Sunday, September 18, 2011

My 2011 Big Day Downtown

I was lucky enough to get asked again this year to take part in the Halifax Downtown Business Commission's Big Day Downtown promotion. The theme this year was to do something that you've never done before. I originally thought this would be a bit of a challenge for me, because I've worked in the downtown core for nearly 15 years and in that time, I've done a whole lot of things. It definitely took some thought before I decided what I would do.

Eventually, I settled on an idea that wasn't tied to a particular place or business. Ultimately, of course, I would have to spend my money somewhere, but what I chose was part of an activity I love to do downtown: ride my bike. I've been a bike commuter from Clayton Park to my office in the BMO building for the past two years. It's made me want to attempt things like bike touring or racing. I decided to use my Visa gift card to get some clipless pedals.

For those that aren't sure what makes pedals 'clipless', it means that there is a mechanism that binds your feet to the pedals via special cleats on the bottom of your shoes that doesn't use the over-the-toe baskets or toe-clips. Most cycling shoes are very narrow, and I have fairly wide feet, so I ended up getting a pair of Keen Springwater cycling shoes. the shoes and pedals together would have been over budget for my Big Day Downtown, so I'll just talk about the pedals :)

At Mountain Equipment Co-Op, Crankbrothers had a special edition version of their Candy 2 pedals (made especially for MEC) for about $15 less than the non-special edition version. The special edition is half black and half green (MEC's primary colour), but that is really the only difference. The silver version would have matched my bike better, but it seemed like a no-brainer for me to get the cheaper, greener, equivalent pedal. Since I bought them at MEC, their in-house bike shop was good enough to install them for me free of charge. It was a simple enough process, taking only about 10 minutes. I could have done it myself, but I don't own the specialized tool (a pedal wrench) required to remove my old pedals. The new ones are installed and removed with an 8mm allen wrench.

Part of what makes clipless pedals so appealing to me and cyclists everywhere is the simple fact that your feet are fixed to the pedals. This means that you are no longer limited to just pushing on the pedals, but you can pull on them as well, and once you get used to that, it can mean twice the power on every stroke and a smoother revolution; spinning, rather than a series of alternating pushes.

When I told people that I was trying out clipless pedals for the first time, everyone suggested that I practice clipping and unclipping several times before heading out on the road. I heard horror stories from cyclists who, forgetting to unclip when coming to a stop at an intersection, tipped over like they'd just taken off their training wheels. Then, hoping they didn't tip into traffic, they must swallow their pride and right themselves to keep going. I've never been one of those sensible people that do things like 'read instruction manuals', or 'practice unclipping', so as soon as the pedals were installed, I hopped on and took them for a test ride :) My inaugural ride with clipless pedals went from MEC on Granville St. to Sackville to Hollis to Marginal Road so I could visit the Seaport Farmers Market. I also picked up some of the fine wares from the Garrison Brewing Company since I was down that way.

To date, I have not yet forgotten to unclip from my pedals and I have not yet fallen unceremoniously on my side, however unclipping is not as simple a process as you might think. You can't just take your feet off the pedals, you have to turn your heels outward so that the angle that the cleat on your shoe makes with the pedals is such that they release. It can be awkward because due to the size and shape of my shoes, I can't do it when my foot is at the bottom of the pedal stroke; the crank gets in the way. I have had some close calls, but I have always managed to get my foot out in time. Here's hoping I never have to find out what happens if I can't.

A few days after having my new pedals installed, I found out there are going to be some changes going on to the streets in the downtown core; some streets are changing to one way, some are getting more parking, and some are getting bike lanes! I purposefully chose a cycling-related topic in order to draw some attention to cycling in Halifax and in retrospect, I can claim it was because of these new cycling-friendly changes coming to downtown.

After buying my pedals, I only had about $8. Who knew pedals could be so expensive? I treated my wife, Julie, and I to some coffee and confections at one of my favourite coffee places downtown, Just Us Coffee Roasters on Barrington Street. We enjoyed our coffees, muffin, and cookie as she walked me back to my office.

Thanks, Halifax Downtown Business Commission for allowing me to take part in this awesome promotion again. I had an awesome time trying out a new thing downtown!

Monday, April 25, 2011

My experience with Vibram FiveFingers

A little over two years ago, I started a journey that led me to lose 120lbs in 15 months. It's not like I tried to keep that a secret, but I've never really blogged about it either. I did this through a fairly drastic change to my lifestyle. I joined a gym, got a trainer, and more meticulously watched what I ate, as it was apparent that the "pub food" diet wasn't working for me. My physical activity was primarily swinging, snatching, and otherwise lifting kettlebells.

I had done a few stints on the treadmill in the gym in between kettlebell workouts, but never for longer than 10 minutes at a time. And those 10 minutes were a chore. Despite how difficult it had always been, I have always had an underlying desire to be able to run, maybe because it was so difficult. Perhaps it stemmed from the gym classes in elementary or junior high school where we had to run around the perimeter of the soccer field, and I would inevitably be somewhere near the back of the pack. I was envious of the people who seemed to be able to run with such ease. You always want what you can't have, right?

But wasn't running supposed to be easier now that I was lighter? I kept at it, telling myself that it was just because I wasn't used to it, I had to work up to it, etc. This was partly true; I gradually increased my distance and time until I got to the point where I was going to sign up for the Blue Nose Marathon's 10k event. I managed to get up to the 10k distance, but my entire lower body paid the price for it. My knees and hips were sore for a few days afterwards. It was dawning on me that being lighter had very little to do with this. After reading running websites and blogs, I learned that many people were experiencing the same issues as I was, and these people were runners ran regularly! Unlike me, they presumably knew what they were doing and they were still getting injured. Hrm...Perhaps some more investigation is necessary.

Time passes...

A friend and co-worker was a regular runner, and a while back he had started running in these strange toe-shoes that I came to understand were called "Vibram FiveFingers" or VFFs for short. He also introduced me to the book Born to Run. I think that part of the reason I had always wanted to be able to run was that you didn't need any implements, accessories, or equipment. To risk sounding like a Nike ad, you should just be able to do it. The barefoot running experience that Born to Run evangelized seemed exciting to me; exciting enough that I decided to get a pair and try it for myself.

I figured that fit was a very important aspect to wearing shoes with toes in them, so I went to a local retailer to get fitted. They brought out a custom measuring device provided by Vibram and I tried on the size that it recommended. They felt tight. Unfortunately, they didn't have the next size up in the model that I wanted (KSO), so I decided to gamble and order them online. A little less than two weeks later, I had them.

At first, I wasn't sure if I wanted to wear them for running. Since I had already managed to complete 10k a while back, my wife convinced me that I should be attempting a half marathon instead. I had read that there was an adjustment period to running barefoot, and I didn't want to have to scale back the distances I was running for training, so I started out just wearing them while I did my cross-training activities. Curiosity got the better of me soon enough, and I took them out for a jog on the treadmill.  I lasted about 10 minutes before the pain in my calves was too unbearable to keep running. I was probably running too far on my toes than I should have been, but my calves were inconsolable. The next day I found it difficult to walk, my legs loudly voicing their opinions on what I shouldn't have done the day before. Nevertheless, I noticed that it was only the muscles that hurt; my joints were what usually gave me grief, but today they were conspicuously silent. This was interesting.

It took a good week before I felt up to giving a run in the VFFs another attempt. I tried landing a bit more on the outside of my mid-foot, as some websites had suggested. It seemed a bit better. My calves still ended up getting sore, but I lasted more than twice as long on the treadmill, and they didn't hurt quite as much the next day. There was a downside though: I was getting blisters. The more I ran in the VFFs, the more I realized that that damn sizing chart was absolutely correct. I had bought a size too big, and my feet were sliding around, ever-so-slightly in the shoes. Sliding enough to give me quarter-sized blisters on both feet, right at the base of my big toes. Ouch. Some healing time was needed once again.

I tried using Injiji socks, which definitely helped, but I finally conceded that if I was to run regularly in these shoes, I would need the right size. I sold my slightly-used 45s and picked up a pair of 44s. Whereas they felt tight when I had first tried them on in the store, now they just felt like they fit. I guess you have to know what you're looking for. The moral of the story here is to trust the Vibram sizing chart. Once I was in the correct size, the blisters were a thing of the past. Over about three weeks, I started building up my time and distance until I could once again cover the 10k distance. That's a shorter amount of time than most people recommend; I think I paid for it in calf pain.

The first time I ran 10k in the VFFs without any lasting effects on my calf muscles (other than normal fatigue, of course), I was ecstatic. My joints didn't bother me anymore either...was it just the shoes all along? Was this why I never really enjoyed running? Well, it probably wasn't the shoes themselves, but they certainly didn't encourage me not to land with a heel-strike, like the VFFs do. Ever since, I've been running exclusively in my KSOs or the pair of Trek Sports that I bought later on. I am still training for that half marathon...so far I'm up to 18k. I have about a month of training time left. I now have no doubt that I'll be able to finish, but I'm working towards a certain goal time that I have in my head. Based on my training, people have told me that I can definitely attain this goal, but I don't want to jinx it :)

I can't credit FiveFingers for my weight loss, as most of that happened before I owned a pair. But I can definitely say that the VFFs and the barefoot style of running that they encourage make running much more enjoyable because the only after-effects seem to be on my aching muscles, and not my joints. I have to consider that a very, very good thing.

Are you thinking about trying barefoot running? Do you struggle with sore joints when you run? Does that keep you from enjoying running? If you answered yes to any of these questions, I think you owe it to yourself to invest the time in trying out a pair of Vibram FiveFingers.

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