5-mile test: Merrell Pace Glove, Pure Glove, and Bassoon

Lovely Rock Creek Park, site of two of my walks.

It has been quite hot here in the Washington DC region, so I've mostly been on hiatus with distance walking. I had done a couple of five-mile tests awhile back, though, that I still haven't blogged about.

Bassoons (with my toenails blurred because they look terrible)

I wear the Bassoons to work all the time, and they feel fantastic. The footbed has a great, arch-supporting shape, and the thick leather straps were comfy from day one — no break-in required.

I had high hopes for it, then, when I set out on the first five-mile test I've done with a pair of sandals, with one of my usual walks around the Tidal Basin. And they felt great through about four miles. Somewhere around that mark, though, my foot started to chafe as it moved against the leather footbed, so that the bottom of my foot felt a bit sore.

I survived the five miles (actually, 5 1/2), but by the time I got to my end point of Union Station, it felt like the bottoms of my feet were on fire, and they eventually ended up developing a blister under there, then finally peeling, many days later. It was pretty disgusting.

So, the Bassoons are great for a reasonable amount of walking, but if you do get the warning signal of chafing underfoot, don't ignore it.

Pure Gloves

I've blogged about the Pure Gloves before, as I took them on my last trip to Europe. I decided they needed an actual, measured test, though, and set out for a walk through Rock Creek Park, which I'm lucky enough to live near.

I'm pretty torn on hiking shoes. So many people hike in hiking boots, and usually I walk in RCP in trail runners. But I can't help but wonder if a good pair of barefoot shoes are better for hiking, in the same way they're better for running, as being more natural and allowing your foot to support itself.

After walking just shy of 6 miles in the Pure Gloves, I'm leaning much more towards barefoot shoes for hiking. With their Vibram soles, traction was never an issue, but they felt much more natural than the bulky trail runners with their huge tread. I wore them sockless, which makes them the first (and only) pair of shoes I've worn sockless and gotten through five miles without any blistering.

The only problem I had with them is that my second toes are actually longer than my big toe, but with its bulk, the big toe had pushed out the fabric in that area, so that it was rubbing on my second toe, and the second toe on my right foot was feeling pretty numb by the time I got home.

I've since washed them and put them on a shoe tree while still wet, in an attempt to stretch out the fabric just a bit more across the whole toe area, and that seems to have done the trick. There'll have to be another distance test for these, I suppose. I also bought them in a newer all-leather version that Merrell put out more recently, which I have high hopes for, especially as a travel shoe.

Walking in the Pace Glove.

The Pace Gloves were my first pair of barefoot shoes, and the ones I usually run in, if I'm running. But in the interest of further proving out this hiking in minimalist shoes theory, I decided to also take them on a distance test in RCP. And I was going for serious distance with these — I wanted to try to hit double digit miles for the first time since my foot problem.

They did not start out so well. Like the Pace Glove, I wore them barefoot, but for some reason these rub my achilles far more than the Pace Gloves, and they started rubbing raw just a couple of miles in. I already knew this could be an issue, so I brought some band-aids, and put them on, but in the heat they quickly started slipping on my sweaty ankles. I'd also brought some very thin athletic socks, and had to put them on. This let me finish the walk without much further damage, but I had blisters over my achilles on both feet.

Everything else did quite well, though. I did 10.18 miles, and although my feet definitely felt it by the end, they weren't overly sore. I think the next time I go for double digits, though, it will be in my stretched-out Pure Gloves.


Self Merrell-cation

The worn tread under the big toe of my (formerly) beloved Via
Spiga boots shows evidence of years of over-pronating

I've mentioned my bad foot quite a bit on this blog, but I've never really explained how it came to be.

That is partially because I don't really know how it came to be. I know the day it started — it was in February, 2010, the week we got two blizzards here in the DC area. I hadn't been doing a lot of high impact exercise, and in fact I'd only left my condo building once the entire week. But one day I looked down, and my right foot was swollen.

Very, very swollen. It wouldn't fit in any shoes of mine aside from my trail runners, which were pretty roomy. After some of the snow had melted, I had to make an emergency trip to DSW, where I looked around for shoes that both fit and felt comfortable. I ended up landing on a pair of black Merrell clogs.

I saw my primary care physician. She thought I'd sprained it, but recommended going to see a podiatrist if it stayed swollen. It did, so I saw the podiatrist. There were x-rays, a soft cast, and then an air cast. The odd thing was, it didn't really hurt very much. But the bones in there went snap, crackle, pop when I walked, and it was disturbingly swollen.

The swelling lasted for weeks, as I wore the air cast but also tried a variety of home remedies. One — a poultice of sea salt, ginger powder, and honey (Trader Joe's Desert Mesquite, if you're curious) — made the swelling go down drastically after the first application. The podiatrist didn't believe me, but I swear, every subsequent application brought the swelling down a bit more. That brought with it a new set of problems, as there was even more snap, crackle, and pop, and the lower the swelling got, the more there was actual pain.

I did another round in the air cast, which made no progress. I got an MRI on my foot, which showed only some degeneration in my big toe joint, which the podiatrist pooh-poohed as not being a possible cause. Gradually, over the course of several months, the swelling went down to the point where you might think it was a normal-looking foot. That is, until you saw my other, lean and bony foot. The podiatrist referred me to a vascular specialist. The vascular specialist spent half an hour telling me I had chronic lymphedema, then looked at my MRI results and decided the problem was this degeneration in my big toe joint. So basically, the two doctors had gone around in a giant circle.

I went to see another podiatrist for a second opinion, this one affiliated with Johns Hopkins. He got my hopes up for awhile by thinking it was a rare problem with my lisfranc ligament that just wasn't showing up on the MRI. So I got a CT, and guess what, it didn't show up there, either. He also concluded it was lymphedema, and referred me to a lymphedema clinic.

But I wasn't buying it. Whatever happened to my foot, it happened quickly, and clearly only to one foot, and that didn't sound like chronic swelling due to failure of the lymph nodes to me. So before I committed to the lympedema clinic, I decided to find a really good lymphedema specialist, and scheduled an appointment with one at the Cleveland Clinic before the Thanksgiving holiday (my family lives in Ohio).

I discovered when I saw her why the Cleveland Clinic's doctors are so good — they take the time. She spent more than half an hour with me, going over my medical history and the history of my foot problem, and examining me. And her conclusion? It was probably likely that the swelling (edema) was secondary to a problem in the foot. She referred me to a foot and ankle orthopedist at the Clinic, who also spent a good half hour with me, and then came up with the most realistic conclusion: nobody might really ever know exactly what's going on in my foot.

By then the snap, crackle, pop symptoms had been overshadowed by serious stiffness and pain in my arch, and he recommended trying the logical thing — orthotic arch supports. But he also said something that really made me think, and that was that, even with the mystery swelling, I have good feet. I don't have funky arches, or plantar fasciitis, or anything like that. I nearly cried. For the first time in a long time, I felt some hope as it related to my feet.

And there was another cause for hope. I'd been wearing those Merrell clogs pretty much every day to work, so before I left for Thanksgiving, I'd ordered some new shoes from Zappos. I chose a couple brands, but ordered heavily Merrell on the success of the clogs. One pair, Merrell's Brios, probably changed my life.

Merrell uses something they call Q-Form in women's shoes. The idea is that women's hips are wider, so our legs don't go down straight, like men's. This makes us walk differently, and badly, as far as our feet are concerned. Q-Form compensates for this with a shock-absorbing air cushion in the heel, build-up on the sides of the feet, and varying densities throughout the rest of the foot. Essentially, it stabilizes your foot throughout the whole stride, keeping you from pronating or supinating. There was Q-Form in my clogs, but because your feet tend to move around a little in clogs, I didn't feel it as much.

I sure felt it in the Brios, though. All of a sudden my arch was well-supported and my foot was completely stabilized. Gradually, all of the pain and stiffness left my arch. I began to realize that I had been over-pronating for many years — essentially pulling myself along with my big toe as I walked. I began to understand how I was supposed to be walking. And when I tried on some of my old shoes — Skechers especially, but even my New Balances weren't innocent — I saw how they had in fact been contributing to all of this over-pronation.

I started buying more Merrells. Not every pair felt as good as the Brios, and there were quite a few pairs that went back to Zappos. But when I found a pair that worked for me, they really worked. By December, the arch pain was gone, and replaced with some pain and cracking in my big toe when I was barefoot. FINALLY, the thing that was actually a problem was showing its symptoms. And as long as I wore my Merrells, the toe didn't hurt.

I procrastinated getting the orthotics, but finally did order them. When they came, they were a disappointment — they didn't feel nearly as good as the standard Merrell insoles, and the big toe joint cracked away when I walked in them. At this point, I decided to bail on medical science as far as the foot was concerned. The doctor had only recommended them as something worth trying, and while trying the orthotics had been a disaster, trying the Merrells was a rousing success. I stopped trying to find a "cure" and started accepting that this was the way my foot was going to be now. I put the orthotics on the shelf and bought even more Merrells.

My foot has gradually gotten better this year. It's still a bit swollen, and probably always will be. But I decided to follow the doctor's statement that my feet were essentially good feet, and stop letting it be a concern. No more only riding the exercise bike because it was low impact. I started walking more, and nothing bad happened. I got to the point where I could walk 5 miles without any problems. I bought a pair of Merrell barefoot shoes, and although they didn't have Q-Form in them, now that I'd learned to walk properly, they felt good too, because there were no messed-up shoe-ey bits getting in the way. I gradually built up the strength of my feet by walking and even running a bit in the barefoot shoes. A few weeks ago, I walked a full 10 miles in the barefoot shoes, and nothing bad happened to my foot.

After I posted a negative review about them on Yelp (this had more to do with billing issues, but also I felt the orthotics did not fit well), the manager of the orthotics place asked me to come back and have a fitting with him, at no extra cost. I did, and he was impressed by my Merrell sandals, going so far as to say he was going to recommend them along with his usual recommendation of Birkenstocks for sandals (which obviously can't hold orthotics). He wanted to try me in a cork rather than a plastic orthotic, so he took a new mold of my feet.

Merrell insoles on the top, orthotics on the bottom. Almost the
same shape, but the Merrell insoles are thinner and don't dip where
the big toe joint goes, which caused the cracking in the orthotics.

After he did, he looked between the red foam shapes of my foot, and my Merrell sandals. Wow, he said, they're the same shape as the sandals. Orthotics, he said, make shoes that don't fit your feet work for your feet. But what I'd done was go out and find shoes that fit my feet. It's possible that Merrells just happened to be exactly the right shape for my feet. But judging by the number of other people I see leaving shoe reviews who say they only wear Merrells now, my feet aren't the only ones they're perfect for.

I don't worry about my feet anymore. After spending much of last year wondering if I'd ever be able to walk more than a mile again, that's something I don't take for granted. And I did take my feet for granted before this happened. My main judge of shoe success was not causing blisters, regardless of what they were doing to my foot innards. I put them in $20 shoes from Target, and Skechers, and all manner of high heels. If the mystery swelling hadn't happened when it did, I'd probably have bought a pair of Skechers shape-ups, and right now I'd be wrecking everything from my hips to my feet.

Merrell insoles on the top, Skechers insoles on the bottom. You can see the
giant dip in the Skechers' big toe joint area, which caused my over-pronation.

I can't get back all of the years I spent over-pronating in bad shoes, but at least now that I've had to pay the consequences, I know that I have to put my feet in good shoes. Merrell dominates my shoe racks these days, and most of what's left are shoes I just can't quite bring myself to get rid of yet.

So if you read this blog and wonder why I'm such a Merrell fanatic, well, that's why. My feet are stronger than ever, and I'm back to walking when I want, as far as I want, and that's because of Merrell.


A tale of two palaces

Chateau Versailles

When I decided to put Paris in my itinerary, and began thinking of what I wanted to do there, it didn't take long to resolve to go to Versailles. I felt the need to see this grandest of palaces, like it was the thing to do.

So on the Tuesday of my time in France (generally a no-no, as the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, and so everyone goes to Versailles, but that was just the way the days fell), I hopped on the RER train from my hotel in the suburbs, transferred to another RER train in the city, and went out to Versailles. As I've already noted, entry was a debacle.

Crowds and opulence, the Versailles experience.

Once I got inside the gates, I began to see how ridiculously crowded it was. By the time I picked up my English language audio guide and made my way up to the royal apartments, it was pretty much wall-to-wall people. Dutifully, I shuffled through the rooms with the rest of the crowds, listening to bits of my audio guide, but refusing to be like so many of the other tourists who were dead set on listening to ALL of the audio for EVERY single number, and holding up the rest of the crowd as they stood there with their little plastic boxes up to their ears.

Only slightly opulent.

Fortunately, though, the audio guide wasn't actually all that interesting, and it was quite uneven. Most of what I heard focused on the functions of the rooms, and only occasionally did it throw out a bit on Marie Antoinette, or anyone else of interest. So I resorted to doing what everyone else was doing, shuffling through the rooms, gaping at the opulence of it all, and taking pictures. Finally, I reached a point where it dawned on me — no wonder the people revolted. If there is one takeaway from Versailles, it's that.

The famous Hall of Mirrors.

The apartments began to feel like an endless string of opulence, to the point where I was desensitized to gilt and paintings and frilly bits. It was only after much more of all of these that I made my way out into the gardens, which I don't think I fully grasped the scope of until I walked and walked and walked and walked and still was not even halfway to Marie Antoinette's house.

A "small" area of the gardens.

They were mindbogglingly extensive, but not quite what I'd expected out of gardens. There were plenty of landscaped bushes, and fountains, but flowers were few and far between until I got to Marie Antoinette's house and the Grand Trianon, both of which had some lovely flowers.

Much of the gardens were like this — tall, landscaped bushes and dusty gravel paths.

Roses outside Marie Antoinette's house (Petit Trianon) — finally some lovely flowers.

It was a day made largely for exhaustion. Exhausting myself by shuffling through room after room with the massive crowds, and then lengthy walks through the gardens. Exhausting both of my camera batteries by taking interminable photos and videos of all the opulence I saw. And by the time I left, that was all I felt, was exhausted. I'd seen things, lots of things, but it wasn't any sort of enriching experience, just an empty, gilded day.

Perhaps that should have turned me off of palaces, but back in England several days later, on Friday, the last full day of my trip, I still headed to Hampton Court Palace. I should have known things were going to be better when I stepped inside of the ticket office with my internet ticket confirmation in hand, and a woman waved me over to a side counter immediately and gave me my ticket, a map, and some other pamphlets.

Base Court, and a Henry VIII impersonator.

My entry, and my visit, were interrupted at times because they were holding a funeral at the palace, for a woman who had been living there on invitation of the Queen. I didn't realize there were people still actively living there, but it certainly intrigued me. And the funeral was an odd but understandable reason to be interrupted; the palace had gone so far as to have special apologetic and explanatory signs posted around the palace grounds.

Grand, but more sedate — Cartoon Gallery in Mary's Apartments.

I'd come to the palace like many, I assume, to see the old stomping grounds of Henry VIII. But what I hadn't realized is that it's actually two palaces, Henry's Tudor-era palace, and a later Baroque addition built by William and Mary, and used up until Georgian times.

The Tudor and Baroque palaces meet, with the arms
of Elizabeth I and William and Mary visible.

Neither of the sections boast anything remotely so grand (or ostentatious) as the royal apartments of Versailles. While they easily fit the definition of palaces, it's in a more sedate, English style — think the rich tones of wood paneling instead of gilt and over-the-top detailing.

Bedchamber in Mary's Apartments.

But in spite of this, I found Hampton Court Palace to be far more enjoyable, and far more interesting. It was enjoyable because it was in reasonable proportions — it felt like just the right amount of palace and grounds to tour — and also because it was far less crowded. Only Henry VIII's apartments were crowded, and even those were not to the point where you literally couldn't move, which did happen at Versailles, so bad were the bottlenecks.

It was far more interesting, though, because it told stories, and those stories were quite interesting. Not fair, you might say, with the exploits of Henry VIII, how could it go wrong in storytelling? And you, Carrie, you might also say, would be quite primed for the experience (albeit not in a completely historically accurate way), having watched four seasons of The Tudors.

Great Hall of Henry VIII's apartments.

Well, yes, I don't deny any of these things. But Hampton Court Palace had an exceedingly interesting story to tell, and it went out and told it. Versailles, meanwhile, I would argue, was sitting on an equally interesting story in Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, but it never managed to shape the experience into storytelling. Meanwhile, at Hampton Court Palace, I found myself interested in monarchs I'd never really known anything about, such as Queen Catherine, who was actually the first queen to live in Mary's apartments (Mary died before they were completed).

Kitchens to feed a palace full of people.

Hampton Court Palace also gave a more complete experience, allowing you to tour the kitchen and begin to get an idea of just what went into preparing meals fit for a king. And then there were the gardens — the open portion was probably a tenth the size of those at Versailles, but again, that was a more manageable proportion.

The Rose Garden, one of the true highlights of my trip.

Coming from the Palace, I began at the magnificent Rose Garden, had a quite decent for a tourist attraction lunch at the Tiltyard Cafe (in one of the towers where the King and other spectators would watch jousting), and then continued on through the Maze, a not-very-wild "Wilderness", and then in to the largest portion of the gardens open to the public, the Great Fountain Garden.

Great Fountain Garden's sculpted trees, with the Baroque palace.

The Great Fountain Garden was all giant sculpted trees, paths, and flowers, all centered around a large fountain, with the Baroque palace in the background. On the other side of the palace complex were another set of daintier, even more sculpted gardens, plants and flowers neatly balanced. These all were much more along the lines of my expectations for royal gardens, and they were uncrowded enough to make walking around in them quite enjoyable.

More lovely gardens, with the Baroque palace.

Super-sculpted gardens, and so many chimneys.

No one would call Hampton Court Palace more grand than Versailles. It is not nearly so large, not nearly so luxe, not nearly so popular. But that — and its stories — were precisely what made it far more enjoyable. I had a lovely walk in the gardens, and I learned things, and as I left, I certainly felt enriched.

More flowers of Hampton Court's gardens.

Maybe I didn't give Versailles the best chance, coming on the day I knew it would be most crowded. But even when you take away the crowds, it just wasn't as well-done, on many different levels. If I had it to do again, I would have maneuvered my itinerary so that I could go to the Louvre first and view Napoleon III's apartments. If I did that, and still had a desire to get my gilt on, only then should I have headed to Versailles.

Napoleon III Apartments at the Louvre.
Probably sufficient for my French opulence quota

To bring this post to a close, I should reveal that while I was at Hampton Court Palace, I had the song "I'm Henry the Eighth" in my head. You know, the one by Herman's Hermits — "second verse, same as the first!" In my head THE WHOLE TIME I was there.

And I still enjoyed myself more than I did at Versailles.