Back in the Goodle Days

Some rambling thoughts in response to this New York Times article on the question of whether we were born to run, trends, fads, and marketing:

As cool as it is to think that our evolutionary history was driven by distance running (and I believe it to be the case--I recommend the account given in Our Kind, which was published back in 1989, long before the argument was applied to barefoot running), giving an account of how the foot developed is very different from giving a justification for how it should be shod in any particular case.

It amazes me sometimes when I think of the miles I have put on these legs, which are still made of flesh and gristle, and how well they have stood up to the asphalt over the years. The vast majority of those miles have been in shoes, though I do have a tender spot for barefoot strides over dewy fields.

These days it's hard to sort out the difference between education and marketing. The marketers educate us. The educators market to us. Harvard and Vibram are mentioned in the same sentence: which is the brand, and which the school?

Seems like before the internet all we had were running shoes. You'd go to the store and try a couple pairs on, and if they felt good, you'd buy them and run in them and basically forget about them until the rubber wore off or the upper ripped or what have you. I remember people talked a little about pronating, underpronating, overpronating, but I never knew what the heck that meant. Still don't, really.

If you got injured, you wouldn't blame your shoes, you'd look to that dumb day when you did too many hills. Or the day that you had to get in the car and drive 8 hours right after a meet, and you stiffened up. Or the day when you tweaked your hamstring playing frisbee. You'd put some ice on it, take a day or two off, rearrange a few workouts, and that would be that.

My freshman year in college, I remember that my feet hurt--I could feel all the tendons in them, just kinda raw. And no wonder: I'd gone from a 40mpw runner to a 95mpw runner in a year. I never once considered changing my shoes. What did I do? I kept running. I used to tell myself: it's running, not football. How bad can I really mess myself up moving down the road?

Fifteen years later, 30,000 miles later, I'm still headed down that same road. Was I born to run? Was my body made to run? Those questions seem less important than the simple fact that I'm still running. I kept running. The thing is, it's hard to wrap that up in a cardboard box and sell it.


  1. My husband and I were talking the other night about how marketing has become so powerful... it is everywhere and everything has a reason behind it now. The brands are shoving it in your face.

    I run to run. I like it that way...but I know the marketing is in my head, we have to learn to shake it out!

  2. Sounds like you're saying that the traditional vs. minimalistic shoe debate distracts us from talking about running. You mean I can't just become a better runner by buying new shoes?

  3. Hey Mandi,
    It's true. I was watching TV yesterday and it seemed kinda quaint how none of the ads were directed right square at my interests, like they are when I am online. It's funny how you saw that everything has a reason, and that feels sort of oppressive because we've sorta got this anxiety now that every time we do something, we have to be doing it the *right way* (which usually means with the *right gear*) and maybe that takes away from the feeling of being free to do something just because. Thank for the comment!

    I think that's what I'm saying or maybe it doesn't so much distract us from talking about running (we seem to do that plenty, yours truly to a frankly embarrassing degree.) I guess I'm just noting some differences, how it used to be and how it is, and how running today is a lot more influenced by marketing whereas for me then the primary influencers were my teammates, cool evenings, a body that wants to move...

  4. You seem to be on a bit of a nostalgic bent recently. I'm guessing classes have started again, or will be soon enough.

    I had a somewhat similar experience, though. I happened to wander into a local shop, just because; no real purpose, wasn't interested in buying anything, just killin' time. I wander over to the shoe section, and see that all the shoes there are $90 and up (except the clearance ones, and they were all still above $55). Now, economics aside, I was left wanting my old white, green and black Nike waffle racers from HS. They lasted over a year of cross and track seasons, and still were good to go for probably several more races and runs. The only pair of track spikes I owned cost me $12. Not fancy, but hey, they worked for what I needed.

    At what point does the science of running cross over to peddling products? When did running become about gear and hard data? I think I missed that memo. But I look at the ads for nutritional aids, backed by "science", and wonder what has changed so dramatically that we suddenly need to use these products? And if I don't use them, am I cheating myself?

    Perhaps people are just too ready and willing to give up their thinking to supposed experts, with no pretense of thought about what it is that we're being sold, or whether it's necessary.

    It's raining and I'm grumpy.

  5. Another thing I find interesting about the whole minimalist shoe thing is that it is both a rejection of commercialism and a whole new way to market shoes at the same time. Don't believe the hype of the shoe companies that you need a bulky shoe, you just need to buy this minimalist shoe!

  6. Hey Jeff,

    We can hypothesize to our heart's content about whether your body (I use the royal "your" to encompass all HS/collegiate-raised runners) was "made" to run, but it's a fact that your body was better manufactured for running than, say, a 220-lb roughneck or 180-lb mother of three. I'm guessing you've never weighed more than ~170 soaking wet, with most of that mass being leg muscle.

    Lifetime runners like us can wax nostalgic about the activity all we want, romanticizing the pain away, but it's not so easy for the people with 20-100 extra pounds on their frame, even if their heart is in the right place. You don't think a 250-lb person needs a cushioned shoe to help him/her train for and complete a marathon when that person exerts 3-5 times his body weight in force with each running stride?

    I'm almost more impressed by the determination of slow, overweight people to complete that 5-hour marathon than I am by lean runners to hit a 2:30 PR. The fat ones are just as miserable as the fast ones, but their suffering lasts hours longer.

    Now, if those runners trained and raced in, say, a pair of Keds because they didn't know better, they'd likely be ruined: shin splints (if not stress fractures), plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, Morton's neuroma (say the shoes were too small), weakened knee cartilage, ruined hips, etc. We both, I'm sure, had teammates who got stress fractures in school just from training too much, too soon. And those kids were flyweights!

    It's a sad reality that marketing rules the day, but we don't need to condemn science as a whole just because a fraction of scientists are bedfellows with Nike and Vibram. Your institution markets itself on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Of course you can't box and sell the entire running experience, any more than you can confine a diverse educational path to a 140-character tweet. However, does rampant marketing devalue either the shoe or the education? Are either any less essential?

    Those questions are of course rhetorical. Unless we're talking about the Five-Fingers. Those are scheit.

    Thanks for the post; keep up the great brain candy!

  7. Jimmy,

    Thanks for the comment and the rhetorical and (I think) also legitimate questions.

    I was definitely waxing nostalgic in this post!

    A few points:
    1) I don't think I claimed that running a 2:30 marathon was more impressive than completing a 5 hour marathon. (Though perhaps I do believe this.)

    2) I also didn't mean to say that any shoe would work (if you read my very next post "On Running and Lies," you will see some direct commentary on this.) I do want to claim, as you implicitly do here, that running injury-free has a lot more to do with your fitness and ability to read your body than with your shoe choice.

    3) I certainly didn't mean to condemn science as a whole! I am a big fan of science, and I am kinda wondering where you see me doing this.

    4) I do believe that rampant marketing devalues experience and undermines science. This is not a really outrageous claim: after all, marketers are neither interested in truth nor in the richness of experience. They are interested in selling a product. There is a place for marketing, but I think we should also be attuned to some of the pernicious effects of marketing.

    5) Finally, I don't want to suggest that shoe salesmen or shoe companies are always bad. Obviously, I've bought a bunch of shoes, some better than others. Shoes have gotten a lot better through the years. Marketing, sometimes, is educative. Injuries, sometimes, are caused by shoe choice. But, sometimes marketing is a lie.

    I love the simplicity of running. Others love to geek out with gear. To each his own, but it should be noted that there are vested (and sometimes legitimate) interests in producing gear geekery through marketing, and I guess I see this post (and a lot of what I do with the blog) as providing an alternative way of theorizing running, keeping the "purist" approach alive.

    (justthedistance's comments shows exactly how this "purist" approach is not immune from being co-opted by the very forces it resists!)

  8. Oh, I didn't mean to imply you believed any of my points; I guess I was primarily soap-boxing, because those last three paragraphs in your post could be interpreted as a "suck it up, you'll enjoy looking back on it later" attitude. We were probably very fortunate not to deal with major physiological setbacks in our running careers. I'm not part of the injury- and weight-plagued multitudes, but I reckon I was just speaking up on their behalf because the wrong shoe for them can be--and has been--catastrophic (no hyperbole intended).

  9. "Harvard and Vibram are mentioned in the same sentence: which is the brand, and which the school?" Very nice!!

    I also really liked: "I love the simplicity of running. Others love to geek out with gear. To each his own, but it should be noted that there are vested (and sometimes legitimate) interests in producing gear geekery through marketing, and I guess I see this post (and a lot of what I do with the blog) as providing an alternative way of theorizing running, keeping the "purist" approach alive."

    Here is someone else's attempt at expressing this approach:

    He ran because it grounded him in basics. There was both life and death in it; it was unadulterated by media hype, trivial cares, political meddling. He suspected it kept him from that most real variety of schizophrenia that the republic was then sprouting like mushrooms on a stump.

    (You could probably fill in the rest, but...)

    Running to him was real. The way he did it, the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond. It made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.

    Yes, rampant marketing can absolutely devalue this experience. One thing that running is about to some people is getting the f*** away from stuff like that.

  10. MM--

    Couldn't have said it been myself. Cheers!


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