Vanity’s Fair: My Quest for Cute Running Shoes

I got new running shoes yesterday.

This is a big deal for me. I average only 10-12 miles a week, so I can get away with just one new pair a year. I always look forward to going to the running store and having a Cinderella moment as box after box of expensive sneakers are laid at my feet and slipped delicately onto my foot.

cinderella-glass-slipper

I get excited even though the choices presented to me are always pretty unsexy: my flat, over-pronating feet call for extreme levels of support, and that means sneakers that appear to be balancing out legs of unequal lengths. Or appropriate for an especially gentle aerobics class at the senior center.

senior aerobics

Last year, it got even worse.

2013: The Year of the Food Service Shoe

I was shopping for my first pair of shoes after Rory was born. I had taken my pregnancy and first postpartum year off from exercising, but was ready to get back into running. I went to the store where I’d bought my last several pairs of shoes. Since it had been a while, they decided to measure me again.

I’d gone up a half size. I had suspected as much; none of my regular shoes were fitting quite right, either. But there was other news: my feet had morphed from standard to wide.

“Hmmm,” the guy said. “Let me see what we have for that.”

Wide. As if I weren’t already feeling bad about hanging on to the last ten pounds of baby weight and my weird protruding tummy. Now my feet had to go and expand on me.

I sat down in the fitting area. The salesman returned with a box, opened it briskly, and began to slide a shoe onto my foot.

The shoe was black, bulky. I tried to conceal my disdain, but the salesman must have noticed my toes recoil as they touched it. I had settled for plenty of non-flashy shoes over the years – white with maroon accents, white with gray accents – but even I had my limits.

This shoe was straight out of a food-service industry catalogue. I had flashbacks to visiting my friend Chevon at the Godfather’s Pizza where she worked for a summer during high school. I worked across the street in a coffee shop, inexplicably wearing sandals while making sandwiches and frothing hot milk for cappuccinos. But Godfather’s followed OSHA rules, and the shoes the salesman was now offering me were the same shoes Chevon wore to conform to those rules. All that was missing was the hairnet.

food service shoe

Okay, this is not the exact shoe. But you get the idea.

I gulped. “I know this is totally shallow, but, uh, do you have any other colors?”

“Nope, sorry,” he said. “This is the only color available for this shoe in wide.”

It felt ridiculous not to give the shoes a try. After all, I was a 35-year-old mother of two, not a 12-year-old buying new shoes for the upcoming rec night at her middle school. I wanted to be a better runner, not a style icon. So I stood up and jogged an awkward loop around the store.

As I circled back to my seat, I noticed another salesperson and a woman about my mother’s age assisting an elderly woman with a pair of sneakers. The white-haired woman slowly hunched in her wheelchair to examine the shoes on her feet.

They were the same shoes I was wearing.

“Yeah,” I told the salesman as I finished my loop. “I don’t think these are going to work.”

He ended up finding me a less troubling pair of Asics, gray with blue accents. Not flashy, but fine. The wide fit was a bit too loose, but I laced them tightly and wore them for a year without issue.

asics

But yesterday, I was looking forward to something new.

2014: Like a Rainbow

The store was empty when I walked in. I was greeted by the same guy who sold me the wide shoes a year ago.

“Can I help you?”

“I need a new pair of shoes,” I announced, quickly wiping the corners of my mouth for any remains of the peanut butter sandwich I had eaten on the drive there.

He looked for my record in the computer.

“Hmmm, I see that last time you got an Asics in the 9 wide. That’s strange, we don’t even carry that model in wide.”

Strange, indeed. Or maybe a miracle from God to save me from running in the shoes of a short-order cook. Either way.

“Well, I was kind of between a wide and regular last time, so I was interested in seeing how regular might fit this time,” I told him.

I browsed the socks until he brought out several boxes of the usual suspects: Asics, Saucony and Brooks, each with a solid inch of sturdy-looking sole. But all regular width. When he opened the Sauconys, I gasped audibly.

“Oh, purple!” I exclaimed. “I’ve never had a fun color before.”

The shoes were a vibrant purple with turquoise and neon yellow accents. Yes, the inch of white rubber on the inner sole still made them look like an orthopedic shoe, but it was better than anything I’d had before.

I told myself to be rational. I did my little jog around the store, and then proceeded to try on the rest of the shoes.

The truth? They all felt more or less the same. Still trying to make a logical decision, I interrogated the salesman on the relative merits of each shoe. Why might these be better? What kind of reviews do these get? Do these seem too tight? Is there enough room in my toe? Will it take a while for them to break in?

“Well, I wouldn’t go out and run ten miles the first time you wear them,” he said.

“Oh, ha! Ten miles!” I laughed. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

I saw it in his eyes: amateur.

“So, are you training for something, or are these just for general exercise?”

Why I felt I needed to convince this man that I was a serious runner, I have no idea.

“I, uh, am probably going to do the Running of the Bulls 8k at the end of this month,” I said. “I just need to sign up.”

His face continued to read “unimpressed,” so I kept going.

“And, you know, my husband just ran that Merge 25K, and is interested in doing a half, so, you know, I might want to do that, too.”

I am not doing a half.

He eyed me warily, but proceeded to itemize the differences between the shoes. Gel vs. rubber cushioning. The millimeter variations in pitch from one style to another.

“But ultimately,” he said, “it’s up to you. Only you can tell what feels good.”

Yes. Only I can tell. And really, they all felt so similar, I could have closed my eyes and pointed to any one of the pairs and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

But what I wanted him to tell me, even though I wasn’t asking it at all, was this: Which shoe will make running less hard?

How-Start-Running

Which shoe will make four miles an “easy” run? Which shoe will get me through a run on a sauna-like July evening? Which shoe will motivate me to lace up when my back is killing me after a day of standing on the driveway with the kids, standing in front of the stove making meals, standing in front of the washing machine sorting laundry, standing at the sink washing dishes? Which shoe will make my legs feel stronger and my lungs burn less and make me go that extra mile even though if I do it will be too late when I get home to take a shower and watch an episode of Homeland?

I knew he didn’t have the answers to these questions. Because I know it’s not about the shoes. That stuff’s up to me.

I put the Asics on one foot, and a Saucony on the other and took one final lap around the store. Even in side-by-side comparison, they felt virtually identical. Maybe the Sauconys were a little more cushioned.

saucony

“I’ll go with the Sauconys,” I told him.

“It’s because they’re purple, isn’t it?” he asked.

“No,” I told him. Because it wasn’t. They honestly felt the best. (And, okay, they were the least expensive of the very expensive bunch.)

But so what if it was? Because really, who knows? Maybe a good-looking shoe is just the thing I need to take my running to the next level. And if not, at least I’ll look good standing in the driveway with the kids.

Tell me: what are your favorite running shoes? Does it matter to you what they look like? And will running ever get easier?