So, while waiting for Vibram glove-type shoes to become available in the US, I thought I'd try out the Nike Free running shoes. The Vibram and the Frees were mentioned in the book, Born To Run (which hasn't become my bible - but has taken on a Kaballah-esque role in my life). What is interesting about both types of shoes is that they are designed to allow your foot to be a foot. The Vibrams are basically a foot glove with a thin rubber sole, while the Frees have a sock-type foot covering up top sitting over thicker individually movable squares of rubber that are cut out almost up to the sole of your foot.
So one day last week I popped over to our great local running store, Gary Gribbel's Running Sports, and inquired if they had a pair of the Frees in size 9 or 9.5. As it turns out, they did. The color was a puke-inducing baby blue (I think Nike calls it University Blue - something that would only be true if your university was North Carolina). But, since they were one of only two pairs the store had, the other being a size 13, I tried them on. To my disappointment I found that they were too small. I was informed by several friends that this type of shoe does seem to run small. So the clerk called around to see if any of their other stores had a size 10. When he informed me that they didn't, I should've figured out that getting a pair would be difficult, but I didn't.
The next day I awoke and got on line to grab a pair of 10s from 1) Nike - they were out of my size in gray/green/yellow (my fav), orange, and University Blue, 2) Hollabird - same story, 3) Ebay - same story, 4) Amazon - same story, 5) Dick's Sporting Goods - same story, 6) Zappos - not quite the same story. Zappos had one pair of 10s left in (you guessed it) University Blue. So, I bought the pair from Zappos, feeling pretty stinking lucky by that point to even have found the shoes in the Northern and Western Hemispheres. I also requested an email alert from Zappos when the gray/green/yellow shoe becomes available in my size- if it ever does.
As you can tell by the title of this blog, even free isn't always free. The cost of this Free was $85. Oddly, like iPods and other things Apple, the cost of this shoe didn't seem to vary a lot from one retailer to another. They were pretty much $85-ish everywhere. I actually kind of like that, because there is nothing worse than buying something and then finding it a heckuva lot cheaper somewhere else the next day. Zappos shot me the pair overnight and didn't charge for the shipping (which was pretty cool). I pulled my baby blues out of the box and admired them before heading to the gym.
Because we're in the middle of Winter in the flyover states (this is a particularly good time of year to fly over these states btw), I've been doing a lot of running on treadmills. I'm not a fan of running machines, and never do more than 4-5 miles on a machine before calling it a day. But I was thrilled to be trying out the new shoes. Over the next couple of days I did 8 miles on the mill. I really couldn't tell a major difference between the Frees and my Asics. Since treadmills all have the shock absorbing platforms, you could probably run in stilettos and not notice much difference in shoe quality.
Finally, yesterday, the temperature got to about 40 F and I decided to give the shoes a real test outdoors. I went for a 9 mile run mainly on asphalt and concrete, but with a little bit of hard-packed gravel thrown in. Initially the wind was strong, and blowing right through my sweatshirt, so I couldn't really concentrate on the performance aspects of my new shoes. Once I turned perpendicular to the gusts, however, I did begin to really take note of the way they feel. The Frees are lighter than my Asics by a few ounces. They are also firmer in a way. I found that I wanted to run lighter, and was aware that my foot strikes were gentler than in my more padded running shoes. I also noticed that the Frees are a bit less-forgiving than a padded pair. Some foot strikes were not as comfortable as others. The Frees dictated a bit as to how I would run - form, hardness of foot strike, position/location of foot strike. It was very interesting and made me think a lot more about my form. The shoes were very comfortable. And with less padding, my running felt very connected to the ground. The push offs as each foot alternately propelled me forward felt very solid. I was pleased with that.
The only mixed review I would give the shoes came on a downhill at about 8 miles. I hadn't mastered how to chill out the jolt of going down a slope in shoes that are less padded. The result was something I had never really noticed before - I actually could feel my skeleton. With each connection with the pavement, I could feel the bones in my legs, and my knee joint working. It was an odd sensation that I had never experienced. I've been very aware of muscles, tendons, and ligaments before, but not of skeletal structure. It wasn't a bad feeling, but it was a new sensation.
After the run, I had no ill effects to report from yesterday. Today when I awoke and stumbled to the kitchen, I did note a slight tenderness on the outside base of my left foot. That has now gone away.
So the verdict on the Nike Free: The shoe takes a bit of getting used to, but I plan to keep running in my pair. I like the solidness and connection with the ground that it gives. I like its flexibility. I love its weight. While I do wish the Free came in more traditional shoe colors, I can live with the selections offered by Nike (as I said, I am hoping to get another pair in a more palatable color). For runs in the immediate future I think that I will slowly add downhill segments until I am fully used to the shoe. All in all I would highly recommend the Free as a shoe that will connect you to the ground and allow your foot to move more in the way it would if you were to run barefoot.