Creature of habit v evolution of a runner (a story of running feet but nothing gruesome)
I used to believe that I was a creature of habit, especially regarding my running, however, increasingly I find myself evolving all aspects of my running.
This evolution has manifested itself in lots of different ways, my attitude to training for example was once that it was a necessary evil in order to reach races now I consider it the gift that keeps on giving.
I once considered that a running watch was a taskmaster that should not be nourished by your ever watchful eye but instead something to be feared, now however, I consider a watch a genuinely useful tool that informs on my progress and is nothing to fear, albeit with the caveat never to get too obsessed by numbers as the story they tell is far from complete.
I once considered myself to be a size 8 narrow fitting shoe only to realise that after many, many blisters, I am in actual fact a size 10 with hobbit width feet and it is in feet that my latest change has come about.
Fear not long time readers there shall be no pictures of my feet.
My feet are, if you’ll excuse the error, my Achilles heel. If something is going to fail me on either a run or a race it will be my feet. They simply give in and have always been prone to this, now while I can and do push through pain there’s a point where my feet tell me to fuck off and say ‘that’s enough Ultraboy’.
For anyone that has seen my nasty little hobbit feet you’ll know that even on their best day they look like someone has just run a tank over them – and let’s be frank – good days are rare. They are always encrusted with blood, goo and filth and my nails, what remains of them, are bitten (yes bitten) as far down as is possible and that’s quite far down.
It took me a long time to devise a system that would allow me to successfully run ultra marathons and I have deviated from this recipe so few times because although not perfect – it works most of the time (about 93% of the time based on DNFs).
The layering on my feet has been very simple – a light layer of a Compeed stick based lubricant on and between my toes followed by a pair of Injinji toe liner socks followed by a pair of Drymax socks (thickness being weather dependent) and encased inside a pair of Altra Lone Peak and topped with a pair of Dirty Girl Gaiters.
Each element serves a particular purpose and has done since I devised the system.
The result after running an ultra marathon with my feet dressed in this manner is that my second toe (the one next to my big toe) would invariably blister at the end, filling with fluid and peeling off a few days later but with very little pain and that was it. And since I adopted this format for my feet in races I have accepted this result as the price to pay for finishing the race.
I can only think of two significant failures of the system – the Skye Trail Ultra where my feet took an absolute battering over 28hrs and the Ridgeway where the heat and moisture played havoc with my poor little foot digits. In both instances I feel that any significant change to the system would have no different a result, just a different way of experiencing it.
So why am I considering evolving the system? Well tastes change, as does product fit and product quality but perhaps it is experience that is the key here. The good thing about evolution is that you are not throwing the baby out with the bath water and what has worked for so many years will remain the basis for my feet going forward.
The Compeed remains my lubricant of choice and Dirty Girl Gaiters will remain as my top layer (they continue to be one of my favourite pieces of running kit and have never, ever failed me). However, there are changes elsewhere – my shoe choice has moved away from Altra towards Topo Athletic and I have been extensively testing running without the Injinji layer – especially in wet and muddy conditions – something that my new home of Scotland has in abundance.
Let me explain a little further, I still very much love Altra running shoes and when I first put them on in 2015 they were a revelation.
Since that first pair of Lone Peak I have owned more than 30 pairs of Altra, mainly in trail but occasionally in road. Many of them have been brilliant but enough of them have had serious durability issues and some have had comfort issues (looking at you Escalante and King MT). The breaking point was the £130 Lone Peak 4.5 which were both too soft and lacking the kind of longevity that I demand out of a long distance pair of shoes. They felt a bit too much style and not enough substance.
I don’t plan on dumping my Altra as wide fitting footwear are hard to come by and have in fact just ordered a pair of Altra Golden Spikes for use in XC and the occasional icy conditions.
Altra though will move to my second choice shoe – this means they’ll be for training, shorter ultras and sub ultra races. To replace them I had a recent investment splurge in Topo Athletic after finding them to be a good mix of comfort, responsiveness and importantly – durability.
The MTN Racer, the Terraventure 2, Hydroventure 2, Ultraventure and Trailventure will form the spine of my race shoes for the next year or two but having also enjoyed training in Topo for several years they are displacing Altra as my ‘go to’ shoe for running shits and giggles.
The removal of the Injinji socks from the footwear set-up is perhaps a bigger change than replacing Altra because the Injinji have been there since my first ultra marathon – they were on my feet when I ran my first marathon but they only became a layered sock at the St Peter’s Way in 2014 and there is an emotional connection to the physical benefit I perceived they brought.
But I am less and less convinced by the physical benefit in my layering system.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Injinji liner sock and currently own 12 pairs of them (thank you Castleberg Outdoors for your buy three get one free offer). The Injinji liner sock provides a very comfortable, soft, durable material between the outer sock and your foot. The liner is a delight and the fact it separates your toes out is a nice feeling after a long day on the trail. However, I’ve been running tests with my Injinji liners recently both alone and in conjunction with my Drymax socks and once the Injinji sock is wet it doesn’t respond as well as the Drymax.
The Drymax almost instantly warms the feet when wet but the Injinji liner does not and in the time it takes the liner sock to dry out (which to be fair isn’t very long at all) the damage is already done. If my feet take several soakings that means that the next to skin layer is almost always going to be wet or at the very least damp and I believe that I can reduce some of the fatigue my feet are feeling by removing the liner.
The Drymax sock is so good that it really has never needed anything else I was just such a creature of habit that I kept the Injini liner because of sentiment. What this means though is that I’ve had to increase the amount and variety of Drymax socks in my collection to cover the various seasons and race types (thanks to the Ultramarathon Running Store for stocking all the socks I need).
But what of the dozen pairs of Injinji socks?
Oh that’s easy – they will become my summer running socks and having just purchased my first pair of running spikes I suspect they will be the perfect companion for them.
The lesson of the sock
There is a lesson here and it’s a pretty simple one, don’t be afraid of change – at a time where things are batshit crazy, making changes is okay. Whether it’s the way you protect your feet during a run or something that’s actually serious. Change can be positive, let’s hope that’s how my feet feel after their next race.
Please note this post is entirely my own opinion, I have no brand affiliation and I pay for ALL my own gear! Which is why I get to say fuck so much and talk about poo.
For further information about the kit I wear you can check out Dirty Girl Gaiters and Drymax at The Ultra Marathon Running Store (I believe the only UK stockist for both). Altra are available widely across the country but more information can be found at their website. Topo Athletic information can be found here and are available at both Northern Runner and Castleberg Outdoors (where I usually buy mine from). Compeed is available from local independent and national retailers, more information can be found here.
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