The Great Adventure, Travel

1,400 Mile Shoes

My long quest for shoes is finally over. So after all the tests and ideas, what did I go with?

Requirements

I had something very specific in mind. Because of injuries I didn’t want to go with a totally flat thin sole as many runners and hikers now favor. At the same time, my tests allowed me to feel firsthand why a jacked up heel is unnatural and potentially dangerous. I looked for a compromise that leaned toward the minimal sole end of the spectrum—a suggestion my readers came up with very early on in the process. My ideal shoe would have a padded sole with arch support but very little heel support.

Other factors also matter. The shoe needs to hold up to lengthy wear and tear, be suitable for nearly 1,400 miles of biking (the first leg of the trip, through New Orleans, will be on bike) and be relatively lightweight. Low tops preferred, and if possible, it slides on instead of lacing. I figured that last one was pie in the sky though. Ideally, it also looks good.

I looked at five different shoe stores including the shoe department of Gander Mountain (moderately helpful staff) and local outfitters Midwest Mountaineering (the best staff I have ever dealt with). Thanks to the experts at Midwest Mountaineering I found a shoe that matches all of my criterion.

The Patagonia Cardon

Cardon by Patagonia is not a hiking shoe. It was in a separate area at Midwest with the casual shoes. Nonetheless it is built to last. It came up when discussing my needs with the sales person.

The Cardon features a sole with 8 mm of heel padding, enough to do the things a padded heel is supposed to do and yet still so thin it’s officially categorized as a “minimal” sole. It offers arch support as well, and if you remove the insole and look at it you find it’s built just like Superfeet inserts. Unlike the hiking shoes, my salesman suggested I would not need inserts with the Cardon (though I have some anyway, just in case).

Since I’m starting on bike, coolness/breathability and comfort will be important considerations. The Cardon wins in these categories. It’s incredibly comfortable and it’s hard to overheat in them. It loses out compared to good hikers in terms of handling water—the Cardon will take longer to dry out. It also wouldn’t work well for 8 hours of hiking with a heavy pack, and would leave my feet sore. I expect to need to buy new shoes by the time I start doing that.

The Cardon is also incredibly rugged and durable. The seams are double-stitched and everything is well made. They can take years of wear.

One of my favorite things is that they look like classic shoes. Originally soft, suede-like nubuck, I’ve treated them with a wax waterproofing product making them a darker walnut color with a smoother texture. They look professorial and I could wear them to more formal events, a boon since I won’t have room in my gear for dress shoes.

I’ve been wearing them for nearly two weeks now and I love this shoe. It’s an all around winner and does everything I want. You can check out the Cardon here (and like all my recommendations, that’s not an affiliate link).

Runner Up

It’s worth mentioning the other pair of shoes I really like, the Cardon’s biggest contender in my book. These are the Chameleon Stretch by Merrell. Although uglier they offer an amazing sole and construction, and are indeed perfect for lengthy hiking with a heavy pack. They’d handle getting soaked better, too. I’ll likely switch to a pair of these after New Orleans, for hiking and kayaking.

Bargain Option

I spent $140 on my Cardons, made possible by my wonderful donors. The investment was definitely worth it and I feel good about having professional quality shoes to start my Adventure with.  But I should note that Midwest Mountaineering’s discount store, Thrifty Outfitters, also offered some great footwear. For about $40 they had a pair of hikers very similar to the Chameleon Stretch. The sole and heel in those weren’t quite what I wanted, but anyone bootstrapping an expedition should know there are lower-cost options.

Many thanks again to everyone who donated to the Gear Drive. I have virtually everything I know I’ll need… making me wonder what kinds of surprises I’ll run into and how my gear will change with time. Any guesses?

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Adventure, The Great Adventure

Shoe Comparison: Running

Footwear is quite possibly the most important tool I’ll have on my entire trip. I know I’ll go through several pairs in 8,000 miles and if they aren’t just right it will make my life a lot tougher.

Back in March I started doing tests. Remember, I don’t want hiking boots: too heavy. And I’m skeptical of athletic shoes with their typical oversized ankle support. At the same time, I don’t want to buy into the claims of barefoot runners—who say minimal, flat soles are the best—without any science.

So I did a comparison.

I got a pair of Chuck Taylor All Stars, which have a thick heel and pronounced arch support like most athletic shoes, and a pair of Steve Madden canvas shoes with a sole as thin and flat as a piece of leather. You may remember me comparing these on a 6.5 mile hike on asphalt and off-road, scrambling over a bluff.

I said I’d also compare them running—but that never happened. In April I suffered what may have been a stress fracture in one foot, putting the damper on my daily training sessions and ad-hoc experiments.

Well, the foot’s almost better now, and I’ve still never done a formal running test for the two pairs of shoes. But I did actually go jogging in both of them at different times. So for the sake of closure (sweet, sweet closure) and to round out the record, I want to include the results here.

Method

For my other tests there was a method. I would hold the tests several days apart. I timed each one so I could see the impact, if any, on my speed. I can’t say I did any of those things in this case, because I never got to the stage of formal testing. I just happened to go with my mom on her daily jog several times, trying different shoes each day.

To further complicate matters we didn’t even keep a consistent pace. It was jog, walk, jog, walk, whenever she would happen to get tired. I’d say we jogged more than walked, and got about the same amount of running on both days, but exactly how much I can’t tell you.

On the other hand there were consistencies. I certainly did my warm ups before each session, and we took the same route each time. Weather conditions were similar. We stuck to flat, asphalt paved roads. I was able to feel the difference between the two pairs of shoes during the shorts bursts of running.

Road Results: Steve Madden Canvas

Conditions: Clear, cool, low breeze

Distance: Approx. 1 mile

Time: Unknown

Running in these shoes was surprisingly comfortable. I was wary that the impact would aggravate my old ankle injury, especially with so little padding. Perhaps it would for a very long distance run, but for short distances it was no problem at all. Running felt natural and  easy. I outpaced my mom and, during our rest periods, I paid close attention to my feet and ankles. There was no soreness.

I had no formal cool off period after the run, but even so, there was no added stiffness or soreness to my old injury that evening or the next morning. The run caused no problems.

Road Results: Chuck Taylor All Stars

Conditions: Clear, cool, low breeze

Distance: Approx. 1 mile

Time: Unknown

These shoes were comfortable in a different way. The added padding certainly made my footfalls feel less impact. But it didn’t take long to feel the difference with the thick heel padding, and it was not a comfortable difference. Running in this kind of shoe forces a very strong heel strike that happens earlier than a natural footfall. It felt out of place and jarring.

I wondered if I just wasn’t used to it. I tried to adjust my gait or footfall in some way to take advantage of it. All that happened is I found myself exaggerating my steps to try to get rid of it.

I gave the strong heel strike a chance and ran that way for a while. It is possible to get used to it, but I noticed that my knees took up a lot of the extra impact. That concerns me.

I felt no added soreness that evening or the next day.

Results

I was surprised that there was such a pronounced and immediate difference in how the two shoes felt. When walking the difference isn’t nearly as extreme. The All Stars with their big heels made me feel off-balance and clunky. I felt like I must be lunging up and down, like riding on a camel’s back, to deal with the heels.

There are certainly drawbacks to the Maddens. I can see how someone with very flat feet wouldn’t be able to run in them. And anyone would need to do a lot of gradual training before using them for long runs, or else face some serious soreness. But compare that to the athletic shoes. They’re more comfortable up front, but the added strain on the knees frightens me. I prefer an honest shoe that tells me when I’m overtraining to one that hides potential injuries.

You can see the direction I’m leaning in: I don’t like the thick heel padding. But I’ve also seen its merits in my trials, and have experienced the drawbacks of minimal soles firsthand.

Last week I finally bought my shoes—the shoes for the trip. What do you think I got?

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Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoe Comparison: Off Road

Today I continue my shoe comparison. With the road test complete the next step was the Off-Road Course.

The course runs roughly as follows: an estimated half mile walk on level asphalt road, then another estimated half mile down a trail through the woods. The trail is poorly maintained, covered with bare dirt or grass and weeds. It’s uneven. From there I strike off into completely trackless woods. After perhaps a quarter mile I have to ascend a steep wooded hill, still with no trail. I estimate an elevation of 300 feet and a slope of up to 60 degrees.

Atop the hill I walk along a wooded ridge for unknown distance and down a gentler slope on the other side. Finally I meet up with a grassy foot trail which takes me down to a paved country road. The country road is the halfway point; then I turn around and do the whole thing in reverse.

The distances here are only approximate, but since the course was the same both times that doesn’t matter.

It’s important to note that while off road I estimated my heading by the sun. This means I may not have taken the same course step-by-step but the terrain was identical. In fact, the second time through I encountered visual landmarks just before coming back down the 300-foot slope. That means I took the exact same route down the hardest slope both times, which will be important when interpreting the results below.

As with the Road Course, I did the two tests a number of days apart, at roughly the same time of day, with the same warm ups and exercises beforehand and the same cool-down period afterward.

Road Results: Steve Madden Canvas

Conditions: Partly cloudy, warm, strong breeze

Distance: Unknown

Time: 1 hr 45 min

This walk was a joy. I found that my flat, thin canvas shoes were extremely comfortable even on uneven terrain and out in the thick brush and leaves. The walk was invigorating and it was nice to be off-road again. Climbing the steep slopes was serious cardio, but relatively easy. I never scrambled or felt I would fall. Unlike the Road Course, the lack of padding was no issue on the softer ground and there was no soreness or callous-building this time around.

I encountered, to my surprise, zero ankle stiffness all that evening or the next morning. I found these results shocking.

Road Results: Chuck Taylor All Stars

Conditions: Cloudy, warm, moderate breeze

Distance: Unknown

Time: 1 hr 45 min

Walking was a chore. By the time I made the top of the ridge I was sick of the walk and only kept going for the sake of the experiment.

Walking on uneven ground with these shoes is not easy. I didn’t consciously notice this at first, I just noticed how tiring it was. I don’t think it was only the weight, but also the angle they force my feet to meet the ground at. With a padded ankle and arch support my feet have no option to splay, tilt or follow the angle of the ground beneath them. This makes off-roading in athletic shoes quite energy-intensive.

The comfort issues didn’t stop there. I started to get twigs and other junk in my shoes. I don’t remember this happening in the Maddens. Looking at the shape of the shoe, as a lace-up it has a long slot on either side of the tongue. I suppose that branches can easily catch in it, break off and work their way in. Since they are tied it’s hard to take them off and remove such garbage. This is not a fault of the padded soles, but it means that if a padded athletic shoe turns out to be a good overall choice then I’ll need to seek out a slip-on, lace-free version for hiking.

In a similar vein, the laces came untied no less than five times during the test, presumably from snagging so often.

The most significant problem occurred on slopes. Climbing the slope was much harder in these shoes. I had to take several segments on all fours to scramble up. Grabbing trees and other handholds became much more important. On the way back down, despite taking the exact same route, my feet went out from under me and I fell on my butt four different times.

I experienced mild to moderate ankle stiffness that evening and the next morning, similar to the results from the Road Test.

Interpretation

The first conclusion to draw from this comparison is that if I plan to go off-road on my hike I can’t mess around with laces.

The second conclusion is that padded athletic shoes perform like crap on slopes and uneven ground. My first thought with the sliding and falling on the slope was to check the treads of both shoes. Maybe I was just getting better traction with the Maddens?

No way. The Maddens, made with minimum treads in the first place, have been worn almost totally smooth. The Chucks however have thick, deep treads and they’re practically pristine. If the game was “who can stop quickest on ice or sand,” Chuck would win every time.

So we can’t blame traction for the problems on the hill. Given such near-identical conditions, I have to blame the different design of the shoe. When your feet are already coming down on an angle they don’t need an additional angle built into their heels. And when they need to turn, stretch and twist to accommodate rough terrain, they shouldn’t be forced into a set position for every step.  In these conditions the padded shoes work against the body.

Remember though that on the level Road Course the padded shoes actually performed slightly better. Although there’s still one test to go I already find myself asking: is there any way to reconcile the pros and cons of both designs into a single shoe?

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Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoe Comparison: 6.5 Mile Walk on Roads

When you’re walking 7,000 miles the shoes on your feet make a big difference.

In December I appealed to Rogue Priest readers for their advice on footwear. The choice is which theory to side with: conventional advice that highly engineered, thickly padded athletic shoes are best, or the controversial claim that such padding only weakens the foot and increases likelihood of injury.

There’s no firm scientific data to give either side a knockout victory, so personal experience is all I have to go on. After listening carefully to all the great advice you guys gave me, I decided to buy some shoes and run some experiments.

Method

I have no means to conduct a large-scale scientific test. I can however try out two different pairs of shoes under controlled conditions to see how my own body reacts to each.

I developed three different courses to use to test my shoes:

  • Road Course: 6.5 mile loop on asphalt roads, mostly level, some slight hills. Walking.
  • Off-Road Course: Fixed course of unknown length with a mix of asphalt roads, soft foot trails and complete off-roading in thick forest. Includes 300 foot off-road hill ascent and descent. Walking.
  • Jogging Course: Approximate 3/4 mile course on level asphalt road. Jogging.

The plan is to complete each course twice under virtually identical conditions except for the difference in shoes. I’ll put several off-days of just light walking in between each session, so that the aftermath of one won’t affect the other. I especially want to pay attention to how my ankle feels afterward and the following day.

So far I’ve completed the Road Course.

The Contenders

In the No-Padding Corner: Steve Madden canvas shoes. These shoes feature flat, thin soles with essentially no padding. The construction is sturdy with suede trim. While by no means flimsy, I can’t imagine a thinner shoe without going to Vibrams.

In the Athletic Shoe Corner: Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars. These shoes have nearly an inch of padding under the heel, arch support, and a sculpted insole that arcs down toward a thinner front. This is the classic shape of the athletic shoes that barefoot runners claim will mess up your foot.

Both pairs of shoes were bought second-hand but never used. Both fit well and are comfortable to wear casually.

The Hypothesis

In general I’ve been very undecided about the footwear controversy. I usually make decisions like this based on science. In its absence I’m agnostic.

But over the past sixth months of adventuring I’ve been wearing very thin shoes. There’s no planning behind this: I traveled light and wore what was available. With time I became accustomed to having very little padding.

When I first put on my Chuck Taylor All Stars it felt awkward but comfortable. I wasn’t used to having such thick, heavy things on my feet, but I did notice how soft my footfalls were. It took a little while to realize that the awkwardness was not just caused by their size, but by a difference in angle of how my foot lands on the ground. Padded heels have an effect.

I started taking casual short walks in my All Stars to get used to them. I want to go in as unbiased as possible. It didn’t take long. I forced myself to remember that they may surprise me and outperform the Steve Maddens.

So did they?

Road Results: Steve Madden Canvas

Conditions: Clear, warm, little if any breeze

Distance: 6.5 miles

Time: 1 hr 45 min (3.71 miles/hour)

The walk was comfortable and easy. I noticed a slight soreness in the balls of my feet, but it was the sort of soreness that goes away as you build up callouses, and it didn’t worry me. I felt very good and had no problem walking along the side of the road when a car passed. (These are country roads, so that’s not often.)

I did my exercise and stretching routine earlier in the day. After I returned I had about a one hour “cool off” period of light walking on soft surfaces or standing on my feet.

Later that night, when I stood up after eating dinner, I noticed my ankle had stiffened up. It was nothing like I got after walking up a mountain, but it was more than I would like to see from such a short walk. The following morning there was a little residual stiffness, but no noticeable increase in inflammation.

Road Results: Chuck Taylor All Stars

Conditions: Clear, warm, moderate breeze

Distance: 6.5 miles

Time: 1 hr 44 min (3.75 miles/hour)

The walk was easy and even more comfortable. I believe the slight increase in pace, if significant at all, was from being a bit chilly at the beginning of the walk. I did the same exercise and stretching routine earlier in the day, and a similar one hour cool-down period after the walk. I went at the same time of day as the other test.

I didn’t notice soreness in the balls of my feet during the walk. I did however notice that it felt more awkward to walk along the sides of the road. The slight crowning of the road, and the angle of the gravel shoulder, had been nothing in the Steve Maddens but seemed a little irritating in these shoes.

That night after dinner I experienced stiffness again, but it seemed less pronounced this time. The following morning brought at least as much residual stiffness however. Again, there was no increase in inflammation.

Surprised

I was very surprised with the results of the first test. The padded shoes really did seem to correlate with less stiffness later, which indicates less wear on my ankle. But the stiffness the following morning worries me, and I could never have imagined the problem with walking on slanted surfaces if I hadn’t experienced it firsthand.

Do you think the off-road results will be similar, or will there be another surprise?

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Adventure, Adventure Prep, The Great Adventure

Shoes or Barefoot: The 7000 Mile Question

Last summer while camping with philosophers I read the book Born to Run. This book has sparked quite a buzz among adventure types. It looks at super-marathons—runs of fifty miles or more in a single go—and suggests that running barefoot is healthier and safer than wearing shoes.

Alternately, foot condoms.

That’s actually not the main point of the book, which is more about how humans evolved to run long distances, and the search for the people who still do it (safely) today. During that quest, author Christopher McDougall found evidence that modern athletic shoes increase running injuries by weakening the foot. The solution he suggested—citing a number of sports doctors and coaches—is to wear thin-soled, unsupported shoes or no shoes at all.

People have fixated on this.

Barefoot running has become quite a trend. Before you sprint out and try it, let me warn you: suddenly switching your running routine to barefoot will lead to a stress fracture. Try downgrading to thinner shoes first. Start with a short jog. Slowly build your way up.

But the real issue is, is it worth it?

The Theory

The reasoning offered by McDougall and others is simple. Padded, supportive running shoes with thick heels are relatively new. Even 30 years ago they didn’t exist. But we’ve been running marathon+ distances safely for tens of thousands of years.

So what do these shoes do?

According to the theory, they over-cushion and support our feet. The muscles don’t have to work as hard because the shoe restricts them. The foot muscles weaken and injury results.

That makes logical sense, but where’s–

The Evidence

To support this, McDougall mainly relies on time trend analysis. Padded shoes are supposed to prevent injuries, but do they? He compares the injury rate of professional athletes before the modern running shoe, to professional athletes today. If the best modern running shoes help prevent injury, we should see a decline in injuries over time.

But injuries haven’t declined.

The implication is that athletic shoes don’t do anything to help prevent injuries. Barefoot enthusiasts point to this as proof.

They’re wrong.

A time trend is an interesting reason to look into something, but it’s not proof. Many factors could affect running injuries over forty years. The evidence McDougall gathered is an interesting starting point, but that’s all.

This is a hot issue, so surely more studies must have been done, right? I decided to…

Ask An Actual Doctor

This issue matters to me because I’m going to be walking, say, 7000 miles or so. And, oh yeah, I have a busted ankle.

So as long as I’m hanging around a straight-talkin’ ankle/foot specialist, I thought I’d ask about barefoot running (or hiking).

“Wear some fucking shoes,” my surgeon told me. “I don’t mean those five-fingers. The best athletic shoes you can afford.”

I worried he was biased. “So have studies been done that actually show that? More padded shoes lead to less injuries?”

He sighed. Shit was getting serious.

“No. It’s a big debate with smart people in both camps. So far, no research has shown us a clear answer either way.”

Iiiinteresting.

The Seven Thousand Mile Question

I always prefer to make my decisions based on science. Science is hands-down the best tool we have, followed closely by rational philosophy, then instinct, then personal experience, and somewhere way down at the bottom of the dredge, hope and faith.

But in this case, science fails to answer my question. So I have to make a judgment call.

Do I wear thick, supportive athletic shoes? Or thin canvas shoes and sandals? 

(I’m not literally going barefoot so those are your options.)

This is the seven thousand mile question. Choosing correctly could make my journey safer and more comfortable. Choose wrong, and I might be crippled when I’m 40—or laid up and suffering halfway to Brazil.

What do you think? If you knew you have arthritis in your ankle, and will be walking across two continents, what footwear would you equip for the journey?

I have some thoughts of my own on what to choose, but I’m eager to hear your opinion first. What do you say?

Update: You can see the shoes I finally chose—and why—in 1400 Mile Shoes

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