Sonoma County trail runners embrace shoes that offer a softer landing

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These days, figuring out which running shoes to buy can be a daunting exercise.

Walk into any running store or go online, and the choices can be overwhelming, ranging from thin-soled racing flats to plush, high-cushioned cruisers. And wasn’t it just yesterday everybody was running barefoot, or in barely-there shoes, because that’s how our ancestors did it? And look at how long they lived!

Well, maybe not so long after all.

The point is, as Windsor’s Tracy Pool knows well, choosing what to run in can be the most challenging aspect of actually getting out there and enjoying the sport. Pool, who’s 53 and has been a runner since junior high school, has tried just about every different style of shoe and lived through all the fads.

His advice?

“You have to figure out what’s right for you,” he said. “The only way to do that is to get out there and … see what works better.”

Pool, a delivery driver for Frito-Lay, currently is riding a wave of interest in high-cushion running shoes that are designed to lessen the considerable pounding our bodies absorb when we run.

Three to four days a week, Pool dons his Hoka Evo Mafate shoes that retail online for $170 and heads out along the trails in one of the Sonoma County regional parks near his Windsor home. His yellow lab, Finn, often joins him on these outings.

By their ungainly appearance, Hokas do not seem well suited for running on roads, much less on trails, where rocks, roots and infinite other tripping hazards lurk. But the Evo Mafate model, which is named after a spot at one of the world’s most notorious 100-mile races, was described in a recent Runner’s World review as a “lightweight tank.”

Hokas incorporate a combination of materials, including Kevlar — think bullet-proof vests — and designs, such as a wide toe box, to protect feet and help stabilize the shoe. The shoes also feature a “meta-rocker,” creating a “unique fulcrum effect, like a rocking chair,” to complement a runner’s normal gait, according to the manufacturer’s website.

A few years ago, Pool embraced the opposite trend by eschewing shoes altogether. Like a lot of runners, he bought into the barefoot and minimalist shoe craze after the 2011 publication of the bestselling book, “Born to Run.”

Author Christopher McDougall told the story of the Tarahumara Indians and their survival in Mexico’s Copper Canyons by running hundreds of miles without rest or injury. In his blog, McDougall argued the “safest and most time-tested running technique is the one you perform in bare feet” and that the multibillion dollar shoe industry is based on “a campaign not of facts, but of fear.”

Pool was among those who heeded the call, ditching padded shoes in favor of running in natural foot pads. Unfortunately for him and many others, the result was soreness and injury.

Pool went back to shoes and, after discovering Hokas, now swears by them.

“I noticed that my recovery time after runs, especially if they were longer runs on pavement, was a lot shorter,” he said of the high-cushion shoes.

Hokas are now the biggest seller at many running stores, including at Healdsburg Running Company. But store managers say that does not necessarily reflect an end to the minimalist shoe trend, or the end of new trends for that matter.

In fact, many “maximalist” models incorporate minimalist shoe materials and design including, in the case of Hokas, Vibram soles.

Vibram USA helped fuel the minimalist trend, and for a time, the company’s FiveFingers running “shoes” were the rage. However, the company later was forced to settle a lawsuit alleging it made false and unsubstantiated claims about the health benefits of the glove-like footwear.

High and low-cushion running shoes often are not far off in another key feature, which is the height of the heel compared with the forefoot, or what is commonly referred to as “heel drop.” At Healdsburg Running Company, heel drop is such an important consideration the measurement is advertised along with the price of shoes.

One key difference between maximalist shoes and their less-cushioned cousins is “stack height,” which is the amount of shoe material between the foot and the ground.

Staff at Healdsburg Running Company factor in a number of considerations to help customers decide which shoe is the best fit, including the type of activity the person is interested in and his or her fitness level.

A high school track athlete would likely want a shoe with greater “energy return,” and thus something more akin to a racing flat, than a high-cushion shoe built for comfort, said Matthew Bennett, a manager at the Healdsburg store and himself a former high school running coach.

For the mail carrier whose daily route encompasses several miles on varying terrain, Hokas might be the better option.

Bennett said runners, hikers and walkers alike can reduce their risk of injury by buying more than one pair of shoes and rotating their use. And yes, a barefoot run or stroll every now and then, especially on softer surfaces, also can do a body good.

To paraphrase an old saying, one style of running shoe does not fit all.

“At the end of the day, it’s what feels comfortable, what feels natural,” said Ralph Purugganan, another store manager at Healdsburg Running Co.

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