One of the team who made the first ascent of the Eiger north face in 1938 was asked many years later about the design of the iceaxe he used on his epic climb. His reply intimated that the precise details of the tool itself were less important than the skill of the man using it. Nevertheless, we still seem to worry quite a lot about what we wear on our feet when we're out for a day or two. Although still a relative newcomer to the running game I'm conscious that the frequency with which I have to shell out around 60 to 80 pounds - every 500 miles so the sages say, or when all the useful bits have worn off the sole which usually amounts to the same thing in my case - means it's worth trying to make sure I get the best return for my cash in terms of comfort and performance. I'm gradually getting there but it seems to be a confusing and ultimately personal affair - what works for someone else doesn't necessarily work for you.
I hadn't a clue when I started, so I went to a specialist running shop in Rotterdam where I was living at the time, told them I was training for my first marathon (my first proper run actually but I didn't like to admit that), had my feet looked at and my gait analysed, and came out with a pair of Asics Cumulus road shoes. They did the job, problem solved, I just kept buying a new pair every time they wore out. Then I stumbled into trail running and ultras, and felt I should have something rather more specific to the task. I bought a pair of Salomons (XA3's, if I remember correctly) on the questionable grounds that everyone in Chamonix seemed to have a pair and Salomon usually design good kit. They were a real disappointment, they didn't seem to grip any better than road shoes and were a lot less comfortable, but they were excellent for posing in the pub and have latterly performed well at gardening and more general DIY. After this brush with the technical, I went back to my Asics for my first proper ultra (the Highland Fling in 2007), and apart from going up half a size to accommodate swelling feet on longer distances I have used them successfully in every event I have entered since; I don't get blisters and I know each pair I buy is going to be the same as the last.
But we're never content to let the sleeping dog lie are we? We convince ourselves that we must be missing out on something, why would these guys be making all this snazzy all-terrain footwear if doesn't give the user some unbelievable advantages? So I started trying the recommended classics. Montrail Hardrocks hurt my feet. Yes, I agree you can't feel a single stone through them and I do have persistent PF in one foot, but 50 miles around the rocky northern half of the Anglesey coast path convinced me that they're not for me, it's like running in clogs. The ubiquitous Innov8 Roclite 315's started well, but I have the opposite problem with these; they're great for 10 miles or so then I start to feel every stone. I've found them really great as crag approach shoes in places like the Dolomites, and their lightness really pays off when they're in your rucsac, so I've thoroughly worn them out now and will probably buy another pair - just not for running!
As an aside, I'm not sure if I really understand the advantage of studs versus a more general sole; the studs like you get on the Roclites are great for wet grassy hillsides and muddy fields, but when you get to bits of scrambling over rocks or running over the "ecological" stone paths appearing in most of our upland areas now, racing drivers and rock climbers understand that to get grip on a hard surface you need to get a bit more rubber down than the studs afford. Maybe you just have to compromise here to get the grip on the soft ground when you need it. And I can't even contemplate the ultra-thin footshaped "no shoes" (VFF's ?) that seem to be coming onto our radar now.
So I think I'll stick with the trusty road shoes for a while yet. And yet I'm always a sucker for seduction by a well turned out pair of heels. There's an outdoor shop where I often loiter awhile after visiting my mum, and a couple of weeks ago I couldn't resist a new pair of Salomons (with studs!). I'm waiting for something to wrong, because so far they feel as light as carpet slippers but with enough cushioning to give even my ageing frame some chance of survival. The only problem is that they're such a garish red that Jan says she won't be seen with me until I've got a few layers of mud on them, so yesterday I ran them from Buttermere over to Wasdale and back to start the process. Just call me Imelda.
Apart from the Amsterdam marathon in three weeks my running year is drawing to a close, a real pity about Rotherham being changed from December to October, so I'll take it easy for a few weeks and contemplate what could be on the calendar for next year. I've already entered the Fling and will be up for the WHW if I get a place, and there are a whole host of tempting runs in the UK besides - let's hope 2010 is another great year. Meanwhile I'm off for a week's climbing and some late season sun on the Costa Blanca. Running can wait just a while.