In December I hit two milestones: turning 50, and running 1,000 miles in a year for the first time in a decade. These weren’t totally unrelated – a few years earlier I’d seen 50 coming and decided I better pick up the exercise again. I’d been running regularly since I was in junior high, I knew I could do it even with a hard travel schedule, and I like the thinking time that runs provided, so it was a natural sport to re-engage with.
I wasn’t in bad shape, but somehow I felt like I was slowly losing altitude. A little heavier, a little creakier, a little slower. The problem was that every time I started to run more regularly, leg problems, mostly sore knees, would bring me to a halt within a couple of weeks.
Fortunately a series of partially related things got me over the hump.
Winter, “Born to Run”, and Flat Shoes
A couple of years ago I found I was running relatively pain-free, despite the usual snow, slush and ice of a New England winter. I figured I was probably just running more gingerly or slowly in the elements, but I happened to read Christopher McDougall’s awesome book “Born to Run” at the same time. In addition to convincing me that it wasn’t absurd to try to keep running, it raised the question of whether the lack of pain was due to running differently in the muck than I would in the summer.
It seemed to me that I was landing more in the middle of foot in order to get a good grip, so when spring came I tried to keep with that foot strike. Like many runners I decided to try more “minimal” or “natural” running shoes, and was fortunate to be traveling to Boulder, CO regularly for the NEON board of directors, so could visit the Boulder Running Company. In addition to good advice, they will film your foot strike as you run on a treadmill, which is surprisingly revealing. Through a series of shoes I’m now running in Saucony Kinvara 3’s(in neon yellow!) and Saucony Xodus 3’s, both with a 4mm drop from heel to toe, and a moderate amount of support (I haven’t ever gone totally minimal yet).
The result is that over a couple of years, I’ve been able to dial-in a combination of stride and shoes that work for consistent running on the road and trails.
Trails and Nights
For track workouts on the junior high track team, Coach Pedersen would pile us in a van and drive us out to the woods. We’d do loops on single-track trails, wind sprints up hills, and just have a blast. High school cross-country was fun, but mostly on golf courses in southern Wisconsin, and it wasn’t the same.
As an adult, I’ve run on trails every once in a while, but when I started running regularly again, I decided to make an effort to get out on the trails frequently. It’s as good as I remember, and I suspect that the irregularity of the trails has helped me get stronger, and also avoid the repetitive strides and pounding that come on pavement. There’s also no traffic, and its far more peaceful if you’re trying to work on a problem in your head while you run.
This year I added a new twist by getting a new headlamp and running on trails at night. I stick to trails that I know, and find those runs much different, but as rewarding as the trail runs during the day. I think my favorite these days is trail runs, at night and on the snow.
Time to Fly
The last piece of the puzzle has been totally random. Even though I could run 5 or 6 days a week pain-free, I was having trouble mixing in longer runs over 5 miles or so. My legs would just feel pounded as the run went on, and I’d pay for it for the next 2 or 3 days.
I’d seen a picture of Hoka One One sneakers in Trial Runner magazine, and they looked crazy. But back in Boulder on a trip, the guys urged me to give them a try, and I was intrigued. I decided to give myself 4 more months to get comfortable in my longer runs, but I couldn’t break through. So after doing my homework on the web, I picked up a pair of Stinson B Evo’s on my next trip to Boulder.
The bottom line is that these shoes are a blast. You can bomb through the woods, cruise on double track and pavement, and the huge landing pad and all of the foam do the trick with regards to wear and tear on the legs. Remarkably, I feel like my natural stride in the Hokas and the Saucony’s are almost identical, despite their huge number of physical differences.
Hoka’s motto is “time to fly”, which I thought was hilarious when I first saw the shoes. But at least once per run it feels like you’re flying, especially in the woods.
I’ve started the New Year strong, and the miles keep on flowing by. I haven’t set any particular goals, and I’m not feeling real compelled to — I’m just happy to be getting out.