Monday, August 23, 2010

Inov-8 F-Lite 230 Initial Review

I've been interested in seeing how a mountain racing flat compares to the KSO Treks on highly technical trails. In the case of basic dirt and gravel trails with a moderate density of rocks and roots, I would choose the Treks without a second thought. However, the prospect of moving to Boulder or Fort Collins has prompted me to consider some minimal trail shoes. The trails through the Flatirons and the Rockies beyond are rugged.

A number of trail runners that prefer neutral shoes with little cushioning have recommended to me the Inov-8 F-Lite 230. The company's manifesto:

"We’re committed to providing you with functional, lightweight products that will enhance your performance and enjoyment. If we cannot innovate we don’t do it. All of our products are extensively tested by enthusiasts and elite international athletes to guarantee they perform."

The 230 contains some interesting components - a "fascia band" that mimics the function of the plantar fascia, sticky rubber which aids in traction, and a "two arrow" midsole, which has a minimal level of cushioning and a small heel-to-toe drop. Personally, I would have loved it if Inov-8 went the extra step and just eliminated the heel-to-toe drop (seriously, can these companies make even one shoe without this nonsense?) 

Tech Summary:

Weight: 230g (~8 ounces)
Heel-to-toe drop: 12mm 
Upper: breathable mesh with structural webbing, fabric heel cup
Sole: sticky rubber outsole (no lugs)
Arch support: essentially none

 I remember shoe store salespeople back in the day telling me to test shoes and make sure they weren't this flexible. El-oh-el.

That said, the shoe is very flexible in the toe box and twists quite well. The foot compartment as a whole is large relative to other shoes out there, but due to the muscle mass my foot has gained since switching to the Vibrams, it's still pretty snug. The fit is true to size, for those that care. 

As you can see, there is no cushioning - just the hard rubber outsole. The heel counter is rigid but doesn't ride too high on the Achilles. The upper is thin and breathable, and unlike other trail shoes, flexible.
I took the pair for a test drive on Tiger Mountain.

Nook/Section Line Trail: this section of trail brings you to your knees, whether you are going up or coming down. The average grade is ~28%, climbing just over 1500 feet in one mile. The ascent is slow and draining, the descent jarring and mentally exhausting. I find myself pin-balling off of tree trunks and grabbing at roots to keep from falling. In addition to the switchbacks, sheer drops, and narrow ledges, there are large boulders and roots crisscrossing the trail. No matter what you wear through trail like this, you are going to be going slow. I felt much less in control with the F-Lite's - I think shoes are at a major disadvantage on such terrain. Despite that, their flexibility granted better traction over obstacles than I would have thought.

NIER Bypass/Bootleg Trail: this dark section of trail skirts the high energy radio towers on West Tiger #1, sharply snaking its way through the densely-packed trees. The ~15% grade downhill on Bootleg is peppered with large rocks and muddy patches. Again, I feel much less in control over roots and around the sharp turns, however I was able to pick up considerable speed on the way down compared to when I wear my Treks. Not having to worry about stone bruises is certainly helpful, but I almost twisted my ankle a number of times.

 You do not want to hit any of these on the way down.

West Tiger Trail: The lower portion of this trail has sections of natural cobblestone which are a pain to navigate in Vibrams when going downhill. The F-Lite's made this section a bit easier and thanks to their flexibility, their traction over the uneven surface didn't suffer as much as I expected.

These have their advantages and disadvantages. For someone used to running in Treks, they feel much less stable, despite the relatively thin sole. They were worse than the Treks over steep and technical terrain, but seemed to do a as well or a bit better on medium slopes. Anything less than a 10% grade and I'd call it dead even between them. While I had no problem keeping a high cadence, I had to fight the raised heel to preserve my midfoot strike. 

Whose feet are you designing these for? I'm a human, my toes are the widest part of my foot. These are not human shoes, they are elf shoes.

My biggest complaint as far as design is the toe box geometry. When going downhill, your feet slide forward a bit and your toes get squished into the tapered toe box. Seriously guys, make your toe boxes wider and less tapered, like Terra Plana's. 

I won't be wearing these shoes for most of my runs, which I will continue to run barefoot or in Vibrams. I'm working these into one or two trails runs per week with the idea that they can serve as a backup or alternative on nasty terrain. For those used to "true" minimalist footwear (Vibram, Feelmax, et al.) these will feel bulky at first, but they really aren't. They are comparable in weight to a cross country flat.

The good:
-Low heel-to-toe drop
-Flexible sole (for a shoe)
-Fits true-to-size, spacious arch/heel compartment
-Sticky rubber grips rocks and wet surfaces
-Flashy blue and white color scheme

The bad:
-Low heel-to-toe drop
-Toe-box is way too tapered
-No rock plate so you still need to exercise some level of caution

The ugly:
-Low heel-to-toe drop
-Hard to find at brick-and-mortar stores

Why do you shoe companies have a heel-to-toe drop in all of your shoes?! 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Kicks

I've been running exclusively in Vibrams for over a year. They've helped me overcome the shin splints and recurring knee injuries that used to plagued me.

  Rolling around the hairpin at the state championships.

When I first joined the cross country team in high school, I showed up to practice with some beat up K-Swiss shoes. Of course, these were unacceptable because they had no cushioning or control, so I was sent to a local shoe store where they threw me on a treadmill, concluded that I had a severe case of over-pronation, and put me in the most beefy motion control shoes they could find - Mizuno Wave Renegades. They were heavy, the cushioning was thick, and the medial post was humongous. My feet felt like they were enclosed in tanks.

Soon, the problems started. Shin splints flared up after every run to the point that merely tapping them elicited excruciating pain. Solution? Custom-made $500 orthotics. Then came patellar tendinitis. And illiotibial band tendinitis. Solution? Adjust the orthotics to give more extreme motion control. When that didn't work? Go to another shoe, the Brooks Trance, which afforded more cushioning.

Keep in mind that throughout this I was visiting a physical therapy clinic that treated professional sports athletes. These people were the cream of the crop but they could not solve my problems. At this point, I was often spending more time cross training than actually running. My coach and I joked about it, that I was one of the few people who managed to improve their 5K times through almost pure cross training. I iced, I wrapped, I wore braces, I even had cold laser therapy done, all to no avail.

 These tie-dyed flats struck fear into the hearts of my competitors.

I didn't wear those beefy shoes during races. I had a pair of cross country flats that I still own to this day, though my feet are now too wide to fit in them comfortably. They had no motion-control or cushioning, and I couldn't fit orthotics in them, so I raced in minimalist shoes. It always seemed odd to me that my legs didn't hurt much during a race, but I chalked that up to the adrenaline and the excitement.

Fast-forward to just over a year ago. It's the start of summer after my junior year in college and I still have these chronic pains. By chance, I stumble upon an article about some goofy-looking toed shoes and how runners all over the country are shedding their old tanks for minimalist footwear - and finding relief from their running injuries. I was desperate so I ordered a pair of Vibram KSO's. When they arrived I decided to take them out for a test run around the block. It turned into an 8 miler. I dumped the shoes for good and immediately started wearing the Vibrams for all of my runs at my then weekly mileage of 60 miles per week.

For the first month, I was greeted with growing pains as my feet adapted to their new environment. The thin fat pads that had lived a life of luxury in thick shoes were now protected by less than 4mm of rubber. Metatarsal heads became sore after every run until those pads had thickened. My nerves were jolted by pain as I ran over once innocuous gravel (though now my brain has retrained itself to recognize those signals as ground information, not 'pain'). Ligaments and tendons in my foot spasmed after runs. And my legs...after living in shoes with huge heel-to-toe drops, my calf muscles and Achilles' tendons had to lengthen. It was painful for a month, but it was worth it. My feet are now quite muscular and durable.

I finished the White River 50 in KSO Treks just one year after making the transition. I sustained no injuries aside from the anticipated soft tissue fatigue. It is a testament to how ass backwards the shoe industry and many physical therapists and podiatrists are when they have us spend literally thousands upon thousands of dollars trying to fix my feet with all sorts of implements, when the best solution was to stick me in the most minimal shoes possible. I should have kept wearing that pair of K-Swiss shoes.

My legs and feet were not defective. They didn't need cushioning, motion control, orthotics, braces, or laser therapy. They needed to be allowed the opportunity to strengthen rather than be allowed to atrophy inside of a brick encasement. The foot evolved to run without any of those things. The arch is a marvel of shock absorption, the fat pads are excellent cushions, and strong foot and lateral stabilizing muscles prevent chronic injuries caused by poor foot strike and gait common to shod runners. And the human foot is not supposed to heel strike while running - period. Take your shoes off and try heel striking on concrete at a good clip.

 I'm diggin' the electric blue. My feet barely fit into the over-sized compartment.

Which brings me to the Inov8 Flite 230's. These are the first running "shoes" I will be wearing since my transition. Many ultramarathons and most of my long runs are not run on nice, single-track dirt trails with minimal rock debris. If I want to make it down a hill with a lot of rock and other debris as fast as I possibly can, I do feel that I need more than a pair of Vibrams. However, I still want shoes with minimal heel-to-toe drop (ideally none), no cushioning, no motion control, etc. The Flite's are perfect. A lot of runners who wear Vibrams swear by these for running on especially nasty terrain.

Let me make it clear that I will continue to train in the Vibrams, and as I do so I'm sure my fat pads will continue to thicken and my ability to maneuver around rocks and other debris will continue to improve. However, at this point I know that my feet in a pair of Vibrams aren't in the condition to get me through a 100 miler as fast as the rest of my body is able to.

 After a long run at cross country camp on Whidbey Island. This is too rich not to post. Everyone is trying to look studly, flexing their abs and giving their best Blue Steel pose - except Max. Max didn't need to prove anything to the camera because he won almost every 5K race by well over thirty seconds, sometimes by minutes.

I have fond memories of growing up in Chanhassen, Minnesota in a neighborhood filled with other elementary school-age kids. During the long, hot summers we would run around and play barefoot - shoes got in the way most of the time. Remember when you were a kid? You ran everywhere, all the time, and when you ran you didn't plod along and stomp the ground, you effortlessly bounded and glided over it. You didn't over think it, you didn't even think about why you did it, you just did it.

And it was fun.

Running should be fun.

So don't force yourself to run. Don't over think your foot strike or your gait. Be fluid, not tense. Don't just run on city streets or paved walks. Find a trail and escape into nature. Don't fight the switchbacks, the rocks, and the roots, let them guide you.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

White River 50 - Race Report

After soloing the multi-sport Mountains to Sound Relay, I was looking to dip my feet into ultrarunning with a "pure" trail race. My favorite runs are on trails, but only the mountain bike leg of MTS was on one. The running leg was 20 miles on the Burke-Gilman - flat and urban, running 2 blocks away from my apartment by the university!

The White River 50 caught my eye - a local 50 miler in the foothills of Crystal Mountain and Mount Rainier, with two big climbs totaling 9,000ft of gain over single-track trail. Since 2001, it has hosted the USATF 50 Mile Trail Championship, attracting a swathe of high-profile runners like Scott Jurek and Anton Krupicka.

Elevation profile with aid stations.

Arriving on Friday afternoon, I checked in and headed to the pasta dinner. I tend to do my carbo-loading leading up to the day before - it's no good to be greeted in the middle of a run by last night's big meal - so I ate a modest portion and used the dinner as an opportunity to talk some other runners. I met a few veterans, most of them twice my age, who kept passing on the same pattern of advice: take it easy on the first hill or the second one will destroy you, don't be afraid to powerwalk the steep uphills, and Sun Top gets hot.

I awoke at 5:00 after a solid night of sleep and ate my tried-and-true pre-race breakfast: an artisan flour tortilla with peanut butter and honey, calorie-dense and quick to digest.

 Chilling at the start with my mom; I think my parents were more worried than I was!

Start to Camp Sheppard (0 - 3.9 mi)

Unlike in previous races, I felt surprisingly calm as we all toed the line. The gun went off and the mass of humanity rumbled down the airstrip. As the pack thinned out over the first several hundred meters, the famous Barefoot Ted McDonald rolled up alongside me and struck up a conversation. Last year he had been testing a prototype of the Treks and this year he was testing a pair of his Luna huaraches with a new lace. Born to Run was accurate in its portrayal of Ted: he likes to talk! We had a good conversation over the first 4 miles and kept our pace conservative. Just before the first aid station, Ted stopped to kick off his sandals for the climb up the first hill, and with that I started to move up through the pack.

Camp Sheppard to Ranger Creek (3.9 - 11.7mi)

Not long after Camp Sheppard, the trail turned from soft dirt to hard-pack and climbed steeply up switchbacks, imparting views of a waterfall and the competition below. At the top of the switchbacks I ratcheted up my speed and kept the pace to Ranger Creek. The trail would occasionally break from the trees and scurry along a rock precipice, giving a breathtaking view down to the valley below.

 Coasting down a short hill on the ridge to Corral Pass.

Ranger Creek to Corral Pass (11.7 - 16.9mi)

Due to its remoteness, the Ranger Creek aid station had limited amounts of pure water and gel packets. I let a volunteer refill my half-empty bottle of CLIP2, grabbed a Carb-boom! gel, and rolled out for the second half of the climb. Over the next 3 miles of switchbacks, the forest broke into meadows and rock screes as we crested the ridge to Corral Pass. The rolling hills and gentle turns of the double-track were a welcome respite from the climb, though there were numerous rocks that I had to be mindful of. By now, I was periodically stepping off the trail for Anton, Dakota, and the other top runners making their way back down. At the aid station, I had my bottle refilled with Ultra and grabbed a peanut butter sandwich and some M&M's for the road.

Corral Pass to Ranger Creek (16.9 - 22.1mi)

Now it was time for runners to yield to me! I tucked in behind the two runners I had followed up to Corral Pass and we cruised back over the rolling hills along the ridge. We attacked the first set of switchbacks fairly hard, skating around the corners and bounding over rocks and logs. The second set of switchbacks were mild - perhaps 200 meters between turns rather than 50 - and not particularly steep. I topped off my bottle at the aid station, grabbed another gel, and headed out faster than the others. The aid station captain warned me that "the next five miles are all downhill."

Ranger Creek to Buck Creek (22.1 - 27.2mi)

He wasn't lying. On the way out, it took 8 miles to climb up to Ranger Creek - the descent was squeezed into nearly half of that distance. The trail jumped into short, steep switchbacks alongside another waterfall, with some turns ending in a sheer drop. I enjoyed splashing through the stream that crossed the trail several times, cooling and soothing my feet. After running alone for several miles, I caught up to and passed a number of other runners, including one of the veterans I met the night before. "Remember, the race starts at the second climb!" I was feeding off of the excitement that I got bombing down the hill and passing these folks and used that to coast into Buck Creek. My average pace over this section was 6:30 and the Treks held up beautifully. I was able to nimbly bound over boulders and root-ridden sections with ease.

Rolling into Buck Creek.

Buck Creek to Fawn Ridge (27.2 - 31.7mi)

After the long, wicked downhill, my eyes were still darting back-and-forth as if I was still on the switchbacks. My parents passed me a fresh bottle of CLIP2 and within a minute or two I was off. We cruised through the moss-laden forest to the start of the second climb and began our ascent. At this point, I decided that I couldn't keep pace with the other two guys, so I let them go and hitched onto the back of another pack. This part of the hill sucked, there's really nothing else to say. It was steep, and while the wooded sections were cool, all of the switchbacks left us exposed to the intensifying sun, although on the positive side there were some great views. By mile 29, our pack had lost two younger runners and gained two veterans (both 50+), and we all shared the misery.

Fawn Ridge to Sun Top (31.7 - 37.4mi)

We rounded a corner and were greeted with a luau! The volunteers at Fawn Ridge had island music playing and were festively dressed, which gave all of us a good laugh and lifted our spirits. We dove out of the aid station, headfirst into the last 2/3's of the hill. This part of the race was mentally and physically brutal. The climb up to Sun Top was filled with false peaks - we'd ascend, and think we were making vertical progress, only to go down another hill. Jason, the leader of our train, was orchestrating the pace, powerwalking up the steep sections, jogging on the flats, and romping down the hills. There was a lot of bantering - "these uphills aren't bad" while going downhill, "it's only another half marathon after Sun Top". After a while, I stopped giving myself false hope, gritted my teeth, and said, "I'll get there when I get there."

My ears popped as we descended a particularly long hill - at this point, I was pretty sure we had reached the false peak. Sure enough, we erupted onto a meadow bathed with sunlight, crossed the fire road, and made our final ascent. While I could feel the hot earth baking beneath my feet, a cool breeze kissed my face and gave me the final bit of energy needed to make it to the aid station.

 Making the last push to Sun Top.

Sun Top to Skookum Flats (37.4 - 43.4mi)

The volunteers at Sun Top were awesome. They filled my bottle with Ultra and ice, misted me with water, gave me a shot of Mountain Dew, fetched my drop bag and handed me my burrito, and hustled me out as fast as they could. I was treated to a panorama view as I curled around the backside of the craggy peak. Jason and the others had left the aid station, and I wouldn't see them again until the bottom. The section was run on a gravel fire road, which descended at a steady 10% grade for five miles before flattening slightly for another mile. It sounds like a break, but it wasn't. My quads were pretty fried at this point, so forward motion was severely limited. As a consequence, the first several miles were jarring on my knees until I was able to adapt my stride. I was thankful that the trees shaded the road from the now blistering sun. I passed a good number of people on the way down and ran with Nicolas, a runner from France, from mile 41 to the aid station. As we reached the bottom of the hill we picked up the pace and tore it up.

Skookum Flats to Finish (43.4mi - finish)

Everything except crackers and potatoes tasted too sweet at this point. It's amazing what you start craving late into one of these runs. I could have done with a turkey sandwich or grilled cheese - anything with some fat and protein. I think my body's gag reaction to simple carbohydrates was giving me a few hints!

This section of the course was riddled with short, steep hills and hairpin turns. My training on Cougar Mountain prepared me well for handling this type of trail, especially on tired legs. I met up with Jason again, and after a few miles we happened upon another runner who looked like he was heading off the trail. When we asked what he was doing, he pointed to the orange ribbons leading to a makeshift trail along a hill. We waited for two more runners, but neither of them had run this course before, either. At this point in the race, we were tired and not quite thinking straight, so we followed the markers for a while, climbing over logs and balancing on dangerous slopes, until we saw runners on a trail below. Uh-oh. We rounded the next curve and saw freshly cut trees with ribbons. Those weren't race markers, they were markers for the forest service to cut down trees! We had to backtrack and lost a good ten minutes on that diversion.

Jason needed a break from the bushwhacking, so I ran on ahead. The next section took an eternity, and soon Jason caught back up to me. I latched onto him and we powered through what was to be the last half mile in the woods. We broke onto the gravel road with only another half mile to go, and he waved me up alongside him. We spent the worst of the race together, so why not make it a team finish?

 At this point I'm swimming in adrenaline and endorphins.

With the finish line in sight, I felt a rush of energy. As a former teammate in high school cross country said, it was like "angels massaging your legs". The pain disappeared as I cruised into the finish chute and crossed the line. 9:22:30, 48th out of 226 starters, 194 finishers. Not bad for my first 50 miler, especially for such a hard course.



I would've done well to take the first downhill less aggressively and keep up with my nutrition better during the first half of the race. Those were mistakes that I'm sure all runners have made in their first ultra, and while they didn't result in serious pain, they might have granted me a faster time. I admit that I don't have many long long runs under my belt (nothing over 30 miles), so my fat-burning capacity is probably not much better than that of a marathoner.

I used one hand-held bottle for the entire race, and that was enough to keep me hydrated. Also, I think I'm a Carb-boom! convert - they go down easier than a Gu late in a race, and hey, they're made with real fruit. As far as my next ultra, I will probably use CLIP2 or Perpetuem and not rely on aid station mixes. I like to get protein, fat, and a lot of calories out of my sports drink.

 Yes, I am floating. Also, look at those biceps - I bet I could beat a fourth grader in arm-wrestling.

The Treks were pretty damn good. I hit a few rocks late in the race as a result of sloppy footing but the pain was fleeting (just like hitting stones while barefoot). I was pleasantly surprised that I had no blisters or hot spots, too. The wicking inner and kangaroo leather upper dried out quickly after getting soaked in a few of the stream crossings and they kept all rocks and dirt out, as well. They were indispensable over roots and logs, granting much more control and stability than a shoe would. The trail was primarily dirt, and while the second downhill was gravel, I have doubts as to whether Vibrams would be fit to handle trail ultras over very rocky trails (think Leadville or, worse, Hardrock). I may pick up a pair of Inov8 F-Lite 230's - they've been getting rave reviews from folks who wear minimalist shoes.

All soreness disappeared by the third day after the run. The only thing still sticking with me is a bit of pressure near the tuberosity of the 5th metatarsal on my right foot. It seems to be subsiding, and an easy 4 mile barefoot run today loosened it up.