If the shoe fits… (PCT Days 84-90)

My little toes longed to be free. They had been fighting against the newest oppressive regime (my Oboz trail shoes) in silence for some unknown period of time but they would be silent no more. No More!!!

“Ow!” I frowned… I recognized the sharp pain radiating from the two littlest toes of my right foot and I couldn’t help but hope that they would just give up and go numb… That would happen eventually, but it wasn’t a good thing.

In the silent war between my toes and my shoes, my toes were making slow and steady progress… They were ripping out the seams and wearing through the fabric on both sides of both shoes as the little toes and big toes of each foot tried to break free. The shoes retaliated, causing blisters and callouses to form on the outside edges of my big toes, which I mostly ignored. My little toes, however, had a much more effective strategy for getting my attention… No blisters for them… They went straight for the nerve, “just try to ignore this!” they shouted.

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It was a Morton’s neuroma… It had happened on the Appalachian Trail as well (after just 300 miles) but I didn’t know what it was then… I only knew that it hurt so much that it made me want to curl up and cry on the side of the trail. After I finished the AT, the neuroma on the left-side had gotten even worse, perhaps aggravated by running the Marine Corps Marathon. It didn’t stop screaming until I got custom orthotics and three cortisone shots.

I was lucky that I’d gotten through the first 1000 miles of the PCT without any real foot issues, but now, “owwww!” I tried to think, why now? What had changed?

Suddenly it dawned on me, I switched to the Oboz at Kennedy Meadows (~ mile 700), right before I headed into the high Sierra and submerged my feet in snow and icy creeks all day, every day. Now, as I neared 1100 miles, summer was beginning, the temperatures were going up, and my feet were swelling. My shoes weren’t wide enough for my poor feet anymore, and despite my toes efforts to the contrary, the boots were squeezing my feet and pinching/rubbing a nerve.

Should I enter the war and come to the aid of my little toes? I could just reach down with my knife and finish what my toes had started… I could cut my boots open and free my toes, but would my boots disintegrate if I did that? I wasn’t sure, so I just kept on walking. Besides, the pain wasn’t excruciating… Yet.

Was there another solution? The only one I could think of was to get new boots… I kicked myself for not having thought about that back when I was in South Lake Tahoe… It would have been easy to find boots there. Now it wasn’t so easy… Where was the next place I could get boots to save my toes, or to replace these if they disintegrated? Truckee? Sierra City? Belden? All of the upcoming towns seemed small and unlikely to have outfitters with great shoe selections.

Trail Magic to the rescue!!! My friend Peru, who I’d met back in the desert, said she didn’t live far from Truckee and could help me with anything I needed. It’s always nice to see a friend, and as it turned out I did need something… a new pair of boots! I excitedly hiked out to the rest area at I-80 to meet her… The fact that she was bringing ice cream and sodas my have accelerated my pace too… And the idea of *real* food for lunch… I skipped my normal lunch and made it to the rest area full of smiles.

Unfortunately, my friend wasn’t there. I called her and we had the “I’m here, but you’re not here,” conversation. Turns out the halfmile app sends you down a 0.25 mile trail to the rest area on the north side of I-80, and she was at the south side rest area. I was getting tired, but figured the was 0.75 mile walk back under the highway to the I-80 PCT Trailhead parking area was no big deal, so I started hiking to the other side. I hadn’t realized that the trail to the south side then added yet another 3/4 mile… Aargh, this was taking longer than I thought!

When I finally got there I called my friend and we had the “I’m here, but you’re not here” conversation yet again. I was hot, and tired, and on the verge of tears. Clearly I shouldn’t have waited for lunch or I should have stopped for more snacks. My friend and I were both a bit bewildered because at this point neither of us had any idea where the other person was.

Luckily a couple of dayhikers at the trailhead parking had seen me on both sides of the highway and knew my story… They chimed in, “don’t cry, we know exactly where your friend is and we’ll take you there.” I piled all of my stuff into their car and 10 seconds later we were at the south side rest area. How come it wasn’t obvious how to get there from the PCT? I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter anymore, Peru and I were reunited and we were headed to the Diner in Truckee for food.

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With our bellies full of food we set off for our next adventure… The hunt for a new pair of shoes. It turned out there was an Outfitters in Truckee, so that seemed like a good place to start. “I’m hiking the PCT, and I’d like to try on the widest pair of shoes that you have in a Men’s size 10.” They didn’t have a huge selection, but he brought out a couple different trail shoes and trail runners for me to try on. They were all way too narrow.

I thanked him for his time, but our search was going to have to continue elsewhere. He suggested that we check out a store in Tahoe City called, “Alpenglow Sports” since they had the best shoe selection of any store around there… Especially when it came to trail runners.

In a car, the 10 miles to Tahoe City went by in a flash, and before I knew it I was starting the same conversation again, “I’d like to try on the widest shoes you have in a men’s size 10.” They asked me a few questions about what I wanted them for and if I had preferences about their weight and then came back with half a dozen different shoes for me to try on.

I felt like a dirty, smelly version of Goldilocks and Cinderella all rolled into one, “Are you sure it’s ok for me to put my dirty thru-hiker feet into these shoes?” I asked more than a little self consciously. I’d essentially come straight from the trail, dirty socks and all, and the shoes I was going to try on were pristinely beautiful and clean… nothing that came near my feet was ever going to be pristine again. They reassured me that it wasn’t a problem and I tried on the first pair. “This one’s too big!” and then the next pair, “this one’s too small!” I was having trouble finding anything that was “just right.”

The three most popular kinds of hiking shoes on the PCT this year seem to be: Merrill Moab Ventillators, Brook’s Cascadias, and Altras. I’d hiked the first 700 miles in Moabs and I knew the men’s size 10 wides would work, but I was hoping to find a lighter weight shoe that was even wider for the rest of the PCT. I tried on the Cascadias, and they were pretty comfortable, but definitely not quite wide enough for my feet (interestingly the Cascadias have a disclaimer specifically about thru-hiking).

Just when I thought that I was never going to find a pair of shoes that were wide enough I tried on the Altra Lone Peak’s. They were a little looser in the heel than was ideal, but the toebox was nice and wide… This shoe might actually work!

There was just one pair of shoes left to try on, the Patagonia EVERlongs. My first though when I picked them up was that they were incredibly lightweight… They’re only 8.4 ounces. They also felt comfortable and wide enough, but the heel was much looser than the Altra’s heel. I went back and forth between the Altra’s and the Everlongs for a long time trying to decide which ones I liked the best.

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After almost two hours of trying on shoes at Alpenglow Sports, I eventually settled on the Lone Peak Altra’s. They were wide, they were lightweight, and they were comfortable. The only potential issue was that they were zero drop shoes, which meant that they would be harder on my Achilles’ tendons… Since I’ve had trouble with Achilles tendonitis before I was going to have to be very careful for the first couple of days as my body got used to my new shoes!

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With any luck my little toes will be happy with the new, more accommodating regime… Since I tend to break-in my new shoes with 20 mile days I’ll find out very quickly whether or not the new shoes will live up to their campaign promises!!!

Summary of Shoes for the PCT so far:

1. Merrill Moab Ventillators
Size: Men’s 10 Wide
Miles: 0 – 702.21
Weight: 1 lb, 8 oz
MSRP: $90
Quick review (4/5): a good, very stable shoe, good traction, and they showed almost no wear and tear after 700 miles of desert walking. I thought these shoes were perfect on the AT, but they felt like overkill on the PCT. For the desert section of the trail I wished I had something lighter weight and more breathable. I also discovered that the giant blisters on my heels were from the way the Moab’s pad just the upper portion of the heel cup and not the lower portion. I repeatably get blisters from the Moab’s at that junction. Switching to the Oboz eliminated that blistering issue.

2. Oboz Traverse Low
Size: Men’s 10
Miles: 702.21 – 1155.61
Weight: 16.6 ounces
MSRP: $125
Quick Review (4/5): these are the shoes that I wore through the high Sierra, and they performed well. They were constantly wet (they went for weeks without completely drying), occasionally frozen solid and dealt with both rocky and icy terrain and help up very well. I also used them with microspikes with no problem. They were definitely showing wear and tear across the toebox when I finished with them and it felt like the padding in the sole was shot by the end. Despite all the wetness, they had no delamination issues and held up well. I generally think the traction isn’t as good as the Moab’s, but these shoes gripped the granite of half dome admirably as I went up the cables, so no real complaint there. Their thru-hiker policy remains awesome! My main complaint is that they felt impossibly heavy when wet and were too narrow when my feet swelled.

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3. Altra Lone Peak 1.5
Size: Men’s 10
Miles: 1155.61 – ?
Weight: 9.9 oz
MSRP: $115
Quick Review (pending): I’ve been hiking in these shoes for 100 miles now, and will give a full review when I trade them out but so far I am loving them. My toes feel free and happy with these shoes (perhaps for the first time in their lives). I’ve been doing extra Achilles stretches and excersizes, but haven’t had any issues with the zero-drop nature of the shoes. Also, I love that thy have a built in gaitor trap. They have much more ventilation than the previous shoes (the downside to that is that my toes get dirtier, even when wearing gaitors). At this point I would consider getting these shoes again when these wear out, which is the highest praise that I can give a pair is shoes. We’ll see what the next 200-300 miles brings!

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Thru-Hike Shoe Review

“The Grinch hated Christmas – the whole Christmas season. Now, please don’t ask why; no one quite knows the reason. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. Or it could be that his head wasn’t screwed on just right,” Dr. Seuss.

The quickest way to hate hiking and the trail is to abuse your poor feet. If your feet cause you pain with each step you take, it makes it hard to enjoy the trail and your adventures. I spent countless hours experimenting with blister prevention methods, socks, insoles, and boots and this is what I found:

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Springer Mountain, Georgia to Damascus, Virginia (468 miles): Merrell Moab Waterproof Boots

Overall day hike rating (10/10). For the last five years I have relied on Merrell Woman’s Moab Waterproof boots for all of my spring, summer, and fall hiking and backpacking adventures in New England. For day hikes and weekend backpacking trips I would give these boots a 10/10. I love the tread of the boots, they provide me with a lot of stability on rocky terrain, and they are very comfortable. So it made sense to me to get a pair of them to start my AT thru-hike:

  • Merrell Moab Waterproof
  • Weight: 1 lb, 13 oz
  • Size: Women’s 10
  • MSRP: $110
  • Waterproof
  • 468 AT miles

Overall thru-hike rating (4/10). By the end of the second week I was convinced that low rise waterproof boots were a poor choice for thru-hiking. Even though the waterproof boots initially did a pretty good job out keeping water out of my boots, they did a much better job of trapping the water in. Whenever my boots got wet they then needed a night in town and a blow dryer or heater to dry them out. In addition to being a problem when the trail was consistently a 6 inch deep puddle, they were also problematic in the heat and humidity of the south where my sweat alone made my boots constantly wet or damp and my boots and my feet never really succeeded in completely drying out.

Foot Care/Socks:

By the end of the first week my feet hurt, I had some hot spots on my big toes and on my heals, and some soreness and numbness in the two littlest toes on both of feet. I experimented with moleskin, duct tape, blister band aids, and second skin to no avail. The wet conditions and the friction in my boots meant that the moleskin and duct tape had trouble staying in place, and the fancy new blister band-aids just dissolved/ground into my socks. By the time I got to Gatlinburg, TN (mile 207) I had a monstrous blister.

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Athletic tape ended up working the best for covering my hot spots and blisters. Unfortunately my feet still hurt, so I started experimenting with different sock combinations. I carried extra socks so that I could give my feet a new, drier pair of socks at midday everyday, and that helped. I ended up disliking my smartwool socks because they took forever to dry (they definitely didn’t dry overnight). I also disliked wearing socks with a separate liner… It meant that there were twice as many socks to lose and a lot of extra bulk in my shoes and in my pack. I finally settled on Wigwam’s Rebel Fusion Quarter and Wigwam’s Cool Lite Hiker Pro Quarter as my favorite hiking socks.

The real key to blister prevention was the discovery of anti-chafing sticks. If I coated my feet with Gold Bond Friction Defense or Band-Aid Friction Block I didn’t get blisters! After I realized that, I used it every day! Unfortunately my feet still hurt.

Insoles:

The next set of experiments I did was with insoles. I’d buy a pair, and then wear them for a couple of days to see if they helped my feet hurt less. I would then alternate stretches of trail with similar terrain to make sure it was the insoles and not the trail making my feet feel better or hurt more. I tried spenco insoles, I tried gel insoles, and I tried both the green and the blue superfeet. Nothing seemed to help.

Damascus, Virginia (468 miles) to Massie Gap, Virginia (mile 498.6): Salomon Trail-Running Shoes

My feet hurt so much that it was almost all I could do not to curl up in a ball and cry by the side of the trail. Having explored all of my other options, when I got to Damascus I purchased a pair of new boots:

  • Salomon XA Pro 3D Trail-Running Shoes
  • Weight: 1 lb, 8.7 oz
  • Size: Men’s 9.5
  • MSRP: $130
  • Not Waterproof
  • 31 AT Miles

Overall thru-hike rating (4/10). These shoes dried out incredibly quickly, but I noticed that the traction on them wasn’t as good as with the Merrell’s, and they didn’t provide me enough ankle stability. In the 400+ miles prior to trying the Solomen’s, I turned my ankle a total of twice. On the first day with the Solomen’s I turned my ankle 6 times. I was unimpressed. I switched back to my Merrell’s the next day, 0 ankle turns. I decided to try the Solomen’s one more time, 4 ankle turns. Boot experiments were much more expensive than sock experiments, but I wasn’t going to risk spraining my ankle by continuing to wear the Solomen’s.

Massie Gap, Virginia (mile 498.6) to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (1019.0): Oboz Sawtooth Low’s

After giving up on the Solomen’s, I purchased my next pair of shoes:

  • Oboz Sawtooth Low’s
  • Weight: 15.6 ounces
  • Size: Men’s 9
  • MSRP: $110
  • Not Waterproof
  • 520 AT miles

Overall thru-hike rating (7/10). Unfortunately the Oboz did not immediately alleviate my foot pain, even after trying them with all of the insole combinations that I had. They did dry out much much faster than the Merell Moab’s (though not as quickly as the Solomen’s), and they had much better stability and traction than the Solomen’s. In general, I would say that the stability was similar to the Merell’s but that the traction I got with them was worse. My biggest complaint with the Oboz was that they delaminated after hiking less than 100 miles. By the time I made it to Daleville, VA (mile 723.5) I had been using athletic tape to try to keep the soles on for the last 100 miles. After I spent a zero day getting cozy with my shoes and a bottle of rubber cement, the shoes managed to make it the rest of the way to Harper’s Ferry.

Orthotics: Foot Rx

Overall thru-hiking review (10/10). The thing that finally alleviated the pain in my feet was a pair of custom orthotics that I had made for me in Abingdon, VA by Cathy Miller, CPED at Foot Rx. Within a week my feet stopped bothering me! Not only that, the orthotics actually survived for the entire rest of the trip!!! Sure, they needed a little bit of athletic tape to help them out for the last 200 miles, but I was incredibly impressed by how well they held up!

Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (1019.0) to Tyringham, MA (1537.2): Vasque Velocity

The soles of my Oboz were flapping in the breeze when I got to Harper’s Ferry, so I purchased a new pair of shoes:

  • Vasque Velocity 2.0
  • Weight: 13.6 oz
  • Size: Men’s 9.5
  • MSRP: $119.15
  • Not Waterproof
  • 518 AT Miles

Overall thru-hike review (6/10). The thing that I didn’t like about the Vasque’s was the internal seamline that cut right across the top of my toes. This rubbed across my toes and gave me hot spots in all new places. For the first 3 weeks hiking in the Vasques I had to wrap my toes with athletic tape every day to protect them from that damn seam. Eventually my feet built up enough callouses across my toes that that issue resolved. By then, however, my feet had started fighting back and wearing out the fabric of the shoes. When I wandered into Massachusetts my toes had worn holes through the sides of the boots, the soles were delaminating (and had already been re-glued and taped back together), and some pieces of the tread were completely missing.

Tyringham, MA (1537.2) to Monson, ME (2071.4): Merrell Moab Ventillator

When I got to Tyringham, MA, I had tried a lot of boots and been dissatisfied with most of them. This time around I got a pair of:

  • Merrell Moab Ventillator
  • Weight: 1lb, 8 oz
  • Men’s size 9.5
  • MSRP: $90
  • Not Waterproof
  • 534 AT Miles

Overall thru-hike rating (9/10). They were comfortable, had great traction and stability, and impressive durability on some of the most rugged terrain on the AT. They did have some issues with delamination, and at mile 1840.5 I had to re-glue the soles. After that I thought the boots were going to last me to the end. Unfortunately, I tripped on a root as I was headed into Monson, Maine and it ripped all the way through the top fabric of my boot and down along the side. I wasn’t going to be able to finish the trail with them afterall.

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Monson, ME (2071.4) to Mount Katahdin, Maine (2185.9)

Seeing my boot predicament in Monson, my friend Hotshot’s dad gave me the boots off of his feet:

  • Merrel Moab Ventillator
  • Men’s size 10
  • 115+ AT Miles

His boots were half a size larger than mine, but fit me very comfortably and would definitely work. It took me a couple of days (and one spectacular tumble) to retrain my gait with the slightly larger shoe size, but other than that they didn’t cause me any trouble. By the time I reached Katahdin my boots began to delaminate again (not at the toe per usual, but along the inside arch), but I don’t know how much mileage they’d seen before I got my hands on them.

Post-Trail Assessment and Preparing for the PCT

Based on my experience on the trail, I would choose the Merrel Moab Ventillators for any future AT thru-hike and on the PCT am likely to use:

  • Merrel Moab Ventillator’s
  • Weight: 1 lb, 14 oz
  • Size: Men’s 10 Wide
  • MSRP: $90
  • Not Waterproof

However, upon returning from the trail, I have been in contact with Oboz and they have assured me that they have fixed the delamination problem that my old boots had had, and offered to send me a replacement pair of boots of  my choice. I have taken them up on their offer and am currently trying out a pair of:

  • Traverse (Dark Shadow)
  • Weight: 16.6 oz
  • Size: Men’s 9.5
  • MSRP: $125
  • Not Waterproof

If you are a thru-hiker, I recommend that you call them up and ask them about their thru-hiker program, which is truly awesome and has convinced me to consider their boots for my PCT thru-hike.

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The Aftermath

After returning home from the trail (and running the Marine Corps Marathon) my right foot started to experience significant pain whenever I put weight on it, specifically I had pain in the ball of my foot and radiating out into my middle toe. It hurt enough that I went in to a podiatrist who diagnosed me with Morton’s neuromas (click this link for a more research oriented article) in both feet (worse on my left foot) and 3rd metatarsal capsulitis in my left foot. In preparation for another 2600 miles of abuse, I’ve gotten new prescription orthotics (now on their third revision) as well as 2 sets of cortisone shots into the neuroma and 3rd metatarsal capsule of my left foot.

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In retrospect it seems likely that the foot pain I experienced as I hiked into Damascus, VA was from the same thing and was relieved when I switched to wider boots (the Oboz) and began using orthotics to redistribute the pressure across my foot. Having tight calves is thought to aggravate both issues, so I see lots of stretching in my future as I head out for the PCT.

Hopefully the insights I gained on the AT as well as all of the stretching, the cortisone, the orthotics, and the wider boots will help keep my feet happy on my new PCT adventures!