Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How Far Will You Go for a Set of Vibrams

The popularity of the VFF has gotten out of hand I think.

You go around the handful of local stores in the SF Bay Area, find out that many models and sizes have completely sold out. The salespeople who don't wear them state (in incredulous tones) that they can't keep them on the shelves.

The episode that hit home just how low the supply has gotten, and how badly people want these shoes, happened this past weekend. I sent to one of the three stores in the City of San Francisco that carry the VFF to get a replacement for my KSO's (the ones I've trashed and stunk up for the past 9 months). Across from me sat a woman with one hand talking on her cell phone, and one hand slipping on various pairs of shoes.

I had assumed wrongly that she was just trying on various women's casual shoes. But then she overhead my discussion with the saleslady regarding sizes & models of VFF (Classic vs. Sprint, vs. KSO, Size 41 vs. 43 vs. 44), and asked me about what size VFF her friend should wear. She revealed that she was talking over the phone with a friend in England, a male, about what size VFF he should wear. I looked at her feet, she had several models of VFF lying around her.

When the saleslady went to take care of another matter, I spoke with her in more detail with the young lady inquiring about the Vibrams. Turned out that her friend in England;

- Asked her to buy them on his behalf;
- Had a recent running injury to his calves;
- Couldn't decide between the size 41, 42, 43, or 44, because of the incompatibility of the sizing systems.

To place this all in perspective, this is like having your wife/girlfriend asking a friend in Italy to buy a pair of Manolo Blahniks/Jimmy Choos, forking out the $400-500 up front without even trying them on or seeing them in person. Never happen, right? Your wife/girlfriend would more likely just get on an airplane and turn the shoe shopping expedition into a trip to Italy. Because your shoe fetishizing wife/girlfriend understands that she need to see it up close and put it on her feet before coughing out the dough -- or otherwise suffer an awful case of buyers regret.

As much as I like the VFF's (I purchased my replacement pair online directly from Vibram USA) there is no getting around the fact that the VFF is no longer an athletic shoe but a cultural fad. People are shoving their usual logic and judgement regarding shoes aside, and forking out $$ to purchase the VFF for reasons that have nothing to do with athletics & ergonomics, but everything to do with wanting to be part of an up and coming trend.

Adding to the stew is the presence of VFF knock-off's.

I predict over the next 12 months there will be a shakedown. Most of the people buying the VFF will get rid of them when they realize how hard the transition is from regular running shoes to the VFF. After the 12 months are over, however, we'll all figure out;

- The best ways to get used to the VFF, through thousands of people venting about sore calves and aching feet.

- The sports that you can use the VFF effectively (martial arts, running, calisthenics, yoga), and the sports you should not (cycling).

- Which one of the VFF clones is a viable alternative. There is no way Vibram can dominate this market indefinitely -- especially since the fundamental design of the VFF is so simple.

Lets see how this shakes out.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The First Big VFF Test

I ran my first footrace wearing the VFF's this past Sunday.

It was the 10K portion of the Presidio 10 Race.

The race was a lesson in both what the potential of the VFF is, and the fact I still need more time (and running miles) to get used to these shoes.

Potential: During my fastest segments I was running as fast as I would have in my regular running shoes. The difference was that I felt lighter. Less heavy breathing. Also felt less like I was having to throw my whole body into it.

But I'm still not completely used to running in these things.

I no longer heel strike, which takes a huge load off my knees and hips. But my calves still aren't used to working this kind of distance at higher speeds. My previous runs (with the exception of an interval workout a few days earlier) all had been done at slower speed. Sometime just past the 4 mile mark my right calf started getting very stiff. Just after I got off the Golden Gate Bridge and back into San Francisco, I had to stop and stretch.

The next mile afterwards was a struggle. Normally a downhill at the end of the race would be an opportunity to floor it. In my case, I had to slow down due to the stiffness in my calf. It wasn't until the last half to 3/4 mile, when the course went into the sandy path along the Crissy Field shoreline, that I was able to speed up again. I suspect the sandy surface was easier on my calves.

Still, I can't complain too much. My time was faster than I expected it would be. Throughout the race, even at the very end when my calves were shot, I was passing people with regular running shoes. It was thrilling knowing that me, with my flimsy ass ninja shoes, was able to pass all these other people with thick soled running shoes. Part of me wonders whether or not some of the people I passed looked at me, my feet, and thought "WTF!"

But for now -- I go back to the drawing board. Long slow runs, intervals, and some tempo runs to get used to running at extended periods at higher speeds. Maybe what I need now isn't so much an increase in my max distance but an increase in my weekly miles instead.

See how the next road race goes.