Bad puns are bad. There’s no way around it. That old joke should be taken out and shot.*
But foot issues are real things. One of the most prevalent issues on the trail is that of feet. Footwear, walking styles, gait, treatment, injury—few things will raise more opinions among long-distance hikers than discussions of the nether extremities. There’s good reason: your paws have to carry you an awfully long way. They’re the contact between you and the ground, and the most consistently taxed component of your body system. By my crude estimates, I’ll be taking something on the order of nearly 5 million steps over the course of a season.
So here’s a story no one was asking to hear. For the past ten years or so, I’ve had various minor foot and leg issues: none were consistent enough to rise to the level of major injury, but they were often annoying enough to sideline me for short periods. A jarred heel, a twice-dislocated right knee, some strange left knee deterioration, a heel spur, bouts of metatarsalgia and possible plantar fasciitis seem to pop up with disturbingly frequent irregularity. Nothing lasted long enough to warrant a major overhaul, but each episode would lead to frustration and concern. (Most likely, my attempting to compensate for one set of pains lead to the creation of others.) If my minor walking issues could get me limping just from short bouts, how could I hope to tackle the long trail?
Conditioning and training are helping, and losing weight is almost certain to reduce stress. After many a fruitless doctor visit, I tried out Superfeet orthotics, which did, indeed help. I still had flare-ups, but things were certainly improved, so for three or four years I’ve been walking about on those. Still, though, the problems did not vanish, and as my training has become more focused in the past year, injury has been creeping back.
With the thru-hike looming, last year I started experimenting with different orthotics and shoes. Each was more frustrating than the last, and such experimenting is not cheap. A visit to the orthopedist netted a recommendation for yet another orthotic. It seemed as though nothing was going to help.
About four months ago, in frustration, I pulled a new and useless set of insoles out of my shoes, figuring it was better to at least let my feet relax.
Bam. The pain was gone.
For the past several months, I’ve been hoofing around with as little cushioning as possible, and it’s been the best four months of walking I’ve had. It was stunning how thoroughly effective this move was.
I’ve since read Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, a book about trail running that ranges all over the map but really focuses on how our natural physiology is built for movement. He doesn’t quite completely advocate barefoot running, but certainly the ethos of “less is more” is championed. I might have been skeptical before, but I’m a convert now.
I’ll be trying out a variety of brands and styles of shoe on the trail, and these will probably change as my foot size and composition changes. (Reliable reports suggest that your shoe size will increase by 1-2 sizes by the end of the journey, most likely never to return to pre-hike standards.) I can’t say that I’ll be pulling the insoles from all of those (a thin, flat pad for particularly rocky sections seems to be working so far), but it may well be how I start. Had I more time, I’d continue conditioning my feet until they were more hobbit-like. Until such time, minimalism is my watchword—in this, and so much else.
*The feet. The agony of “de feet.” That’s the joke.
I tried to warn you.