Fixing Your Feet


reviewed by Hollis Lenderking

John Vonhof is a veteran ultrarunner and the founding race director of the Ohlone Wilderness 50 Km Trail Run, now ten years strong and one of the toughest (and most gorgeous) 50 kms there is. It’s a point-to-point course over remote, mountainous wilderness terrain—just the kind of layout that taxes an RD’s investigative and collaborative skills, which John possesses in abundance. His diligent organization and thorough attention to detail have made Ohlone a coveted entry on any ultrarunner’s schedule. He brings the same traits to bear in his authorship of Fixing Your Feet, which should be a coveted entry on any runner’s bookshelf.

I am qualified to say so because I have been fixing to get rid of my own feet for years. After reading this book, maybe I will not have to. Vonhof has researched references, interviewed participants, and produced a resource that serves as a definitive starting point for self-care, as well as a cautionary blend of both clinical and anecdotal advice. Several themes pervade his book; one of them is the virtual absence of prescriptive orthodoxy in treating foot problems. Time and time again, he underscores the necessity of individual experimentation in coping with individual problems, no matter how commonplace the clinical diagnosis.

When addressing the trials and tribulations of our truly pitiable feet—I mean, just think how much we demand of them, small as they are—prevention and correction are not the stuff of therapeutic syllogism. We plod along on our pair of largely idiosyncratic appendages of bone and sinew, and it follows that coping with such phenomenal stresses is an often random and haphazard process. Fixing Your Feet tells you how to start that process, and how you might shift your approach when one method fails. Although Vonhof has consulted closely with sports-focused podiatrists, he emphasizes that his book is not a substitute for professional treatment; rather, it is a sort of podiatric self-triage.

“Caveat pedis!” (“Let the feet beware”) expounds multi-day veteran Marvin Skagerberg, citing his extensive experience with successive methods for curing his blister problems once and for all. Vonhof’s quotation of Skagerberg is typical of the book’s non-technical, open-ended, empirical approach: “I have completely solved the problem twelve times by perfecting various methods which allow me to run blister-free,” declares Skagerberg. “However, the next time out with the exact same method, I have plenty of blisters. ” It is the humble thesis of Fixing Your Feet that such chaos and frustration are the norms in pursuit of fit feet. The author cannot tell you what will work for you, but he can exhibit a range of credible options for you to choose from. The option proven for one runner will be worthless for another; or, as Skagerberg’s lament demonstrates, the option proven for one day will be worthless for another. Just tweak one variable and you can start reinventing the wheel of science; your wheel of science.

In recognizing this crucial fact, and in the absence of the magic initials “D.P.M.” after his name, Vonhof underscores his role as collator rather than doctor. He did not set out to write a bible of foot care, but merely to serve you a therapeutic buffet. It’s a big, two-course meal. After an obligatory introduction (Part I) that most ultrarunners will find dispensable (except perhaps for some of the overview of shoe selection), he establishes the book’s essential structure, dividing his focus between proactive prevention (Part II) and reactive therapy (Part III).

The distinction is conceptually helpful but somewhat artificial, since treatment that relieves a problem may have continual utility to prevent its return. Vonhof’s categorical division should be understood mainly as advocacy for the principle of preventive maintenance: all the things you can do to avoid the dnf, the forced layoff, the forlorn trip to the doctor’s office. The reader, however, is well advised to consider the lessons of the text as a whole, thus taking advantage of the proactive/reactive overlap.

If it were not the real deal, Fixing Your Feet could be catnip for control freaks, as it proceeds methodically to consider all the pedal factors that are within your control prior to training and racing, with a particular eye to preventing that most topical of disabilities, blisters. Alternative taping techniques are discussed in detail, with helpful illustrations by the author. Blister treatment—caring for them after they have your attention—is then addressed in the “reactive” part of the book. Blisters get more attention than other problems because they are the most readily prevented, detected and treated by the sufferer.

Other problems—traumatic injury, inflammations, biomechanical breakdown—typically lead their victims to the podiatrist’s office sooner or later Vonhof considers each condition in a brief chapter that should enable you to diagnose the problem tentatively, and, if you’ve caught it early enough, to nip it in the bud by means of any one of several adjustments, therapies and devices. In keeping with his theme of the infinite variability of feet and their infirmities, he suggests remedies but does not prescribe them. A “product source” chapter in the back of the book lists all providers with their postal address, telephone number and Internet address, if available. There is also a helpful glossary and, throughout the text, ample illustrations to facilitate self-application.

Fixing Your Feet is not heavy going. I made myself feel much better just by reading it straight through and absorbing every gruesome detail of the most common foot problems, and discovering that I have had only about half of them. So maybe my glass is still half-full. Maybe it’s the other thing, and unconquered horizons of hobbling torment still await me. At least I am better prepared to meet them head-on, forewarned and forearmed. First-time author Vonhof should be proud of his product. If you buy a copy, your feet should be proud to be affiliated with the brain that made you do it.