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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The Great Adventure

Gear Drive

Here’s what scares me. It’s not just walking, biking and paddling farther than most people drive. It’s not the Mexico border, or the Amazon rainforest. It’s that it all starts so soon.

To calm myself I’ve been assembling my gear. Recently, readers asked what exactly I’m taking with me. What do you take to walk 8,000 miles?

The answer isn’t clear. I’ve priced everything out and I have a wishlist, but the money I’ve saved isn’t nearly enough. There are going to be some tough choices. 

Photo by Beth Varro.

Here’s the dream team:

Shelter

$160 — OR Highland Bivy (like a tent coffin!)

$180 — 20°F rated sleeping bag, for my toesies.

Backpacking

$225 — ULA Camino Backpack (designed by backpackers, for backpackers)

$30 — A week of food… very, very simple food.

Gear

$60 — “MyBottle” water bottle with purifying straw. Sexy.

$45 — Gerber super lightweight hatchet. Perfect for home defense.

$140 — Shoes! Final pick TBA (so suspenseful)

$27 — Outdoor Research Drysack. Keeps my laptop dry even underwater!

$7 — Every adventurer carries rope.

Electronics

$300 — Smartphone. (My first ever, don’t tell anyone.)

$485 — Smaller, lighter notebook computer. So’s you can still read these blog posts.

Grand total: $1659

I’ve saved $800 toward this, leaving $859 to go. And I’d like to ask you to help.

One of the things I’ve learned over and over from experienced backpackers is that gear is vital. The right equipment keeps you safe from injury and lets you tough out the worst conditions.

To help secure that gear before I go, I’ve started a donation page. Many of you have asked how you can help as I get ready to leave, and if you’re able, this is the best way. Please click below and help support the Great Adventure.

Any size gift helps. You can sponsor a specific piece of gear, or give your lucky number. The amount is totally up to you.

As a special incentive…

  • If you give $50 or more I will send you handwritten postcards from three cities: Minneapolis, St. Louis and New Orleans.
  • If you give $100 or more I’ll give you a private meditation lesson. We can do the session “in person” by Skype. And you get the postcards, too!

Gifts of any amount are truly appreciated, and will help me out every day. Thank you!

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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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Spotlight, Travel

Interview with Nate Damm

Nate Damm walked across the United States.

met Nate mid-walk at the World Domination Summit. I felt an instant kindred. Since then I’ve followed his walk closely and chatted with him on Radio Enso. I’ve noticed that people ask him the same questions over and over: what shoes did you wear? Were you scared?

If you’d like to see those answers they’re covered in his Guide to Walking Across America. But I wanted to ask him something a little deeper—questions that most interviewers don’t usually get around to.

And Nate, being Nate, agreed.

So Rogue Priest readers, I present to you my interview with Nate Damm.

Nate Damm walked across America.

You talk about the value of being alone on your journey. What is the solitude like? What would you think about?

The solitude was incredible. It definitely took some getting used to but after a while I really grew to love it. Some of my favorite memories from the walk were moments where I was completely alone. Sometimes I’d go a few days without really seeing another human being (outside of their vehicle, of course). I would think about all kinds of things, but most often I would just pay attention to what was around me. There’s a lot to see when you’re walking because you’re going so slow. Animals, trees, mountains, clouds, interesting stuff on the side of the road. I just did my best to soak it all in.

What did you learn about yourself on this journey?

I learned that I am capable of handling pretty much any situation. I gained a lot of confidence in this area. I learned that things generally seem to work out if you keep a positive outlook and try to find some sort of humor in bad situations. For example, I’d walk into a city after dark and have absolutely nowhere to sleep. This stressed me out tremendously at the beginning of the walk, but by the end it was just a normal thing. I’d take a few breaths and try to see it as a new adventure. This may have resulted in uncomfortable nights underneath bridges or hiding out in a small patch of bushes, but it was all part of the fun.

You must have met a lot of people. Who are some of the ones who stand out in your mind?

One guy I spent a few days with was a Vietnam veteran who was a POW and escaped from a prison camp. He told me how he did it by burying himself underground in the jungle during the day and moving at night. His combat stories were absolutely incredible. After the war he returned to the U.S. and lived in his pickup truck for 9 years, putting 650,000 miles on his old Ford and traveling anywhere he pleased. He had beaten cancer twice, along with being in a coma for 2 months then waking up. He was an amazing guy who just really enjoyed being alive.

I spent some time with a middle aged couple in Ohio. They were homeless and living at a campground for free in exchange for a bit of work around the grounds (mowing lawns, trash removal, etc.) They lived in an old camper but had no way to haul it around. They cooked me an amazing meal and made me feel at home. They went well beyond their means to help me out. This was a recurring theme. Even people who had almost nothing would show me kindness in any way they could. They were genuine and kind people who were trying as hard as they could to stay afloat. I’ve since heard from them and they both managed to find steady work and bought a little house. They’re doing great.

I could tell a million stories here!

Do you stay in touch with any of them? Did anyone you met along the way start to follow your blog, that you know of?

I stay in touch with a lot of people I met along the way. I still find it amazing how close of a bond you can create with people in the span of one or two days. Many of them would follow my trip online after the point where I met them and keep in touch. I feel like I have an extended family all the way across the country now.

Did walking across America give you any insight into what you want to do with the next part of your life?

Not too much, actually. It did give me insight into how I want to approach each moment though. Walking is actually quite boring and repetitive, so you have to get good at finding something to enjoy at all times. This has definitely carried over into my life post-walk. I wouldn’t say that I know what I want to do, but I do know how I want to approach each day. I hope that makes sense.

After having seen so many different places and their people, do you have any great observations about humanity?

Definitely. I think that most people are good.

One observation I made that I found interesting was that in face-to-face interactions I only had maybe 2 or 3 negative experiences with people on the entire trip. On the other hand, I had that many each day (at least) with people while they were driving.

Out of all the lessons and changes you had on your walk, do you feel that you could have learned the same things any other way? Can people who don’t travel, or don’t walk, have the same kinds of experiences?

For me personally, I’d say no. Walking really saved me. I was in a pretty bad place before the trip. My life was, for lack of a better term, in shambles. The simplicity and solitude forced me to work through many of my issues, as there was no other alternative. I couldn’t ignore them any longer.

I suppose people could learn more about themselves and gain major life insights at home, but travel and being in uncomfortable situations can really speed up the process.

In your guide you mention “stealth camping.” Can you tell us how this works and what the right way is to do it?

The basic idea behind stealth camping is to camp somewhere you technically are not supposed to without getting caught. There really isn’t a best way to do it, I don’t think, because every situation varies. The only way to get better at stealth camping is to do it all the time.

I will say that things become very different after dark. Use darkness to your advantage. Places that seem impossible to camp without detection during daylight hours are often completely fine once it gets dark outside. This makes your ‘getting your camp set up at night’ skills very valuable. I actually practiced this a lot. As long as you can get up and be gone before daylight you’re usually all set. It is a rush camping in a location that if you were caught you would likely be arrested. I enjoyed it a lot. Maybe a little too much :)

If you could have had a travel partner walking with you, would you have wanted that?

For an extended period of time, no. I had one friend join me for a weekend, which was great, and another join me for a week. Those were both wonderful experiences. They were great people with open minds and good attitudes.

With that being said, I really valued my alone time on the trip as I knew I may never experience so much of it again once it was over. I enjoyed moving at my own pace.

Nate has a home base that’s worth snooping around and kept a chronicle of his walk that makes for great reading. Do you have questions for Nate? Hit the comments and fire away!

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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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