Merrell Guest Blog - Mike Raffan ( Barefoot Ultra Runner)
I started running in August 2008 when I was asked to join a colleague to run the Lochness 10k - we had ten weeks to train. Enthusiastically I rushed off to the local running shop, had my gait analysed and was advised on a pair of support shoes to stop my overpronation. The shoes had a heal that felt about 5cm thick and I had an extra spring in my step because they were so bouncy. Ten weeks on I crossed the finish line in Inverness and a friend who was running the marathon on the same day asked me to join him for his next marathon in six months time. At that point I was hooked, so of course I said yes. Marathon training didn’t come as easy as it was for the 10k; my knees started to hurt along with pain on the outside of my thighs. I went through lots of combinations of knee strapping and orthotic insoles to try to correct my knee pain. I even tried acupuncture. Every one of these worked for a short period but the pain always came back. I found changing my shoes helped, but after a few hundred miles in them, I was back to square one. Still, I stuck with the training, lost about two stone in weight, raised over £1000 for Diabetes UK and ran Edinburgh Marathon in 2009. The sense of achievement was great but I had struggled with the heat and knee pain during the race, therefore I was disappointed with my time; I knew I was capable of better. I felt like I had to do another marathon just to prove something to myself. So I ran Lochness Marathon later that year. The training was paid off with a 31 minute PB. I “treated” myself to a sports massage and was told the pain I had suffered up until now was ITB syndrome.
In the pub after Lochness Marathon, some friends were taking about ultra-marathons; crazy, mostly off road races out in the countryside. Having a bit of a hill walking background before running, I found this interesting and soon started to train with these guys. I bought myself a pair of trail shoes and noticed that the pain in my knees lessened. I was advised this was due to the irregular landing on the off-road terrain. I was also getting 500 miles out of the shoes (less if I took them on road), before the pain started. I could easily tell when my shoes needed changing as I could visibly see that the cushioning had started to go and was no longer getting any support from the shoe.
After training with the like of George Reid, a seasoned ultra-runner, I was soon signed up to the 55 mile Montane Highland Fling 2010 and even before that came along the Scottish Ultra Marathon Series was announced. Scotland was about to get a bunch more ultra races and first up for me would be the D33, a 33 mile race perfectly timed as a training run for the Fling. I was going to be an ultra-runner. Two ultras became five in my first year of doing them, with a marathon to top it off. Going back to Lochness again was a good benchmark and showed me how much ultra-distance races had improved my shorter marathon distance times.
The extra training required for longer races meant I was getting through shoes at a rate of about one pair every three to four months and being a tight Aberdonian my wallet wasn’t impressed! I then began to read online about other people’s experiences with running techniques such as barefoot running, POSE technique etc. I read Christopher McDougall's “Born to Run” - I didn’t quite go as far as George with some homemade huarache sandals but I did get a pair of Five Finger minimalist shoes. I found the Five Fingers comfortable and quite natural. However the looks that you get from other people might suggest otherwise. Against the advice from most barefoot supporters, I didn’t really take it easy to begin with and went straight to doing 20 mile runs in them. I got away with the shock introduction to minimalist running, but would suffer sore calves and Achilles tendons afterwards - pain that I reckon I would have got no matter what the distance.
I find that my feet would really smell if I didn’t wear socks with my trainers. But of course with the Five Fingers these had to be toe socks. That became too much hassle and so took some of the enjoyment out of running. Because I found the shoe a hassle I decided to take a step back towards conventional shoes, with what I would describe as a transition shoe - similar to Merrell’s Bare Access. They have less than normal cushioning, but enough to know it’s there when you need it. I found I could get 700 miles out of the transition shoe including road miles without pain or signs of degradation.
In 2011 I started to take my training even more seriously, running most days while supplementing that with trips to the gym and a little cycling. This was just what I needed to complete seven ultras, including the 95 mile West Highland Way race from Milngavie (Glasgow) to Fort William. During winter I signed up to a challenge, called a ‘Marcothon,’ to run every day in December. I used this as a foundation for base fitness for 2012 and continued for a total of 75 days in a row without a rest day, averaging 10.3 miles per day.
In January 2012 I had the chance to try on a pair of Merrell Trail Gloves which a friend had bought online. Instantly I thought that these were the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn and ordered a pair that afternoon. I use them for road and trail, mud and mountains. I have owned Trail Gloves for a month now; already they have done 322 miles and been through the washing machine twice. Other than a little expected wear on the tread they look as good as new. I would describe them as like wearing slippers - they are lightweight and natural. The problems I have had with other shoes was the disintegration of the cushioning and support - this can’t happen with the trail gloves as there is no cushioning. People have been asking what the shoes are and have said that they didn’t think I could run an ultra in them. Well, they have done a 38 mile training run and survived. I expect to be wearing them for many more miles and races throughout this year. They have stood up to the battering I have given them in the first month and have come out the other end asking for more.
You can read more from Mike Raffan at his blog - ultramiker.blogspot.co.uk