Barefoot Running Shoes and Backpacking

frozen toes on the trailThis winter I did some research on the barefoot running shoe (insert here: fad, craze, movement, etc) and decided that I would give it a try. I don't log much distance anymore but I've always used trail running shoes for backpacking and hiking. Therefore, I ramp up the running exiting winter so that I have a good base for hiking in the summer. I usually end the summer season with a solo trot of Mt. Rainier's Wonderland Trail, and considering the distance (93 miles), elevation (>21,000 feet) and sometimes difficult trail conditions (rocks, roots, snow, mud etc) I was curious if any of these shoes would provide enough protection from the trail gotchas. I also wondered if running with no cushion would work for me, as I overpronate and have been buying shoes over the years to help in this matter. I am also a typical heel striker, or so I thought. So I found myself leaving a store with a black pair of "gorilla feet", otherwise known as the Vibram 5 fingers.
Following the guidance, I started running on treadmills with very low mileage and soon found that I could put in 6 miles or more with no problems. It seems that my Kendo practice had actually prepared me for the transition, as I am used to stomping (known as fumikomi) and sliding over hardwood floors in bare feet. I experienced no painful calfs or sore muscles, and soon stopped thinking of leaning a little more forward and landing midfoot in my stride, as this seemed to come naturally. Happy with 50 miles or so on the treadmills, I hit the trail. Here's where some interesting things made themselves known. First, unless you buy individual toe socks like Iniji, you wear these shoes with none. When I got above 2000' and ran through some sheltered areas harboring muddy, slushy snow, my toes became intimately familiar with the terrain, as advertised. I couldn't feel them after 15 minutes and they didn't thaw out until I got substantially lower on the regular trail. I also have a funky big toe from a break a few years ago that pushed my nail bed up through the skin; the doctor removed the nail and it's regrowth has never been the same since. It's thickish and I can't cut it very short. After 2000' of downhill running my thick toe became intimately familiar with the end of the toe bed, jamming slightly with every footfall. Sure enough, the next day my toe was sore and discolored from bleeding underneath, although I don't think I'm going to lose it. This is when I knew my 5 fingers journey on trails was not going to happen.
Luckily, shoe manufacturers are happy to join the bandwagon and produce minimalist "barefoot" shoes for the same price as any other regular running shoe, as their profits are secure in either case. This meant I could look for an alternative to the gorilla feet, and I found it in the Merrell Trail Glove. Today I ran for 2 from Merrell's websitehours up another trail that was rockier, rootier, wetter and muddier than that first trail excursion, and I was pleasantly surprised. Hey, I could wear socks, so in spite of drenching rain and sub 40 degree temps, my feet stayed warm enough in spite of getting soaked. Also, the shoe has laces, and I am able to adjust the fit around my rear and mid foot better so that downhill running did not jam my toes into the footbox.
Now I am much more confident that I can take these minimalist Merrell shoes into the mountains and have that intimate feel with the earth (proprioception) without being so intimate that sharp rocks and other trail traps will injure me. But perhaps the greatest benefit of choosing a "barefoot" shoe that actually looks like a shoe is exactly that; I don't look like I have the feet of a gorilla.