When Richard Polk started the Pedestrian Shops 40 years ago, he sold just one kind of shoe -- the Earth Shoe.
Over the decades, Polk has seen every kind of shoe movement come -- and often go. The latest, the minimal or "barefoot" shoe movement, has been spreading like an Arizona wildfire in the past year and shows no signs of slowing.
However, at least one local expert says the trend contributes to injury when too many miles are put on too soon.
"I think it is great," Polk said of the "barefoot boom" when I ran into him at Sherpa's on Thursday evening, when the restaurant was full of climbers and Boulder Trail Runners. A couple of the athletes wore minimal footwear such as the Vivobarefoot Evo, the Merrell Trail Glove or the Vibram Five Fingers.
Polk said "barefoot shoes" -- the term seems to be interchangeable with "minimalist" -- are not for everyone, and some runners and pedestrians need other kinds of shoes. But those who can wear these thin-soled shoes are often effusive in their praise.
Typical was Trusha Agashi, a college student from Ohio State visiting Boulder for a week.
"I love them!" she said of her Five Fingers. "At first I hated them because my calves hurt. I wish someone would tell us not to wear them more than a half-mile at first."
RL Smith of In-Step Footwear in south Boulder does indeed tell his customers to take a long time to get used to the different foot placement that minimal footwear engenders. Smith does not sell some varieties of "barefoot" shoes because he doesn't think they are designed correctly.
The key point, he emphasized at a recent store talk by barefoot guru Michael Sandler, is to run, and walk, with correct alignment. Shoes can either help with that or contribute to improper form, which can lead to a variety of injuries, starting at the feet and working their way up.
"People ask why I speak about barefoot running at stores that sell shoes," Sandler said during his In-Step talk. "Stores will sell more shoes when people run correctly."
Mark Plaatjes, the 1993 World Championships marathon gold medalist, does indeed sell a lot of shoes at Boulder Running Co.
He tells customers there is a long break-in period for the Five Fingers.
"And how many people are willing to do that?"
Not many, he said, which leads to injuries -- and more clients for his physical therapy business. "We have seen a 30 percent increase (in injuries)" because of the barefoot boom, he said.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, the Running Co. sold more than 3,000 pairs of shoes, Plaatjes said. Of those, more than 100 were a new brand called Hoka, with a big amount of cushioning for use in trail running that look quite different from the minimal shoes. The number of Five Fingers sold could be counted on one hand.
Local trail runner Charlie Merrill, of Alta Physical Therapy, has been "running minimalist" for roughly two years and calls it "a very positive" experience. "It has completely changed my paradigm around my own running, my perception of my own injuries and how I treat injuries in my practice," Merrill wrote in an e-mail. "I have also seen the consequences of going too far too soon."
It is hard to make sense out of all the shoes and models, with dozens of "barefoot shoes" such as the Vivobarefoot, first called Terra Plana, which was one of the earliest on the scene. Merrell now offers seven "barefoot" models and is sponsoring a race series called the Naked Foot 5K, one of several new running races in Boulder.
I have worn the Pearl Izumi "Peak" for years and, more recently, the Sir Isaac Newtons without any injuries. "Why change it if it is working?" Plaatjes asked.
One good reason, according to Sandler, is when runners take off their heavily cushioned shoes and get closer to the earth, the typical response is: " 'Wow! It feels good.'
"You realize this is something special. ... You feel the ground."
Still a bit uncertain about the whole trend, I asked Micah True -- the mysterious Caballo Blanco who starred in "Born to Run" -- what his take is on the burgeoning movement.
"Barefoot shoes?" True asked. "Barefoot shoes equal oxymoron. Either you are wearing shoes or you are not."