Vehicles for your feet

One of the outcomes of running most days of the is frequent visits to the running shoe shop. In Melbourne, my choice of shoe shops was simple: I would go to Neil Ryan’s shop in Kew: Runners World. It is at the top of a hill in a leafy eastern suburb. Not far from a cemetery and a raft of private schools, one of which I attended as a teenager. During those teenage years, I did cross-country with the school athletics team during the winter. One night, during training, around the streets near Neil’s shop, a friend of mine, was throwing small sticks or berries at me as part of his usual antics. I turned around for a moment, mid-stride, to check what he was up to and then ran straight into some kind of utility pole. I hit the deck, was probably mildly concussed and then went to the doctors for stitches. The scar has faded, but I often remember it as one of my early ventures in running clumsiness. Running with Richmond Harriers, some 20 years plus after this incident and of which aforementioned Neil Ryan was the coach thereof, united this memories of intertwining memories of runnings past and present. 

Neil’s shop had a reticulated wooden snake in the window. You could pick it up by its tail and it would gently bend in curves. Just like a real snake – like those down at Studley Park in Yarra Bend – that we would feel the presence of, but never actually see during Bush Reps training routine: roughly six or eight or ten times 800m or 1,000m. The shop was wallpapered. And the wallpaper was adorned with some of his medals and clippings pertaining to his career. He told me while I was making a purchase how he got a time of 2:17 and finished third in a marathon in 1974. Curiously, the two athletes ahead of him also had the same surname as him. Above the door there is also a collection of vintage running shoes. Flat, hard soles. Some Puma spikes made from Kangaroo leather: before the use of the skin was banned. 

Another pair for the archives

I would drive out to Neil’s shop, having called ahead to make sure that he would be there. Sometimes though, by the time of my arrival, he would have had another errand to perform and I’d talk with one of his workers – one of whom was also around Richmond Harriers. We’d usually follow the usual stages of trying numerous pairs on; suggestions, rejections, a little jog around the streets for test runs in sneakers and jeans and maybe a jumper which always made me feel odd. I curbed my taste by telling Neil that $100 was my budget. He’d generally dig out something from the discount or last-sizes tub. Sometimes I got lucky. Once I got a pair with half a size difference. It took me some months to realise the error.

Despite appropriate shoes being the most fundamental equipment of long-distance running: I tried to keep my taste in shoes simple. I didn’t want to worry about shoes too much. I wanted to focus on getting the mileage into the legs; fancy footwear could come later. Having little spare cash made it easy to foster such spartan aspirations. Neil would hardly be gushing too in his endorsements of a particular shoe. He’d get me the right pair; no fuss and then remind me to be consistent and steady in my training. 

Done the groceries

Here in Leiden, I’m going to a shop that I’ve been visiting since 2013. It’s managed by Peter  and Carola and their dog is sometimes in the shop too. It’s by the castle, around the corner from Borgman and Borgman café and opposite the library. It’s a narrow street; barely wide enough for a car. It’s paved with cobblestones. Peter has that special art of extracting maximum cash from those who enter his shop and to make them feel like he is doing the customer a favour. I guess he is. The shop too is called Runners World and two large blue flags of Leiden Atletiek hang out the front. The club’s paraphernalia hangs in one section of the store and members get a discount. Peter used to be frustrated with my custom, as often times he wouldn’t stock shoes small enough for my feet or clothes in S. He found a solution though through selling me the women’s ranges of shoes of which I have taken up consistently. The fluctuations in sizes or shapes over iterations of models of shoes frustrates efforts at brand loyalty. My weddedness to basic models has given way to indulging in the carbon plated flashy Nikes. I was hardly an early adopter though: but with consistent high weekly mileage my avowals of running-done-simply have slipped towards being a sucker for flashy colours and technologies. 

Nonetheless, I’m still ambivalent about the shoes. These vehicles for your feet. At the time of their introduction; they were controversial – as if they were a means of giving some runners an unfair advantage. Kipchoge used a fancy pair in his sub-2hour marathon: the shoes being one part of an ensemble of means to achieve that extraordinary time. (A criticism of the sub-2hour marathon can be found here.)

At a Parkrun, a friend was decked out in a pair of Alphaflys. He said, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to do them justice.’ This betrayed a sense of insecurity of his running talents vis a vis the image of an elite athlete bashing out kilometer after kilometer at 3minute pace (or close enough to). But these carbon plate shoes are ubiquitous; they are not reserved for the elite. In some decades to come these early models may find themselves up above Neil’s entrance as simply another iteration of the vehicles designed to make humans go faster.

Whatever: just like with any other pair of shoe, I’m sure that running in a pair of carbon-plate super shoes doesn’t compensate for going out too hard or for half-hearted, inconsistent training.

Future relics


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