The best thing about the five-finger Vibram shoe – the craze has certainly reach the tipping point – is that it lets the runner navigate terrain that had previously been in accessible.

With heel-first running, I had always been restricted to sidewalks and streets. Now that I run as the body’s frame and leg muscles intended, I can utterly dominate and conquer nature itself, smashing under foot pine straw, dirt, zoysia grass, centipede grass, bermuda grass, small rocks, and every other rough-hewn path of earth you can find in suburbia other than marshy land strewn with ant hills or dog waste.

So of course I decided to have a bonding moment with my dog and take him on my nature run. I imagined two of God’s creatures running as we were intended to do, he with his built ins and I with my Vibrams. He was excited as always to see the leash, and off we went.

I landed on the earth and took off. He stopped dead in his tracks. To my amazement, he utterly refused to run with me as nature intended. It was sidewalks for him or nothing. So I spent the rest of this humiliating journey with the dog running wimpily on the sidewalks as I ran along the small patch of edged lawn on either side.

I swear that the whole time he kept looking at me with with a skeptical stare as if to say: what the heck are you doing? So I’m wondering what his little paws are good for. Do I have to find some doggie Vibrams to get this pet to run as he should? After all, it is true that this breed of dog would not have evolved in nature. With my Vibrams, I’m even more the beast than this designer dog is willing to be.

This new innovation in shoes is one of the more spectacular entrepreneurial moves I’ve ever witnessed. To those who are out of the loop, the theory goes that shoes with heels encourage us to run (and it applies to walking too) on our heels first, but that approach is contrary to what our bodies really want to do. Running barefoot, you can easily see what happens. We land on the balls of our feet. This changes everything. The center of gravity shifts. We use new muscles. For the first time, our toes actually seem to have a role in keeping our balance. The awkwardness of running (or walking) goes away and we experience a new-found stability.

If you don’t believe the logic, you can watch some amazing promotional videos that appeal to the boyhood fantasy that the right pair of shoes will make you jump higher and run faster than all your peers.

All of this makes strange sense in some way. I had been very skeptical for several reasons. It seemed to me that heels have been around for a very long time, and it seemed positively crankish to believe that they are really the enemy of health and well being. And yet, someone pointed out to me that running shoes with big shock-absorbing heels are really an innovation of the 1970s and that running shoes before then tended to be flat. I have a vague memory of this. Score one for the five-finger crowd.

Also, I tend to be skeptical of any new and zany theory that seems to have all the answers. You are hit with a blizzard of seemingly logical points and haven’t really considered the other point of view.

The waterbed is a case in point. It was supposed to be the answer to all back problems, returning us to our natural state as from the womb and ridding us of the unnatural and distorting hard bed we’ve always known. Presented with this argument, it is really difficult to come up with a counterargument. All you can really say is: that sounds rather goofy!

I was actually in the furniture business at the tail end of the waterbed mania. It turns out that people were sick of sloshing around in water while they slept. They kept demanding ever more “bevels” to dampen the sloshiness. The companies kept adding and adding to meet consumer demand until the point that the water bed seemed more-or-less like a mushy regular bed.

Eventually, the waterbed craze passed. Everyone felt a bit silly about the whole thing, and that was it.

The five-fingered shoe craze is even more intense. It is entrepreneurship on overdrive. The shoe only hit the market in 2005, and now consider. You go into a regular sports store that has perhaps 1000 shoes on the wall of every color, variety, and style. You stand back from this display and look. Not one of them is without a heel. Not one of them has fingered-toes. Whereas last week you would have loved shopping and shopping here, today you suddenly look at this gigantic display as the enemy of your quality of life.

What has changed? Nothing other than the information that seeped into your head.

Now, whatever else you want to say about this marketing strategy, it is breathtakingly brilliant. Sure enough, I asked about shoes with the new theory behind them. Do you carry any? The sales clerk looked at me sheepishly and said: we are sold out.

Stunning.

But is it just another case of the waterbed, something that seems to make sense for now but in a few years we will all wake up and realize that this was just goofy?

I can only speak from my experience so far, and it is very good. After a few crippling days in which long asleep muscles screamed in agony, and every time I got up from a chair I walked like an old man, it has been pure joy. Running is something I do but never enjoyed. Now I enjoy it. My endurance is better. I love being able to run wherever I want to. Nothing on my body hurts, and I really imagine that this is improving my overall sense of balance.

Am I a victim of a hoax? Maybe. And maybe millions of others are too. But for now, it is meeting a need, and I am in absolute awe of the genius that it took to dream up this idea.

Only a few years ago, another company swept all before it with the invention of Crocs – the most implausible shoe ever. Immediately on the market the company faced legions of impersonators. They attempted again and again to gain a legal monopoly but fortunately failed for the most part. So the company fought back the old fashioned way: through amazing marketing and innovation.

Vibram has tried the same shady methods of patent enforcement, suing everyone in sight. It’s dumb: impersonators are inevitable. And much welcome. It too had better continue to innovate and lower prices. One thing we’ve learned for sure: no company can succeed on patent lawsuits alone.

How do you make a buck in a world of free markets? Work hard, innovate, take a risk, serve society, and sell like crazy. Vibram has done all of this. Say what you want about these shoes, the company that pushed them out there has made a dent in the universe.


The featured image was taken by Jan Kraus (CC BY 2.0).