Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tour Divide 2015 - Contact Part 3: Feet

If you've been following this journey to the Tour Divide, my writing style may suggest that I know exactly what I am doing.  While I'm not a total doof, I am making a lot of this up as I go, gleaning information from what I hope are reliable sources and building on my own experience.  In some cases, I'm pretty confident in my decision making.  In others, I'm, uh, less confident.

Which brings us to the feet.

Feet are probably the most important contact points, simply because it's through the feet that power is transferred from body to bicycle.  As such, the feet are subject to stresses that hands and butt just don't experience.  Of course, I've never had a saddle sore on a hand or a foot, so I guess each contact point has its own set of challenges.  

At any rate, foot & ankle injuries are among the most common on the Tour Divide, for any number of reasons: repetitive stress, lack of support, poorly fitting shoes, poorly designed shoes, internal physiologic/anatomical issues, bad posture, cheap laces, crashing, rocks...  The list goes on. 

My feet are different.  Literally.  My left foot tends to pronate more than the right one.  In other words, it's flatter.  Also, after 15 or 20 miles on the bike, a wave of pain swells between the third and fourth toes of the left foot.  It hurts enough to adversely affect my pedaling.  If I pedal long enough, it'll start in the right foot as well, but not as much.  I'm not sure if we're talking neuroma or metatarsalgia, but it feels like someone has cut off my toes and drilled into the nerves - kinda like this:

Ouch.  Image courtesy of Cyclologic's facebook page.
So I start looking into custom footbeds.  This is my first experience with orthotics, and so far, it's a work in progress.  I go to the place, put my foot on the thing, they take digital impressions, and a week later I have custom footbeds for my MTB cycling shoes.  They look cool.  I go for a ride.  Right foot feels fine; the left foot waits 30 miles before it lets loose the familiar wave of pain.  Poop.

Back to the ortho guy.  He sands down the underside of the footbed to further refine the shape, and gives me a foam pad with an adhesive back to apply to the footbed, in order to better support the metatarsal heads and open up the space between the third and forth toes.  We're hoping this provides relief by easing pressure on that red nerve in the picture above.  Then I go for a long ride up in the mountains.  I do not find the relief I seek.

If anything could take me out if the race, this is it.  I'm working with Cyclologic and an orthotics specialist at Endurance Rehab to get this worked out.  If orthotics don't take care of the problem, they're talking injections or surgery.  Not being a fan of surgical intervention if it can be avoided, I'm looking into everything with regard to this issue, including natural medicine and other means of support.  Right now the custom footbeds are sitting on a shelf, and I'm experimenting with Correct Toes and Pedag metatarsal pads on a factory footbed, but I can't tell you how this arrangement works yet because I have yet to do any honest-to-goodness long rides on them.  

Oh, and did I mention I'm using hiking shoes now?  "Whoa, hiking shoes?  What happened to the MTB cycling shoes?"  Remember when I said I'm making this up as I go?  

Okay, shoes & pedals.  Initially, I had decided to use SPD pedals and a cycling shoe with all-Velcro enclosure, as this kind of shoe fits in with my "fewest moving parts" philosophy.  I don't want to be in the middle of nowhere and have a some exotic binding system crap out on me.  Simpler is better IMHO.  I tried the Mavic Pulse shoe, but as soon as I slipped it on, I could tell the bridges of my feet weren't happy.  Back they went.  Next I ordered up a pair of Shimano XC30's, a decent and inexpensive all-Velcro-closure cross country shoe.  They're comfortable and, aforementioned orthotic issues notwithstanding, they do what they're supposed to.

But I've discovered some tradeoffs that I'm not sure I can live with if I keep these shoes for the Tour Divide.  First is mud.  Nothing new here - riders have had to deal with mud in pedals and cleats for as long as there have been pedal cleats.  But it is pretty inconvenient, and all but negates the pedal/cleat interface until the mud can be cleared.  The second issue, however, is the big one, and it has to do with heel & ankle support.

Shoes: biking vs. hiking.
So check it out: the shoe on the left is the Shimano cycling shoe; the shoe on the right is my Adidas hiking shoe.  Which one is going to do a better job supporting my heel & ankle during a hike-a-bike?  The one with the wider foundation.  The effect is so pronounced that whenever I wear the cycling shoe I have to pay special attention whenever I dismount on uneven terrain - and by uneven, I mean loose gravel on the sidewalk - lest I roll my ankle.  It's like walking on high heels (so I'm told).  I can't imagine having to rely on these things to support me across miles of HAB (hike-a-bike) over rocky terrain, downed trees, avalanche debris, and water crossings.  I've thought about wearing some kind of brace to add support to the ankle, but that doesn't address the narrower heel platform.  Essentially just a band-aid fix to a much bigger problem.  Now, other shoe manufacturers have other shoes that have wider heel platforms.  Even Shimano is coming out with new "trail" shoes for 2015 that look promising.  But then you're still dealing with cleats and mud.  What to do?

Some folks swear by clipless pedals, no matter what.  Some swear by flats.  Which basically means it's a matter of personal preference.  Although I'm pretty solid on my understanding of the virtues of clip-in pedals, I am now experimenting with flats. Kent Petersen, who was the first person to complete the Great Divide Race on a single speed back in 2005, did it on flat pedals.  Check out his entry for June 21 for his perspective on clipless vs. flats.  Read the rest of the story too - it's a fascinating account of an incredible journey.  Then, the folks at Rivendale Bikes have a thing or two to say in favor of flat pedals.  There's even a Flat Pedal Manifesto.  Apparently I'm not alone in my search for a suitable foot/pedal interface. 

So at the moment, it's off-the-shelf orthotic products in hiking shoes with the factory footbeds.  But again - still learning, still making stuff up as I go.  Gotta put some serious miles behind me with this configuration before I can determine whether or not it's going to work.  I have some long rides booked in the next couple weeks, so I'll post an update when I know more.  Until then...


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