Once upon a time, there was a girl with curiously shaped feet who went for a long, long walk.
After the rough and stone-ridden descent from Hawk Rock, Milam and I took the opportunity to indulge in some ice cream as the stand was nary a city block off the trail. As we savored the sticky stains remaining on our fingertips once the waffle cones had vanished, Second Wind inquired as to why I had endured the day’s treacherous section in sandals – I gave her and Mama Q the schpeel, and I’ll try to state it simply for you, now:
My toebox is wide. My heel is narrow. My arch is high. My overall foot is large.
My ideal shoe must accommodate the toebox width (to prevent blistering of my little toe) and the length of my foot, and if the overall width made it loose in the heel it need allow for an alternative lacing technique that would allow to lock my heel in place to prevent blistering there as well.
Such specific needs were necessary because of my allergy to leukotape and sensitivity to medical adhesive; the only blister prevention must be a properly fitting shoe as opposed to a symptom-based treatment (literally, no bandages).
So… my feet had become pretty high maintenance. No use in denying it. I certainly don’t consider myself to be a princess, but after 5 occasions (on 3 of which I’ve previously reflected) of marathon shoe shopping (the last session a ridiculous 8 hours off trail) and feeling like I had spent more time trying on shoes than in them on the Appalachian Trail, I gave up my humility and thought, “yes, yes, I am Princess Cinderella; I am a damsel in distress; please will some gracious Royal raid the village of my misery and place upon my dainty feet the slipper that must only exist in fairytales?”
And then, in yet another example of how my life since I started this trek has become inexplicably magical, I was whisked away to a castle.
After I curled up in a ball on the leather-upholstered stool in the shoe department at the world’s biggest Cabela’s, ready to give up on walking and live out the remainder of my days in the taxidermied elephant exhibit, Milam called in the cavalry (or should I say my Fairy Godmother?) – his sister Laura.
Now, I have to acknowledge Milam for his support so far in this endeavor – He’s been witness to this struggle of a shoe search since the beginning (and sometimes subjected to the effects of my frustration due to our consistent lack of success), as well as an active player. At the shoe store in Carlisle he was my hero, fetching boxes off the shelves, loosening laces, and reassembling retail packaging (in a show of my disgruntled state I would forgo this step, shoving the items and their tissue haphazardly back into the box). Milam hates this kind of shopping, and usually I serve as his gopher on such occasions, so he impressed me with his dedication (I imagine he can relate). But even so, in every effort we had left the shops empty handed and barefooted – but at least this time we had a plan.
And the plan was this:
Laura arranged for us to stay in the nearby town of at the base of Hawk Mountain through AirBnB. The stay would be for a week, as my feet were still healing from the ravages of poison ivy and even if I’d had shoes, I wouldn’t be able to wear them until my skin was intact. During this week, thanks to the powers that be at Zappos, Laura would send me a selection of shoes based on agreed criteria, her research, and my veteran experience of having tried on every shoe in the state of Pennsylvania. And if one of those pairs miraculously fit, I would then return the rest to Zappos and be ready to crush some miles after my feet fully healed.
Laura dared to dream the impossible dream – to fit my impossible foot.
With access to more brands and wider sizes via the Internet, Laura spoke with me to note my other desired specifications – I was no longer interested anything high-cut or heavyweight, and the material must be synthetic – or at least not waterproof, to allow for quick drying. I told her that now I could usually tell, just by looking at the exterior of a boot or shoe, if it would fit my toebox – the earlier the outer edge began to curve inward (as compared to the inner edge, near the big toe), the less likely it would fit. It was challenging to describe over the phone, but we both felt satisfied with our consultation.
So Laura, my personal queen of online shopping, made her selections – some in brands that had been promising but so far fruitless, some that Laura personally thought might yield results, and some based on the recommendations of the salesfolk and hikers with whom I had previously spoken – mainly, the suggestion that Second Wind had made over a hot fudge sundae.
I need to openly admit that I was wrong about gear talk being crock. Being in the field with other hikers of varied experience and learning about their gear has been nothing but positive and beneficial – I would even say crucial to our hike – and not at all as overwhelming or overrun with imposed opinions as I had expected before I was on trail. There is a saying that encourages hikers to find and do what works best for them – “Hike your own hike.” But it’s the instances in which the phrase is twisted to cast narrow-minded judgment on another’s choices (i.e. “I mean, HYOH, man… but…“) that turned me off to gear talk in the first place. When Second Wind heard my schpeel, she extended her leg and presented her sole choice in footwear, a nomination of a candidate in the search for mine – a pair of trail runners from Altra.
Fast forward to my fairytale, which was looking less like Cinderella and more like Goldilocks and the 20 Pairs of Trail Runners:
Upon their arrival I organized them by appearance – although I would be exhaustive in my sampling of each pair, I knew before lacing, before even placing on my feet, that some wouldn’t satisfy all my parameters.
Now, I won’t talk smack about any other brands – these were all well-made shoes, shoes I would be enthusiastic about wearing had I possessed less problematic podiatric peculiarities. I don’t want to negatively focus on what didn’t work for me – but I will say the list of rejects is far longer than the shoe that finally fit. If you’re reading this and want to know what didn’t work for me, please comment or send me a message so I can be more explicit – but first you need to know about Altras.
The people at Altra had noticed, among many other things, the exact issue causing my grief – that the standard shape athletic shoes was not conducive of a natural foot shape (or at least not tailored for a foot like mine). The graphic on the packaging comparing their shape with that of the standard shoe illustrated my complaint to a T.
I tried on a men’s model first, as I had generally been having more success in shoes tailored for a broader, more “masculine” foot. My toes weren’t crowded, and the laces were already threaded to be locked – there was even rock protection built straight into the insole. The heel was a little wide, but in a more-than-manageable way. Was this seriously happening? Unbelievable was the only word for it after all the anguish of wearing and looking at ill-fitting footwear. I lunged for the brochure, wondering if it was possible I had found my match.
A page near the end of their booklet mentioned the models made for a female foot, which feature a narrower heel. Though still wary of these seemingly to-good-to-be-true statements, I unwrapped the Lone Peak 2.0’s.
They were just right.
I had only been fitting with my right foot, as the left was still cratered by the caustic blistering of the PI – but so amazing was the fit of the women’s Lone Peaks that I had to feel the full experience. And once they were on, that was it. The end. It was all over. After 250 miles I finally found the shoe for my thru. High fives were had.
Milam and I are returning to the trail tomorrow morning. Cheers to Laura, Second Wind, AirBnB, Zappos, and Altra for getting us back out there.
I can’t wait to muddy up these runners with, as they say at Altra, zero limits.