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October 4, 2012

Doc Waddel's Barefoot Training Sandals Review; Patagonia Fall Apparel Sale

Before today’s post, a sale announcement: I’m trying out a new vendor affiliate called Massey's Outfitters, who initially attracted me based on the strength of their Vibram FiveFingers inventory.  It turns out that they also carry the entire Patagonia catalog on their site.  That’s current stuff, not last year’s holdovers.  They also offer free shipping on all orders over $75, and to kick off the fall season, they’re offering savings of up to 20% on a huge selection of Patagonia gear.  Check them out by clicking the banner below, then come back after you’ve done some shopping.


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One of the most interesting developments in the whole minimalist running phenomenon is the increasing number of do-it-yourselfers: plucky individuals with an abundance of both ambition and time who decide that they’d rather create, use, and (in most cases) sell their own hand-made products than settle for the more mainstream offerings available.

Over the past few years I’ve received many requests to review footwear made by some random dude or another, but for various reasons I’ve always been reluctant to comply.  That resistance ends now – not because of dissatisfaction with other products on the market or any other intuitive rationale, but for a far simpler reason: I happen to know the guy who makes them.

Les "Doc" Waddel, with raw materials for Barefoot Training Sandals 

So in case it isn’t obvious, let’s slap an enormous disclaimer on this review: I’m friends with Les Waddel, more commonly known as Doc Waddel for his professional exploits as a chiropractor to both animals and humans.   He was one of the first health care providers to embrace the minimalist movement, and in the years since he launched Barefoot Training Sandals, he’s been spreading the word online, at race expos, and with every one of his patients (the human variety, that is – most of the animals are already shoeless).


The backyard workshop; note all the surfboards

Doc is pretty much the epitome of California cool: he’s laid back, super friendly, and is an avid surfer who seldom wears more than a Hawaiian shirt and beach trunks.  He also happens to be one of the founding fathers of Monterey County endurance sports.  Les was a collegiate swimmer who read about a crazy new sport called triathlon in 1980, and eventually became a regular at the Kona World Championships while logging insane training mileage in all three disciplines.  Along the way he operated a running store, was an original member of an open-water swim club, running club, and triathlon club on the Monterey Peninsula, and mentored one of his daughters in her own path to becoming a professional triathlete.


The garage workshop ... and still more surfboards

Now in his 60s, Les’s running-related aches and pains were increasing and his mileage was dramatically decreasing until he converted to minimalism in the wake of Born to Run and noticed that his injuries disappeared.  However, he didn’t like the construction of Vibrams, and wanted to develop something on a flat platform that still provided a bit of impact cushioning for transitioning to full-fledged barefoot-style running.  Soon thereafter, Barefoot Training (BFT) Sandals were born.


To say that BFT is small-budget operation is an understatement; it’s quite simply a one-man show, and the manufacturing takes place in any room of the house where Les can find vacant space – which, considering that his sales have been steadily increasing, is getting harder and harder to come by.   Les is completely self-taught in the methods of shoe construction, and is constantly tinkering with various tools and equipment to make the process more manageable.


Some of the equipment is scavenged, such as the dies he scored from a retired shoemaker in Santa Cruz (probably after a surfing trip). 


What the company lacks in size, it makes up in commitment; everywhere you look around Doc Waddel’s house - at least, everywhere that's not already occupied by triathlon gear - there are gadgets and raw materials and various staging areas for one step of the process or another. 


Although Les is an experienced craftsman (he’s especially gifted at building surfboards and ukuleles), there was an extensive trial and error process in getting the right materials and prototype design of BFTs established.  Les attempted six different prototype models, and is still experimenting with various materials that will improve either comfort, performance, or ease of construction.  Perhaps predictably, the current product looks something like a Frankensandal, but has some unique design and construction points that make them very interesting.


For example, even though the sandals were inspired by classic huaraches, BFTs eschew the traditional strap between the toes in favor of one that goes over the top of the metatarsal heads.  This is a comfort feature for many users, but also prevents anterior slippage of the foot on downhills, in similar fashion as the strap across the top of New Balance’s first Minimus Trail shoe.


The ankle closure is a combination of a backpack-style strap on top of a soft neoprene layer that sits across the top of the foot for comfort.  In my testing, BFTs are a significant improvement over classic huaraches in staying comfortably connected to your foot.  However, the last is somewhat narrow for me through the forefoot, so if you have wide feet you’ll probably need to ask Les about custom sizing.


Another pleasant surprise is the outsole, made from a Vibram rock-climbing compound which has no visible traction knobs at all, but is remarkably durable and grippy, even in off-road conditions.  I’ve only logged about 75 miles in my pair, but Les has over 1000 miles* on one of his own pairs without wearing through the outsole.

(*ADDENDUM: That's not 100% true ... Les corrected me to say he put some LiquiSole on the metatarsal area at 600 and 800 miles on his way to 1000.  The durability is still pretty impressive, though.)


Overall weight of one BFT is roughly equivalent to FiveFingers or moccasins at 5 to 6 oz depending on size.  Standing height is roughly 12mm, with a midsole layer composed of pliable EVA.  In true minimalist fashion, there is zero drop from heel to toe, however, there is one difference in the midsole design of BFT …


… at the front of the toe box area, where the material tapers upward from ground level to just a few millimeters thick at the big toe.  I happen to think this is a brilliant stroke, in that it significantly decreases the risk of my biggest pet peeve about running in huaraches: accidentally scuffing the big toe against roots or rocks on the ground, which as anyone who has done it can tell you is extremely painful.


Les in action at the Big Sur Marathon expo

As a one-man show building sandals in his spare (that is, non-surfing) time, Les doesn’t have any grand aspirations to become a millionare by hawking BFT sandals.  Rather, he sees his role as a health and fitness ambassador, and is dedicated to teaching as many people as possible the benefits of natural running.  When I first started seeing him at race expos, he made a point to tell me it wasn’t about making sales, but simply spreading the word.  This fall he’ll be at several race expos, preaching to anyone who will listen, and making sandals for anyone who wants to buy a pair.

BFTs are probably best suited for people who want to combine the biomechanics of huaraches with the comfort of a moderate midsole, or for those who have trouble with the fit of traditional huaraches.  They are available for purchase from DocWaddel’s Barefoot Training Sandals website, where they retail for $90.


*Product provided by Doc Waddel
**If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.


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2 comments:

Fred Garderes 10/5/12, 6:46 AM  

Just saw him last week-end at the Lake Tahoe Marathon! First at the expo, then the next day running up to Emerald Bay in his sandals.
Cool guy, interesting product.

Jeff Gallup 10/5/12, 8:45 AM  

Wow.. those look pretty cool. I've been going through a series of different huaraches, but I've yet to try one without a strap between the toes.. the cross over strap looks way more comfortable..

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