the best way to fail: on a quest for legendary calves

vibrams
With shoes like these, who needs friends?

I was twenty-seven and I could hardly walk. As I limped around D.C., I thought: I’ve aged fifty years. How quickly ten minutes of running on your toes can wilt you.

Two months before I’d bought a pair of black and pink “toe shoes” on my paltry budget. At $100, this was a big investment, a paint-against-the-wall sort of splurge into the unknown. “Reduce foot injuries!” they proclaimed. “Strengthen foot muscles!”

Well, I’d never had a foot injury, but–assessing my pale, shapeless feet with new eyes–I certainly wouldn’t object to stronger muscles. Before my shoes arrived, I consulted their website for proper preparation: fourteen days, they advised, of “foot exercises.”

I spent a night trying to curl my toes under, to bend them up, to pivot the ankle while balancing on the ball of my foot. I tried five or six times to pick up a small towel between my toes. My feet obeyed feebly, the toes moving by robotic degrees until I had finally gotten hold of a terrycloth corner. Then I dropped it and could not pick it back up again.

When my toe shoes arrived in the mail, I had done the foot exercises exactly one time. I smuggled them from the box–light, airy, meant to give me “legendary calves” (so said a friend)–and spent ten minutes trying to properly guide my toes into their slots. It made me sweat a little.

I walked around in them and practiced my I-don’t-care-what-you-think gym face, which is kind of a necessary component of wearing shoes with toe holes in public.

The website strongly advised upping the “barefoot” running by only 10% a week. I tried this at first: a measured walk around the gym’s track, toe-heel, toe-heel. I didn’t feel it one bit, and I thought I ought to.

So I ran. Running was toe-heel-kiss, toe-heel-kiss, and it was absolutely grand. I ran in them for ten minutes, until my calves felt like lead balls under my skin and I knew it would be worse the next day, which gave me some satisfaction of the post-workout order.

It was worse: the next morning, I learned that calf muscles play a much larger part than I’d ever thought in getting onto a toilet seat.

And it got worse.

Within a day, I had the habit of groaning on approaching a staircase. I had to ease myself a step at a time down, clinging to the bannister. I limped on flat surfaces, my right leg somehow worse off than my left, other pedestrians bobbing around me, a roadblock. And toilets–I’ve mentioned those.

And then, a week later, the company who had sold me my shoes announced they’d be refunding everyone who bought them–since 2009. They’d been sued on account of the health benefits they claimed came with their shoes, except they didn’t have the scientific backing.

Fools! the internet said. Now look at you.

It was bad enough that I looked like a duck on the polyurethane. Now I had nothing, nothing to feel any sense of pride about, only a pair of webbed feet and a misplaced sense of superiority that I was running like my ancestors had, and like we all ought to, only sans spear or a mammal to track.

For some reason, I kept running in my toe shoes. Maybe I was determined to make that faintingly large amount I’d spent worth the purchase. Maybe it was out of a grim commitment to one of two fates: I would either obtain legendary calves, or I’d be rendered unable to ever sit or climb a set of stairs again.

Over the weeks, my calves did get stronger. I felt less (physical) pain, though I still wore my toe shoes with a cringing, teenager-alongside-her-dad sort of unwillingness. And I could spend longer and longer “barefoot,” pinging around and around the track.

And then, about six weeks in, my right heel twinged distinctly, sharply. As I ran, it twinged longer and louder until I had to stop entirely for the day. And when I came back a few days later, it complained again. Though I tried to ignore it with a determined naivete, my heel eventually worked itself up to a sort of sing-song of pain that sent me limping to a bench.

Unscientifically, I had injured myself so thoroughly that I couldn’t run for weeks.

In the meantime, my shoes appraised me–and I them–from my closet. I had grown fond of those toe holes, had learned to put them on without sweating, whining. I liked them as their own entities, separate from my feet, the idea of them: how they placed you so close to the ground and held you safe in their rubbery grip.

It was unfortunate that the lower half of my body was involved in a toxic relationship with them.

In a fit of infatuation, I spirited them off to the gym. I sat on a bench, appraising other runners in their foot coffins, and slid my feet into their webbing. I got up, I walked two minutes, five minutes. All was fine.

So I started to lope. And then, with surprising, blossoming insistence, my right foot told me in explicit terms: One more step and you’ll regret it, you deeply un-svelte musk ox.

And, with a late-dawning urgency, I understood: I had screwed up. Whether in the buying or in the practice of wearing my toe-shoes, I had made a terrible goof. And while I could have been operating in a fog of post-purchase rationalization, refusing to acknowledge the obvious shortcomings of my investment, I don’t believe it was just that.

In Excess of Being, Lera Auerbach writes, “sometimes I feel tempted to screw up badly–just to see what happens.”

If I’m being honest with myself, I probably always knew running in toe shoes was a dubious choice, especially for an athlete as devoted to avoiding proper minimalist shoe procedure as I was. But I think now that I wanted to throw that paint against the wall, to see how it would splatter, to take the chance at legendary calves at the risk of injury–and, as with many worthier, unforgettable experiences in my life: just to see what would happen.

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