that are unconquerable.” -Theodore Vail

There's a trend now for parents NOT to immunize children because some famous celebrity decided, that some shady research proved, that vaccines cause autism.
Immunizations happen to be one of the numerous, scientific innovations we are fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of in this country. Many in the 3rd world are not so lucky. Thanks to a former Playboy bunny, some biased “research” and the general public’s willingness to believe in the most far-fetched conspiracy theories…somehow life saving vaccines have become modern society's new bogeymen.  

 The fact that there is NO scientific data that establishes a cause and effect relationship between immunization and autism doesn't seem to faze anyone.  In fact, what comprises an autism diagnosis itself, has undergone wildly shifting parameters.  What is and isn't considered autism has become a moving target.    It is particularly interesting to note, that not only has the bar for an autism diagnosis been lowered, but once it qualified a child for "disability status" the diagnosis rate skyrocketed.  What was once thought of as rude and obnoxious behavior is now excused away with a diagnosis and medicated.  There’s been a big run on getting kids that cherished “disability” status now, because there are so many advantages to being disadvantaged.  In addition to the financial subsidies, parents push family physicians hard for autism and A.D.D. diagnoses just so their children may partake in all of the perks a diagnosis provides. 

Those perks include things like more time allotted to take the S.A.T. and other college entrance exams.  Parents ferret out any nugget that might give their kid an edge when it comes to the collegiate acceptance Olympics, without considering the long term side effects of a drugged childhood.   Bestowing a diagnosis on kids because they may occasionally exhibit unacceptable or anti-social behavior is not doing anyone any favors.  Perhaps a dose of discipline would provide healthier long term results?

So back to the original premise... parents are no longer immunizing children against diseases that the industrialized world worked so hard to conquer.  They think their kids are safe because "We don't have those diseases in this country anymore".  That is until they travel to or bump into someone from one of those 3rd world nations that do not have the immunizations in place to keep those "old" diseases in check.

 There are still places in the world where diseases like polio exist.  We take for granted that measles (rubella and rubeola) diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) are no longer around.  They are.  Thanks to air travel no country can ever be completely isolated anymore.  

 In fact, children in this country are once again dying of diseases that could easily be avoided by a simple vaccination.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  It’s a terrible shame that people are more willing to believe a celebrity’s opinion about science than the actual scientists themselves.  People apparently are under the impression that these diseases no longer exist because they are relatively rare.  The reason they are rare in this country is... 

Wait for it... 


 Currently the percentage of immunized children is still high enough to provide what is known as "herd immunity" so the non-vaccinated still benefit from the high percentage of those around them that are disease free. This is “the herd”, so to speak, that helps keep diseases in check.  When the percentages of the non-immunized begin to outweigh the immunized, there is a significant shift and the herd immunity greatly diminishes.  This puts all of the non-vaccinated children, including those too young for certain vaccinations, at much greater risk. 

Why on earth would a parent subject their child to the very real consequences of not being immunized against very serious diseases because some airhead celebrity, who doesn't even play a doctor on TV, got it in her head that somehow vaccinations were bad?  Children IN THIS COUNTRY are once again dying of diseases that are completely preventable.  Children are dying, because the fear of something imaginary, is overriding what should be a healthy respect for what is real.  

While I am not a physician, I do believe strongly in the scientific method. 
I will not claim to know the actual reasons why the autism rate has gone up so much, even when filtering the diagnosis roster for the more severe cases.

 If I had to venture a wild guess as to why we have more "real" cases of autism in the past 20 years I wouldn't blame it on immunization.  I could make a correlational case for prenatal vitamins... crazy right?
It is also something found predominantly in industrialized nations, so why not look there? Their increased use has paralleled the dramatic rise in the incidence of autism much more closely than the use of vaccines. 

Here's the thought process: We know that a lack of folic acid in the diet of pregnant women can cause spina bifida, a nasty neurological defect… Folic acid is one of the big ticket items found in prenatal vitamins to support the prevention of spina bifida.  Maybe, just maybe, it might be possible... and I'm making a leap here but I think it is possible that too much folic acid, particularly in the highly concentrated doses found in the vitamins, particularly in the bloodstream of some moms that think if some is good, more is better, contributes to other neurological issues such as autism.

 In this world where the law of unintended consequences abounds, I think it could be quite possible that our "more is better" approach to having perfect babies is creating more problems than it solves.

I fully admit I do not have any hard evidence, just a gut feeling. I'd like to the see unbiased research done so we could figure it out with some degree of certainty.

Therein also illustrates the danger of publishing findings based on conjecture and correlation again. What if someone reads my wild guess and "decides" that I'm right.  It even has the potentially popular undercurrent of "evil pharmaceutical companies create vitamins that cause birth defects".  Pretty soon there will be some celebrity somewhere that picks up on the idea, likes it, hypes it and poof... another cause célèbre' is born.   I wonder if it too, will have autism.

Supporting documentation:

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The "Barefoot Contestant"-A Long Running Series…The Next Leg…Part 2

If you want to truly understand something, try to change it.  ~Kurt Lewin

We resume our story where we left off last month…(for those that missed it, here's Part I:

 “Eventually, I lost patience with the entire process and the Vibrams ended up somewhere in the back of the closet where they remained, until….”

 …until I began, no, wait.  Allow me to back up a bit in the timeline.  Prior to resurrecting the Vibrams I was still searching for a way to run with less pain.  The Vibrams weren’t doing it for me but they did make it agonizingly clear that I was doing something wrong.  If the shoes were not going to magically correct my running motion I figured I would try a different device.  A running coach.  At the time I was not living in Birmingham.   Thanks to Google, I found a Big, University Level, track coach who also condescended to work with us mere mortal runners for an hourly fee.  I called him and explained my situation and he agreed to meet and work with me.  He told me to meet him by the Track at the Big University Gym at 4:00pm the next day.  I was excited and thrilled.  I had never been a runner as a kid and certainly never been professionally coached. As for organized sports, I played softball and competed in martial arts.  I was a pretty good athlete, but if you had told me to go run a mile just for the heck of it, I would have resisted.  Running, or being told to take a lap, was punishment for a misdeed, not something you did for fun!
 It wasn’t until I was 25 years old and in the Air Force that I learned to run for running’s sake.  In order to pass our PT test we had to run a mile and a half in under 15 minutes.  I had no idea about how fast that might be or whether or not I could even run that far in the prescribed time.  A few months before I left for basic training, I got in the car, measured out a course of a mile and a half on the odometer and tested myself.  It wasn’t pretty, but I finished in less than 15 minutes and that was all I cared about. 
After basic training I found myself stationed at the Presidio of Monterey, in California.  There was so much awe-inspiring scenery to take in and I had such limited time that I found myself running up and down the insane hills and along the waterfront just so I could take it all in.   Looking back, I can easily say that my time in Monterey was when running ceased being punishment and became my personal delight.   It wasn’t until recently, that mysterious, frustrating pain was causing me to reconsider the punishment aspect, which was why I found myself in search of a cure.  So here I was, excited for the opportunity to be at a Big University Track hoping for some athletic enlightenment from a Big University Track Coach.

I met Coach Carl at the track and we introduced ourselves.    He wanted me to warm up first. Rather than run around in circles on the track we took off slowly along the campus road.  I had no idea where we were going and figured we would do a loop around and return to the track.  Instead, we ended up at a huge open meadow that contained the Big University Soccer fields and practice area.  Coach Carl had me run a lap around the perimeter of the field so he could watch my form.  When I got back to where he was standing, he explained some running fundamentals to me and it all made sense.  I was running completely wrong with respect to the way the human body was designed.  I knew that much from reading McDougal’s book but had no idea what I was doing wrong or how to change it.  We have a great shock absorption system, but it doesn’t work if it’s out of position.  He explained it to me in much better scientific language than I will use here, but basically it was that the important components of running take place beneath and behind us rather than out in front of us.
Coach Carl showed me that my feet were hitting the ground way too far in front of my body, rather than underneath it. Or rather, he had me demonstrate to myself that my feet were too far in front.  As I ran he told me to keep my head straight and level and to glance down by only moving my eyes.  If I could see my feet when I looked down, they were too far forward. I peaked down.

Yep, there they were. 


Time for a few drills. Each one had a purpose with respect to running form, but I was clueless. He made me skip. And skip some more.  We did a lot of skipping. 
Skipping was hard!

Jump, bring the front knee up high, let the back leg scoot and catch your weight underneath, over and over… until you don’t think you can pick your legs up anymore.

Time for a break.

That’s when he imparted the secret of “The Butt Kick”.   He ran me through butt kick drills.

“When you run, he said, “Don’t think about sending your foot forward but focus more on getting your heel up off the ground behind you”. He sent me out for another lap around the field. First, I want you to skip slowly then pick up speed.  When I thought I was about to pass out, he told me to slow down and add in
 “The Butt Kicks”.  In my mind I equated the heel height to a volume knob for my feet.  The higher I cranked up the volume knob or heel height, the faster I went.  I briefly wondered if it went up to 11.  The more I thought about what needed to be going on behind me the less I found my feet out in front.  I got about halfway around the field and he was yelling at me… That’s it!  You’ve got it, you’ve got it”! “Whatever you are doing now, however it feels to you- just keep doing THAT!  It was exhilarating, pain free and tiring as hell!  I could push myself for hours to slog in poor form through the pain of a marathon, but a few minutes of running “properly” had me gasping for air. 

 I was beginning to see a pattern…Coach Carl’s advice dovetailed nicely into much of what I read about in Born to Run, but on a much more practical level for me.  He didn’t care about the finer points of what shoes I was or was not wearing.  His advice was focused at the gross anatomy level of running rather than the microscopic break down of what I put on my feet.  I had to get the big things right in order for the little things to make a difference.  I made the decision to focus on my form first. The Vibrams remained in the closet for a little while longer…