Search for Shoes

It’s called the Turtle Trot, an annual walk, run or bike race to raise donations for scholarships to the local community college. I stopped off at the corner mart on the way home home from work one day last summer and saw the flyer taped to the top of the desk next to the upright of the plexiglass Covid shield. Problem was, they posted it a week before the race. As much as I wanted to participate, that wasn’t enough notice. Because of a lifetime issue with finding shoes, I’d pretty much given up running several years before.

Ever since childhood, I suffered from wide feet. Due to the fact that children’s shoes were not available in wide sizes, my big toes ended up growing inward, forming bunions which have affected the joints of my lower body ever since. Into my teen years, women’s shoes were nearly impossible to find in wide. The average person wears a “B” shoe. A person with narrow feet wears an “A” or multiples for much narrower feet. On the other end of the spectrum, the average “wide” shoe is a D. After D, multiples of E run up the width sizing. My feet ran EE once I stopped growing around age 14. However, it took a couple years for this understanding to catch up to the real world and for manufacturers to realize that such feet existed.

Conventional knowledge of the time assumed that women could not have wide feet. Perhaps this was a hold-over from the late Victorian Era when women would wear shoes far too small out of vanity, but in the pre-online shopping era it was nearly impossible to find women’s shoes in E width let alone EE. Very few tennis shoes would fit correctly. There were no real hiking boots. I never bothered with finding dress shoes.

I learned how to fudge the sizing by wearing mens shoes. However, a men’s size 7 shoe is equal to a women’s size 9. Naturally, that shoe would be wide enough, but they suck out past my toe almost two inches. While this relieved the constant, vice-like pain around the ball of my foot, it left me with a tripping risk. To some people, this might seem petty, but they should try wearing clown shoes into the woods sometime and walk off-trail. 

European’s have my full pity. European shoe sizing does not run wide. In fact, they rarely have wide sizes available. I don’t know if people like me have to buy custom-made shoes or if they pay extra for US made shoes, but considering how much more they walk compared to Americans, I was truly surprised to learn this. Only recently have European shoe companies started developing shoes for wide feet. So for those reading this from that continent and from all others still dominated by the European shoe industry and sizing system, my heart goes out to you.

Eventually, I came to accept the fact that any shoes worth my wearing would cost roughly three times what most people would pay for a pair, and the selection is still very limited. Nowadays, women’s dress shoes are available in EE widths. Work shoes on the other hand are still quite hard to find. Good quality hiking boots in extra wide either in women’s sizes or in size 5 men’s are very rare, and if a person needs waterproof and or steel toe shoes or boots in women’s sizes, good luck. If you need extra wide women’s footwear fitting that description, take out a lottery ticket. You have better chances for success.

My first pair of fire boots were all leather in a wide size. To get them to fit, I soaked them in the bathtub and wore them until they dried. Unfortunately, the narrowness of the footbed left me with an odd walk because my pinky toes hung off the edge. That made for a couple of miserable summers climbing mountains. At $200 a pair, they needed to “last,” and this became a bad habit of hanging on to shoes, whether they fit well or not, for years beyond their life expectancy.

Finally, after a summer working the back country and hiking everywhere, I’d had enough. I’d saved enough from the season and overtime to pay for the surgeries. I had no insurance since the cost of insurance coverage would equal one surgery before it kicked in, IF insurance would pay any part of it. After the swelling came down, I could finally fit into “wide” shoes off the shelf. However, the procedure changed the mechanics of my foot. In podiatry terms, I went from pronating to supinating. Basically, instead of rolling in, my foot rolled out. As a result, my old running shoes no longer fit and did not function the way I needed them to. For those who don’t run long-distance, or who’ve never had to deal with these things, shoes will compensate for the roll of your foot as you take a stride and keep all your other joints aligned as you run. It makes a huge difference in how a person feels during and after a run. The wrong type of shoe will cause pain in either afterwards or within the first few yards. With this, you’ll learn to hate running, like I did.

I tried several different shoes in the first few years after surgery with no success. I gave up after a while believing that I was just getting old, that my body was simply done with strenuous activity of any kind and that I was probably developing some sort of arthritis. I never went to a doctor though because you never know how much they’ll charge or how long their treatments will last. The last thing I also needed was a reminder that I needed to exercise. Yes, that’s what a clinic doctor told me when I went in for knee pain. Never looked at the injury, but prescribed weight loss and exercise in not very tactful terms. That cost me $800. Over a decade would pass before I went to a doctor again for anything similar.

Throughout my life, I’ve had to explain about my feet to so many sales people and gotten the range of reactions from understanding to disbelief, but most of them fall in the category of pitying sympathy, which when a person is frustrated sounds very patronizing. I gave up trying to explain. Knowing a store would not have my size, I’d go in and inspect the construction of the shoes, then go home with the plan to purchase the right size online. That usually never happened because the price was prohibitive on a $18,000 per year income. I’d already gotten stuck with several shoes that didn’t quite work when I could afford that. How could I trust, without trying those shoes on in the correct size, that they would either fit well or be returnable? I couldn’t, and when your budget is that tight, you don’t gamble. 

Three years ago, I committed to losing weight, and met success primarily through diet, but I could never get below a certain point and make my final goal. After a couple resets, I started to realize I had no choice. I had to find a way to overcome my issues with footwear and get back to working out. A few people will probably roll their eyes at this one, but realize that when being on your feet for two hours or more in a day puts your whole lower body into seven to nine pain on a zero to ten scale, working out is the last thing a person wants to do. In comparison, I rate the pain of walking on a freshly ruptured blister as a two, and that is one spot of pain compared to everything from my mid-back down to the soles of my feet hurting three to four times as bad. The last thing you want when you feel like this after work is work out. Working out in the morning just means you hurt worse earlier in your work day.

Finally, I got to the point where I could afford to buy new work shoes. After a few months, I felt good enough to remember what it used to feel like to run. Part of me missed the feeling of strength and freedom of motion it brought, but I still didn’t trust buying shoes online.

A couple summers ago, I learned about runners stores where the employees actually knew how to read a person’s stride and recommend an appropriate shoe. A customer could also try them on a treadmill! Unfortunately, stores like that aren’t found in every city though, or even every state. The nearest one I could find was in Rapid City almost 8 hours away. Plus, there was the nagging fear of being pushed into purchasing the wrong shoe yet again. Last month, while on vacation in the Black Hills, I finally got up the gumption to check out The Runner’s Shop

I went inside alone with Buck’s encouragement to take my time. Edgy from a lifetime of conflict laced experiences from fitting shoes and clothing, I wandered through the display racks wishing to hide but spurred forward by frustration with my body. I waited my turn, not willing to get my hopes set too high.

I’m pretty sure the guy who helped me was one of the owners from the way the other customers talked to him. He was a nice guy, and I felt I could trust him. At his instruction, I shed my hiking boots and walked barefoot so he could inspect my stride. The first pair he had me try on were size eight. I insisted on trying a size seven, and he countered with a seven and a half, insisting that I needed to wear shoes at least one half size larger for running. When I showed him the heel was too loose, he relented to letting me try a pair of size seven.

As I laced up the third pair, my feet recognized the feeling from about a decade before which is hard to describe. My dad once said putting on the right shoes should feel like you’re strapping on speed. As I stepped onto the treadmill and started walking, I felt drawn, dared to push the speed up. After a short distance, I regretted wearing jeans, but other than that and some stiffness from going too long without exercise, I felt good. I wasn’t disappointed to find out my feet were still extra wide. I was just glad to find shoes that I didn’t feel any misgivings about.

A week later, I laced up these new shoes and climbed onto the treadmill at work. I started with barely a mile, walking it more than running, worried I might pull something if I started off too hard. It wasn’t until my third run that I started feeling confident enough to admit that the only thing really standing between me and 5k race was some conditioning. 

I couldn’t race last year, but I think I will this year. The Turtle Trot is held at the end of August, and I’m confident I can make the distance by then since I’m already up to a mile and a half. Frankly, I don’t much care how long it takes me. As long as I have a good playlist to listen to and good shoes on my feet, I’m just going to enjoy the feeling of motion, unimpeded and without pain the way it used to be. Participating in the race is just a goal, a way of keeping me accountable. Will I take on other races? Probably not as I’d rather spend most of my weekends doing a wider variety of things in the summer, but I wouldn’t mind working my way up to the 10k distance next year.

No matter what, at least I’ve made it to this point finally. They say half of success is showing up. It’s easier to get going once you show up, especially if you have the right shoes for the job.

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