11th-hour barefoot (a shoe report)

From left to right: Left-behind mesh shower shoes, Merrell Pure Gloves, Merrell Brios, and Merrell Waterpro Sables.

I've had shoes on the brain lately, which is not an unusual thing for me. But it probably means it's time for me to post on the shoes I took on my trip.

I ended up taking three pairs. If you do one-bag travel, this is generally a no-no. Normally, you can do pretty much any travel with two pairs of shoes, as long as they're the right two pairs of shoes. And indeed, up until a few weeks before my trip, I had been planning to take my Merrell Brios and my Merrell Waterpro Sables.

The Brio is a mary jane that is fantastic for walking. Before my trip, I did a five-mile test in these on the cobblestone sidewalks of Alexandria, Virginia, that I never had time to blog about. They stood up, as they usually do — in fact, it was only one excruciatingly long day in Paris, ending at the Louvre, that felled these shoes, and I'm pretty sure it would have felled any shoes.

The Waterpro Sable was really the linchpin of my shoe plan. I needed shoes that would work for the beach, for hiking, and for city walking. Since many of the beaches on Skiathos were gravel or stone, I decided that a good pair of water shoes would be my best bet, and I loved the Sables because with socks, they look like a pair of sporty sneakers, so they'd be far more versatile than flip-flops. And indeed, in a previously blogged walking test, they went well past the 5 mile test for a strong 7 miles.

So I had my shoe plan pretty much down. For kicking around the house and my hotel rooms, I'd planned on taking a super lightweight pair of mesh shower shoes. I'd actually planned on taking these to Ireland, too, but in the last-minute shoe space crunch caused by my needing to take an air cast, they got left behind.

They got left behind this time, too. I've mentioned that I was suffering from an extended migraine before my trip — my migraines aren't as intense (auras, hiding in a dark room) as those some people get, but they can last much longer if I don't take the medication in time. This one was well up over 20 days.

So take that stabbing pain in my head, and combine with a trip to REI for some final travel items. I happened to walk past the shoe section, and they had the Merrell barefoot shoes out on display. As I stalk Merrell's web site on a regular basis, I knew all about the barefoot shoes, but had always assumed that they were, well, like walking barefoot, and would have zero arch support. I was surprised to look in there and see that there was a curve where your arch goes. The heel isn't raised at all, and there's all sorts of room for your toes to spread out naturally, but good old arch support is still in there. So I tried a pair of the Pace Gloves on, and loved them so much I bought them. My original intent was to use them as a walking shoe that would strengthen my bad foot. But then I decided, what the hell, why not try this barefoot running? My foot had largely stabilized by now, thanks to my other Merrell shoes, and what did I have to lose?

So I watched the instructional videos and did the recommended prep work, and then headed out for a combined walk/run. And remember that migraine? It felt FANTASTIC to get the blood flowing when I ran. And rather than being worse for the wear, my foot actually looked better — I'm assuming because running using a correct and natural form was getting the circulation going, and making it stronger.

I did a few more short (less than three quarters of a mile, as you're supposed to build up your feet slowly) barefoot runs and decided I wanted a pair of barefoot shoes I could take with me in case I wanted to run for migraine relief. The Pace Gloves, while my preferred shoe for running, were not exactly very versatile. But the mary jane style Pure Gloves were, so I ordered a pair of those and found that I could also run in them.

Replacing the thin little mesh shower shoes with a pair of full-size shoes was not ideal, given that I was traveling with one carry-on. But I was packing light enough that there was still plenty of space in my suitcase, and the barefoot shoes are so light that there was only about a 4 ounce difference between them and the shower shoes.

So how did they all do?

Well, the Waterpro Sables came in as the linchpin, and boy did they perform. I wore them on the beach, and was glad to have them when I went in the water and lots of little fishes were suddenly interested in my feet. I wore them hiking up to the Kastro in Skiathos, and walking in the Cotswolds. They were already my favorite walking shoe, and with their thick soles, air cushion, and Merrell Q Form, there was nothing I threw at them that they couldn't handle. In fact, I wore them earlier today for a river tubing expedition, and they were perfect there, too.

Hiking in the Waterpro Sables.

If there's one complaint I have about the Sables, it's that when I wore them as a water shoe, if they got filled with rocks, they stayed filled with rocks until I could stop and remove them. This might have not been as large an issue if the plastic buckle hadn't gotten stuck once immersed in salt water. These are both design issues that I'm hoping Merrell fixed in the Sable's successor, the Waterpro Crystal. The lack of ankle support might have also started to be an issue if I'd done more extensive hiking. That said, given the number of things I threw at this shoe and the number of occasions I wore them for, overall I think they were fantastic.

I might have worn the Waterpro Sables every single day but for Paris. I was a bit freaked out in advance of going to Paris because I'd read many articles about what you should and shouldn't wear, and any sort of athletic shoe was firmly in the shouldn't wear category. So I knew I wanted a nicer shoe that was also a tested walking shoe, and my Brios fit that definition. As I expected, they held up mightily, until the day in Paris where I went through the catacombs, the marine museum, and the Louvre all in the same day, with some substantial stretches of walking in between.

With their nice rubber treads, they did quite well on the damp floors of the catacombs, and actually my feet were feeling pretty good for most of the day. But that slow crawl over marble museum floors is a killer, and I just did it for too many hours on top of too many miles. By the time I left the Louvre, my feet were throbbing. Now, in my case, any time BOTH feet are throbbing instead of just my bad foot, I count this as a good thing because it means my feet are behaving normally. But still, I hobbled back to the hotel from the train, and opted for the thick, comfy Sables the next day. I don't really blame the Brios — I think my feet would have been sore in any pair of shoes after that day. But I do wish I'd replaced the insoles before the trip; I wear these shoes to work a lot, too, and I think anything that would have given them a refresh and a little more shock absorption would have been helpful.

So what about the 11th-hour Pure Gloves? Well, they had to fill two major roles in standing in for the mesh shower shoes. First, I needed to be able to kick around whatever my current abode was in them, and second, I needed to be able to wear them in place of slippers at Thermae Bath Spa in Bath (more on that in a future post). They managed both of these, although the velcro may have taken a little longer to deal with than the mesh shoes' elastic strap, and I got it caught on the mosquito net on my bed in Greece an inappropriate number of times.

I actually didn't end up running in the Pure Gloves during the trip. When the migraine started to clear up, I had no interest in running on vacation, although I did start back up again when I returned home. But they did get far more use than the shower shoes would have. They were a better option than either of my other shoes to wear sockless into Skiathos town with a dress, and, more substantially, I wore them to Versailles. I'm not really sure why I decided to test them out in a massive palace and its extensive gardens, but I did. And they held up pretty well. With the thinner soles, I could feel the gravel walks of the gardens more, but I walked a ton, and my feet only started to get sore at the very end of the day. The biggest issue I had with them was that the mary jane strap would start to irritate the top of my foot if I kept it too tight while wearing them barefoot. Not bad for a fairly untested pair of shoes, and ounce for ounce, I got far more use out of them than I would have the shower shoes.

Pure Gloves, dusty from a day at Versailles.

If I had gotten into barefoot shoes earlier, and built up the strength of my feet more, I think I probably could have done this trip with two pairs of shoes, the Sables and the Pure Gloves. The Pure Gloves would have picked up the hiking duties in the Cotswolds, because with a shoe this minimal, lack of ankle support isn't an issue — the shoe can't really turn if you step wrong, and you feel it more instantaneously if you step wrong, so you can make a correction. And the Pure Gloves would have also served whenever a mary jane style shoe was needed. The Sables still would have been my shoe of choice for our boat tour of Skiathos, which had me walking in the water on Lalaria Beach and then hiking up to the Kastro on the same day. Since both shoes have a substantial Vibram tread, I would have had good traction either way.

That would mean leaving home my beloved Brios, which I will always own a pair of as long as Merrell makes them, and will always love, because they were the pair of shoes that made me understand how poorly I'd been walking, in part because of my previous shoe choices. So Brios, even if you get left behind next year, thanks for even getting me to the point where I could walk as much as I did on this trip. Maybe after teaching me to walk properly, and suffering through the Louvre, you deserve a rest.

No comments: