New Shoes

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I finally had to replace my shoes. Most people get only 500 miles out of their shoes on the AT. I got 1,500 miles. Mine did require some repair work occasionally, like gluing the treads back in place. However, after many miles and a week of rain, the leather finally gave out and started splitting from the sole. I tried to repair that, too, but my labors were in vain.

I don’t know how many people are tracking me via my real-time map. I know Patrick Freeman’s middle school classes are. Apparently, so was Sarah Gregory, who surprised me at a trailhead with “You shouldn’t post your GPS location online.” Luckily, I don’t have any assassins out to get me or warrants for my arrest, so I’m not worried about posting my location online. In fact, it occasionally gets me some trail magic from sweet people like Sarah. She took my trash, offered me trays of snacks and candy (Butterfinger…score!), and even drove me to a nearby store where I got an amazing turkey pesto sandwich on ciabatta bread. I ate so good that night. Thank you, Sarah!

But I digress. The point was that she has been following me and was a bit concerned when she saw me bolt from the trail to Albany, New York. She thought I was about to hop a plane and give up on my goals. Nope. I’m too stubborn for that. I was on a mission for a new pair of shoes. And I need a very specific shoe: Altra Olympus.

Pinch Blisters

If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve had some feet issues, like losing toenails. But one ongoing issue is pinch blisters on my pinky toes. Constant pain. Every step results in a debilitating flash of pain. Just for a moment, but for every single step. Consequently, my mind is on edge, focused on trying to somehow minimize the pain of each step. My entire body is constantly tense in anticipation of the impending bolt of pain. It’s exhausting. And painful.

The problem is that my pinky toe curves underneath the adjacent toe. I suspect this is from years of wearing sandals and five-fingers and wide shoes like Doc Martins, which caused my feet to get wide. Then I found approach shoes with grippy soles and a tight fit, which made them excellent for scrambling over rocks on trails and in caves. Unfortunately, my wide-spread toes were cramped in the approach shoes’ narrow toe boxes, which started my pinky toes getting pushed under. No big deal when I run around in them for a few hours on the weekend and spend the rest of the week working from home in my socks. But it is a big deal when I suddenly start hiking miles every day carrying a 40-pound backpack.

Pinky toe curves under the adjacent toe.
My pinky toe curves under the adjacent toe.

Every step, my pinky toes get squished. Eventually that forms pinch blisters. The pinch blisters then get filled with blood as the adjacent blood vessels burst under the constant beating. Eventually, the pain would become so bad that would have stop, take off my shoes and socks, and inspect my toes. Yep. Big puss-filled blister on the bottom of my pinky toes. If have to pullout the tiny scissors on my miniature multitool, snip a little slit into the blisters, and let the bloody puss drain out. Believe me, it’s even less fun than it sounds.

I’ve tried lots of remedies. I’m already wearing toe socks, so that hasn’t prevented the pinch blisters, although they likely have prevented numerous other blisters that I commonly get from my toes rubbing on each other. I wrap my pinky toes in bandaids. This helps prevent the blisters, but I still get a huge, callused ridge along the bottom of my toe, usually a deep burgundy from burst blood vessels. Again, out come the scissors as I carefully cut away this rock-hard ridge of dead skin. Sometimes I cut too deep and it hurts, sometimes bleeds.

I also tried various gel devices. I tried gel toe caps. Those sucked: cut off circulation in my toe, toe turned white from being waterlogged because the sweat was trapped in the cap, and they didn’t prevent they blisters or the callous ridge. I tried gel spacers. First was one that fit around my pinky toe similar to the cap but one side has a huge wall that pushed my pinky away from the adjacent toe. It cutoff circulation like the cap, and it was also incredibly painful. That protruding wall was too big and pushed too far.

Next, I tried just a gel spacer. It looked like an hourglass with a really fat middle. Didn’t cutoff circulation like the others, but it was also wide and thus painful.

Finally, I found some narrow gel spacers. These actually work for me. Mostly. They do slip out easily. I tried taping them in place, which works but leaves my socks and the spacers sticky. I’ve settled on wearing compression socks over my toe socks and spacers. This works most of the time, although the spacers do slip out occasionally, and I have to stop, take off my shoe and compression sock to put it back in place.

But I was still getting the callous ridge, so I still wrap my toe with a bandaid. All that together seems to work. By the way, I have to use the stretchy, breathable fabric bandaids. I made the mistake of getting waterproof plastic bandaids one time and had the white, waterlogged toe problem.

So here’s my daily process:

  1. Pinky toe curves under adjacent toe.
  2. Wrap pinky toe in fabric bandaid with pad on bottom of toe.
  3. Wear toe socks.
  4. Insert thin gel spacer between pinky toe and adjacent toe.
  5. Wear compression sock over your socks and spacers.
  6. Occasionally stop on trail to readjust spacer.

Specific Shoes

The reason I described my pinch blister problem in such detail is to help other people who encounter this, but also because it directly ties into why I was off trail for four days looking for shoes. I need a very specific shoe. And in a men’s size 12, which adds to the rarity.

One brand, Altra, has a huge toe box in their Olympus and Lone Peak models. Hoka has a fairly wide toe box, too, but they have so much cushion that I feel like I’m wearing platform shoes. Plus, I prefer the zero-drop of Altras.

In addition, my friends just north of me are sending reports and photos of them in snow-laden mountains. Thus, I want to be sure to get shoes with waterproofing, not thin breathable mesh. Mesh in snow equals “immediately get your feet soaking wet and frozen resulting in frostbite”. Waterproofing means you have 2 or 3 days before the frostbite sets in.

I was in Manchester, Vermont when this happened. The only outfitter there is the Mountain Goat, and unfortunately they do not carry Altras. I tried practically every trail shoe they had in a size 12. Two models were OK, but the toe boxes weren’t as wide as Altras. Even in the brief minutes that I wore them in the store, I could feel the pinching. No way these would work hiking all day every day without exacerbating my toe issues. That’s when I hopped a bus to Albany, New York. Big town with far more options than quaint little Manchester.

Unfortunately, even Albany didn’t have what I needed. I couldn’t find anywhere in Albany that carried Altra Olympus. I did find one store, Eastern Mountain Sports, that had one pair of size 12 Altra Lone Peak. Unfortunately, these were the mesh/frostbite style. Nope.

Thus, I had to order a pair of Altra Olympus 5 Hike Low GTX in men’s size 12, and then wait two more days in Albany for delivery. Two neros and three zeros later I had the correct shoes to keep my toe issues to a minimum and hopefully get me to the top of Katahdin. Stay tuned!

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