Monday, 6 February 2012
It wasn't exactly 'love at first sight', but it wasn't far off. After a chance meeting, caution soon became infatuation. Before I knew it, I was caught up, captivated, hypnotised.
Of course, once the honeymoon period was over, things settled down a bit. We'd have the occasional fall-out, but I always crawled back, desperate to give our relationship another go.
But where do you go when the love disappears? When the only thing being together brings you is pain?
You have to be a man. Stand up and walk away. Remember the good times, but realise that if you're going to get better, you've got to get out.
It's been hard. I've failed.
'It's not you, it's me,' I've heard myself saying. 'I can't carry on. I'm not strong enough.'
This may be one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made, but right now I have to say, 'Goodbye.'
Our Kid turned up at work three or four years ago. Having recently returned to serious running, he'd struggled with this injury or other for a while. A dodgy knee was the latest in a line of ailments that was doing his head in. On this particular morning, however, he informed me of his revelation. He'd walked to the playing fields the previous evening, taken off his shoes and ran laps for a half-hour barefoot. It was more running than he'd managed to do for weeks. The knee that so hampered him when he was running in 'normal' trainers was suddenly fine. 'Barefoot running,' he told me, as I ate my breakfast in front of the computer, 'that's the way to go.' He asked me to type it into Google, and we were both taken aback with what we found. A new movement had started, unbeknowst to us, and was about to go ballistic. Its figureheads had impossibly stupid names - Barefoot KenBob, Barefoot Ted, Barefoot Jason (you get the drift.) After browsing a few of the sites, it didn't take me long to come to the same conclusion that any sane individual would. 'Den,' I told Our Kid, 'what a load of old shite!'
That was where I left it. Forgetting, however, that Our Kid isn't sane in terms of the normal definition, it was obvious he'd been smitten. For months I played gooseberry. Every time I came into the office, Our Kid and The Whole Barefoot Thing would be getting it on. If he wasn't checking out obscure websites, he'd be lecturing me on 'forefoot striking', showing me his ridiculous new VFF's or going on about this new book that was going to bring the whole movement to the mainstream.
I just shrugged the whole subject off. To be honest, I couldn't be bothered with it. The hippy sentiment was the first thing to get my back up. All that 'connecting with nature', 'running natural, running free', 'feeling the earth between my toes'. You know - all that. I've always been more Mod than Hippy, more speed than dope - angry, intense, pissed off not blissful, happy, at one.
Of course, in time The Book hit the shops and now everyone was talking about Jurek, Shelton and Christopher Mac. Even friends who had never run since school were dropping references to 'Caballo Blanco' and 'those crazy Mexican Indians that run with bits of tyres on their feet.'
For Our Kid, I guess, it was justification of what he'd been banging on about for the last year. He grew his hair long, started running in Hi-Tec sandals (Micah True's minimalist footwear of choice) and disappeared to the Copper Canyons to run the ultra-marathon and generally hang out with that mob.
I expected the preachings of an hysterical convert on his return to the UK, but, strangely, he'd seemed to have changed his tune slightly. The barefoot shoe movement was growing exponentially - an industry was emerging - existing shoe companies were changing, quick. I don't know if that was the matter that dampened his previous enthusiasm, or that the trip to the Canyons highlighted the fact that the important thing was the people of those remote valleys, not the barefoot bullshit that had become entangled with them. Whatever, the flame had been extinguished somewhat.
Which is strange. Because for me, the whole barefoot thing was just starting. I'd been shown glimpses of a world that was totally alien to me, and, like River Phoenix, even though some part of me was opposed to what it stood for, I found myself being sucked in. Once there, I liked what I discovered and soon I couldn't get enough.
On a dark January evening last winter, I put aside my natural cynicism and handed myself over. Alone in the office, I'd stumbled upon a short instructional video by Lee Saxby in which he demonstrated how to run in a 'barefoot style'. I watched it back to back 3 or 4 times, and that, I'm afraid, was all it took. On Facebook later that night, I posted a dumb status update: 'This is the year in which I learn to run again.'
You do stupid things when you're in love, and this was the first of many. Overnight, I became superior. This was the right way to run - the way it should be done. By running like this, not only would I be more efficient, but the likelihood of becoming injured would plummet. By running like this, I'd be able to run more - that was the clincher. As I ran in pain for seven months later in the year, it was exactly this thought that I did my best to bat away.
In the early days of our affair, I was swept away by the newness of the whole thing and carried along by an excitement and exuburance I'd experienced only once before, when, as a young teenager, I'd suddenly discovered running and spent countless bedroom hours pouring over grubby Runner's World magazines before eventually losing my half-marathon cherry. In a matter of weeks, my posture improved. My form changed in cadence and footstrike. I felt alive. I was revived. I posted some decent times in local races and a top 5 finish in a Lakeland ultra. But the point behind all this was to run longer. I'd come up with a plan to run all the long distance paths in the county in 2012, and I knew for this to be feasible, I'd need to keep injury-free. 'Barefoot style' would do this for me. Or so I thought.
It was at the end of August when the wheels began to wobble. A 20 hour jog around The Lindsey Loop left me with great memories of an amazing experience, but, worryingly, a sore left foot. Pain on the top of the foot alternated with pain in the arch of the foot. This occasionally gave way to a sharp pain in the heel or a general unnerving stiffness across the whole of my foot. Love blinded me. 'It's my foot's reaction to finally being able to move naturally instead of being encased in foot coffins,' I'd convince myself. Love turned me into a liar. 'You ok?' Tammy would ask. 'Not bad,' I'd reply, so glad she never saw those first hobbling steps from the bedroom each morning.
This was the Transition period, I reasoned. I'd experienced the calf strain, persevered, and now that was a forgotten issue. Stick with it and the feet will adjust. It started to come an all-consuming obsession. I picked up a pair of toe socks to encourage toe-spread. I devoted a half hour every morning and evening to foot drills and strengthening exercises. I started '100-upping'.
Love was changing me. I couldn't stop myself. Despite always having a miserly streak, my debit card started getting a pounding. The next shoe will sort it out. NB 101's to Merrell Trail Gloves to NB Minimus Trail to NB Minimus Road. On and on and bloody on.
Our relationship started showing signs of strain. Listening to the advice of friends who had my best interests at heart, I finally made an appointment to see someone. Hopefully, he might get things back on track. All partnerships have their ups and downs, but I was a firm believer in seeing things through. He only had to say the right words, convince me that we were meant for each other, and I'd carry on fighting.
But it wasn't to be.
It took my osteopath less than 20 minutes before he delivered his verdict. A lack of flexibility in the spring ligament was causing some inflammation of the plantar fascia. He could help me regain the movement, and I wouldn't even need to stop running. All good so far, I'd thought. And then the big question: 'Could it be the minimalist shoes?'
His answer was concise. Professionally balanced. Neither scathing or glowing. He pointed out the benefits and disadvantages, all the pro's and all the con's. But while he was talking, I couldn't help but feel the crushing inevitability of a once-passionate affair limping to its finish line.
Once home, I dug out my old trainers. Old friends, discarded for months. I tried. I really tried. But I thought of my new lover and I just couldn't let go. One more try. I'll be better this time. We'll be good together. I put them away and slipped on my NBs.
Two weeks ago, a friend turned up for the Thursday Session in a new pair of Vivo Barefoots. Stripped back to nothing. No arch support. No midsole. Zero-drop. Beautiful. Stunning. We talked for a couple of minutes about The Whole Barefoot Thing. I could tell he'd fallen in love. His form had changed - his stride shorter, his cadence faster. He ran with a smile.
After I'd double-backed at the top of the first climb, I got to chatting with another mate. 'Chris, you're into this barefoot thing,' he said, 'Is there anything in it?'
I went on, like I always do - the same old bollocks I find so easy to spew out - singing the praises of my lover. And while my words tumbled out, all I could think was why does my foot hurt so much? I knew then - an empty aching inside of me - how this would all end.
Taking the last pair of zero-drops from the shoe-rack, I traipse upstairs and place them carefully in the bottom of the bedroom cupboard. I stand a while and then close the door on my mistress.
I've come back to what I know. Racing flats with a hole in the toe, muddy studded fell shoes, and a shabby pair of cushioned trail shoes sit under the stairs now. Since we reunited less than 2 weeks ago, the physical pain has gone. We've known each other a long time, can take each other for granted, know what to expect.
Later, I sit on the step and slip on my old favourites. 8mm drop, plenty of cushioning, some moderate pronation control. My head tells me this is all for the best.
I get up wearily and head down the lane. Somehow, things seem less bright. And all my heart can whisper is, 'Where did it all go wrong?'