Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Primal Professional Barefoot Dress Shoe (Prototype)

THE STORY - A Colorado 14er in California?
April 23rd, 2012 - A man named Mountain and his girlfriend Cherry step out of a silver rental sedan on a sunny spring afternoon and I greet them at my door for the first time in person. They will spend a few days with my wife and I along their massively epic US road trip, taking them from their home in sunny California to the cool Midwest, the East Coast, and the baked Southwest, mostly to see their homeland in its fullness, but also to take care of some business. The warmth of their West Coast home radiates from their smiles, and I like them immediately. It's true that his full name is Mountain Evan Chang, and I wonder if he's named after Mt. Evans, the third tallest peak in Colorado at 14,264ft with the highest paved road in North America. Not a bad start to life with a name like that. His female companion Cherry exudes the very essence of the fruit itself, sweet and vibrant. Indeed it seems these two were destined for greatness by their very names alone.

I met Mountain about 6 months earlier when I discovered his Indie GoGo campaign to kickstart his own business surrounding a totally new shoe design, namely for a zero-drop, minimalist dress shoe, or barefoot dress shoe as it were. Choosing to adhere to the paleo diet and live life as an urban caveman of sorts got him to thinking about bringing the ethos of his personal life into his work life, a place filled with modern conventions that are contrary to most everything we know in life to be healthy: sitting all day, slouching in front of a computer under artificial light, wearing constricting clothing, and eating junk food to stay awake to do work that does neither provide joy nor satisfaction. That may be an overstatement, but you get the idea. In any case, like many people devoted to a more primal lifestyle, being barefoot - or as barefoot as possible - is a key ingredient, for various health reasons. Thus, designing a barefoot dress shoe that not only provides comfort and a minimalist feel but also compliments the modern dress shoe style became increasingly more paramount to him as a member of the professional world.

In my last post, I discussed the notion of making an impact on the world in a positive way, while also leading a kickass life. It's important to allow our dreams to be larger than life, and even more important to dedicate the energy necessary to truly make them a reality, which is what Mountain is doing, and I respect and admire him a great deal for it. Although his initial Indie GoGo campaign failed, he was so confident in his design that he quit his job and dedicated himself full-time to making this barefoot dress shoe happen. He has fronted most of his life savings to put this into production, and the moment has finally arrived. The first run of the shoe will be ready to ship in just months. Having shared in his excitement and being a supporter of his dream, I was lucky enough to snag a pair of prototypes from him to preview, so here's the sneak peek. Check it out.


The idea behind this shoe is to provide as much comfort and space in an otherwise classically-shaped dress shoe, allowing for the greatest proprioception and toe-splay without sacrificing style. The clothes may make the man, but the shoes make him complete. Thus, Mountain decided on a high-quality full-grain black leather, round-toe, closed-lace, cap-toe oxford, because it's truly classic and elegant (sorry guys if the word "elegant" rubs you the wrong way - how about sexy?). It is a shoe that fits many purposes and occasions, and it's a great place to start for a minimalist dress shoe.

The penultimate feature of the design for this shoe is the shape. The shoe looks like a standard oxford, managing to hide the fact that it is wide enough to give all five little piggies room to splay and the midfoot room to expand without looking like a clown shoe. There were a couple of earlier prototypes that I had the chance to check out when Mountain was visiting, and I felt like was wearing a pair of Ronald McDonald's flattened casuals, so I'm glad that he hit the mark with this current version.

The Primal Professional in the middle, in comparison with my two pair of (very old) dress shoes.

Ultimately the coolest and most unique part of this barefoot dress shoe is the sole. The greatest beef with dress shoes for barefooters, in my observation, is the raised heel in most standard styles. To be a true barefoot dress shoe, or even a minimalist dress shoe, it would need to be zero-drop, meaning no difference in height from heel to toe, while also providing good ground feel, otherwise known more technically as proprioception. To this end, Mountain was creative in designing a sole that tricks the eye into believing the heel is raised, when in fact it's all just a ruse. By having a flexible, zero-drop sole that appears to have a raised heel, form and function become delightfully intertwined. Unfortunately, I did not get the fully finished version of the shoe, because the soles hadn't been produced yet, so the best part was missing, and instead it had just a flat piece of ersatz rubber. Here's a pic I stole from Mountain to give you the idea, however.

Mountain went out of his way to find a manufacturer that not only is in the US, but would produce the shoe with the greatest quality, materials, and attention to detail. The leather is incredibly uniform and supple, the stitching is perfect, and it just looks sexy. I can't say that it stands out in the crowd of dress shoes, as there is really no trendy or funky accent to it, but as mentioned earlier, it's a timeless design that will withstand the fashion trends through the years. Although the pair that I received to review are unfinished in the fact that they only have an ersatz sole for the time being, the upper is impressive. Unfortunately I cannot say anything about the feel or quality of the sole itself, other than to say that the pictures look pretty swanky, and this vid - starting at 7:06 - shows superior flexibility. The entire product is manufactured by a company in Wisconsin, for which Mountain searched long and hard to ensure quality, and also to support our own national economy. A high-quality product that also maintains jobs here at home - what could be better?

Fit: The Most Comfortable Dress Shoe Ever?
To say that I was excited to receive the test prototype is an understatement. I had seen pictures of the developments and followed Mountain through the process, and thus have anticipated the final product for quite some time. In regard to the fit, they are definitely roomy enough to provide toe-splay and midfoot expansion. That being said, they didn't fit my foot terribly well. I have a very narrow heel and a wide midfoot (think swim flipper), and in order to avoid the shoe looking too clownish, the extra width in the midfoot continues back to the heel as well, making the shoe wide in general. Additionally, these are a size 7, and I normally wear a size 8 in regular shoes (7.5 in my Merrel Trail Gloves and a 39 in Five Fingers), so the sizing is also a bit wonky.

The other dilemma in designing this shoe came from the trick-the-eye sole. The foot actually rests inside of the outsole, meaning the upper must be a bit shallower to fit more properly when the foot rests so low to the ground. However, making the upper too shallow drastically changes the look of the shoe, giving it a strangely flat profile, so finding the proper shape was a challenge throughout the design process. In my case, along with my narrow heel, I also have a rather shallow foot from top to bottom. Due to this, the cuff of the shoe felt quite loose and sloppy and I never felt I could tie it quite tightly enough. The closed-lace design, while looking cleaner and classier, also hinders the ability to tie the shoe tighter, as opposed to an open-lacing system that is a bit more forgiving. I have tried on numerous closed-lace dress shoes in the past (regular dress shoes with a raised heel), and I've always had this problem around the cuff.

Laces tied all the way, foot resting normally, with visible space at heel, while wearing thick wool socks.
Despite the loose fit around the cuff, the shoes performed surprisingly well. I must admit that when I tried them on, I was disappointed, although not surprised. I know the shape of my foot well and was expecting the closed-lace design to provide a challenge in a snug fit around the cuff. Throwing all of that aside, I decided to wear them to work for a day, and being a classroom teacher who is on his feet all day, they were awesome, even with the thin, rigid temporary sole it has now. That sole, however, made them wicked slippery, and I'm glad that the actual soles will be quality non-slip rubber. Despite the temporary sole, they still looked great with a pair of nice jeans and dress shirt for "casual Friday." I tried them on with my dress pants as well when I got home, and they looked classy as hell.

So the question is; is this the most comfortable dress shoe ever? It certainly has the potential. After about an hour, I didn't notice the loose cuff except for when I went down the stairs or downhill, when my foot was pushed forward more and it cramped my toes a bit. Otherwise these were a sweet ride, and I think that with the actual sole, they will be even more comfortable. Also of note regarding the soles is that they can be replaced when worn out. Overall, I would say that there is still room for growth and improvement in the design, but seeing as this has never been done before, I give Mountain an "A" for effort. I personally am fond of the patent-leather square-toed oxford and would love to see a Primal Professional version in the future.

Is This Shoe For Everyone?
Quite a few people I've met who aren't into the minimalist "movement" don't seem to understand what the fuss is about, or they simply don't care, which begs the question of why to even consider these dress shoes, especially considering that they run around $300 a pair. Allow me to make a few points to address this. First off, let me ask you; are your dress shoes both appropriate and stylish, yet also comfortable enough to wear ALL day without sore feet by the time you take them off? If not, then you should consider these shoes. Secondly, do you want healthier, stronger feet, better posture, and a more normal, efficient gait that will prevent foot problems like bunions, a misaligned spine, and a host of other preventable maladies later in life? Consider how much time you spend at work throughout your life, for which you need to wear dress shoes (if you have such a career). Your feet will thank you for these shoes. Finally, I will direct you to this post by Jason Robillard, who has done some testing on the comfort and support of minimalist shoes while working long hours on his feet as a UPS delivery man, otherwise known as an "industrial athlete." Some of his findings and insights are truly invaluable, showing that you need not be a suit-and-tie businessman to benefit from a minimalist dress shoe. You may decide for yourself that not only is this the most comfortable dress shoe ever, but simply the most comfortable shoe, period. You even have a 365-day risk-free period to test it with free returns and exchanges during that time. That's how confident Mountain is in his product. As I mentioned earlier, you're also buying a quality product that's made in the USA from a small business owner who cares about the economy and the health of his customers (not to mention their style). That's the kind of person I would like to support.

If you're interested in more information, check out the website via the link on the side of my blog, or on The Primal Professional's Facebook page, where you'll find more photos and information on how to get in on owning a pair of these unique and comfortable shoes.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The List: Attaining Dreams and Making an Impact

Happy New Year! Well, it's 2013, the world didn't end, and here we are for another trip around the sun. Now is the time when people start making resolutions to improve their lives in the coming year, be it a plan to get in shape, be more successful in their career, or do more good for the lives of others. Of course, the cliché is that most people tend not to keep their resolutions, but I think it is nonetheless a valuable tradition. It's only a shame that most people do it only once a year at this symbolically fresh start, a sort of do-over now that we've reached the need for a new calendar. I'm a proponent of continued reflection throughout the year, and the last few weeks have brought that in various ways.

Throughout the blogosphere lately, or at least the realm in which I dwell, I've been reading a lot about two complimentary ideas, namely getting the most out of life and doing the most good. The former has included such ideas as selling everything and living a life of travel and adventure, or quitting your day job to replace it with one that you can do from anywhere at anytime and may not require much work at all. The latter has dealt with improving self and the lives of others and the greater notion of leaving a legacy. It's in the combination of these two concepts that interests me most.

On the Friday before Christmas, my two good ultrarunner friends Joe and Sam were back in town to visit family, and we managed to hook up for an awesome night run in the snow along the Kinnikinnick River in River Falls, WI. I don't often get the chance to run with friends, but a run with these guys produces rich conversation, with a flow and honesty that only a conversation while running can provide. We discussed relationships, deeper self-evaluation, future race plans, and interspersed it all with the typical humor that most male runners seem to share. All things considered, it was refreshing for the soul and a rekindling of passion for life.

Later that evening we shared a meal and more than a few beers, continuing our conversation. The three of us are all adventurers, aiming to "do cool shit" as Joe plainly puts it, but we got into the deeper repercussions of said adventure, particularly relating to ultrarunning. It's truly amazing to me still that people can run 100 miles continuously, not to mention at the paces some do, but it begs the question, "So what?" What does it truly mean, what is the value of it? In the grand scheme of things, I argued that in and of itself it doesn't mean squat, because it's not designed as a task you do to help others and improve the world. It's just doing something cool. That being said, on a more individual level it makes a huge impact: for the runner, for the crew and volunteers, and for the sake of human potential. Running 100 miles is a quest that challenges not only the body, but the mind and spirit as well, yielding huge potential for personal growth. It is, however, what you do with this growth that is important. Winning a buckle at Western States is a huge accomplishment, but if you do it just to say that you've run 100 miles in under 24 hours, it changes very little, in your life or others' lives. In Joe's case, he has used his knowledge as a physical therapist and experience as an ultrarunner to help numerous athletes as a columnist on iRunfar.com and through private coaching, not to mention his day-to-day job. Although I have not run a "hundo," my experience crewing for Joe at Western States in 2011 was inspirational to say the least and life changing to be more honest. There are many different angles in how we look at our impact on others, so long as we do consider it and make a concerted effort to be sure we're being a positive force in the world.

That brings me to a blog post I came across shortly after Christmas from a guy who quit his job, sold or got rid of most of his possessions, and is attempting to ride his motorcycle around the world. Rather than blogging about his travels, he blogs more about how to change your life for the better. The post that struck me most was on the notion of struggle. We humans need struggle. We need it to learn, grow, and create self worth. In contrast, we also seem to work diligently at making things easier for ourselves, thereby decreasing the actual struggle in our lives. It's a strange dichotomy, and for those of us who happened to be born in the right place at the right time into privilege of all sorts, our true struggles are very few, and so we create artificial struggles to overcome, to say that we too are strong, creative, intelligent, and worthy. It is for this reason that we see so many obstacle races popping up all over, like the Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash, to name a few. Although the artificial struggles may seem a bit trite at times, they can have value and may also reap huge rewards for the individual. At various points in our discussions when Joe, Sam, or I would voice some kind of complaint or issue, one of the other two of us would simply utter, "first world problems." It's a quick jerk back into reality, to say that our problems are nonsense compared to those who haven't eaten in a week, or must voyage on foot across an entire African country in order to seek refuge from rebel killers, but if we recognize this difference, we can choose to make our "first world" struggles valuable when we put their effects and outcomes to good use.

So the question is, how can you lead the most kickass AND badass life possible, living life to the fullest and still making the greatest difference in the world? That is for each of us to decide, and that's the reason behind this post. I'm reminded of a quote by E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web, that frames the issue quite well; "I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult." It's a valid sentiment, but must it be so? Can succeeding in a self chosen "struggle" yield just as much joy and satisfaction as just "doing cool shit?"

Last Saturday my wife and I watched the documentary Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It was not only incredibly well done, but inspiring and thought provoking, to see ideal examples of what people are doing around the world, despite all odds, to make a difference in the lives of others. It is a two-part documentary reporting on six countries around the world where individuals or groups of people have set out to overcome seemingly insurmountable struggles such as sex trafficking, accepted gender-based violence, and unequal opportunities in education for girls. Some of the tales are harrowing, in which the individuals literally risk their lives to save underage girls from a life of rape and violence in brothels. Without a doubt it was a film to make me wonder if I'm doing enough, or if I'm doing anything at all. As a teacher, I can always say that I'm making a difference in the lives of young people, but I am a white male born in the United States, armed to the teeth with the weapons of privilege. Now is the time to contemplate if I'm using my weapons wisely and completely.

The final piece in this whirlwind of thought as of late was a post by Jason Robillard on his blog, detailing his new undertaking called the BRUcrew - a community of like-minded individuals devoted to improving themselves and the world around them by overcoming their fears and stepping up to more meaningful interactions and undertakings. It's a cool idea, although I wouldn't say totally unique. There are plenty of self-improvement strategies and groups out there, but this one found me first, mainly because he's a barefoot runner and ultrarunner and started the group mainly for training purposes, and is now expanding it to include more altruistic challenges. In any case, all of these thoughts and experiences lately have compounded to an idea I had (or stole) from my good friend Jen last summer while at her wedding in the Bighorn mountains of Wyoming. The officiant at the ceremony told several short stories about her and her groom, but one struck me as particularly simple, but brilliant. He explained that while inside Jen's apartment for the first time, he noticed a piece of paper on the fridge on which she listed all of her big dreams. They ranged from smaller, more easily attainable dreams, up to the huge ones that will be years in the making. Now, I've always been a visual person and also a list-maker. I have yellow sticky notes all over my desk and computer at work to remind me of various things, so this idea of a "dream list" struck me as a wonderful idea, to have a simple reminder staring me in the face every time I go for a glass of milk or post-workout beer. Thus I started two lists, in fact. The first list includes only names of people with whom my wife and I have pledged to have dinner or hang out. It will not only keep us on track, but give us something to look forward to in the coming months. The second list, however, is the Big One. I have titled it "The Dream is Reality List," and it includes mostly adventures so far, such as traveling to New Zealand, climbing Devil's Tower, and running at least a 50-miler. I hope to expand that list into one that will include endeavors to make a difference in others' lives, and Anna and I have already started discussing some possibilities, which is the first task. In seeking out answers to the questions posed here, we must first define a tangible and specific action that will be list-worthy.

Should you have similar feelings and desires at the turning of the new year, here are two resources to check out that helped - or will help - me flesh out the specifics better. Check out some of the links and/or additional posts by these gentlemen. They may not be mind-blowing, but they are a great place to start thinking, and better yet dialoging with others. Cheers!

Motovagabond - How to Find Your Passion
Building a Legacy Project: A Good Blueprint For a Life That Really Matters