My toes are not cute. Nor are my feet. Ashamed of my squished digits and mortified by my marathon nails, I have never been for a pedicure. I avoid shoe shops, with their skinny stilettos and their hovering assistants. And in summer, when the socks come off and the sandals go on, I stock up on dark nail polish and embark on a pumice stone regime that would make a carpenter proud.
But suddenly, my feet are very neat. “Ah, cute!” exclaimed the wide-eyed woman weighing brinjals in the supermarket. In the baked beans aisle, a small boy picked his nose and gazed at my feet. “Look daddy,” he pointed at my shoes. “Shrek!” Women at my boot camp cast admiring glances and then giggle. A man chugging past on a recent run did a double take. “Cool treads,” he murmured.
My feet have become celebrities – but not in a glam J Lo way. They’re more Danny De Vito meets all of the hobbits from Lord of the Rings. And I’m fine with that.
For the last three weeks, I’ve been running in a pair of Vibram FiveFingers. Like gloves for feet, they have individual pouches for each toe, a thin, flexible sole and are designed to simulate barefoot running. And while I’m no Zola Budd (my pace is probably more Bud Spencer after a heavy meal), I’m sure they are making me faster.
The first day I got them, I took them for a jog in the park. Because they don’t offer the cushioning and support of normal running shoes, your body has to adapt to a more naked way of running, relying on your foot’s arch and the muscles in your lower legs to provide natural support. So starting slowly is recommended.
But it’s hard to rein them in. After fobbing off a herd of curious Dachshunds and stifling my own chuckles (there’s no denying they make you look like a platypus, frog, gorilla or hobbit), I suddenly found myself sprinting down the path, feeling my toes pushing off the ground and the balls of my feet springing. Not since the egg and spoon race at school had I felt so light and bouncy.
The next day, ignoring the start-slow advice and eager to slip my feet back into the Vibrams erm, did I say slip? Yes, well, that would be optimistic. Anyone who’s tried wearing toe socks will know that herding your foot digits into separate lodgings is not easy. It’s like taking a clutch of children with ADD to the cinema: one kid wants to go here; another one wants to veer there; the rest just get lost. The littlest is always the most petulant. So after wrestling my toes into the shoes (and giving the little one a good spanking), I set off on an 8km run, purposefully pounding through an empty lot glittering with broken glass to test the protective ability of the soles. No worries. Later, after springing up a long hill, I hit a gravel track, and was surprised at how muted the stones felt underfoot. You feel them, but they don’t poke.
I also found my stride changed. Normally I’m a loping plodder, leaning into hills like an old crone bearing firewood. But with my Shrek feet on, my posture straightened, my stride shortened, my pace quickened, I felt like Julie Andrews, or one of her goats, bounding up a Swiss peak. I even started yodelling. Until a pleasant-smelling man in a Comrades shirt came sailing by.
The next day, however, I woke up to grumpy calves. Tight and aching, they whined like Lord Farquaad, begging me to return to convention, pleading with me for inner soles, and antishock gel and laces. But I am as stubborn as an ogre. Instead, I read Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, arming myself with information on all things barefoot – how our toes are meant to fan out and how our heels aren’t meant to strike the ground first. I also made a deal with my legs: I would alternate normal running shoes with the Vibrams until my muscles were truly ready. Then we would try a race. In between, I would take my Shreks on excursions to boot camp because it’s good for
them to socialise.And, it turns out, they are perfect for the job. With a combination of mat work and short sprints on grass, the workout always felt clunky in normal shoes. Now, I spring up from the mat like a simian and sprint like a errant little girl up banks and steps.
I also regularly wear my FiveFingers to the supermarket. They make children laugh, they make old men scratch their heads. Women in toe-crunching heels pull faces and pleasantsmelling men give me a second glance. And, for once, my battered toes, snug in their gloves, look and feel decidedly cute.
- Helen Walne
The Vibram Sprint (R1,299) and Vibram KSO (R1,399) are available from DueSouth and Drifters Adventures.