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Chapter 25
BAREFOOT TED was right, of course.

Lost in all the fireworks between Ted and Caballo was an important point: running shoes may bethe most destructive force to ever hit the human foot. Barefoot Ted, in his own weird way, wasbecoming the Neil Armstrong of twenty-first-century distance running, an ace test pilot whosesmall steps could have tremendous benefit for the rest of mankind. If that seems like excessivestature to load on Barefoot Ted’s shoulders, consider these words by Dr. Daniel Lieberman, aprofessor of biological anthropology at Harvard University:

“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by peoplerunning with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to overpronate, give us kneeproblems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in verythin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.”

And the cost of those injuries? Fatal disease in epidemic proportions. “Humans really areobligatorily required to do aerobic exercise in order to stay healthy, and I think that has deep rootsin our evolutionary history,” Dr. Lieberman said. “If there’s any magic bullet to make humanbeings healthy, it’s to run.”

Magic bullet? The last time a scientist with Dr. Lieberman’s credentials used that term, he’d justcreated penicillin. Dr. Lieberman knew it, and meant it. If running shoes never existed, he wassaying, more people would be running. If more people ran, fewer would be dying of degenerativeheart disease, sudden cardiac arrest, hypertension, blocked arteries, diabetes, and most other deadlyailments of the Western world.

That’s a staggering amount of guilt to lay at Nike’s feet. But the most remarkable part? Nikealready knew it.

In April 2001, two Nike reps were watching the Stanford University track team practice. Part of aNike rep’s job is getting feedback from its sponsored runners about which shoes they prefer, butthat was proving difficult at the moment because the Stanford runners all seemed to prefer …nothing.

“Vin, what’s up with the barefooting?” they called to Stanford head coach Vin Lananna. “Didn’twe send you enough shoes?”

Coach Lananna walked over to explain. “I can’t prove this,” he explained, “but I believe when myrunners train barefoot, they run faster and suffer fewer injuries.”

Faster and fewer injuries? Coming from anyone else, the Nike guys would have politely uh-huhedand ignored it, but this was one coach whose ideas they took seriously. Like Joe Vigil, Lanannawas rarely mentioned without the word “visionary” or “innovator” popping up. In just ten years atStanford, Lananna’s track and cross-country teams had won five NCAA team championships andtwenty-two individual titles, and Lananna himself had been named NCAA Cross Country Coach ofthe Year. Lananna had already sent three runners to the Olympics and was busy grooming morewith his Nike-sponsored “Farm Team,” a post-college club for the best of the very best. Needlessto say, the Nike reps were a little chagrined to hear that Lananna felt the best shoes Nike had tooffer were worse than no shoes at all.

“We’ve shielded our feet from their natural position by providing more and more support,”

Lananna insisted. That’s why he made sure his runners always did part of their workouts in barefeet on the track’s infield. “I know as a shoe company, it’s not the greatest thing to have asponsored team not use your product, but people went thousands of years without shoes. I thinkyou try to do all these corrective things with shoes and you overcompensate. You fix things thatdon’t need fixing. If you strengthen the foot by going barefoot, I think you reduce the risk ofAchilles and knee and plantar fascia problems.”

“Risk” isn’t quite the right term; it’s more like “dead certainty.” Every year, anywhere from 65 to80 percent of all runners suffer an injury. That’s nearly every runner, every single year. No matterwho you are, no matter how much you run, your odds of getting hurt are the same. It doesn’tmatter if you’re male or female, fast or slow, pudgy or ripped as a racehorse, your feet are still inthe danger zone.

Maybe you’ll beat the odds if you stretch like a swami? Nope. In a 1993 study of Dutch athletespublished in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, one group of runners was taught how towarm up and stretch while a second group received no “injury prevention” coaching. Their injuryrates? Identical. Stretching came out even worse in a follow-up study performed the following yearat the University of Hawaii; it found that runners who stretched were 33 percent more likely to gethurt.

Lucky for us, though, we live in a golden age of technology. Running-shoe companies have had aquarter century to perfect their designs, so logically, the injury rate must be in free fall by now.

After all, Adidas has come up with a $250 shoe with a microprocessor in the sole that instantlyadjusts cushioning for every stride. Asics spent three million dollars and eight years—three morethan it took the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb—to invent the awe-inspiringKinsei, a shoe that boasts “multi-angled forefoot gel pods,” a “midfoot thrust enhancer,” and an“infinitely adaptable heel component that isolates and absorbs impact to reduce pronation and aidin forward propulsion.” That’s big bucks for sneaks you’ll have to toss in the garbage in ninetydays, but at least you’ll never limp again.

Right?

Sorry.

“Since the first real studies were done in the late ’70’s, Achilles complaints have actually increasedby about 10 percent, while plantar fasciitis has remained the same,” says Dr. Stephen Pribut, arunning-injury specialist and past president of the American Academy of Podiatric SportsMedicine. “The technological advancements over the past thirty years have been amazing,” addsDr. Irene Davis, the director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware. “We’veseen tremendous innovations in motion control and cushioning. And yet the remedies don’t seemto defeat the ailments.”

In fact, there’s no evidence that running shoes are any help at all in injury prevention. In a 2008research paper for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr. Craig Richards, a researcher at theUniversity of Newcastle in Australia, revealed that there are no evidence-based studies—not one—that demonstrate that running shoes make you less prone to injury.

It was an astonishing revelation that had been hidden in plain sight for thirty-five years. Dr.

Richards was so stunned that a twenty-billion-dollar industry seemed to be based on nothing butempty promises and wishful thinking that he even issued a challenge:

Is any running shoe company prepared to claim that wearing their distance running shoes willdecrease your risk of suffering musculoskeletal running injuries?

Is any shoe manufacturer prepared to claim that wearing their running shoes will improve yourdistance running performance?

If you are prepared to make these claims, where is your peer reviewed data to back it up?

Dr. Richards waited, and even tried contacting the major shoe companies for their data. Inresponse, he got silence.

So if running shoes don’t make you go faster and don’t stop you from getting hurt, then what,exactly, are you paying for? What are the benefits of all those microchips, “thrust enhancers,” aircushions, torsion devices, and roll bars? Well, if you have a pair of Kinseis in your closet, braceyourself for some bad news. And like all bad news, it comes in threes:

PAINFUL TRUTH No. 1: The Best Shoes Are the WorstRUNNERS wearing top-of-the-line shoes are 123 percent more likely to get injured than runnersin cheap shoes, according to study led by Bernard Marti, M.D., a preventative-medicinespecialistatSwitzerland’sUniver(a) sity of Bern. Dr. Marti’s research team analyzed 4,358 runners inthe Bern Grand-Prix, a 9.6-mile road race. All the runners filled out an extensive questionnairethat detailed their training habits and footwear for the previous year; as it turned out, 45 percenthad been hurt during that time.

But what surprised Dr. Marti, as he pointed out in The American Journal of Sports Medicine in1989, was the fact that the most common variable among the casualties wasn’t training surface,running speed, weekly mileage, or “competitive training motivation.” It wasn’t even body weight,or a history of previous injury: it was the price of the shoe. Runners in shoes that cost more than$95 were more than twice as likely to get hurt as runners in shoes that cost less than $40. Follow-up studies found similar results, like the 1991 report in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercisethat found that “Wearers of expensive running shoes that are promoted as having additionalfeatures that protect (e.g., more cushioning, ‘pronation correction’) are injured significantly morefrequently than runners wearing inexpensive shoes (costing less than $40).”

What a cruel joke: for double the price, you get double the pain.

Sharp-eyed as ever, Coach Vin Lananna had already spotted the same phenomenon himself back inthe early ’80s. “I once ordered high-end shoes for the team, and within two weeks, we had moreplantar fasciitis and Achilles problems than I’d ever seen. So I sent them back and told them, ‘Sendme my cheap shoes,’” Lananna says. “Ever since then, I’ve always ordered the low-end shoes. It’snot because I’m cheap. It’s because I’m in the business of making athletes run fast and stayhealthy.”

PAINFUL TRUTH No. 2: Feet Like a Good BeatingAS FAR back as 1988, Dr. Barry Bates, the head of the University of Oregon’sBiomechanics/Sports Medicine Laboratory, gathered data that suggested that beat-up runningshoes are safer than newer ones. In the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, Dr.

Bates and his colleagues reported that as shoes wore down and their cushioning thinned, runnersgained more foot control.

So how do foot control and a flapping old sole add up to injury-free legs? Because of one magicingredient: fear. Contrary to what pillowy-sounding names like the Adidas MegaBounce wouldhave you believe, all that cushioning does nothing to reduce impact. Logically that should beobvious—the impact on your legs from running can be up to twelve times your body weight, soit’s preposterous to believe a half inch of rubber is going to make a bit of difference against, in mycase, 2,760 pounds of earthbound beef. You can cover an egg with an oven mitt before rapping itwith a hammer, but that egg ain’t coming out alive.

When E. C. Frederick, then the director of Nike Sports Research Lab, arrived at the 1986 meetingof the American Society of Biomechanics, he was packing a bombshell. “When subjects weretested with soft versus hard shoes,” he said, “no difference in impact force was found.” Nodifference! “And curiously,” he added, “the second, propulsive peak in the vertical ground reactionforce was actually higher with soft shoes.”

The puzzling conclusion: the more cushioned the shoe, the less protection it provides.

Researchers at the University of Oregon’s Biomechanics/Sports Medicine Laboratory wereverifying the same finding. As running shoes got worn down and their cushioning hardened, theOregon researchers revealed in a 1988 study for the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports PhysicalTherapy, runners’ feet stabilized and became less wobbly. It would take about ten years beforescientists came up with an explanation for why the old shoes that sports companies were tellingyou to throw away were better than the new ones they were urging you to buy. At McGillUniversity in Montreal, Steven Robbins, M.D., and Edward Waked, Ph.D., performed a series oftests on gymnasts. They found that the thicker the landing mat, the harder the gymnasts stuck theirlandings. Instinctively, the gymnasts were searching for stability. When they sensed a soft surfaceunderfoot, they slapped down hard to ensure balance.

Runners do the same thing, Robbins and Waked found: just the way your arms automatically flyup when you slip on ice, your legs and feet instinctively come down hard when they sensesomething squishy underfoot. When you run in cushioned shoes, your feet are pushing through thesoles in search of a hard, stable platform.

“We conclude that balance and vertical impact are closely related,” the McGill docs wrote.

“According to our findings, currently available sports shoes … are too soft and thick, and shouldbe redesigned if they are to protect humans performing sports.”

Until reading this study, I’d been mystified by an experience I’d had at the Running Injury Clinic.

I’d run back and forth over a force plate while alternating between bare feet, a superthin shoe, andthe well-cushioned Nike Pegasus. Whenever I changed shoes, the impact levels changed as well—but not the way I’d expected. My impact forces were lightest in bare feet, and heaviest in the Pegs.

My running form also varied: when I changed footwear, I instinctively changed my footfall.

“You’re much more of a heel striker in the Pegasus,” Dr. Irene Davis concluded.

David Smyntek decided to test the impact theory with a unique experiment of his own. As both arunner and a physical therapist specializing in acute rehabilitation, Smyntek was wary when thepeople telling him he had to buy new shoes were the same people who sold them. He’d beenwarned forever by Runner’s World and his local running store that he had to replace his shoesevery three hundred to five hundred miles, but how was it that Arthur Newton, one of the greatestultrarunners of all time, saw no reason to replace his thin rubber sneakers until he’d put at leastfour thousand miles on them? Newton not only won the 55-mile Comrades race five times in the1930s, but his legs were still springy enough to break the record for the 100-mile Bath-to-Londonrun at age fifty-one.

So Smyntek decided to see if he could out-Newton Newton. “When my shoes wear down on oneside,” he wondered, “what if I just wear them on the wrong feet?” Thus began the Crazy FootExperiment: when his shoes got thin on the outside edge, Dave swapped the right for the left andkept running. “You have to understand the man,” says Ken Learman, one of Dave’s fellowtherapists. “Dave is not the average individual. He’s curious, smart, the kind of guy you can’t BSreal easy. He’ll say, ‘Hey, if it’s supposed to be this way, let’s see if it really is.’”

For the next ten years, David ran five miles a day, every day. Once he realized he could runcomfortably in wrong-footed shoes, he started questioning why he needed running shoes in thefirst place. If he wasn’t using them the way they were designed, Dave reasoned, maybe that designwasn’t such a big deal after all. From then on, he only bought cheap dime-store sneaks.

“Here he is, running more than most people, with the wrong shoe on the wrong foot and not havingany problems,” Ken Learman says. “That experiment taught us all something. Taught us that whenit comes to running shoes, all that glitters isn’t gold.”

FINAL PAINFUL TRUTH: Even Alan Webb Says “Human BeingsAre Designed to Run WithoutShoes”

BEFORE Alan Webb became America’s greatest miler, he was a flat-footed frosh with awfulform. But his high school coach saw potential, and began rebuilding Alan from—no exaggeration—the ground up.

“I had injury problems early on, and it became apparent that my biomechanics could cause injury,”

Webb told me. “So we did foot-strengthening drills and special walks in bare feet.” Bit by bit,Webb watched his feet transform before his eyes. “I was a size twelve and flat-footed, and nowI’m a nine or ten. As the muscles in my feet got stronger, my arch got higher.” Because of thebarefoot drills, Webb also cut down on his injuries, allowing him to handle the kind of heavytraining that would lead to his U.S. record for the mile and the fastest 1,500-meter time in theworld for the year 2007.

“Barefoot running has been one of my training philosophies for years,” said Gerard Hartmann,Ph.D., the Irish physical therapist who serves as the Great and Powerful Oz for the world’s finestdistance runners. Paula Radcliffe never runs a marathon without seeing Dr. Hartmann first, andtitans like Haile Gebrselassie and Khalid Khannouchi have trusted their feet to his hands. Fordecades, Dr. Hartmann has been watching the explosion of orthotics and ever-more-structuredrunning shoes with dismay.

“The deconditioned musculature of the foot is the greatest issue leading to injury, and we’veallowed our feet to become badly deconditioned over the past twenty-five years,” Dr. Hartmannsaid. “Pronation has become this very bad word, but it’s just the natural movement of the foot. Thefoot is supposed to pronate.”

To see pronation in action, kick off your shoes and run down the driveway. On a hard surface, yourfeet will briefly unlearn the habits they picked up in shoes and automatically shift to self-defensemode: you’ll find yourself landing on the outside edge of your foot, then gently rolling from littletoe over to big until your foot is flat. That’s pronation—just a mild, shock-absorbing twist thatallows your arch to compress.

But back in the ’70s, the most respected voice in running began expressing some doubts about allthat foot twisting. Dr. George Sheehan was a cardiologist whose essays on the beauty of runninghad made him the philosopher-king of the marathon set, and he came up with the notion thatexcessive pronation might be the cause of runner’s knee. He was both right and very, very wrong.

You have to land on your heel to overpronate, and you can only land on your heel if it’s cushioned.

Nevertheless, the shoe companies were quick to respond to Dr. Sheehan’s call to arms and cameup with a nuclear response; they created monstrously wedged and superengineered shoes thatwiped out virtually all pronation.

“But once you block a natural movement,” Dr. Hartmann said, “you adversely affect the others.

We’ve done studies, and only two to three percent of the population has real biomechanicalproblems. So who is getting all these orthotics? Every time we put someone in a corrective device,we’re creating new problems by treating ones that don’t exist.” In a startling admission in 2008,Runner’s World confessed that for years it had accidentally misled its readers by recommendingcorrective shoes for runners with plantar fasciitis: “But recent research has shown stability shoesare unlikely to relieve plantar fasciitis and may even exacerbate the symptoms” (italics mine).

“Just look at the architecture,” Dr. Hartmann explained. Blueprint your feet, and you’ll find amarvel that engineers have been trying to match for centuries. Your foot’s centerpiece is the arch,the greatest weight-bearing design ever created. The beauty of any arch is the way it gets strongerunder stress; the harder you push down, the tighter its parts mesh. No stonemason worth his trowelwould ever stick a support under an arch; push up from underneath, and you weaken the wholestructure. Buttressing the foot’s arch from all sides is a high-tensile web of twenty-six bones,thirty-three joints, twelve rubbery tendons, and eighteen muscles, all stretching and flexing like anearthquake-resistant suspension bridge.

“Putting your feet in shoes is similar to putting them in a plaster cast,” Dr. Hartmann said. “If I putyour leg in plaster, we’ll find forty to sixty percent atrophy of the musculature within six weeks.

Something similar happens to your feet when they’re encased in shoes.” When shoes are doing thework, tendons stiffen and muscles shrivel. Feet live for a fight and thrive under pressure; let themlaze around, as Alan Webb discovered, and they’ll collapse. Work them out, and they’ll arc up likea rainbow.

“I’ve worked with over a hundred of the best Kenyan runners, and one thing they have in commonis marvelous elasticity in their feet,” Dr. Hartmann continued. “That comes from never running inshoes until you’re seventeen.” To this day, Dr. Hartmann believes that the best injury-preventionadvice he’s ever heard came from a coach who advocated “running barefoot on dewy grass threetimes a week.”

He’s not the only medical professional preaching the Barefoot Doctrine. According to Dr. Paul WBrand, chief of rehab at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Carville, Louisiana, and aprofessor of surgery at Louisiana State University Medical School, we could wipe out everycommon foot ailment within a generation by kicking off our shoes. As far back as 1976, Dr. Brandwas pointing out that nearly every case in his waiting room—corns, bunions, hammertoes, flat feet,fallen arches—was nearly nonexistent in countries where most people go barefoot.

“The barefoot walker receives a continuous stream of information about the ground and about hisown relationship to it,” Dr. Brand has said, “while a shod foot sleeps inside an unchangingenvironment.”

Drumbeats for the barefoot uprising were growing. But instead of doctors leading the charge for amuscular foot, it was turning into a class war pitting podiatrists against their own patients. Barefootadvocates like Drs. Brand and Hartmann were still rare, while traditional podiatric thinking stillsaw human feet as Nature’s Mistake, a work in progress that could always be improved by a littlescalpel-sculpting and orthotic reshaping.

That born-broken mentality found its perfect expression in The Runners’ Repair Manual. Writtenby Dr. Murray Weisenfeld, a leading sports podiatrist, it’s one of the top-selling foot-care books ofall time, and begins with this dire pronouncement:

“Man’s foot was not originally designed for walking, much less running long distances.”

So what, according to the Manual, was our foot designed for? Well, at first swimming (“Themodern foot evolved out of the fin of some primordial fish and these fins pointed backward”).

After that, climbing (“The grasping foot permitted the creature to squat on branches without fallingout”).

And then …?

And then, according to the podiatric account of evolution, we got stuck. While the rest of ourbodies adapted beautifully to solid earth, somehow the only part of our body that actually touchedthe earth got left behind. We developed brains and hands deft enough to perform intravascularsurgery, yet our feet never made it past the Paleolithic era. “Man’s foot is not yet completelyadapted to the ground,” the Manual laments. “Only a portion of the population has been endowedwith well ground-adapted feet.”

So who are these lucky few with well-evolved feet? Come to think of it, nobody: “Nature has notyet published her plan for the perfect modern runner’s foot,” Dr. Weisenfeld writes. “Until theperfect foot comes along, my experience has shown me that we’ve all got an excellent chance athaving some kind of injury.” Nature may not have published her blueprint, but that didn’t stopsome podiatrists from trying to come up with one of their own. And it was exactly that kind ofoverconfidence—the belief that four years of podiatric training could trump two million years ofnatural selection—that led to a catastrophic rash of operations in the ’70s.

“Not too many years ago, runner’s knee was treated by surgery,” Dr. Weisenfeld acknowledges.

“That didn’t work too well, since you need that cushioning when you run.” Once the patients cameout from under the knife, they discovered that their nagging ache had turned into a life-changingmutilation; without cartilage in their knees, they’d never be able to run without pain again. Despitethe podiatric profession’s checkered history of attempting to one-up nature, The Runners’ RepairManual never recommends strengthening feet; instead, the treatment of choice is always tape,orthotics, or surgery.

It even took Dr. Irene Davis, whose credentials and open-mindedness are hard to beat, until 2007to take barefooting seriously, and only then because one of her patients flat-out defied her. He wasso frustrated by his chronic plantar fasciitis, he wanted to try blasting it away by running in thin-soled, slipperlike shoes. Dr. Davis told him he was nuts. He did it anyway.

“To her surprise,” as BioMechanics magazine would later report, “the plantar fasciitis symptomsabated and the patient was able to run short distances in the shoes.”

“This is how we often learn things, when patients don’t listen to us,” Dr. Davis graciouslyresponded. “I think perhaps the widespread plantar fasciitis in this country is partly due to the factthat we really don’t allow the muscles in our feet to do what they are designed to do.” She was soimpressed by her rebellious patient’s recovery that she even began adding barefoot walks to herown workouts.

Nike doesn’t earn $17 billion a year by letting the Barefoot Teds of the world set the trends. Soonafter the two Nike reps returned from Stanford with news that the barefoot uprising had evenspread to elite college track, Nike set to work to see if it could make a buck from the problem ithad created.

Blaming the running injury epidemic on big, bad Nike seems too easy—but that’s okay, becauseit’s largely their fault. The company was founded by Phil Knight, a University of Oregon runnerwho could sell anything, and Bill Bowerman, the University of Oregon coach who thought heknew everything. Before these two men got together, the modern running shoe didn’t exist. Neitherdid most modern running injuries.

For a guy who told so many people how to run, Bowerman didn’t do much of it himself. He onlystarted to jog a little at age fifty, after spending time in New Zealand with Arthur Lydiard, thefather of fitness running and the most influential distance-running coach of all time. Lydiard hadbegun the Auckland Joggers Club back in the late ’50s to help rehab heart-attack victims. It waswildly controversial at the time; physicians were certain that Lydiard was mobilizing a masssuicide. But once the formerly ill men realized how great they felt after a few weeks of running,they began inviting their wives, kids, and parents to come along for the two-hour trail rambles.

By the time Bill Bowerman paid his first visit in 1962, Lydiard’s Sunday morning group run wasthe biggest party in Auckland. Bowerman tried to join them, but was in such lousy shape that hehad to be helped along by a seventy-three-year-old man who’d survived three coronaries. “God,the only thing that kept me alive was the hope that I would die,” Bowerman said afterward.

But he came home a convert, and soon penned a best-selling book whose one-word title introduceda new word and obsession to the American public: Jogging. Between writing and coaching,Bowerman was busy ruining his nervous system and his wife’s waffle iron by tinkering in thebasement with molten rubber to invent a new kind of footwear. His experiments left Bowermanwith a debilitating nerve condition, but also the most cushioned running shoe ever created. In astroke of dark irony, Bowerman named it the Cortez—after the conquistador who plundered theNew World for gold and unleashed a horrific smallpox epidemic.

Bowerman’s deftest move was advocating a new style of running that was only possible in his newstyle of shoe. The Cortez allowed people to run in a way no human safely could before: by landingon their bony heels. Before the invention of a cushioned shoe, runners through the ages hadidentical form: Jesse Owens, Roger Bannister, Frank Shorter, and even Emil Zatopek all ran withbacks straight, knees bent, feet scratching back under their hips. They had no choice: the onlyshock absorption came from the compression of their legs and their thick pad of midfoot fat. FredWilt verified as much in 1959 in his classic track text, How They Train, which detailed thetechniques of more than eighty of the world’s top runners. “The forward foot moves toward thetrack in a downward, backward, ‘stroking’ motion (not punching or pounding) and the outer edgeof the ball of the foot makes first contact with the track,” Wilt writes. “Running progression resultsfrom these forces pushing behind the center of gravity of the body. …”

In fact, when the biomedical designer Van Phillips created a state-of-the-art prosthetic for amputeerunners in 1984, he didn’t even bother equipping it with a heel. As a runner who lost his left legbelow the knee in a water-skiing accident, Phillips understood that the heel was needed only forstanding, not motion. Phillips’s C-shaped “Cheetah foot” mimics the performance of an organicleg so effectively, it allowed the South African double amputee Oscar Pistorius to compete withthe world’s greatest sprinters.

But Bowerman had an idea: maybe you could grab a little extra distance if you stepped ahead ofyour center of gravity. Stick a chunk of rubber under the heel, he mused, and you could straightenyour leg, land on your heel, and lengthen your stride. In Jogging, he compared the styles: with thetime-tested “flat foot” strike, he acknowledged, “the wide surface area pillows the footstrike and iseasy on the rest of the body.” Nevertheless, he still believed a “heel-to-toe” stride would be “theleast tiring over long distances.” If you’ve got the shoe for it.

Bowerman’s marketing was brilliant. “The same man created a market for a product and thencreated the product itself,” as one Oregon financial columnist observed. “It’s genius, the kind ofstuff they study in business schools.” Bowerman’s partner, the runner-turned-entrepreneur PhilKnight, set up a manufacturing deal in Japan and was soon selling shoes faster than they couldcome off the assembly line. “With the Cortez’s cushioning, we were in a monopoly positionprobably into the Olympic year, 1972,” Knight would gloat. By the time other companies gearedup to copy the new shoe, the Swoosh was a world power.

Delighted with the reaction to his amateur designs, Bowerman let his creativity take off. Hecontemplated a waterproof shoe made of fish skin, but let that one die on the drawing board. Hedid come out with the LD-1000 Trainer, a shoe with a sole so wide it was like running on pieplates. Bowerman figured it would kill pronation in its tracks, overlooking the fact that unless therunner’s foot was perfectly straight, the flared heel would wrench his leg. “Instead of stabilizing, itaccelerated pronation and hurt both feet and ankles,” former Oregon runner Kenny Moore reportedin his biography of Bowerman. The shoe that was supposed to give you a perfect stride, in otherwords, only worked if you already had one. When Bowerman realized he was causing injuriesinstead of preventing them, he had to backtrack and narrow the heel in later versions.

Back in New Zealand, meanwhile, an appalled Arthur Lydiard was watching the flashy exportsflooding out of Oregon and wondering what in the world his friend was up to. Compared withBowerman, Lydiard was by far the superior track mind; he’d coached many more Olympicchampions and world-record holders, and he’d created a training program that remains the goldstandard. Lydiard liked Bill Bowerman and respected him as a coach, but good God! What wasthis junk he was selling?

Lydiard knew all this pronation stuff was just marketing gibberish. “If you told the average personof any age to take off his or her shoes and run down the hallway you would almost always discoverthe foot action contains no hint of pronation or supination,” Lydiard complained. “Those sidewaysflexings of the ankles begin only when people lace themselves into these running shoes becausethe construction of many of the shoes immediately alters the natural movement of the feet.

“We ran in canvas shoes,” Lydiard went on. “We didn’t get plantar fascia, we didn’t pronate orsupinate, we might have lost a bit of skin from the rough canvas when we were running marathons,but, generally speaking, we didn’t have foot problems. Paying several hundred dollars for the latestin high-tech running shoes is no guarantee you’ll avoid any of these injuries and can evenguarantee that you will suffer from them in one form or another.”

Eventually, even Bowerman was stricken by doubt. As Nike steamrolled along, churning out abewildering variety of shoes and changing models every year for no reason besides havingsomething else to sell, Bowerman felt his original mission of making an honest shoe had beeneroded by a new ideology, which he summed up in two words: “Make money.” Nike, he griped ina letter to a colleague, was “distributing a lot of crap.” Even to one of Nike’s founding partners, itseemed, the words of the social critic Eric Hoffer were ringing true: “Every great cause begins as amovement, becomes a business, and turns into a racket.”

Bowerman had died by the time the barefoot uprising was taking hold in 2002, so Nike went backto Bowerman’s old mentor to see if this shoeless stuff really had merit. “Of course!” ArthurLydiard reportedly snorted. “You support an area, it gets weaker. Use it extensively, it getsstronger…. Run barefoot and you don’t have all those troubles.

“Shoes that let your foot function like you’re barefoot—they’re the shoes for me,” Lydiardconcluded.

Nike followed up that blast with its own hard data. Jeff Pisciotta, the senior researcher at NikeSports Research Lab, assembled twenty grassy field and filmed them runningbarefoot.Whenhezoomedin,hewasstartledby(runners) wha(on) t(a) he found: instead of each foot clompingdown as it would in a shoe, it behaved like an animal with a mind of its own—stretching, grasping,seeking the ground with splayed toes, gliding in for a landing like a lake-bound swan.

“It’s beautiful to watch,” a still spellbound Pisciotta later told me. “That made us start thinking thatwhen you put a shoe on, it starts to take over some of the control.” He immediately deployed histeam to gather film of every existing barefoot culture they could find. “We found pockets of peopleall over the globe who are still running barefoot, and what you find is that during propulsion andlanding, they have far more range of motion in the foot and engage more of the toe. Their feet flex,spread, splay, and grip the surface, meaning you have less pronation and more distribution ofpressure.”

Faced with the almost inescapable conclusion that it had been selling lemons, Nike shifted intomake-lemonade mode. Jeff Pisciotta became head of a top-secret and seemingly impossibleproject: finding a way to make a buck off a naked foot.

It took two years of work before Pisciotta was ready to unveil his masterpiece. It was presented tothe world in TV ads that showed so many barefoot athletes—Kenyan marathoners padding along adirt trail, swimmers curling their toes around a starting block, gymnasts and Brazilian capoeiradancers and rock climbers and wrestlers and karate masters and beach soccer players—that after awhile, it was hard to remember who does wear shoes, or why.

Flashing over the images were motivational messages: “Your feet are your foundation. Wake themup! Make them strong! Connect with the ground…. Natural technology allows natural motion….

Power to your feet.” Across the sole of a bare foot is scrawled “Performance Starts Here.” Thencomes the grand finale: as “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” crescendos in the background, we cut backto those Kenyans, whose bare feet are now sporting some kind of thin little shoe. It’s the new NikeFree, a swooshed slipper even thinner than the old Cortez.

And its slogan?

“Run Barefoot.”


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