Jun 17, 2010

The Hellfire of Barefoot Runners

The way True Believer stories begin is this. A person describes his skepticism about something and then converts from his disbelief and scorn to fundamentalist faith. Think C. S. Lewis’s return to Christianity. Or China’s embrace of capitalism, led by my favorite non-attributable quotation of Deng Xiaoping: “To be rich is glorious.” Or Jake Elway’s conversion for The Penguin.

I noticed a similar religious feeling about people’s embrace of barefoot running, another silly trend. There was such a hellfire of enthusiasm that I relegated Vibram Five Fingers to another toy with which so many people are besotted (“like a child at Christmas” to crib one writer). My wife took one look at a pair of Five Fingers and said, "They've found a way to charge money for nothing." Her friend’s comment: “There’s something not right there.”

I rightfully blamed Christopher McDougall’s book, Born To Run, for the passionate tone of barefooters. He writes of the Tarahumara, who “may be the healthiest and most serene people on earth, and the greatest runners of all time.”

McDougall describes a 57-year old man who lumbers out of his cave – a cave without running water – after a night of drinking booze made from dried rattlesnakes and eating ground corn with barbequed mouse to come “first in a prestigious 100-mile race wearing nothing but a toga and sandals.” The Tarahumara often smoke a combination of tobacco and dried bats' blood to help them run faster and keep away the other team's spirits. (This has actually been one of my non-puritanical goals: to be able to run and smoke a cigar at the same time).

This is mythmaking at its best. It is just the kind of symbol that the modern malaise conjures or unearths. The further people distance themselves from the cave with technology, the more they crave an earthy, organic, locally sourced touch. What could be more natural than a man running barefoot?

(My favorite symbol of our modern malaise is man – khakis or suit – walking on a moving sidewalk at an airport, staring down at an iPhone or Crackberry, oblivious to where he is going.)

The religious nature of barefooters versus high heelers reminds me of all the other religious wars. Apple versus Microsoft. iPod versus all those crummy MP3 players. The iPhone versus all those crummy mobile phones. (Here is the last word on that Apple-is-Great cult). Great taste, less filling.

Vibram Five Fingers are a case study in propaganda. They are not really Five Fingers, they are ten toes. It is not “barefooted running” if you are wearing them.

Here’s my take on “barefoot” running. I am a five to six day a week slow slow runner, not by choice, but by geography. For two years I have been plagued by running related injuries, first by long term overdevelopment of my outside leg muscles (i.e. Chondromalacia Patellae) and now by Piriformis Syndrome (a tiny muscle in the butt that I have overdeveloped and tightened to a point where it is painfully clamping my sciatica).

I kept reading that barefooters are injury free so I decided to give Five Fingers a try, although I was very skeptical. They do look ridiculous and are not fun to put on, similar to putting on climbing shoes. My little toes had been good soldiers of the brigade until the Five Fingers and now they did not like being shunted off by their solitary selves.

My first impression is that Five Fingers were useless on pavement, where I thought a cushioned running shoe would help protect against the hard monotony of concrete. They were very good but slow on trails. Because I mostly run trails, Five Fingers make me chose my path carefully as the hedges shed thorns and some of the bridleways have loose gravel.

I had been warned of beginner’s barefoot running injuries, blisters, soft tissue injuries, all those things, but I think I’ve been wearing such ugly yet healthy footwear (Birks and clogs) for so long, that my feet do fine running in Five Fingers. Running hills is supposed to ensure that you have good form and for years Little Cottonwood Canyon, that slice of Wasatch paradise in Utah, provided my running trails. Runs were often thirty minutes uphill, ten downhill. So I dove into Five Fingers runs five and six days a week and the only side effect was bottom of foot tightness, which I rolled out in about ten minutes with a foot roller.

I wanted to try them for a summer before passing judgement, but one day I wanted to run really fast, a relative term for me, so I went back to my trusted Sauconys. Much to my annoyance, I discovered I could barely run in normal running shoes. They were no longer stable enough. They felt squishy and awkward.

There you go, a reluctant convert if ever there was one. I’ll even buy a pair of the coldweather version when autumn arrives and might try going totally barefoot when the weather is warm enough, even though my Piriformis Syndrome continues to rage.

Mar 28, 2010

Altaholic Unleashed

On a January morning in Chamonix, I loaded onto the Bochard gondola with thoughts of Alta. It was a typical Chamonix January day. Cold. Blue sky. Hard pack.

What I wanted was a typical January day in Alta. Cold. Powder. Lots of powder. On powder days at Alta, there is no such thing as friends, only first chair and first tracks. It is a revelation to realize that you are running on skis across a traverse to beat others to untracked powder, say in East Greeley or Devil’s Castle.

It’s not that I do not like Chamonix. Chamonix is a sort of mecca to skiers, especially to those skiers who grew up with Greg Stump’s movies. It was Stump’s Blizzard of Aahhhs where we were first introduced to Chamonix and the hard core culture of climbers and skiers, long before Chamonix had a Chanel store. Glen Plake, the mohawked fixture of Stump’s early films, told me that he’s been a permanent resident of Chamonix since that film and he actually lives across the street from the tourist office, next to the Hotel Chamonix.

But I spent a long time skiing Alta and the “faithful snow of Alta” (as Snowbird owner Dick Bass was quoted in said film) is truly like nothing else. Alta receives roughly one third more snow than Chamonix and the snow is perfect fluff, a curious effect of the Great Salt Lake and the funnel of Little Cottonwood Canyon. You can be skiing Alta in early November and continue through April.

So on that January morning when I wanted Alta and had Chamonix and boarded the Bochard gondola, it put me into giggles when I saw an Alta sticker stuck inside the gondola. Here’s the picture of it.

That blue dot or snowflake sticker is a common sight around Salt Lake City, although I preferred the white-on-red “Alta is for skiers,” which got me a lot of honking horns and flipped fingers, punks mouthing “fuck you.” Snowboarders are not allowed at Alta and they resent it. (Old joke: How does a snowboarder introduce himself? “Sorry, Dude.”) Funny thing that day at Les Grand Montets because I started to notice snowflake Alta stickers everywhere. First I noticed someone had plastered those stickers on a lot of the Bochard gondolas. I started to keep a mental note of car numbers and know there are at least ten stickers on that gondola.

Then I noticed that someone had plastered the Alta snowflake on both the Lognan and Grand Montets trams. All four tram cars.


The Aiguille du Midi is the centerpiece of the Chamonix Valley, sitting underneath Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps and the EU. The Aiguille is a sort of half-way house for climbers summitting Mont Blanc and the top of the mountain for skiers on their way down the Vallee Blanche. It is an incredible man-made needle (the word aiguille means “peak shaped like a needle”) structure:

You have to use two trams to get to the Aiguille du Midi: Plan de l’Aiguille and Aiguille du Midi. All four tram cars have Alta snowflake stickers on them, too:

Recently I took my four-year old son to the top of the Aiguille station and found yet another Alta sticker at the base of the actual needle on top:

I started to trawl around to find out who has been placing these stickers. No luck there. But I did find other people’s pictures of similar sticker placings in Chamonix. This guy found an Alta sticker on his apartment door in Chamonix.

But my favorite comes from an interview with the aforementioned Glen Plake in Powder Magazine: “Don't be stickin' your frickin' Alta stickers all over Chamonix, France.” Interestingly enough he was talking about the Alta avalanche threat: “Even though I'm in Chamonix, the center of the universe, I still think that, um, we might need to learn a little about the avalanche procedures that the Wasatch people have to face.” No one can deny the power of Alta powder.





Mar 10, 2010

Fiction No Match For Reality

The protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s Julius is a cliché of the self-made man. He pulls himself up from nothing. He has no family. They either die from natural causes or are murdered by the time Julius is ten. But he is a natural born salesman, ruthless and amoral, and decides to go to England because “The English are stupid,” he is told. They are easy marks and what ambitious people love are fools ready to part with their money. Julius is a work of literary fiction.

In stark juxtaposition is Martha Stewart, a living fire-breathing personification of ambition. The stories of how she did it are numerous. In her catering business, she reused food and wine, even wine from an unfinished glass. She was ruthless in her use of the late arriving catering contract where a fee had been doubled and the contract was too late for the host to find another caterer. She underpaid collaborators and very often stole content. But she was oblivious to the moral implications of her job because what she wanted was money and power.

She was cruel to her husband, arguably the person to get the closest to her of anyone. There is an anecdote in Jerry Oppenheimer’s Just Desserts where Martha gave Andy an hour off his Saturday chores to go play tennis with a guest. As soon as Andy left, Martha started complaining to her guest that Andy would take advantage of the situation and would play for several hours, thereby not getting back to finish the long list of assigned jobs (now disgustingly called a Honey-Do List).

Finally, a furious Martha jumped in the car - 15 minutes after Andy left - in hot pursuit of him. Her guest continues the narrative:

“Martha pulled into a driveway. I saw this gray-haired man mowing his lawn, and I thought he looked familiar. He turned around and it was Paul Newman. Martha rolled down the window and yelled, ‘Have you seen Andy?’ Because of the way Martha was acting, he must have thought there was an emergency. He looked concerned, and he said, ‘No, Martha, I haven’t seen him. What’s up? Is there something wrong?’ And Martha said, ‘Well, Andy and this woman’s husband have gone off to play tennis, and I’ve got to find them because I know they’re going to play all afternoon, and I have things for Andy to do.’ Paul gave Martha a look like he’d heard stories about her, and started backing away from the car, saying, ‘No. Sorry. Haven’t seen him.’” (p. 285)

Martha Stewart brings Paul Newman into a chase to find hubby so he can do his chores. If a novelist used a scene like this, there would be no suspension of disbelief. The scene would simply not be possible.

What is so insidious about Martha Stewart is that her ambition takes refuge in the Ideal Home. She shows the masses how to create the perfect home, ostensibly so that the warmth of the hearth can add to the Domestic Love which sits as some kind of ideal leftover from the 1950s. Ambition is terribly destructive and where ruthless ambition fights with love, ambition wins. Martha Stewart is extraordinary in transforming the domestic hopes of millions into her own private fortune or, as Depeche Mode put it, “See just how / The lies and deceit / Gained a little more power.”

How can art compete with the real story of Martha Stewart? She is a living archetype, beautifully in our face, smiling like the model she once was, and her story would be unbelievable if it was in a novel. It trumps Julius every time.

Jan 12, 2010

The Joys of Yachting

The recent news out of Yemen reminds me of Eric Hansen's Motoring With Mohammed, my favorite travel memoir. Generally I avoid the genre, but Hansen can tell a good story.

In the book, Hansen recounts being shipwrecked off the Yemen coast in 1978. He gives a great description of being on a boat in a horrific storm, a storm which ultimately beached his boat.

In one passage, Hansen describes manning the engine bilge pump:

"In near darkness, I remained in this position as the flywheel of the engine began to throw a warm, steady spray of sump oil, diesel fuel, vomit, banana pulp, sea water, and dead cockroaches into my face... The boat lurched unexpectedly, and I was thrown against the cabin wall. When the boat completed the roll, I flew back against the engine and cracked my head solidly on the valve cover."

"'Fuck you!' I screamed at the engine... Captain Riley, illuminated by a weak bulb in the aft cabin, slumped over with his hands in the bilge. He looked dreadful, a ghostly shade of green. There was a moment of silence before he managed a brief response to my outburst."

"'The joys of yachting,' he muttered.

The driver of the book is that Hanson buried seven years of journals on their deserted island and returned ten years later - having been rescued by goat smugglers - to recover them. He sees a new Yemen and manages to explore qat, honey, local marriage customs, the bath houses (without the connotations) and a lot more.

One of my other favorite travel books is more of a grungy how to: Richard Curtis' Taking Off: A Guide for the Uncommon Traveler. He has technique for rolling from one place to another, enjoying the moment and doing so with little money. My sister recommended the book. She never really got over the traveling lifestyle and is living somewhere in the Phillipines.