Monday, December 12, 2011

Beware the Offset

Or at least be aware of the offset. Offsets are the buzz in the world of running shoes. This isn’t new but you’ll soon hear a lot about it. You’ll also see many more options added to the current offerings from Inov-8, Saucony, Altra and Brooks. First, a little context; the offset is the difference in height from heel to toe of a shoe measured in millimeters. Traditionally (at least for the past 30 years) running shoes have been 10mm or 12mm. There have been exceptions in the form of racing flats and in the past decade from the UK brand Inov-8. Now there is an ever expanding selection of 8mm, 4mm, and zero drop (even from heel to toe) shoes.

So what gives, and why should you care? First of all, you don’t have to care. Many people don’t get injured and are happy with their shoes. Assuming that’s the case, it would be difficult to make a compelling argument that you should change anything. Fortunately, you don’t have to. Most companies have shown no sign that they will change the offset in their franchise shoes. You’ll be able to stick with them and run your brains out.

Saucony, most notably, is choosing a different path. With the tagline “a new angle on running” they will come down to an 8mm (or less) offset on all new shoes that come out going forward. This will take some time as many of their shoes won’t update until Fall 2012 or even Spring 2013 but within the next 18 months they plan for all their shoes to be either an 8mm, 4mm, or no offset. Even in a time of ample change in running shoes, this is a gutsy move by Saucony. Other major shoe companies are on board. We saw Brooks make a splash in October with the introduction of their Pure project shoes (all 4mm offset) but Saucony’s willingness to move ALL their shoes shows some serious commitment.

Our take at FootZone is a positive one. This is a lot of hubbub over 2-4mm (if you take the difference from 10 or 12 to 8mm). Look on a ruler, that’s not very much. Saucony feels confident after testing that moving to 8mm will not require break in for the average runner and will improve the ride and stability while allowing for a less emphasized heel strike and encouraging a more natural stride. They would advise that switching to a 4mm or zero drop shoe may require a more gradual transition to avoid calf strain and injury. Based on personal experience and watching many runners experiment with different shoes, we would have to agree. The 8mm offset will not even be noticed by many runners and if they choose, the 4mm offset will also be an option. The zero drop shoes require a bit more patience and practice and for some runners simply feel too strange.

Of course, the frustrating part of all of this is that there is no science supporting any of it. The idea of natural running makes some inherent sense and appeals to many but has already proven that it’s not simple for most runners. Many are calling for a more definitive study and surely there will be many on that task in labs across the country. Given all the variables of different runners with different histories, foot types, biomechanics, and efficiencies, I struggle to think that we will come up with anything TOO definitive. Regardless, I trust that runners will do as they always have and buy the best running shoes available that work for them. Whatever the slope from heel to toe will be interesting to talk about but will ultimately mean less than our ability to go out and enjoy our run. Cheers-Teague

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Back to Bend

Rob, Melanie, Max and I are just back from Austin, Texas where we attended the Running Event. This is an annual conference and product expo for the specialty running industry. It is primarily a gathering for independent running stores (like FootZone) and the vendors that we buy our product from. This was our third year attending and it is always an opportunity to not only see product for upcoming seasons, but to meet other great people in the industry, learn new things, and share ideas. There are some great running stores out there and many that I greatly admire. As you might expect, all stores share similarities but are surprisingly diverse at the same time. It's not really surprising since running can be really different depending on where you are. Some of that is simply geography and climate. Where there are lots of trails, people run on the dirt and ­runners want trail shoes that don't sell in big cities, while in Florida, warm tights and Yaktrax aren't much of a contemplation. In Bend, it’s difficult to overemphasize how fortunate we are to have so many trails and beauty around us to be explored.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that stores really do seem to have a personality. I had another store owner from back East tell me that he had been in FootZone last year while visiting Bend and how impressed he was with our selection but mostly what a great “feel” the shop has. It’s not the first time I’ve had customers and folks in the industry compliment the comfortable “feeling” of FootZone. Of course I beam with a bit of pride when I hear such things but I’m also trying to put my finger on what exactly that “feel” is. Not sure I’ll ever know entirely but I think we have two advantages that I don’t see everywhere.

First, we live in an amazing community with a very sophisticated customer who places value in something different. Many have chosen Central Oregon over someplace else for a reason and they appreciate what makes this community different from every other place in America. We hope that FootZone is a tiny part of that or at least that the person who is drawn to Central Oregon is also drawn to a local, healthy, fun running store.

Second, we work to treat our customers with the respect they deserve. Even as I type it, that comes off as a very generic and benign statement but I’m speaking from the perspective of creating a culture at the FootZone where that respect is constantly at the forefront. Sounds easy and in some ways it is but the longer we’re in business and I note all the examples around me, I realize what a complicated thing that “culture” is. First of all, you can’t fake it-- people are smart. Secondly, it is obviously all about the people who work at FootZone and the fact they are good people and very much valued in this equation. I wish I could say that they are all incredibly well-paid and will eventually live well on their FootZone retirement plans. That would be a stretch, but working at FootZone provides a livable wage which is shockingly rare. A decent wage is an important start, but it’s only a start. The essential part is not taking for granted the modest success that we have. Thinking of each customer as an individual deserving our time and respect. We often joke that it would be so much easier to get things done at FootZone if we didn’t have all these customers interrupting us. That ironic twist is what reminds us that the customer is the ONLY thing that matters. Everything else we do is meaningless by comparison. On every level at FootZone, we believe in that idea. We certainly make mistakes but at our collective core is the understanding that we have a simple job to do. If we get people in great products that will help them enjoy their running, walking and fitness, they will keep coming to see us. That gives us the opportunity to work in an environment with fun people supporting the activity we love. Plus, we get to live in a place we want to be. Hopefully, somewhere in there is that “feeling” that we often hear about. Of course, it could just be a great downtown space with brick walls and wood floors. Either way, we’re grateful for the opportunity. Cheers-Teague