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Big, Fat Feet

Three and a half years ago, Ashland runner Tamara Ellis had accumulated so many running injuries, her training ground to a halt.

"I did physical therapy. I had to take some time off from running," Ellis recalls. "I just felt frustrated."

As she flipped through Ultrarunning Magazine one day, she came across an ad for a new shoe company: Hoka One One. That company had a new approach to shoes: maximize the cushioning to reduce the pounding on the body's joints, and use light-weight materials.

Hokas have been described as "moon shoes" because they are so tall. Many running shoes have between 8 and 11 millimeters of cushioning. Triple that number for Hokas.

"I was really the first one (of my friends to buy Hokas), I remember feeling kind of embarrassed — I'm a 91/2;; my foot is fairly big — and when I put the big Hokas on, I felt like a clown wearing them. And that was when that whole minimalist running style was really popular."

Not long ago, runners were embracing barefoot and minimalist running as promoted in the best-selling book "Born To Run," which touted barefoot running as a more natural bio-mechanical form practiced by our distant ancestors.

Run barefoot, the thinking goes, and you will adapt your stride naturally to a more efficient form, and you'll suffer fewer injuries than runners in cushioned running shoes who land on their heel.

"That sole absorbed so much impact that I really felt all of my body tweaks and injuries healed," says Ellis. "Since the day I started wearing Hokas, I have not had an injury."

In addition to running her usual trail races, Ellis tested out her Hokas last summer in a 70-mile road race across England, one that paralleled the nearly 2,000-year-old Roman ruin Hadrian's Wall.

"I felt like my mileage could increase because I don't feel that leg fatigue until much later," she explains.

The running-shoe pendulum appears to have swung from minimalist to maximalist.

According to the January 2014 issue of Outside Magazine, minimalist shoes captured one-third of the running shoe market in 2010. Last year, that market share had plummeted to 15 percent. During the same time period, Hokas went from being available at 80 stores to 350 outlets.

Although ultrarunners were early adopters of Hokas, heavier and older short-distance runners have become an important part of the market for these heavily cushioned shoes that go easy on the joints.

"Hokas are getting the former linebackers — the guys over 200 pounds — back on the road," says Hoka One One spokesman Chris Denny.

In the design of this maximalist shoe is a lesson right out of "Born To Run." One of Hoka's technical innovations is the "rocker."

"It's like a rocking chair: curved up in the front and back," says Denny. "It's harder to land on your heel, so it promotes a midfoot strike and it allows you to roll off your toes for a more efficient foot and gait cycle."

Think of a conventional running shoe as a slipper on top of a wedge. The wedge is the cushioning: much higher in the heel than the toe. In industry lingo, this is known as the heel-to-toe drop, which for Hoka models is 4 to 6 millimeters.

"The typical heel-to-toe drop traditionally has been more like that 12-millimeter range," says Ryan Ghelfi, an elite ultrarunner who works at the Ashland shoe store Rogue Valley Runners. "A lot of companies are moving away from that (large heel-to-toe drop). They're leaving a good amount of cushion but lowering that heel a little bit. That's a lot of what we're seeing that's hanging on from 'Born To Run.' "

Though many runners are transitioning to maximalist shoes, many still swear by minimalist models. No two runners have the same biomechanics.

Talent runner Todd Ragsdale earned his 15 minutes of fame four years ago by running 100 miles barefoot in what was then the fastest-known time for such a run.

Today, Ragsdale's feet are sheathed when he runs, though he's still a minimalist.

"I think you need shoes to protect you from dangerous and unnatural conditions," says Ragsdale, who grew tired of cuts from obstacles on trails and bruises on his heel after landing on rocks. "You have to be constantly vigilant on every obstacle ahead of you and it (barefoot running) takes away from being able to take your mind off the immediacy of watching where you step, conversing with people, looking around at the scenery."

Altra, New Balance and Vasque are just a few of the shoe companies that have followed Hoka's lead in offering heavily cushioned, lightweight shoes with a low heel-to-toe drop. Like the minimalist movement, only time will tell whether the maximalist style is a fad or here to stay, or perhaps a technical innovation to be incorporated into the next trend.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.

Hoka One One running shoes are part of a trend toward bigger, fatter running shoes, which are said to reduce running injuries. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch