Minimalist running gear test, part 3: Merrell True Glove on a trail run

Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain. (Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area photo)

The key to any gear test is to eventually put it through the roughest conditions it might face. Taking a pair of running shoes on the pavement or on mild trails is one way to go about it, but the conditions don’t get any rougher for shoes than a place littered with loose stones, slick spots, protruding tree roots and jutting rocks.

Mix that in with a long series of vertical gains and losses, and you get the drift: The runner will be tested, but so will his or her shoes.

That’s what I set out to do when I took a pair of Merrell True Glove minimalist running shoes for a final test – a 4.5-mile trail run at Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness.

Turkey Mountain is a multi-purpose site for hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and trail runners. The city’s park system does a good job maintaining Turkey Mountain’s trails, but they do so while preserving its rugged nature. The trails make for an easygoing hike, but once you add some speed via the run or in the saddle of a bike, then things change dramatically.

In the past, I’d looked at most trail running shoes as unequal to the task of handling Turkey Mountain for long. I’d even tested a pair of lightweight Merrell hikers with the idea of seeing if their more robust construction might make them an appealing alternative to traditional trail runners. (You can read that review here.)

So what in the world was I doing bringing minimalist shoes to a place like this? Isn’t that akin to bringing a knife to a gunfight?

If you look at the shoe, the first-impression answer to that question would be “yes.” But you never know until you try, and taking gear to its limits will give you a good idea of how good it is.

A section of Turkey Mountain’s trails. (Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness Area photo)

The track

Turkey Mountain is actually a long, wooded ridge on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The hills and ridges around Tulsa are actually the westernmost extension of the bigger, higher mountains of the Ozarks in Arkansas. The city set aside Turkey Mountain as an outdoor recreation site with as few man-made embellishments as possible.

Many trails I’ve run are relatively smooth, gravel paths with gradual inclines. Most have had tripping hazards removed. Not so at Turkey Mountain. Its growing reputation as a rugged single-track biker’s haven is also what makes it such a fun trail run.

You will trip on stuff. You will have to jump over things. You will blow your legs out running to the ridge’s summit, and you will be just slightly out of control going downhill. When it’s over, you will have had a seriously thorough workout. It’s the site of many trail run and bike races, and was last year’s Oklahoma venue for the Warrior Dash.

The ridge has four basic trail systems, plus a more extensive network of side trails that go for miles. I chose to do the Yellow Trail, which goes up to the ridge top, goes north to the ridge’s end, then back south on the ridge’s east side. It’s 4.5 miles with steep inclines to start, a long straight stretch in the middle, and the last half being a series of climbs and drops that will just sap you.

Merrell True Glove minimalist running shoes.

The shoe

As in my first and second tests, the shoe is the Merrell True Glove. It’s a minimalist shoe with spare construction, but it’s been given a Vibram sole. Vibram is famous for its five-finger shoes, but well before that, it’s been known for some killer soles on hiking boots for a variety of manufacturers.

The first test went well, but without socks, blisters were the result. For the second test, I snagged a pair of Adidas Climacool runners’ socks. I went just 2 miles, but got a good workout nonetheless. And no blisters.

Both times, the shoe forced me to conform to the minimalist running style of shorter, quicker footsteps (about 180 steps per minute, less than the 120 per minute for most runners), mid-foot striking and a more upright posture. Both tests were on pavement – the first on a flat track, the second on a hillier, but still manageable route.

The test

This one would feel much different than the previous two tests, and for obvious reasons. Running on pavement, you are allowed to set breathing patterns and rhythms. You can do this in spurts on trail runs, but the nature of this trail didn’t allow it very often.

That also meant the barefoot/minimalist stride would also be more sporadic. When you’re scrambling up a gully filled with jutting rocks and tree roots, everything goes out the window.

On the flatter sections, running form takes over until the next climb or descent. I also found that many times, my strides would be even choppier than the normal minimalist gait, mostly because of obstacles on the path.

That didn’t stop me from tripping when I wasn’t paying attention or when I got tired. Hey, it happens. Trail run for any length of time and you’re going to bite it.

But how would the shoe hold up to kicking hard objects? How would my feet feel after 45 minutes of stepping on stones and stumps? Would the spare tread grip the trail on steep downhills, particularly on bare rock?

Lots of questions. The answers are mostly good.

Yes, if you kick something or step on something in minimalist shoes, you will feel it more. But nothing happened that forced me off the trail with pain or an injury, and the shoe held up.

Like road running in minimalists, your legs will work harder. Without the spring of more cushioned soles, your legs absorb more shock while also pushing harder to propel you forward.

As in previous tests, my legs grew more tired, especially my calves. But already, I’m noticing differences in the muscularity in my legs. All that extra work is developing a strong base.

There was also some foot fatigue, but not nearly as much as I would have expected on a minimalist run for 4.5 miles.

I also found that she shoe did well in keeping traction on the trail, even in the more troublesome spots. Its light weight made it easier to be nimble when there was cause for quick footwork. But I also had to be a little more conscious of where I put my feet. What I might crash through in thicker soles would not be a good idea here.

The bottom line: I suffered no ill physical effects (blisters also avoided again!) and the shoe weathered the conditions well.

Conclusions

Minimalist shoes aren’t going to be for everyone. But what I can tell you a few things from the three tests I did.

First, the shoe will change your form, and if you conform, you will save your joints and back a lot of grief. Heel striking will be prohibitively awkward and uncomfortable. So the shorter, quicker steps will feel more natural. The change will mess with your breathing cadence, but chances are you will adjust in time.

Second, you will reap conditioning benefits. The lack of cushion will make your legs and core work harder, and that will make you stronger. What runner or other athlete doesn’t want that? Just be sure to monitor your feet, ease into it and back off if you feel pain in your feet that goes beyond mere soreness.

Third, this particular shoe is good to go on any surface. Outside of bushwhacking off-trail, I pretty much tested them on every running surface available to me. The results were all similar: Because you can feel more of the ground, you will be forced to run lighter on your feet. I felt a lot more on the trail run, but that would be true with any shoe.

One thing I’d like to see: Minimalist shoes are pretty spare when it comes to material and construction, so I’m not sure their price should be as high as traditional running shoes. I bought mine on sale for $80, but I’ve seen some shoes from Merrell and other manufacturers run as high as $130. Given the design of these shoes, I have to think there’s a pretty big mark-up here.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Colorado hiking and climbing: A primer on bagging your first 14er

The seasons are all pointing to summer, which is the highest point of the year for hiking and climbing in the high country. I’ve been pretty busy thinking about what I’d like to accomplish in the Rockies this summer, which also turned my thoughts toward others who will do the same.

This is especially true for those who have looked upon Colorado’s highest peaks – the 14ers – and dreamed about one day standing atop one of their summits.

As we close in on summer, I’m going to post some things about how you can go from being a flatlands denizen to a 14er summiteer.

The first of these posts is this one. I actually wrote this for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City’s daily newspaper. This has been updated, and it’s still filled with relevant information that will help you bag that summit.

***

Standing at the trailhead in the middle of a pine grove, you look at the path in front of you and the summit towering thousands of feet above.

It’s not Mount Everest, Denali or Rainier, but it’s just daunting enough to give you the challenge you’re looking for — bagging one of Colorado’s famed 14ers, those peaks whose summits rise to more than 14,000 feet.

But before you strap on your pack and dream about all those awesome photos you’re going to take from the top, there’s a few things you need to heed.

“What people really need to know is that the ‘be prepared’ mantra cannot be overemphasized,” said Jessica Evett, executive director of the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District who has managed volunteer efforts for the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a Colorado-based conservation group.

“Climbing at 14,000 feet, if you’re from sea level, is really going to do a number on you.”

Nevertheless, the popularity of climbing the 14ers has risen dramatically. The numbers of climbers on Colorado’s peaks are rising 10 percent a year. Longs Peak, a popular Front Range destination, gets more than 30,000 climbers a year, Evett said.

“They (the 14ers) have a lot of name recognition in the state and out of the state,” she said. “People like the inherent sense of challenge. It’s become the hot thing to do.”

Though these mountains are frequently hiked and climbed, they’re not part of an amusement park. Wild places weren’t designed by lawyers and safety engineers, and nature doesn’t much care about your personal well-being.

Take care of yourself

You need to have enough food and water to last the trip, Evett said. Water is especially important, as the dry, thin air and exertion of even the mildest of 14er trails quickly saps the body of moisture. Dehydration can lead to altitude sickness.

A first-aid kit and proper attire is a must. Moisture-wicking clothes, decent rain gear and solid footwear are advised. Pack the sunscreen and sunglasses and leave cotton clothes at home. (See the hiking/backpacking “10 essentials” here.)

And watch the weather. Summer afternoon thunderstorms are a daily occurrence, and late summer/early fall snows aren’t uncommon. No summit experience is worth being hit by lightning or getting caught in a freak high-altitude snowstorm.

Be sure to let people know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Even on the “beginner peaks,” bad things can happen, Evett said.

“Stuff happens on the Front Range peaks all the time,” she said. “It could be rolling an ankle at the summit. How are you going to get down?

“Being prepared is about minimizing risk. If you call out on your cell phone, it’s not like someone is going to be right there to pick you up.”

Take care of the peak

The ecosystems of high country are fragile. The higher you go, the more delicate they become, Evett said.

Pack out any trash. If you don’t need a camp fire, don’t make one. Don’t pick flowers, especially in high altitude areas, where any environmental damage can take decades to repair. And stay on the trail.

Evett also advised caution with dogs. If you bring your dog, keep it on a leash. Dogs love to chase wildlife. But animals living in the mountains use the summer to fatten up for the harsh winter months. The energy needed to escape your playful pup could be the difference between life and death for a marmot or mountain goat in the months that follow.

Do your homework

Doing a little research on the mountain you plan to conquer is a smart thing. If you’ve never climbed, look for one of the many “walk-up” peaks that don’t require climbing skills. There are numerous print, online and smart phone app resources that have trail maps, gear lists and safety tips.

One last word, this one coming from veteran mountaineer Bill Middlebrook via his Web site, 14ers.com:

“Mountaineering in Colorado can be very dangerous,” he says. “Many people have died on the 14ers. Weather, terrain and other people can put you in a situation where your knowledge and experience will be vital.

“Just because a crowd of people can march to the summit of Quandary Peak on a summer Saturday, it doesn’t mean that they are all safe. Altitude sickness, dehydration and fast-building storms are the most common problems. Get in shape and start early for each trip. I can’t tell you how many times I have been half way down a 14er and passed hikers that were determined to get to the summit — even with huge thunderclouds brewing above.”

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Merrell True Glove test, Part 2: Minimalist running and a few adjustments

Merrell True Glove minimalist running shoes.

Not too long ago, I tried minimalist running for the first time. This has been a growing trend in the running world, with proponents touting benefits such as improved form, greater strength and conditioning, and injury prevention.

There is also an admonition: Ease into it.

In my experiment, I chose a pair of Merrell True Glove shoes. Minimalist shoes are the closest thing you can get to barefoot, so it makes sense to try minimalist shoes before going all in with barefoot.

(Note: I’m reviewing products here that I bought on my own; manufacturers did not participate in this review)

My first go at it was fruitful: 2.4 miles on a flat, paved track. I went without socks and found that I transitioned pretty well and got in a groove. When I finished, my legs felt like they were worked more than they would be in traditional shoes. I also had some blisters from hot spots the developed. On the bright side, the zero-drop of the sole seems to have solved a nagging issue with me—sore Achilles tendons.

Round two included some adjustments. I was told my stride was off, so I did some research on that. I also opted for some blister prevention – a pair of Climacool fabric socks from Adidas. Lastly, I was told I may have gone a little too far for a first attempt at minimalist running.

For my next route, I chose a shorter run – 2 miles – in a somewhat hillier, paved area.

A side-by-side comparison of my traditional Asics Gel running shoes with the Merrell True Glove minimalist shoe. The Asics are light, but the size difference is noticeable.

The test

Immediately, I noticed that the shoes forced me to adjust my stride. I usually lope a little bit, which means wasted energy bobbing up and down. Springy, cushioned shoes enable this bad habit. The utter lack of cushion on the Merrells stripped that away. I found myself conforming to the mid-foot strike, level, 180-steps-per-minute stride that is recommended for minimalist and barefoot running. (By comparison, most people heel-strike, running with longer strides, more bounce and at a pace of 120 steps per minute.)

Again, I felt the extra work my legs had to do. And the faster cadence meant my breathing had to be adjusted. The bad news is this means I’m working harder, thus affecting how far and how long I can go.

Hill climbing is also harder, as I wasn’t aided by the spring of my old shoes. My legs and feet were forced to do all the work.

The good news is that the amount of work I’m doing per minute means I’m getting more bang for my buck in the workout. In the short term, my “stats” will suffer, as in, fewer miles per run and slower times. But in the long run, I’ll be much stronger and ultimately, more fit.

I like that long-term prognosis.

Another thing to note: Even though I was wearing shoes, this particular model let me feel the contours of the ground. Every pebble, crack and any other anomaly on the ground I stepped on was felt by my feet. In normal running shoes, this might not be the case, or at least minimized greatly.

Another view. Here you can clearly see how the zero-drop of the Merrells make a significant difference not only in the shoes' profiles, but also in foot position for the runner.

After-effects

Once the run was over, I experienced the same leg sensations as I did the first time – greater leg soreness (particularly in my calves) and fatigue in my feet. Two miles in minimalist shoes at a moderate pace felt like a 5K.

But the sock strategy worked – no blisters. And the socks might also prevent the inevitable downside of minimalist running without socks – shoe odor. Even with special fabrics designed to combat odor, over time it will build up. No thanks to that. Purists in the barefoot/minimalist world might blanche at this, but my thinking is you should go with what works for you.

Lastly, back to the Achilles heel issues. This is what is stopping me from adding miles, and it’s a problem in my other shoes. Like my first minimalist run, I was pleased to have no Achilles soreness despite the extra work my calves were recruited to do.

My first minimalist run was a success with setbacks. My second – which included conforming to the barefoot/minimalist form – was also a success, but without the setbacks.

So far, so good. I’m starting to believe. But the test isn’t over.

Next time, I’ll take the uber-light Merrells out for a trail run on one of the more rugged tracks around: Tulsa’s Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness.

Stay tuned.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Fallen London Marathon runner Claire Squires was raising money for charity

An update from my last post on the London Marathon runner who died during the race…

Her name was Claire Squires, a 30-year-old UK citizen who died within a mile of the finish line this weekend.

Although it’s not known specifically what caused her death, some interesting details about her have emerged. Squires was running the marathon to raise money for a charity called Samaritans, which focuses on suicide prevention. After her death — and as news of the cause she was supporting spread — donations flooded into the charity to the tune of more than a million dollars.

By all appearances, she was fit. In 2010, she raised money for another charity by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain.

Squires is the 11th person to die in the London Marathon since its 1981 inception.

To read a full report on this story, go to this link.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Running and exploring the streets of Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol. It's a stately place, even when the things going on inside frustrate us so much.

If you’ve read this blog much, you know that I’m a big proponent of exploring communities on foot. And if you can do it while getting some exercise, so much the better.

I like running in parks and on trails, but most of my runs take place on city streets. This is how I’ve gotten to know my neighborhood, a place where I’ve lived for less than a year but know pretty well by now.

Recently, I was in Washington, D.C., on business. I’d lived there over one summer back in college – a pretty long time ago. Being there for four days gave me a chance to get reacquainted with the nation’s capital.

I was there for work, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have time to go on foot and do a little exploring. Some thoughts…

Washington, especially downtown, is a very pedestrian-friendly city. Crosswalks are wide, and the traffic lights give you time to cross. I walked more in that city than I have since my last hiking trip. Plenty of people who work and live there also take off on foot rather than fight the traffic.

People in D.C. run a lot. And at all times of the day. Early in the morning, mid-day, even late at night – I saw people outside running the streets. Washington is hillier than you might guess, meaning that you can create some challenging routes. It was encouraging to me, as every time I passed by someone out on a run I wanted to get back to the hotel, change, and then go out and join them.

The city has changed a lot since I was last there. 9/11 changed D.C. significantly. Streets that once carried car traffic near the White House are closed. Traffic police around the Capitol carry assault rifles. And there are TONS of cops. The city has always had a significant police presence, but it’s grown much heavier over the last 11 years.

The Lincoln Memorial. America's shrine to one of its greatest leaders.

And the growth of government following 9/11 – yes, the acceleration of government growth can be pegged on that event – has meant that the city and its surrounding communities have grown along with it. Dozens of tower cranes rise into the sky downtown and all the way out to the suburbs. Old buildings dating back to the city’s early days are far outnumbered by new construction that has occurred over the past decade.

I only got to run once while I was there. Too busy to get out much. But I saw a lot.

On a cool, overcast morning, I took off, leaving behind the shining offices of the K Street lobbying firms to the White House. Tourists, office workers, lawyers and protesters shared space around the presidential mansion. And yes, the Occupy protesters are still here, planting stakes in a small green space just a couple of blocks away from the White House. One anti-nuke protester has his tent and signs across the street from it.

From there, I turned toward D.C.’s tallest structure – the Washington Monument. I couldn’t see evidence of damage from last year’s earthquake there, but I was amazed at the inspectors who rappelled from its crown to examine it.

Back in the day, the lawn around the monument would often be occupied by people playing softball in the summer. I wonder, if in this post-9/11 environment, if that still happens.

The Mall itself is changing, as the reflecting pool has been emptied for reconstruction. So it’s not as scenic as it used to be. I’m sure when it’s done it will be scenic once again.

I then turned and set my sights on the Lincoln Memorial. The building and its statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln has to be the stateliest thing I’ve ever seen, fitting for the man who many see as the country’s greatest leader. But before getting there, I was able to run past and around the World War II Memorial. It’s an awesome, dignified and fitting tribute for what was arguably our nation’s biggest struggle. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list.

Sometimes this is what the First Amendment looks like in Washington.

My trip back included passing the moving starkness of the Vietnam Memorial (you can’t help trying to be reverent when you’re in its presence), back up Constitution Avenue and eventually to the hotel.

Given more time, I’d like to run much more of this city. There are some amazing sections that house embassies and cool neighborhoods, none of which I got to see for very long.

More than anything, though, this reaffirmed my belief that running is an excellent way to explore a community. I first discovered this in tiny Tecumseh, Okla., and I still find that the thrill of seeing a town or city on foot never gets old.

Do you have a city where you like to run? Tell me about it and what it is about that city that makes it such a great place to run and explore.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

People are awesome video: Folks doing amazing things

For your weekend viewing pleasure, I give you this video. Slacklining, BASE jumping, freestyle skiing, and just about anything else you can imagine, done at the edge of human performance. Enjoy.