Does this American distance runner’s name ring a bell? Caballo Blanco signaled a major trend in outdoor sporting adventure a few years ago. With Nike/Alberto Salazar/Russian athlete doping scandals, we should probably think about him again. Shortly after we published this 2012 review, Caballo Blanco died (pre-existing heart condition) while training, a solo run along a creek bed, New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, April 2012. We remember him wearing his traditional, hand-made, flat sandals. His legacy: less is more, running the natural way.
COG Caballo Blanco Review (late 2012)
As usual, OR retailers are falling all over themselves for your $: now they want to put your feet into Caballo Blanco’s shoes. And yes, a mystical, value-added component attends “his” shoes. Consumers are paying for this, too. Usually we’re cynical about voodoo sales gimmicks. But we were gob-smacked when we met Caballo Blanco. Instantly, we found ourselves caught up in the minimalist’s transcendent dharma.
We’re in Salt Lake City, Outdoor Retailer Trade Show (summer, 2012), at the Vibram booth, scarfing the best lunch nosh ever. (We never mention convention-center catering, especially while we’re eating…). “We’re taking a break, eating here,” we advise our newest COG reporter (COGger). “Just enjoy a bite.”
“What the heck are these boots?” she ignores us and points. OK, the boots are desert tan, tiny, cute, combat-style, and hip.
“All these boots serve as booth decoration,” we old-timers aver pedantically, “Vibram puts up this booth to promote the products of (other) manufacturers who buy their rubber shoe-sole materials. Vibram’s done this for years.” Again, we’re trying to lunch, mixing with retail-shop buyers ($) as inconspicuously as possible.
“Huh? Well, what about these (FiveFinger) sock/shoe things here? Let’s ask,” insists our novice reporter, not going with the free-food thing so enthusiastically.
And we’re right back into our reporting job: Just when we were eating.
We first heard the epithet “light is right” in the 1980s while preparing to lead ski school tours at Pacific Northwest XC centers. Then, your nascent COG reporter might have asked, “for the HBRs (hot buttered rums for client lunches), should I bring regular rum or Ron Rico 151?” Our Nordic director would always reply “Light is Right; bring the 151.” (N.B., for abstemious readers: Ron Rico 151 rum carries higher alcohol content/volume than regular rum: lighter, stronger.)
Later, the Light is Right movement found its brightest advocate with ultra-lightweight, minimalist hiker (rock climber, and modern SLCD/Friend inventor) Ray Jardine (see his lightweight-gear instruction book, Trail Life, Adventure Press). Jardine articulates this most fundamental principle for any modern, outdoor adventure: Alpine style, if you’re a climber; free diving, if you’re an underwater person; free-solo for rock climbers. Barefoot running, if you’re on your feet. To quote Richard Neville in his seminal ‘60s countercultural guide, Play Power (Random House, NY, 1970), “…I show up at an international border naked, without a passport… as a citizen of the world…”
OK. COG’s not going naked.
But let’s do go back to minimalism, 1998. Following Ray Jardine’s principles, Kim and Demetri (Coup) Coupounas founded the Go-Lite Company in Boulder, CO, and begin selling premium ultra-lightweight outdoor clothing, packs and travel accessories. Outdoor folks loved the super-lightweight gear. Businesswise, GoLite cleaned up. And they’re cool people, too. Your COG team heard “Coup” speak at a specialty outdoor store recently. His message was before him on a table: a modern backpack, fully stocked with modern gear for a weekend 3-season overnighter x 3 nights, excluding food and water, 40 pounds. OK, no problem. But, next to this load was his Go-Lite backpack with Go-Lite and other vendors’ ultra-light gear (gathered from around the store), excluding food and water, less than 20 pounds. Same function, half the pack’s weight. OK, we get that: less is more. (FYI: Your COG team’s 1980 winter, 2-day overnight pack weight, including, food, water and fuel: about 30 pounds…we weren’t avant-garde, just unhappy to trade ski mobility for comfort…we loved telemarking to snow camp. And we were cheap. And cold.)
Now this summer’s OR show at the Vibram booth: Your COG team guys’re trying to lunch, while our COG fashionista enthuses over this boot: the MiniMil. She asks the Vibram folks the usual questions about the boot. And we notice the normally affable Vibram folks, most gracious of hosts at all times, reluctant now with detail.
We put down our sandwiches and take up our notebooks.
We may have seen this movie before. For a couple years after the 2007 release of Vibram’s ground-breaking (!) footwear, the FiveFingers shoe, reluctance at the Vibram booth was justified.
At that time, the Italian boot/shoe sole manufacturer (Vibram) had designed and brought to market this innovative and wildly popular product: the first minimalist footwear with independent and fully articulated toes. The FiveFinger shoe was unique. Your COG team couldn’t wait to try the grippy toes on a finger crack. The Vibram trade-show booth was euphoric with their FiveFinger “big (retail) hit”… only to have their brand immediately diluted by “off-shore” shoe counterfeiters. This seemed particularly unfair, as Vibram isn’t a shoemaker. Vibram historically supplies other manufacturers with footwear-soles. By 2010 Vibram had the counterfeiters pretty much in hand: the fake shoes wore-out fast.
But now, by 2012, Vibram has plenty of legitimate competition for its iconic FiveFingers minimalist footwear: the very best of which we think is Vibram’s own Bikila, the company’s first shoe designed specifically for running. 3mm insole; 4mm outsole. Our COG marathoner/multi-discipline endurance gal decides to take hers off only when spectators stare as she scoots towards the climbing wall.
Other quality vendors have jumped on this “barely-there-footwear” bandwagon. Merrell’s Barefoot shoes look best at specialty outdoor stores. Barefooters also can be found online and at Dick’s, while Big 5 Sporting Goods offers Fila Skele-Toes (four articulated toes, instead of Vibram’s five). Zemgear’s Terra shoe (reviewed COG, August 25); Nike’s Free Run shoe…you get the idea. Big box to specialty: Light is Right, less is more and minimalist is most.
Is the current FiveFinger competition why Vibram’s a little backed-off telling us about this MiniMil boot? Once burned….
All the Vibram folks would allow was, “5mm drop from heel to toe and a minimalist boot only available to the military this September.” Later during the OR show, the MiniMil boot vanished entirely from the Virbram booth.
So, COG had to find out more about these boots, mysteriously disappearing Sunday, Summer OR, 2012.
Starting our research on the spot: we noticed the similar (running) book displays at OR’s minimalist footwear vendors’ booths. COG googled the NY Times Bestseller List to find at #13 (paperback):
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (Alfred A Knopf, NY, 2009).
Likewise, The Barefoot Running Book, Jason Robillard, Barefoot Running Press, Allendale. MI. 2010.
Besides the NT Times, we found these minimalist-running books titles on local shoe store and most newspaper/magazine/internet display ads selling performance footwear.
A book – shoe connection? What the heck?
COG met Caballo Blanco at OR Summer 2011, the Saucony booth, months before his passing. He inscribed our copy of Born to Run: “Run Free, (signed) Caballo Blanco”. For some time, we’d heard acolytes speak book-jacket copy in hushed tones: CB’s the mysterious loner “who lives among the tribe of Tarahumara Indians (Mexico’s Copper Canyons) who practice the lost art…that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest…” New Age enthusiasm, we thought? Wiccan double talk?
Noticing the Vibram FiveFingers shoes Caballo Blanco wore (at the Saucony booth, 2011), your COG reporter chatted a few minutes with CB about “heel striking.” CB explained the softer fore-foot landing-pattern and mechanics of the FiveFingers’ minimalist running style. Under the serene eye of this Zen runner, your COG reporter’s three knee surgeries melted away. Following a laying-on-of-hands, we knew the minimalist shoes would work, even for us. And they did: a shorter stride and over no great distance, but running nonetheless. A small step for Caballo Blanco’s inspiration; a breakthrough for COG.
COG also asked Caballo Blanco about the Mont Blanc Ultra Trail, ultra-marathon endurance race (103 miles, 31,168 feet vertical gain/loss, 46-hour time limit, winning time doesn’t rest). He told us the Ultra Trail was the only ultra-marathon he wouldn’t run unless someone paid him “a lot of money.” But he’d use Vibram’s FiveFingers if chance so favored him.
Despite our minimalist digression, we have not forgotten how our COG fashionista interrupted a perfectly delightful lunch to gush over a desert-style minimalist military boot at Vibram’s booth. And Vibram’s hesitancy.
So, we telephoned the manufacturer: Belleville Tactical Research, with some slight trepidation.
No need for secrecy whatsoever.
The boot’s available to the public now at $144.99. Men’s sizes only, but the men’s sizes go really low, so our female COGger’s already got her order in.
- Vibram FiveFingers Bikila shoes
- Merrell’s Barefoot shoes
- Fila Skele-Toes
- Zemgear’s Terra shoe (reviewed COG, August 25)
- Nike’s Free Run shoe
- Trail Life by Ray Jardine (Adventurelore Press, Casa Grande, AZ, 1996, 1999, 2009).
- Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (Alfred A Knopf, NY, 2010).
- The Barefoot Running Book, Jason Robillard, Barefoot Running Press, Allendale. MI. 2010.
- Play Power by Richard Neville (Random House, NY, 1970)
- Go-Lite Company, ultra-lightweight outdoor and travel gear.
- Mont Blanc Ultra Trail, ultra-marathon endurance race, France
- Belleville Tactical Research, MiniMil, ultra-light, desert boot ($119.99)
- Ron Rico 151 Rum.
- Mont Blanc Ultra Trail, ultra-marathon endurance race (103 miles, 31,168 feet vertical gain/loss, 46-hour time limit, winning time doesn’t rest).