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My Achilles

by: Sarah Bannon

In January, I tested my first pair of Asics. Each morning at 5:30, I ran through deserted halls, up over rusty wooden empty bleachers, and sprinted to burst open wide old oak doors and test their endurance on cold hard concrete and soggy dirt trails. After months of rain, sweat, and endurance, my Gel Nimbus 9s molded perfectly to my imperfect feet, and became the best companions on long journeys. Through each battle with competitors and climates, they wonderfully and lovingly endured.

The Asics Gel-Nimbus 9 is a cushion running shoe made for a runner with neutral or slightly over-pronated foot biomechanics, or in need of additional support near the ankle and outer heel. The Gel-Nimbus 9 features gel cushioning in the heel and forefoot with a bouncy midsole made of Solyte for cushioning. The shoe’s stability is based upon Asic’s Space Trusstic System across the arch and the dynamic cradle. The shoes are reinforced on the lateral sides of the shoe for ankle support for side-to-side movements, similar to cross trainers. To maximize comfort and cushioning, Asics shoes use an EVA or polyurethane foam in the midsoles. The materials operate under the goal of improving shock absorption in every step. The women’s shoe weighs approximately 10 ounces.

The running shoe market yields multiples of a billion dollars per year. For recreation and competition runners alike, there’s a multitude of styles and brands that claim to pioneer the best running technology. Some buyers will be easily persuaded by the sexy allure of popular brands like Nike, Reebok, and Adidas, whose yearly models average sales at nearly 90 dollars per pair. Avid runners vary in preference, some opting for shoes that use an EVA or polyurethane foam in the midsoles for extra support, while others wary of reliance on technology favor minimalist models or endorse the rite of running barefoot. For most modest runners, ankle support through reinforced lateral sides of the shoe is the most crucial feature.

As I finish out the first mile of the race, I experience a startling pinch in the arch of my left heel, like needles breaking through the skin and exploding into smaller and smaller pieces piercing into the dark hollow insides of my bones. Attempting to continue at my current pace proves pointless, and I am forced to slow down and submit to a competitor. The elevated shock-mechanisms in my Shox were slowly sucking at my heel, making my weakness as palpable as Achilles. I outwardly cursed at my Nikes. One by one runners whizzed by, leaving me with a feeling of defeat. Placing more weight on my left foot, I shook away tears of disappointment and betrayal.

As the saying goes, “when your feet hurt, everything hurts.” In meta-analyses investigating the epidemiology of running injuries, the average recreational runner reports an overall yearly incidence rate of 37-56%. Several studies concluded that running injuries lead to a reduction of training or training cessation in about 30 to 90% of all injuries, and about 20 to 70% of all injuries lead to medical consultation or medical treatment. In another study that focused on the biomechanics of running, Hasegawa and other researchers found that up to 75% of runners heel strike during runs, which can account for 30-70% of injuries each year that occur from repetitive stress to the heel while running in gym shoes. The complaints of yearly injuries due to excessive heel striking has led some runners to support minimalist or barefoot trips, but the change is trend has shown related spikes in injury.

It is just two days after the first snow of my junior year of high school, December of 2009. I wake up at 4:30 and take the city bus to the community center for morning practice. The gym is cold and dark save for two lights above the center circle of the half-court line, and shadows pool around each basket, extending an image of the tattered rim to the grimy floorboards. I dribble the ball once, twice, three times, slowly paying attention to form and rhythm. I forgot to bring my high-top shoes today, and am nervous about jumping for rebounds. The team starts warm up drills, and I kneel down and knot my cross trainers once, twice, three times. Cross-training shoes are also designed to maximize support and comfort in forward and lateral movements, and to allow you to use the shoes for other activities, such as jogging, walking or aerobics. Shots suddenly fire from each side of the court, vibrating symphonically off of the backboard. Exploding from the floorboards like a spring, I catch the leather object and run, dribbling towards opposite rim. Olivia, a six-foot-three freshman, guards the basket with both hands raised high. I hastily throw up a shot when I get as close as possible to the basket without coming into physical contact to get into a better position to rebound. My legs compress as quickly as they can and I feel with my fingertips the soft, bubbled feedback of the leather ball. Before reaching the ground, however, my cross trainers land on the large, bumpy surface of Olivia’s size-14 Nikes, and both of my feet snap into an unnatural perpendicular position in relation to my ankle. My tendons slowly pull in different directions, shattering my heels and spreading toward my ankles. I land on the leather ball and am unable to move.

Three months later, I run again for the first time.

The amount of time required to return to full training generally ranges from six weeks to four months, but in extreme cases can require as much as a year. After a stress fracture, it is imperative to increase the workload slowly in order to avoid further injury. For runners with heel injuries, the most important thing to look for in purchasing shoes is a well-padded “heel cup,” the cushioning surrounding the heels and the arch of the foot. If the shoe is well constructed and cups the heel without putting too much pressure on it, the shoes will take pressure off of the heels and provide for a quicker recovery.

It is August shortly after high school graduation. I stretch at the starting line of the Human Race, a 10k organized by the World Health Organization (WHO). My new bright orange pair of shoes, the Asics Gel-Nimbus 10, turned a slight brown color after four hard weeks of preparation. The starting gun sounds and I wonder again if I have been tested enough to go the distance. The soles of my feet seemed to grow wings, soaring through the first and second mile with minimal effort, but on the third mile I hit another obstacle, another all-too-familiar pain in my sole. The pace slowed, but there was still progress. Focusing on short, intense bursts instead of long, challenging sessions, the initial intense pain became manageable. I reluctantly pushed through the internal feedback loop of self-doubt, disappointment, and exhaustion. The key to avoiding mental drain is to place complete trust in where your feet will take you, and focus on the method of travel: left, right, left, right.

Tom Bunk, a renowned cartoonist and avid runner writes, “Anybody running beats anybody walking, and anybody walking beats anybody sitting.”

I finish the race in just under one hour and thirty minutes. Statistically, it is an unimpressive time considering the distance, but sometimes we have to celebrate an abysmal journey.