Monday, December 5, 2011

Red Dirt Running in the Pure Grit

Previously I posted an "out of the box" review of the Brooks Pure Flow (pictured above left) I purchased back in October. By now I have had a chance to wear the Pure Flow for several runs and I like them quite a bit. I would have no issues wearing them for anything up to half mary distance. Beyond that my body is simply not used to a more minimalist shoe and would require more beef for the time being. 

Subsequently, I ponied up the dough for a pair of the trail shoes from the same Brooks line, the Pure Grit (pictured above right). Likewise I have had the opportunity to wear test these whips on several runs. Recently I retired my first pair of trail shoes from The North Face. These were a mild stability trail shoe that had a good amount of cushion (not too much or too little) and gave decent protection from all the stuff I kicked, tripped and stumbled over. The Fire Road models had treated me well for about 275 miles. They still felt pretty good but were beginning to fall apart. The outsole had started to separate at the toe and was also showing some real signs of wear. To the point that traction was an issue. My other pair of trail skids are Pearl Izumi Iso-Seek IVs. These babies are plush, feel solid and stable, give plenty of protection and the no seam upper feels nice. But I tend to get hot spots on the bottom of my toes when wearing them for longer runs and they are a bit heavy for my liking. So these more or less became my go to sneakers for just wearing around and I love 'em in that way. I only give those details so you will know where I am coming from in my review of the Grit. My first two pairs of dedicated trail shoes I would classify as "average" in terms of stability, protection, weight and heel drop. By "average" I mean they weren't hiking boots and they weren't Vibram Five Fingers. They were pretty much middle of the road type trail shoes in the growing spectrum of available trail shoes. The Grit, in my opinion, fits into that spectrum towards the minimalist end. I know the Grit is not minimalist like a NB Minimus, a pair of Vibrams or the like. But you can't argue that Brooks has put a shoe out there that has "less" than most. It seemed like a perfect transition shoe for me. Not that I want to run trails bare foot or in Vibrams, that's another story altogether. 

If you have looked at any reviews of the Grit you're likely to have seen a couple of things repeated. That the Nav Band is useless, the traction is suspect and the split toe design is a puzzlement. I would have to agree on all of those points, to some extent. More on that later. But first, how do these feel? In a word, great. Compared to most "average" trail shoes these are light and flexible but still well cushioned. The use of the Brooks DNA in combination with BioMoGo (the world's first biodegradable midsole) works well. And all that with just 4mm of drop heel to toe. Most "average" trail shoes have about 12 mm of drop. This means the Grit "feels" lower to the ground. It also means, that if you are not accustomed to this, you will likely feel a stretch in your calf and/or achilles when first wearing them. I started out slowly in these working my way up from infrequent shorter runs now to more frequent middle distance runs and have not experienced any ill effects from the low drop. The upper feels good and it seems that there is ample room in the toe box for me. There is some decent arch support built into the shoe and just enough padding in the right spot under the laces. In terms of protection there really isn't a whole lot here. The front of the shoe is covered with a piece of leather over the mesh upper, no hard rubber rock kicker. I can't complain about the absence of a rock plate as the outsole and midsole seem to do an adequate job of offering just enough protection on the rockier trails around here, at least for shorter trail runs. 

Above is a close up shot of the split toe design. Honestly, I can't tell it is even there. I'm not sure it has any functional purpose. Brooks claims it allows the big toe to work independently engaging your natural balance and providing for a more powerful push off. It is the one new design piece that I would grade a total fail in my book. Another design feature is the Ideal Heel (pictured below) meant to shift the point of contact forward for a more efficient stride. Take a look and you might notice the heels on the Pure Project shoes are angled up. I have to say I think this one works for me. I noticed something different about it when I first tried them on. When trying them out on the treadmill at the store there is just a mere fraction of a second when I would normally expect to make contact yet my foot is still moving forward. I could sense my foot strike change ever so slightly towards my forefoot (I am usually a midfoot striker) without trying to change anything myself. And on the trail it is easier to feel it mile after mile. I like this design feature. 

On the traction issue. I have read many comments about poor overall traction. I cannot fully agree with this. I have worn mine on dry single track, both technical and not, as well as on some damp runs where the trails were covered with leaves after the end of fall and had some muddy sections. I can't really say the traction was that bad. In fact, it seemed comparable to any other trail shoe I have used. With one exception. On a couple of local trails we have wooden foot bridges. Traveling over these when wet was downright treacherous. I'm talking flip flops on ice folks. I literally nearly fell down the first two times and took to walking over them. Now I imagine anything short of track spikes on these wet wooden bridges would be lacking but I have run these when wet before and never almost flew off of them like that. In regards to the Nav Band I have to agree that it doesn't work the way I imagine it could or should. First, why a Nav Band on a shoe that has laces? The issue is that the Nav Band, for me and many others, is simply too loose to do any real good in terms of fit and I would say that I have normal width feet. But I did find a practical use for it after a couple of runs (see pic below). The Nav Band is a perfect place to stow away the laces and keep them tucked away nicely. 

A little on real world wear test results. Drew Connor, Manager at Rush Running, wore the Grit to a first place overall finish at the Bass Pro Dogwood Canyon 50k this fall. This is a technical course with several creek crossings and a load of elevation change. His only complaint was blisters on his big toes. That may have been due to the wet feet. He also wore them to a 7th overall finish (despite 6 bonus miles) at Turkey & Taturs, another rocky, technical course. His legs were pretty well trashed. How much of that was the shoe and how much was the bonus mileage? Don't know. What I do know is he wears them for all of his trail runs. Ryan Holler, another local guy, wore his more or less out of the box to a 9th place overall finish at the Pinhoti 100 this fall. He anticipated changing shoes at some point but absolutely loved the feel and performance of the Grit to the point he wore them the entire distance. As for me, I have completed a number of trail runs in the 6-10 mile range with no complaints whatsoever. It wasn't until I knocked out 15 miles on rocky, technical terrain that I felt the lack of beef. My feet were sore afterwards. Like I had run a mile on my gravel driveway barefoot. And my legs were beat. I felt soreness in both my quads and hamstrings unlike normal. I have to attribute some of that to the more minimal shoe. I mentioned how I feel these protect enough when going over rocky terrain. I can feel the rocks, more so than my previous trail shoes, but it doesn't hurt. I also notice that these shoes flex and roll more side to side than my previous trail shoes. Initially I had them laced up a little loosely and felt the Grits were a tad unstable on technical terrain. The thinking was that with the low heel drop I could get by with that. Personally I prefer my shoes to not be laced up tightly. What I took for instability was likely the designed flex and roll of the shoe allowing it to move more freely like my foot would naturally do. After snugging the laces up during that run the sense of instability is no longer there. I simply think that wearing them for 15 miles was a bit more than what I was used to resulting in the beat legs and feet. I believe if I continue to transition with these they will eventually be good for practically any trail run. I do plan on packing them for my trip down to Texas for my first 50 miler at Rocky Raccoon in February. I think the course (pretty flat and non-technical) will be a great test.

Update 12/10/2011
I completed my longest run yet in the Grits yesterday. A couple clicks north of 20 miles with about 5,600 ft of elevation change out at Blowing Springs trails in Bella Vista. Legs and feet felt better afterwards than they did after the 15 miler at Slaughter Pen the previous week. Sore but not beat up. Honestly, I would have to say the soreness comes on more quickly than in my Pearl Izumi Iso-Seek shoes. But today that soreness reached a certain point and then stopped about midway through the run. Part of the improvement has to be the smoother, less technical trails. Hopefully, part of it is also my body becoming accustomed to these shoes. My right achilles was pretty sore but feels back to normal this morning. And no blisters, or real hot spots on my toes. I used my Experia socks (with Thorlo cushioning) and they worked well. I prefer thin socks but these are the thickest I have and seemed to work well. The shoes are a hair big on me but the next size down was simply too small, had to compromise. There were some muddy, sloppy sections and the Grit performed as well as any shoe I have tried. A couple spots would have been slick for anything short of a monster truck. The Grits gripped as well as my buddies Salomon Crossmax shoes in the muck.

Update 02/04/2012
I wore the Grit for the first two loops at RR50 and felt pretty good about them in some regards. The course was uber wet and muddy following a couple of inches of rain at the start. I had no more issues with traction than any other swinging Tom, Dick or Jane out there. The only place it lacked bite was on the clay slopes where everyone had issues regardless of shoe choice. Even on the several wooden bridges I was good. I did change shoes for the final loop. I did so for a couple of reasons, my feet were soaked and starting to get sore. I had slacked off wearing the Grit in my training and I think this showed in that my feet weren't up to going 50 miles in them yet. My buddy, Mike Rush, wore them the entire distance on his way to a top 10 finish and loved them. I did perform a little experiment after the race. While cleaning my shoes in the tub I filled the Grits and Saucony Peregrines with water to see which drained faster. The Peregrine won that contest hands down. Not very scientific but there you go. The course at Rocky Raccoon is not technical at all and I saw several other runners wearing them. I would have no worries lacing these babies up again down in Huntsville nest year.

Update 08/27/2012
Likely this will be my final update on the Grit. I have abandoned wearing them for anything more than very short, non-technical runs. A couple of weeks following RR50 I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my right foot. Despite my slow and careful attempt at a transition to a more minimalist shoes the Grit is too far out of my comfort zone. I believe the lack of lateral support is the issue with me. The shoes twist laterally quite easily and that seems to be an issue with my anatomy. I am assuming that as my legs get fatigued and lose the ability to absorb impact more and more is transferred to my ligaments resulting in bad things. I also found that I prefer to have a rock plate in my shoes. Wearing slightly more substantial shoes (Saucony Peregrine and Patagonia Tsali) seem to work much better for me on longer, more technical runs. If the Grit or something even less works for you I think that is great. Everyone has his or her sweet spot and mine is over the other way a little bit. They do, however, make one helluva comfortable pair of shoes for knocking around in from time to time. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Have You Earned It?

We have become a culture that believes in silver bullets. We spend billions every year on pills that cure this or that, on fad diets, exercise gizmos and gadgets. Nearly every single day I see an article posted on the internet with some "secret" to running. How this workout will help you run faster or these drills will make you a better runner. I find myself less and less likely to take these seriously. Much of what is out there is simply the same old stuff repackaged with a sparkly new bow on it. No matter how hard you try to make a pig look pretty in the end it's still just a pig. Now if you are a brand spanking new member of the running community I can see there might be some benefit to gain from digesting these offerings. Here is a sample from the Twitter and FB postings I have recently seen.

"Efficiency is key to improve your performance. Use this guide to power your workout."
"Secrets from the Savannah:
What the Diets of Elite Kenyan Runners Teach Us About Optiomal Nutrition"
"Improve Your Running Indoors This Winter"

As Jason Fitzgerald recently pointed out in this honest article at Strength Running there are no secrets. His excellent article was the spark for my thoughts here. The closing line is a classic: "I’m more interested in getting you to take action and put in the work than giving you training porn."
Bryon Powell of iRunFar, in his excellent ultra running book Relentless Forward Progress, writes:
"Ultramarathon success is built on consistent training... Aim for relentless forward progress in training."
Ultra runner extradinaire Geoff Roes authored this excellent post on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance. "I think it's a lot more important to be consistent over the course of months and even years than it is to be consistent over the course of days or weeks."
Consistency is the key. Period. End of story. After several years of being inconsistent I am finally in a position, over the last 18 months, to make running a regular part of my life. I added speed work and tempo runs, I have researched fueling and hydration, I eat up shoe and gear reviews and try new drills and techniques. The result? My times have improved. In three marathons during that time I have dropped 99 minutes off my PR. I now have a legitimate chance of placing in my AG at any local race. Why? It’s not switching from Gatorade to Nuun or wearing Pure Project shoes in place of the Brooks Beast I started in. It’s not the foam roller I now use or the S! Caps or post run protein packed smoothies. It’s the consistent miles. Those things perhaps help me stay healthy by decreasing the wear and tear on my body physically. These may help me recover more easily to be better prepared for the next day. I think they do. However, I am convinced that without all the fluff, if I had been just as consistent with my running I would have still seen improvements. Maybe not to the extent that I have but  to some degree it would have been there.

I am amazed at this time of year, when the weather begins to turn cold, how few runners I see out on the roads and trails compared to just a few weeks ago. And then they come out of the woodwork in early Spring frantically trying to prepare for the local half marathon at the end of March. Will their times improve? Maybe. Will mine? You betcha ass. Why? I am willing to work harder in the cold, dark hours of winter. If you're inclined to leave the running shoes in the closet when it is too hot and humid, or it is raining buckets, or it is dark outside, or it is 15 degrees and snowing with the wind blowing, fine. I completely understand that. But those guys you saw with the headlamps Sunday morning running in the dark, slogging it out in the chilled drizzle getting wet and muddy... That was me and some other dedicated NWA GOATS out earning our due. And you know what? Runners like that will likely have an edge on you come race day. That's the guy who regularly sets a new PR every season. That's the guy taking home the hardware that could have been placed on your trophy shelf.

Now don't get me wrong here. I don't run to collect medals, t-shirts and accolades. I don't run to see who I can beat on race day. In the past year I have been in just 7 races (a 5k, a 10k, a half marathon, two marathons and two 50k races). I run to push myself. To find out what I am capable of doing. It gives me focus and clarity. It keeps me sane and it helps keep me healthy. But at some point I have to measure myself against something more than the clock. A race gets the competitive fire in my belly stoked up like I could never do myself on a training run. If improvement is what you seek then take responsibility and accept that there are no shortcuts.

My secret? Keep something dangling out there in front of you. Maybe it is a specific race. Perhaps a best time on your favorite course. How about the numbers on the scale you step on in the morning? Keep a carrot on a stick. For me, an epic race that requires me to stay consistent over the winter works. Last year it was the Cowtown Marathon. This year it is the Rocky Raccoon 50 miler the first weekend in February. For my first "real" ultra there is little doubt that I will have to be consistent over the winter to be ready to toe the line down in Texas. I anticipate the following thought lingering in my head throughout those cold runs. It is some advice offered from a grizzled ultra runner recently: “Don’t be greedy with it. It takes times to grow as a runner in this sport. You have to earn your way into it.”