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July 10, 2011

100 Miles in Moccasins?

As my 100-miler rapidly approaches, one question I seem to be asked with increasing frequency is whether I’m going to wear my Soft Star moccasins on the mountain trails above Lake Tahoe. It also happens to be the same question I’ve been asking myself since the beginning of the year.

Shortly after I signed up for the race in January, I thought the notion of running the entire race in a pair of moccasins was pretty cool - however, I wasn’t quite certain that my body was up to the task. Despite the fact that I’ve been a barefoot and minimalist runner for two years now, the longest distance I had covered in minimalist footwear was 50 miles. There’s really no way of knowing what physical issues (foot related or otherwise) lay beyond that distance until you’ve been actually there a few times … and even then, it’s something of a dice roll. Will my calves start cramping on me? Will my feet and ankles handle the long-term pounding? I honestly can’t say for sure.

Finishing the Miwok 100K in RunAmocs (photo courtesy of Gretchen)

It’s also worth noting that more than two full years have passed since my last 100-mile race – and to give you a sense of what sort of transformation took place in that time period, consider what I wore in my previous 100-milers: La Sportiva Wildcats and Montrail Hardrocks. In that regard, my training regimen leading up to this year’s 100-miler wasn’t just a matter of returning to a place my body had been before; the whole minimalist aspect made it feel as if I was preparing for the distance for the first time all over again.

RunAmoc Dashes (and Drymax socks) after 50 wet and muddy miles at Woodside

Nevertheless, I cemented a goal in my head of running the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 in moccasins, then spent the entire spring and summer simultaneously working towards it and constantly reassessing to see if it was feasible. Throughout the process, there were two primary motivating factors involved: one was to make a general statement about minimalist running, and the other was to bring more focused attention to the Soft Star company that manufacturers my moccasins.

The general statement is relatively straightforward: no matter how many miles I (or, for that matter, anyone else) run in minimalist footwear, there will always be a faction of the trail and ultrarunning communities who respond – either out loud, or just internally – with something like, Sure, but can you run 100 miles in them? You need REAL shoes to run the big ultras. So running 100 in my mocs is the most convincing way to put that argument to rest.

(Incidentally, there’s a similar mindset about technicality of terrain for minimalists; in other words, unless I do 100 miles on lava rocks and cactus quills, someone will inevitably dismiss the Tahoe trails as “easy” enough to go minimalist. There’s really no way to sway this mindset aside from running on every trail surface all over the world, so I’ve decided to not let this sort of skepticism bother me. But I guarantee you it’s out there.)

Original RunAmocs after Miwok 100K

While I’m far from the first person to do a 100-miler in minimalist shoes, it’s still seen as kind of a freak thing. My hope is that as one person here and another person there accomplishes the task, conventional wisdom will gradually evolve to understand that minimalism is just another style of shoe preference, one which doesn’t inherently place the runner at risk or disadvantage.

The second point is something that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with this website: I absolutely love the Soft Star company. I love the way they’ve embraced the minimalist running movement, and I love how they treat each customer like a VIP client. I also have a soft (pardon the pun) spot for small companies who have a clear mission and do things the right way, and Soft Star is one of the best examples that you’ll ever encounter.  If you need more convincing of this, check out this public radio profile of the company from this spring, as well as the video I've embedded below for a better appreciation of what the company’s all about.

I’ve been running in the RunAmoc for more than a year now, and I’ve often described it as my favorite minimalist shoe. It may surprise you, then, to hear one secret I haven’t ever disclosed: I don’t think the RunAmoc is the best overall minimalist shoe on the market. I’ve tested other shoes that clearly have better durability, or better traction, or a better fit. However, none of those give me the pure primal joy that I feel when running through some remote trail with a pair of moccasins on my feet. And when you’re running 100 miles in something, you’d better be able to find the pleasure in it.

Early in the spring, I discussed my plan with the Soft Star elves, and they were completely on board. What impressed me the most is that back then, it wasn’t a sure thing that I’d even wear my mocs at Tahoe – it was more of a “I’m going to test this out for a few months to see if it works” proposal.  I wasn't certain if I'd wear the original RunAmoc, or the new Dash, or even some other company's shoe if the moccasin testing didn't go well, and they were 100% supportive of my efforts anyway, no matter how it turned out. They even ordered me the cool logo shirt that I’ve taken to wearing at my races this year.

Team Soft Star at Miwok

Fortunately, each of my tune-up races has gone quite well from a footwear perspective, so I feel as comfortable as possible about lining up at the big dance in Tahoe with my RunAmocs. I’m going with the original lite version, which are still my favorite over the Dash or the Moc3 for trail running. Obviously there’s no guarantee that the mocs will carry me to success, but I’m confident that my choice of footwear won’t be a huge determining factor in my ability to reach the finish line. And I’m absolutely certain that no other shoe could help me enjoy the experience more.

"Soft Star Shoes: Local Roots, Global Reach", (click to play):

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Cherylrunner 7/11/11, 5:43 AM  

You go Donald in those Mocs! Good for you1 Great post! I know you will do fab! See you out there!

Brandon Mulnix - Owner Modern Photographics 7/11/11, 8:45 AM  

Donald, Thank you for running the 100 miles in the shoes, your feedback will help me determin whether to run Burning River in RunAmoc Dash's. I like the shirt too... Keep on keeping on

shel 7/11/11, 9:49 AM  

god for you donald. best of luck out there in the (still!) snow capped peaks. mocs or no, you're going to make a great showing for minimalism and have a blast i'm sure! God speed.

renkath 7/19/11, 2:28 AM  

I will be checking back to hear about the 100. I am preparing now for my first marathon - in September. I have only been running in VFFs since March and have a new pair of RunAmoc Dahes in the hallway. I had them waiting for winter, but maybe I will reconsider what I want to wear in September...

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