I know that barefoot running cures just about everything. I’ve read all the stories about how almost immediately after putting on their first pair of barefoot shoes, the blind could hear, the deaf could see, and the wheelchair-bound could play championship caliber chess. I know that barefoot running and/or minimalism cures Iliotibial Band Syndrome, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, negative atrophying, sore knees, brain damage, hemmorhoids, irritable bowel syndrome and just about everything else except for trendiness and the inability to engage in critical thinking.
But barefoot or minimalist shoes aren’t for everyone. They are best suited to the young, the waiflike, and those who want to impress rich hippy yoga chicks at Whole Foods market. I am none of those things. I’m 52 years old, 6’1″, 170lbs. I have a history of forefoot injury. I like to run long, long distances on rocky mountain trails. For better or for worse, I come from a line of people who have evolved since the Paleolithic days. I don’t really feel a need to get back to my Neanderthal roots. I like shoes with some padding.
These past few months, as training ramps up for AC100, we weeks approach 100 miles and my long runs inch closer to 30 on rocky mountain trails, I need to get out the big-boy shoes again.
Generally speaking, trail running shoes seem to come from two distinct lineages. One is from companies that are traditionally road shoe companies, like New Balance, Saucony, Asics, Brooks & Mizuno. The other is companies whose origins are more in hiking, mountain climbing, and the non-urban, non-pavement outdoors. These are companies like Vasque, La Sportiva, Montrail, Solomon, & the North Face. Their approaches to shoes generally seem indicative of their origins. Road shoe companies’ main trail offerings are road shoes with darker uppers and more aggressive tread. Their shoes are characteristically tighter, and tend to have especially narrow toe boxes. Hiking shoe companies main offerings, until recently, have been heavy duty shoes with heavy duty tread.
With each passing year, both sides were slowly converging on a middle, which is where I believe the perfect shoe exists. And then along came Born To Run which converted a whole bunch of couch potatoes into trendy minimalist runners. New Balance started sponsoring a guy who looks just like Jesus, everyone started talking about Paleo, and the road shoe companies made a sudden left turn towards minimalism, abandoning any moves towards that middle where the perfect trail shoe resides.
That Born to Run got a bunch of people off the couch and into running is a great thing, and it is a very inspiring book, even if the science behind it is dubious and anecdotal. Running up El Prieto trail with Maggie the other day, we stopped for a conversation with a very enthusiastic mountain biker. He wondered why we weren’t wearing toe shoes. He said he’d read Born to Run and it got him so excited he bought the Spanish translation for both his Mom and Grandma, and now both of them were wandering around barefoot and the whole family had embraced running.
That’s awesome! It’s also not for me.
When folks think of LA, they don’t think of mountains, but we are surrounded by them. The Santa Monica Mountains, the Verdugo Mountains, the San Gabriel Mountains, the San Rafael Hills… The biggest hills and steepest street are not in San Francisco, but here in LA: Fargo, around the corner from where I used to live, Baxter, also around the corner from my old house in Echo Park, and Eldred, right behind me on Mt. Washington, the steepest street in California with a 33% grade.
It’s a trail runner’s paradise here: Griffith Park, Malibu hills, Topanga, Mt Wilson and all through the San Gabriels… But it is one of the worst cities ever if you want to buy a pair of trail shoes.
Montrail is a shoe company based in Northern California. They are the folks behind the Montrail Cup and sponsor some of the biggest and best ultramarathons in the country, including Virginia’s Mountain Masochist 50m, and their flagship race Western States 100 miles.
I love Montrail shoes.
My first pair of Montrails was a pair of bulky Sabino Trails. I bought these online through either REI or Altrec.com. They are big and heavy and have an insanely aggressive tread. My feet swim in them. They are exactly the shoes I need for 20+ miles on rocky mountain trails when my feet are tired, swollen and sore. My next pair of Montrails were Rogue Racers – their lightweight racing shoe which at 8 ounces weighed in about the same as the minimalist NB101. I bought my first pair of these at Auburn Running Co. in Auburn when I was up there to spectate/cheer/experience Western States 100. I ran through the summer in these shoes. These are the shoes that took me through Mt. Disappointment 50K.
My next pair of Montrails was a pair of Mountain Masochists that I bought at the Columbia Outlet Store in Palm Springs, returning from a weekend of running up in the San Jacinto mountains. The Mountain Masochists are special shoes, and they have carried me through the mountains all last fall. I ran SNER 50 miler in them, and Chimera 100K. I’ve had to modify the shoe somewhat. It’s a shoe meant for mild over pronators – a support shoe – and what I’ve done is replaced the insole (which has some built in arch support) with a flat, unstructured insole (nothing fancy – odor eaters style rather than Super Feet style) to lessen some of the support.
My most recent acquisition is a pair of Bajadas. The Bajada is basically what would happen if the Sabino Trail and the Rogue Racer got married and had a child. It’s like a heavy duty Rogue Racer. This would be a great shoe except that the non gussetted tongue lets in more debris than any other shoe I’ve owned. At first I thought this was because I had the shoe laced particularly loose. I ordered the Bajada slightly too small (the hazard of ordering by mail – I ordered this shoe from Runningwarehouse.com). The shoe is narrower in the toe box than either the Rogue Racer, Sabino, or Mountain Masochist – hence the loose lacing. Over the next month I ran into a few folks who also owned the Bajada, and they all had the same comment (as they sat there emptying rocks out of their shoes). A shoe that requires emptying at every other aid station is a poorly designed shoe, in my opinion. Combined with the narrowness and these shoes are headed for the donation bin with less that 50 miles on them.
Notice a pattern? I did not get a single pair of Montrails here in LA.
They are almost impossible to find here, and if you do find them, you are more likely to find them in a shop that specializes in camping and outdoors equipment (like adventure16) than in a running shoe store.
It’s not entirely the fault of the stores. Road Runner, for example, stocks Montrail shoes in their Orange County stores, but not in their LA ones – so some buyer there has made a decision to exclude them from the LA market, presumably based on the fact that they just don;t sell well here. Why is that? I suspect the answer is at least in part that Los Angeles more than most places is extremely trend conscious. We are youth obsessed here, and we love being early adopters, jumping on whatever youth culture bandwagon comes along as earlier as possible, so that we can lay partial claim to being originators.
I searched hard for the Bajadas. I sent out emails to just about every running shop I could find mention of, as well as a handful of outdoor shops, since in my experience trail runners in LA do better looking for their shoes in shops that specialize in camping and the non urban outdoors.
Montrail is partially to blame for the tepid response. The New Balance tech rep is a triathlete who I see out at races or at stores all the time. Saucony’s tech rep has been winning local trail races lately and has a loud social media presence. Montrail doesn’t have a tech rep as far as I can see, and their only suggestion when I bemoan the lack of stores selling their gear is o refer me to their store finder, which confirms that no one sells their gear in LA County (and actually misses the few who do). They are now sponsoring a local ultra – as of this year Leona Divide 50 miler is part of the Montrail Cup – but their sponsorship of a local race is going to be as effective a sales tool as having a snowplow company sponsor a race in the Sahara. The also sponsor a number of great runners, including Geoff Roes and 2011 ultra-runner-of-the-year Ellie Greenwood, both of whom are the highest of high profile athletes. Montrail appears to have all the materials they need, but they just can’t seem to make that last push to get their gear in stores here in LA.
I wasn’t patient enough to wait for all the responses to trickle in, and ended up ordering my shoes from Runningwarehouse.com. Most every shop that answered said no Montrails, and tried instead to sell me on some sort of Capezio dance slipper like minimalist gear, but I did find a handful of stores in the LA area that sell Montrail gear.
Postcript: Running some singletrack in Griffith Park I came upon another runner wearing a new pair of Mountain Masochists. This was the first Los Angeles runner besides my friend Sheri that I’d seen in Montrails. “Where did you get your shoes?” I asked, excited that I might learn a new source. “Oregon,” she replied, adding “You can’t buy them here.”