For the past six months, I’ve been testing new shoes. The manufacturer isn’t soliciting a media review, this is a development model. They swear you to non-disclosure, so I’m not allowed to discuss the specifics. What I test doesn’t necessarily make it to production and store shelves anyway. Agreeing to become a wear tester is a contract that you’ll run in whatever you’re given. The test period can be anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months, with evaluations interspersed throughout. There’s no obligation to participate for the full duration, but you must release the manufacturer from any liability if the shoes lead to injury. It’s fun to get surprise shoes, but I didn’t expect it to change me as a runner.
The first pair I tested was a beautiful blue, and I hated them. They were simultaneously mushy and clunky. Every day I laced them up I noticed how heavy they were compared to my lithe Mizuno Elixirs. The toe-off was sluggish, my feet were deaf to the surface they were running on, going downhill had no more impact than going up. On trails, they rode like a tank over all obstacles smaller than a tangerine, but strangled any agility I might have had hopping on larger rocks or roots.
Many runners stop testing at this point. We don’t get any money or compensation, sometimes not even the shoes. Except for the elites maybe, who do the majority of testing, we run for the love of it. If test shoes rob you of the joyful runs you could be having, why keep going with them? I love running. God knows I have to, with the skills I have. I love science, too. The scientist in me hates a spoiled experiment, as ill-conceived as shoe testing may be. So, I clomped in those beautiful, hateful blue shoes for a hundred miles.
I’ve made my share of mistakes buying shoes. Especially when I was a poor student, I lived with, and ran in those mistakes, for three or four hundred miles before I let myself forget them. However, the pretty blue shoes weren’t just loathsome, I was asked to describe how loathsome, and precisely what I thought made them loathsome. Further, what specifically did I think would make me loathe them less?
I didn’t have many good answers for that first pair of test shoes, but the questions put me on the producer side of the transaction for the first time. What’s mushy to me is pillowy luxury to someone. When I clomp, someone feels securely supported, safe from injury. A version of those blue shoes is in production, and they are loved by many. They’re intended for a different runner than I am, with different preferences. By the time the test was over, I’d literally run 500 miles in someone else’s shoes imagining what they liked, how they ran, and what they expected from their shoes.
As in all exercises of this kind, I uncovered what I have in common with that different runner. On a whim, I took the blue shoes on a long road run. Trail shoes don’t typically do well on pavement, but the context of experiment encourages you to play on all kinds of surfaces, on all types of runs and speeds. When I’m stretching out my long runs into the 18-20 mile range after neglecting them for a while, I am that different runner those loathsome blue shoes were made for. They are mercifully forgiving on those final miles.
I’ve now logged several hundred miles in different test models, and managed to find common ground with most of those different runners. Unless the test shoe is very similar to whatever I’m currently running in, I can hardly bear to lace them up for the first two weeks, or roughly 60 miles. Strangely enough, it’s not my feet that are picky, it’s my brain. My head doesn’t take well to change. The shoes I spend my own money to replace again and again remain ones I initially chose myself, but the range of shoes I’m able to run in is much larger than I would have guessed. I have flat duck feet, and I pronate. When I ask for shoe advice, I’m invariably directed to much more supportive shoes than I’d choose myself. I can, and have, run many miles safely in such shoes. I’ve run as many miles, safe from injury, in neutral shoes, trail shoes, and light performance shoes. As far as I can determine, shoes have little to do with injury whether it’s me doing the choosing, or the specialty shop owner, or the mysteriously unnamed wear test czar. My injuries stem from too much training of one kind or another, or more fundamental weaknesses that aren’t much affected by shoes. I’ve checked, by daring to take my running life into my own hands, and going back to run in the very same pair of shoes after healing the injury.
My feet, my legs, my running gait in total have turned out to be much more adaptable than I imagined. After running more or less full-time for a month in the mushy blue shoes, I gratefully returned to my much loved Elixirs to find them curiously temperamental and unyielding. Like travelling to a foreign land, wearing unfamiliar shoes sharpens my view of what characteristics I gravitate to and why. The Mizuno Elixir is firm, flexible and transmits quite a bit of road feel through the forefoot. In particular, they have a certain sweet spot of cadence and tempo. When I strike those notes, my shoes make me want to dance. When I don’t, they remind me I’m running like an old lady. It goes without saying that some days, there’s a good reason I’m running like an old lady thankyouverymuch.
Another surprise is that considering a pair of shoes in such detail for a mandated period of time has led me to expect less of them. Some shoes are better suited to certain kinds of terrain or paces. I try my best to resist looking to my shoes if I don’t possess the skills to do that kind of running. If my hip hurts I cut back, and wait a few days before I think of shopping for new shoes. Humility is working better for me at injury prevention than technology.
Nowadays I expect about as much from my running shoes as I do from my clothes. I love my super high-tech, triple turbo laminate, windproof, waterproof, bulletproof shell, but I don’t ask it to make me faster. It does a terrific job in single-digit temps when I couldn’t run without it — I promptly forget about it the moment I zip it up. Likewise, my favourite shoes let me forget they’re there, but I don’t ask them to erase my frailties. Shoes started out as apparel. I’ve stopped kidding myself that running shoe design has evolved much farther.