Cruz Control: An Interview with Rolando Cruz – Part 2

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This is the second half to an interview I recently conducted with our friend Rolando Cruz from Berkeley Running Company in Madison, WI.  If you missed the first part, you can check it out here.

This part of the interview is focused on Rolando’s experience with minimalist running shoes.  His story about how he started wearing minimalist shoes is an inspiring one — they are the reason he was able to continue running after being told he might never run long distances again! He also has some great tips for minimalist running beginners that we’ll go over at the end of the interview.

If you are looking for even more Rolando, you should definitely check out the great story the Wisconsin State Journal did on him in May 2011.

Why minimalist running?

It is interesting, because it was kind of by accident.  I had been having issues with my knees, and I had been running for a long time, but I was a big heel-striker. About 8 years ago, I had a cartilage problem, and for a couple years I struggled with it and kept going to the doctor.  The doctor kept telling me I was over-running and over-training, and I had to slow down.  I knew it was something more than just overtraining.  Finally, after about a year or so, after struggling with this, I switched doctors and the doctor I started working with was a triathlete. He said we would need to do an MRI.  After the MRI results, we found out I had a cartilage tear, so they removed the cartilage. The doctor said you can’t do anymore long-distance [running], because if you do, you won’t have anything there that will absorb that bone to bone impact and your bones are going to crack.  The idea in my head of having that happen was kind of scary, but I loved running so much, because it was such a big part of my life. So, I didn’t want to stop running and decided to try different ways to do it without having that issue.  I got into the whole structure of the shoe and worked with stability shoes, because I have a low arch and I over-pronate, so I needed to correct that pronation.  I went in search of stability shoes and hated the support, absolutely hated it! I decided to try orthotics, because I didn’t want the support shoes any longer. I thought I could wear orthotics and then use a neutral shoe which doesn’t have the support, and instead use orthotics in place of the support. I hated the orthotics… They said it’s going to take a few months, but you’ll get used to them.  I never got used to them, they were $350, and I ended up with my feet and arches being sore. So, I decided, this is just not working for me.  I was getting frustrated, and in the mean time, I was still training, but with this injury in mind, thinking ‘when is my knee going to crack?’

Here is Rolando sporting his Vibram FiveFingers KomodoSports. Image credit goes to the Wisconsin State Journal.

One day, I was at an expo, [after] I had started working for Berkeley, and I saw these shoes, the Vibrams, so, for some reason, I gravitated towards them and talked to the guy for a little bit.  He suggested that I take a pair, walk around the expo and then let him know how I felt by the end of the day. I really liked them.  I knew right away that I was landing more on the mid-foot, which felt very soft to me, I didn’t feel like all of my weight was just being put on the heels. From that point on, the guy said that I could take the pair.  I said, ‘this is great!’  I started walking around, and I could start feeling the signs of wearing minimalist shoes with [soreness in] my calves and forefoot, and then I started wondering what’s going on?  Back then, only like 4 years ago, not a lot of people were wearing these shoes, so you were kind of on your own when it came to figuring out how to wear them. So, rather than hurt myself, I took a break, and slowly walked three, four, five hours, and then went and did a mile [run], two miles, and then realized that I wasn’t heel striking at all.  I wasn’t having the knee issues and my legs were more rested; everything just started changing. I was more aware of my stride, I felt better both mentally and physically, and I was more aware of the terrain.  All these psychological things just started falling in to place and I felt more confident in my performance. Then, I started to see that I was becoming faster and I started playing with the idea that maybe I should do the Boston Marathon.  After about a year, I was ready and did it in those shoes. That changed everything, from that point on I started wearing very light/minimalist shoes and haven’t looked back.

Have you ever ran barefoot?

I have done 6 miles barefoot at my longest.  I started barefoot running in Governor Nelson State Park.  For anybody who wants to get in to minimalist shoes and doesn’t want to do the hard surface, [check out] Governor Nelson State Park. A lot of it is grass, which does help a lot, especially if you are going to be going barefoot.  Otherwise, the Arboretum is another nice place to go, it has more rocks, a little more rugged, but it is where I went to train for a lot of my minimalist running.

Do you have a favorite pair of shoes?

I have three shoes that I really, really enjoy.  It would have to be the Merrells and the New Balance “shoes”.  My 100 mile race I did in the New Balance Trail Runner, the 110.  I have also ran my 50-milers in the Trail Glove by Merrell.

Being that you work in a running store (Berkeley Running Company) and you have had all of this experience with both traditional and minimalist shoes, do you have a hard time not trying to sell everybody on minimalist shoes?

The most important thing, for me, as a runner, and as someone who has the opportunity to pass information on to the public or customers is trying to figure out what they need and trying to understand their wants.  Obviously, we all want these other things, but we need to boil it down to what a runner actually needs. For me, I really want to understand the customer, but, at the same time, keep them updated as to what is going on, because I think every opportunity, especially when working with a customer, can’t be taken for granted. Even though they are there to maybe just learn about products or get a pair of shoes, you want to make sure that when they leave, they leave with an understanding on how the footwear works, whether they are buying minimalist or not.  If somebody comes in and they say I want a minimalist shoe, even though they have already decided they want a minimalist shoe, you still want to make sure they know how that minimalist shoe works and what their other options are if the minimalist shoes don’t work.  You really can’t rely on them knowing everything when they come in.  It is my job to educate them on the product they are possibly buying and the options they will have if that doesn’t work.  On that minimalist wall (referring to the wall at Berkeley Running Company), there [is a range of] 0 drop, no cushion, no support all the way up to the ProGrid, which has more cushion. Once they understand that, I show them the range of traditional shoes: the neutral, the stability, the motion control, and how that works. Very often we have customers who come in and say ‘I need a pair of shoes’, so we ask them if they have ever had their foot analyzed and when they say they haven’t, we analyze their foot and explain to them the differences in the structure of the shoe and then, very often, they will look to the right and see the Vibram and ask how they work.  I show them that line of stability, neutral, motion control, transitional, and all the way down to the minimalist shoe.  At that moment, you can see it in their face, they know how the shoe works in that line-up of shoes, but you still explain how a minimalist [shoe] focuses on strengthening your foot, versus a traditional, which helps you correct “problems”.

One piece of advice for a new minimalist runner?

You need to figure out why you want to switch to a minimalist shoe.  Just understanding the reason why you want to switch [is important]. If it is curiosity, then obviously you are going to learn as much as you can about the shoe, if it is for training, even more.  Just figure out why, and then how that is going to fit into your training schedule.  Just inform yourself.  You want to get as much information you can.  Don’t just rely on word of mouth information.  Find a source like Technically Running or come to our store (Berkeley Running Company), where they are going to know what they are talking about, and don’t be afraid to ask questions because it is your body. If you don’t have the answers, or if you don’t ask the right questions, you are going to get injured. There is nothing worse than injuries because that is one of the reasons people try to find a pair of shoes.

Thanks for reading part 2 of my interview with Rolando Cruz.  If you are looking for even more information regarding minimalist shoes you can start with our series on the “Vibram Transition“.