Vibram FiveFingers Class Action Settlement: Everyone is Wrong

Hey, did you hear the makers of Vibram FiveFingers settled a class-action lawsuit to the tune of $3.75 million? You didn’t? That’s strange. It’s only been covered by every blog and news organization from NPR to Outside Magazine to The Wall Street Journal to The Christian Science Monitor to … um … The Omaha World Herald. Not to mention the dozens of time it was posted and re-posted in my Facebook news feed.

Some modest Googling informs me Runner’s World has the best summary of the actual lawsuit and resulting settlement.

What I find most striking is the celebratory, “I told you so!” tone in most of these articles (and ALL of the Facebook posts). It’s as though critics of those creepy shoes with the individual toes have busted Vibram deliberately trying to deceive its own customers with LIES and FALSE ADVERTISING. Some even posit the very logical argument that agreeing to settle a lawsuit while not agreeing to any wrongdoing means their products ACTUALLY WRECK YOUR FEET.

The best response I’ve read from the FiveFingers advocacy camp is similar to what is usually the best response in kerfuffles like these: There is no cut-and-dry, black-and-white answer, rather, this situation is choked with nuance, complexities at the individual user level, and a whole lot of unknown/unproven/non-definitive science. Justin over at Birthday Shoes has an excellent analysis of a lot of the subtleties in this story.

The most concise way I’ve found to phrase what I think is the correct thesis goes something like this: The health of your feet (and ankles, shins, knees, quads, hammies, glutes, back, neck, face, and hair) has less to do with the shoes on your feet and more to do with how you approach your exercise regimen, and, more specifically, how you transition to minimalist running. 

Confession(s): I am a 200+ pound non-athlete, I’ve been running modestly for the past 2-3 years, I read Born To Run, and my running configuration definitely skews minimalist. I started running in Nike Frees, and then moved on to an assortment of New Balance Minimalist and Merrell Bare Access kicks. I also own a pair of Vibram FiveFingers.

The author. In bare feet.

The author. In bare feet.

When I first started running, I enjoyed it, but with an ever-present sense of foreboding that injury was all but inevitable. As such, I listened intently to my body. One of the core tenets of minimalist running is the acutely increased amount of feedback you get from your body. Honestly, what could be better for a beginner? You are getting maximum feedback from the road/trail/track/treadmill. If something doesn’t feel right, I don’t know, MAYBE STOP DOING THAT THING. Through a long, careful ramp my body got stronger, and last year I ran a half-marathon in a pair of NB MT110, a shoe with a 4mm toe drop (almost flat) and minimal cushioning. (Side note: New Balance appears to be hard at work ruining the MT110.)

So how does one reconcile the supposed health benefits of minimalist shoes with the supposed uptick in running related injuries? I played in a band with a surgical podiatrist, Alan, about 18months ago and I asked what he thought. This is a guy, by the way, who said, “Born To Run and Crossfit are making me rich.” Regarding the scientific claims around biomechanics and evolution made in Born To Run, Alan did not dispute them. In fact, he agreed that a forefoot-midfoot strike and a shorter stride are very likely the way we evolved to run over the past 2 million years. The problem, he said, is that you and I have not evolved running around in our barefeet over the past however-old-we-are. Additionally, our ancestors didn’t evolve running around on pavement and sidewalks, nor did they sit in front of computers for ten hours a day. It’s all in how you approach training your own body, not unproven health claims made by a shoe manufacturer.

Which brings us back to the shoe manufacturer. Vibram was sued for making unsubstantiated claims about health benefits offered by their shoes, false advertising, essentially. It is worth noting that Vibram’s website has an entire section devoted to education about their product and barefoot/minimalist running. [I don't know if this section existed before the lawsuit.]

So here’s why everyone is wrong:

  • Was Vibram wrong to advertise unsubstantiated health claims? Yes.
  • Were the plaintiffs wrong to assume that a shoe, all by itself, could ‘strengthen feet’ and ‘reduce injury’? Yep.
  • Were the plaintiffs wrong to sue the shoe company claiming the shoe company received a windfall from the plaintiffs under false advertising pretenses? This one is more complex, but I’m going with yes because I believe it could have been resolved without a lawsuit.
  • Are minimal/barefoot running advocates wrong to blindly preach health benefits without also preaching the importance of a slow, careful transition, you know, just like any new physical activity? Mm hmm.
  • Are VFF haters really just deflecting some other insecurity about their feet? Aren’t they all deeply curious to slip on a pair of VFFs and walk around in the cool grass? You betcha.

I mean. It’s a foot. How could you hate a foot?

One Year Later: Merrell Barefoot Bare Access

Okay, a couple weeks shy of a full year later. Whatever. After their auspicious beginning, I felt compelled to swing by and provide an update on the state of the Merrell Barefoot Bare Access (MBBA) running shoes I bought in May, 2012. Go read the original review, so you know what the hell I’m talking about. I’ll wait.

I originally purchased the MBBAs as a step down from a pair of Nike Free Run+ (Version 1). Some of the reviews on Zappos seemed to indicate manufacturing defects that resulted in the sole and upper coming delaminated, which is a fancy sounding word that means “bro, your brand new shoes are falling apart already, bro.”

Zappos replaced the defective pair in typical Zappos turnaround time, and I set about running in the MBBAs regularly. In fact, these were my default running shoes from May to September. I ran my first Peachtree Road Race in them. In fact, they would have remained my default kicks well beyond, but I picked up a pair of New Balance MT10s for a trail run in September (partly because I wanted a trail shoe for a trail run, but mostly because I had been wanting to try the Minimus line for a while). I put in about 160 miles on the MBBA before mixing in the MT10s and then, later, a pair of New Balance 110s.

Despite the decrease in total mileage, the MBBAs have remained one of my favorite shoes for just kicking around. Merrell’s wide toe box allows me to wear normal socks with them, and the [relatively] understated design allows them to blend in with street clothes unlike a lot of running shoes that look like you’re wearing A GOD DAMN GUNDAM ROBOT ON EACH FOOT.

NOW THEN. How have the MBBAs held up over the last 12 months?

After ~200 miles of running and a year of kicking around

As you can see above, they still look almost brand new. Full Disclosure: I washed them with the laundry about 4 days before this picture was taken.

This is the replacement pair, the pair I was CERTAIN was going to fall apart immediately. As you can see, one year later, and no delamination:

Keep it together

Merrell Barefoot Bare Access - Right

But, Tony, what about the squishy, grippy, foresole and midsole that began to disintegrate after a single 4-mile jog? Surely, your feet are now poking through the bottoms of both shoes like some sort of suburban Looney Toons hobo. With all your possessions tied into a bandanna on the end of a stick, both of which were purchased at REI. Right?

Merrell Barefoot Bare Access

As you can see above, the foamy tread under the toes has worn completely smooth. It’s actually getting precariously thin on the right shoe, and I would not be surprosed if one of my tootsies poked through sooner rather than later.

Merrell Barefoot Bare Access

The midsole is holding up okay, I suppose. I’ve seen foamy substances like the this used on shoes before, but usually as a middle, cushioning layer, not taking the full brunt of every step. Wanna hear something gross? As you are probably aware, it is quite hot and humid in Georgia in the Summer. As you may or may not be aware, I am healthy slab of man and I sweat like Pee-Wee Herman’s sprinkler. A couple times last summer, following long(ish) runs (7+ miles), I noticed that I actually sweat through the bottom of these shoes. Like, that red part there? Soaked with sweat ON THE BOTTOM. Could the sweat have run around the sides onto the bottom from the outside? It’s possible. I choose to believe my feet forced sweat through the bottom of a shoe like Bruce Lee forcing, uh, something, uh, through some other thing.

Another look at the well-worn toe area:

Merrell Barefoot Bare Access

Following my initial impression, I was ready for the worst, so the fact that shoes have lasted this long is a pleasant surprise. That said, These shoes probably have 200 miles of total running in addition to a few months of casual wear. When you consider that my toes are about to see daylight, those numbers seem pretty light. Durability issues aside, these shoes did exactly what I wanted them to. They provided a zero-toe-drop platform with enough cushion for several medium to long runs. Both pairs of New Balances I have incorporated since have a 4MM toe drop.

Merrell recently released version 2 of the Bare Access. The pictures seem to indicate the bottom is completely covered in Vibram rubber, which I would think would help immensely with durability. Would I buy another pair of version 1? Probably not. Would I consider a pair of version 2? Absolutely.

2012: In Numbers

For whatever reason, I’ve been feeling a little, I don’t know, sentimental, about the new year, so I thought I’d take a minute and jot down some of 2012′s more significant personal moments if only to fabricate some closure for myself before heading into the new year. The previous sentence contains five commas, which is probably three or four too many. It is literally a non-stop party around here.

On the blogging front, 2012 started with a few precious embers of promise, albeit a little forced. That promise quickly faded, and I only made two posts after February, the most recent one in May. WHATEVER. When it’s forced, it sucks. So I stopped forcing it. Here is a short list of things:

397: I started running in earnest in late 2011 and I managed to keep it going through most of 2012, save some dry spells in April, the middle of September, and pretty much all of December. In total, I ran just under 400 miles, and around 490 if you include the tail end of 2011. 400 miles is a hell of a lot more than zero miles or even 100 miles, and I’m proud of that. But 397 miles over the course of a year is fewer than 8 miles per week, which is … not very many miles. I ran three races in 2012, a 5k, a 10k, and a 6k. Adding more races to the calendar will help pile up the miles. I like running.

90: Due largely to Blake’s insatiable appetite for brewing, I brewed 90 gallons of beer this year, far more than any previous year by a large margin. I don’t really feel the need to increase that amount, rather there are some significant improvements to be made–namely fermentation temperature control and possibly a new mash tun design–to make the beer better.

32: In May, Russ and I started a podcast called 1 Beer 1 Song. It started on little more than an impulse, but the underlying motivation was genuine: the mutual desire for a creative outlet. The best decision we made was to just hit Record and worry about everything else later. Write that down. We eventually settled into a weekly schedule and finished the year with 32 episodes published. Shameless plug: Subscribe on iTunes and follow us on Twitter. We also have a page on The Book of Faces.

5: This is my fifth season on the Atlanta Falcons Drumline. It is a quirky gig, and I am likely 10-15 years too old to be in the thick of a gig like this. The reality is I get to play sexy beats with my dude friends 8 or so times a year, which I thought was a done deal when I left college in 1999. So, I’m going to keep after it until they ask me to resign, politely or otherwise.

3: I was able to attend GABF for the third time this year. I can give or take the festival itself, but it is hard to find better craft beer ambiance than GABF week in the Denver metro area.

1: In April I rode one airboat through the Everglades in South Florida. Yes, it was exactly like Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach.

New Shoes: Merrell Barefoot Bare Access

Got some new kicks this week. I put about 250 miles into a pair of Nike Free Run+ (version 1). I wanted to get 300 miles out of them, but they started to wear a blister on my left foot after even moderate workouts. Which means get out of my life.

As you are all WELL AWARE, I got a pair of them freaky five-fingered deals a few months back. I really like them, but I also understand and respect the amount of damage you can do trying to transition too quickly from supple padding and support to what is essentially a thick coat of paint on the bottom of your foot. I love the Vibrams and I hope to someday run in them exclusively. As it stands, I still consider myself “in transition” to minimalist running. And I am okay with that.

New Tires

I first read about the Merrell Barefoot Bare Access (MBBA) shoes at Birthday Shoes. I was looking for the next logical step in my minimalist evolution, something between the Nikes and the toe shoes, and the MBBAs seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Zero toe drop, but an 8mm thick sole. So, on Tuesday afternoon, I ordered them from Zappos.

Zappos being Zappos, the shoes were in my hands fewer than 24 hours later. I walked around in them Wednesday evening for a bit, and they felt great.

THURSDAY MORNING. I dropped Marty off at school (iOS corrects ‘Matty’ to ‘Marty’ so Marty it is) and hit the hills of Smyrna for a jaunty prance in the shiny new kicks. I ran 4 miles and … honestly … felt fucking awesome pretty much the entire time [/FORESHADOWING].

There are currently 4 customer reviews on the Zappos page for the MBBA. Two of the four reviews mention an issue where the sole separates from the upper after minimal use. I noted this when I was shopping for the shoes but wrote it off and attributed it to poor suckers receiving manufacturer’s defects. [/FORESHADOWING]

Oh, Jesus Christ, here are the pictures (after a single 4 mile run).

Right Shoe (instep):

Left Shoe (instep):

Additionally, and this is going to seem like I’m piling on Merrell here, look at the sole by the toes. Again, this is after one run.

Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was ordering racing tires for my Veyron that need to be replaced every 30 minutes.

This would be an open and shut case if the shoes didn’t fit or didn’t feel right whilst pounding le pavement. I would be like, “Remember that time I got that shitty pair of shoes from Merrell that felt terrible and fell apart after one run so I sent them back and never thought about them again? That was weird.” Alas, they felt GREAT on the one short run I enjoyed in them. My calves are burning today, likely a result of the zero toe drop, but it’s the good kind of burn that makes you want to get your ass back out there.

I called and emailed Zappos yesterday. Their Customer Service department was temporarily closed because they were “taking part in teambuilding and celebrating our culture.” It’s pretty awesome when a company can respond, “Can’t listen to you whine right now, getting drunk, kthxbai.” I’m being serious. Zappos is awesome.

Desired result: Merrell fixes their manufacturing process to eliminate these issues; sends me new shoes for free.
Likely result: New Balance Minimus

UPDATE: Zappos responded to my email letting me know that a replacement pair of MBBA are already in the mail, which is awesome, but I still give the “Likely Result” above about a 75% chance of becoming reality.

Opposable Toes: Vibram Edition

For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to think of a blog post to write that would produce a torrent of ridicule and mockery. How does one troll themselves? Well, I think I’ve figured it out.

I mentioned recently that I’ve been doing a little bit of running over the past few months. Like hundreds of thousands of others, I’ve been bitten by the barefoot / forefoot / midfoot / oh-god-if-you-tell-me-one-more-time-how-people-ran-for-2-million-years-without-the-help-of-running-shoes-I-will-forefoot-strike-you-in-the-armpit bug. I’ve run about 150 miles in a pair of Nike Free Run+, and they are great. They are far less supportive than typical heel-strike shoes, but they’re still pretty squishy. Despite being quite a departure from traditional shoes, the Nikes are more like wearing a running shoe than running barefoot.

So, I picked up a pair of Vibram FiveFingers:

To be clear, I’m not obsessed with the idea of running barefoot. Frankly, it sounds like it hurts. Also, I like shoes. Shoes are great. I will probably wear shoes every day for the rest of my life. Also, I realize I can simply remove my clothes and shoes, walk out my front door, and run barefoot. But this is a time of great innovation! They make shoes that are designed to feel like you’re not wearing any shoes! And if someone has gone to the trouble of producing a product to help with something, is it not my duty to acquire said product?

Enough blah blah. The VFFs showed up yesterday. I immediately put them on. Gia immediately vomited on me. Mattias peed and started crying. These things are glorious.

I took them out for a short maiden voyage this morning. I have heard many stories of people going too hard, too fast, too soon, and ending up more injured than if they had continued a life of heel-strike in marshmallow shoes. As such, my goal was to run 2 miles at a VERY comfortable pace with laser focus on technique and paying close attention to messages from my body.

Things went eerily well. I was expecting all kinds of strange new aches and zaps, but aside from a couple strongly-worded emails from my achilles tendons very early on, I felt as good as I can remember. I ended up running just over 2.5 miles mostly because I ran too far from home, so, by the time I made it back, I was over my goal. And, honestly, despite trying to set a limit and ease into the new kicks, the main thing that brought me back home was the fact that Gia had to play tennis. My calves were a little spicier than normal, but I felt like I could have kept going for miles.

I like to think of myself as a function-over-form person, and few things that I can think of epitomize that more than the ol’ Vibram Opposable Toes. I mean, ninjas would laugh at you (if ninjas laughed). All I can say is, after one run, I am a fan. Time will tell. And you all will probably spin your wheels telling me how ugly they are.

Running and a Dog Named Riliy

Riley Black Lab

This is not the dog in question. I did a Google Image Search for: riley black lab.

I am here to recap a story from yesterday that involves an incident with a dog I encountered whilst running a couple miles from my house. But before I do, I should probably back up and establish some context.

I’ve been [pretending to be] a runner, on and off, for about a year and a half.

I had been pretending to be lifting weights for a few years, but I never found a program that really clicked. It should be noted that I didn’t try, at all, to find a “weight-lifting program” that “clicked” … whatever “clicked” means. I would still like to find said weightlifting program, because I enjoy lifting weights, but I digress.

I decided to give running an earnest try because … it’s totally natural. It’s free, it’s outdoors, and it’s beneficial to be good at it should you find yourself pursued by something that wants to kill the shit out of you. I was also intrigued by the recent surge in running devolution (I know there are virtually no correct uses of the word ‘devolution,’ but, I think it works here, so DEVOLUTION). The idea that people ran barefoot comfortably and effectively for 2 million years was an undeniable draw for me. If all the non-runners around me could do it, and without crazy-ass, moon-boot running shoes, I could do it too, right?

Understanding that I couldn’t simply walk out my front door and start chewing through the miles with no shoes on, I got a pair of ye olde Nike Free Run+ (which have since been replaced by the v2 model) and started slowly. On September 16, 2010 to be exact.

I did pretty well for the first couple months. I ran 4 times in the last two weeks of September, and then ran ten times in October. Near the end of October, though, my left knee started to feel a little loosey-goosey. I ended up psyching myself out, hard, and I didn’t run again until May. I ran a couple times in May, and a couple times in June, but didn’t really get back on the horse until mid-October, 2011. I wasn’t too stressed about physical activity in the Spring and Summer. Those keeping score know that I was spending nearly every weekend KILLING MYSELF building a deck.

Side note: My ability to recall such specific dates is entirely a product of the Nike+ GPS app on my phone. Having raw data (speed, distance, route, etc.) available has made the difference for me. I look back at my previous attempts at running and laugh-wince, because I would leave my house, run way too fast until it sucked, and then stop, convinced that running just plain sucked.

ANYWAY, back on the horse in mid-October. I kept a solid 3-time-per-week routine through Thanksgiving peaking with a 5-mile prance on the Silver Comet averaging 8:55/mile the Saturday after Turkey Day. I fell off a bit in December, only managing 5 runs all month, and I have resolved to make a solid routine, er, a routine this year. Or something. The Nike+ app allows you to set a number of different goals. I have already done that.


I left my house, set to do 5 miles around lovely Smyrna, GA. I was about 1.5 miles in when I noticed a black dog happily skipping along next to me. Usually when this happens, it’s because some shitty attack dog has decided to engage, so it is safe to say I was … alarmed. It quickly became evident this was not the case. This was a black lab, female, probably about 8 months old (40-50 lbs?), and her tag said her name was Riliy. R-I-L-I-Y. That is not a typo.

I coaxed Riliy out of the street and waited for her owners, who I was sure couldn’t be very far behind her. If she had gotten off of her leash, surely they would be jogging up any second, breathless and thankful. She could have escaped from her yard, so I also scanned for a slow-moving vehicle, maybe one with people leaning out of the windows yelling the name Riliy.


Still clutching Riliy by the collar, I called the number on her tag. Now, that sounds a hell of a lot simpler than it was. I, a complete stranger, am forcing a young, recently-liberated Labrador to do the one thing she does not want to do: sit still. Additionally, have you ever tried to use an iPhone (or any touchscreen device) while the screen is covered in sweat? You should try it sometime, while trying to keep control of a berzerk dog. I left a voicemail at the number (the girl on the voicemail sounded like a teenager, awesome), sent a text, and left another voicemail. Reality started to set in. What if I can’t get a hold of anyone? I was a mile and a half from my house with no leash and no car.

Riliy was wearing a second tag with a number to a vet, so I managed to hold her down and call it. They gave me a different phone number, but they wouldn’t give me an address, citing privacy laws. I called the second number and an older woman answered. She said it was her daughter’s dog and that she (the dog, heh) kept getting out. They lived right around the corner and said they would be right there.

Ten solid minutes passed, and nothing. I couldn’t release my grip on Riliy for fear that I would not be able to get her back. We were only a few hundred feet from 4-lane Atlanta Rd, which would be a doggy death trap. I called the number again, expecting no answer because they were on their way and THE WOMAN ANSWERED. I gave her my nicest WHAT THE FUCK YOUR DOG IS FREAKING OUT COME GET HER and hung up. 5 or 6 minutes later, the woman and her daughter came meandering around the corner with no apparent urgency in their gait. By the time they got to me, Riliy’s freakout had reached full Bullet Time. I helped the daughter, who was maybe 13 or 14, get the leash on.

They thanked me, but overall seemed very matter-of-fact about the whole thing, like, of course that is what anyone would do upon finding an apparently escaped dog, stop everything they’re doing and spend over a half hour wrestling with a strange animal while also trying to track down its owners. I have convinced myself I saved Riliy’s life, mostly because of her proximity to a very busy road, and partly to make myself feel better because the owners were such mouthbreathers. Unfortunately, Riliy will probably be back out on her own sooner rather than later. Next time, I’m going to let her run all the way home with me.