Running on Tilt

Shoe Shopping

The Holy Grail of racing shoes; Joey weighs in

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Last weekend my cousin Joey and his girlfriend Lorin visited from Vancouver, Canada. In anticipation of their stay my wife and I cleaned our apartment. It is not that our apartment gets dirty, per se, it’s just that piles tend to form. When guests come, we hide the clutter by pushing the excess clothing into the closet and the paper stacks into filing cabinets or atop bookshelves where they are less visible. The final challenge is always the shoe pile in the corner of our living room. I had considered this pile evidence of my wife’s shoe problem, but as I started excavating the pile I realized that it was dominated not by her boots, high heeled shoes or slippers, but by my footwear: Asics GT 2130 trainers, Brooks Racer STs, Adidas trail runners, Adidas Cosmos track spikes, and, to top it off, two identical pairs of Brooks T4 racers. I had a shoe problem, and my collection didn’t even include the Holy Grail of running footwear, the marathon racing shoe.

A shoe shopper answers the following three questions: How does it look? How does it feel? And what does it cost? When shopping for running shoes, there’s an additional metric: How much does it weigh? A racing shoe, which provides less drag, should be lighter than a training shoe, which provides more support. Runners need more support for longer races, so running shoes for longer races should be heavier than those for shorter races. Slighter and faster runners, it is suggested, can get away with wearing shoes on the lighter end of the spectrum.

Not all runners believe in the marathon racing shoe, but then again, not all runners approach the marathon as a race. For many—and who can blame them—simply finishing is goal enough, and so the relatively heavy training shoe that can absorb the most pounding is the one that should be used. I was chastised during the 2006 NYC Marathon for running in the 5.9 oz Brooks T4 racer. An ungracious runner offered his opinion as he passed me on the Pulaski Bridge at the halfway mark. “Sorry buddy,” he said. “Wrong choice of shoes.” I wanted to curse at him, but I had neither the energy nor the spirit, and worse yet I suspected that he was right. My feet were killing me. Still, there has got to be an alternative to clunky trainers.

The quest for the perfect shoe is one shared across subcultures. I spoke with my cousin about this issue. Here is what he had to say. “I’m looking for a shoe to fit my scene. It has to retain aspects of my scene, which includes the board sports. It’s got to be athletic. It has to be able to allow me to play soccer and play hacky-sack, and I have to be able to walk down the street and not feel embarrassed to be wearing the shoe. I also must be able to hop on a skateboard. And the shoe is not easy to come by. I’ve spent years actually looking for the shoe, and I’m always stuck back where I’ve started off, which is in the skateboard world, but that’s what I’ve been moving away from. So as of now there is no shoe to fit the scene of a twenty-year- old ex-skateboarder’s lifestyle.

“I’m Joey Maitland, 20 years old from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, grown up all my life in the board sports, and enjoy being outside, and I don’t have a shoe that fits my life.”

Joey was able to find two pairs of shoes in New York that he liked enough to buy, but as he returns to Vancouver the jury is still out on whether they fit his life.

To find a racing shoe for the upcoming Big Sur marathon, I visited a store called “New York Running Company,” located on the second floor of the Time Warner building. The Time Warner building is a stone’s throw from Central Park, so it’s convenient to visit after a run. A runner after a run has stinky feet, of course, and in the good old days an employee would be expected to personally maneuver those stinky feet into shoes. Now they simply drop a shoebox and let you do the dirty work.

When shoe shopping in general, customers are compelled to walk a few steps in their prospective purchases to see how they feel. Running shoe stores are slightly different, in that for a customer to see how she feels, she really has to run in the shoes. Some running shoe stores now come equipped with treadmills and cameras to break down your stride. Based on how your foot hits the ground, a particular brand of shoe may be recommended. But that scene is a little technical—sort of Dolph-Lundrgren-in-Rocky-IV-ish. A more amusing approach is to bound up and down in the aisles on a simple test run. At the New York Running Company there is a clear path from the shoe rack on the far wall to the register in the middle of the store, offering plenty of space for a strider or two.

I turned to Joey’s girlfriend Lorin for some wisdom on shoe-shopping.

“Shoe shopping can be anything from the most amazing experience of the afternoon—anything to brighten your spirits, brighten your day—to the most frustrating experience that you have all week. Sometimes there’s that perfect shoe. Your size is available, you put it on, you know exactly when you’re going to wear it, exactly what it’s going to go with, and you couldn’t be happier when you walk out the door. And other times all you want is the perfect shoe, and you could spend anywhere from fifteen minutes to three hours wandering around a shoe warehouse trying to find something to wear, and being totally lost and coming away empty handed.”

“My name is Lorin Jones, I am almost twenty-one years old, from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I work in the retail industry, and I love shoes.”

I was determined neither to spend three hours in the store nor to leave empty handed, but I couldn’t find the perfect shoe, so I did what any self-respecting shoe shopper would do: I bought the best one I could find—the 7 oz. Puma III RoadRacer, and then ordered another pair of shoes—the 6 oz. Brooks T6 racer, a version of which Brian Sell used in the Beijing Olympics—online when I got home. For good measure, I also purchased another pair of 12 oz. Asics 2130s so as not to wear out my trainers. At the moment, I’m leaning toward using the 7 oz. Pumas for the big race.

I sense something untoward about this hoarding of shoes. JackRabbit sports accepts used running shoes and sends them to Africa, so perhaps it’s time for me to pay them a visit.

Still, though, like a good shoe shopper I’ve got my eyes on the prize—the next pair. With all due respect to the late Bill Bowerman’s innovation of rubber in a waffle-iron, what I’d really love to get my feet in is a pair of the 3.85 ounce rice-husk marathon racers created by Japanese master cobbler Hitoshi Mimura for Asics. The shoes, which have produced Olympic gold, are currently not available to the general public. Mimura compares runners and their shoes to samurais and their swords. How refreshing and appropriate is his reverent approach. I imagine Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill rewritten.