mt. whitney summit

The Agony of Da Feet

By Darren

I’ll be sitting out this year’s hiking season, and I resent that. I’m definitely not the hiking enthusiast that Heather is; I could take it or leave it, more or less. But I nonetheless want the option of backing out of a hike instead of having that decision made for me on account of injury.

Hiking did a number on my feet last year. Specifically, hiking janked up my big toes big time, and I’m still recovering from it.

Heather writes about the importance of the proper hiking footwear here. I have to confess that I’m skeptical of activities that require specialized, activity-specific gear. I’ve always suspected that runners will do as well in $50 Asics as they will a $500 shoe designed by a retired NASA scientist. Likewise, I’m going to guess that cyclists would be just as pretentious and insufferable in a cotton T-shirt as they are in skin-tight jerseys covered in logos.

I quickly learned, however, that when it comes to hiking, you’re not going to get very far in tube socks and Chuck Taylors. Even with the appropriate gear, you can still walk – or hobble – away from a hike with some seriously damaged feet.

I began hiking last year with Heather in a $100 pair of Merrell hiking shoes. They were definitely comfortable, and they were more than adequate on camping trips.

But after each hike, my big toes would feel sore and bruised for days. This I later learned was the result of the tips of my big toes being repeatedly jammed into the roof of my shoes during the hike’s descent. Imagine someone using his full weight to press his thumbs on your toenails and then temporarily releasing your toes before pressing on them again. Now imagine that happening dozens of times a minute for hours at a stretch.

I employed one of the lacing techniques Heather mentions in her post to keep my foot from sliding around too much. I also invested in a pair of thick, soft hiking socks in order to keep my feet padded. But I think it was too little too late. I think the damage had been done maybe as far back as the first hike and each subsequent hike only exacerbated the situation. As the hiking season progressed, my toenails became discolored, bruised. Sometimes, I noticed a small amount of blood seeping out from under them.

Rather than being concerned, my attitude was, “Meh, I’m sure I’ll be fine.” The Half Dome hike proved that I would not be. I trudged ahead on that hike in my properly laced shoes and cushiony socks but cheaped out on a pair of $12 Dr. Scholl’s insoles from Wal-Mart.

After returning home, my toes looked worse. A lot worse. The right one especially was a disaster. The nail became thickened and had risen to such an extent that I could see under it. Remember that nauseating toenail fungus commercial from ten years ago, the one where some sort of toenail gremlin saddles up to a digitally rendered big toe and then sadistically lifts the nail up like it’s the hood of a ’57  Chevy? This one?

foot fungus commercial

Yeah. That’s what it was like. The nail had separated from the nailbed. One-third of it at least was completely detached from the edge. It looked like one good tug would have completely removed the nail from the toe.

It gets worse.

A few weeks after Half Dome, green pus started to ooze from under the nail. If I pressed on the nail, pus would leak out. It made a squishing noise. It smelled. Bad.

With the Whitney hike looming, I did two things to stop my transformation into Brundlefly: 1) I went to the doctor, and 2) I went to REI.

My doctor told me that the injuries to my big toes were common for hikers with the wrong shoes and the wrong lacing method. The pus was the result of water making its way under the barely there nail and not being able to escape. An infection had set in, which a dose of antibiotic knocked out. It never returned, but water continued to get trapped under the nail. It wasn’t until recently that I stopped being able to squeeze water out of it after every shower.

At REI, I spent $250 on a pair of Merrell hiking boots. The higher tops not only give me better ankle support, they provide more grommets for lashing and cinching the laces – similar to how you lace up a pair of ice skates.

I was reluctant to spend the $45 on insoles, but a helpful REI employee showed me why I needed them. The employee told me to face him with my feet spread at shoulder length. He then told me to put one fist on top of the other at about chest level and extend my arms slightly toward him.

“Now, I’m going to press down on your hands as hard as I can,” he said. As he pressed down, I started pitching forward.

“See?”, he said. “Let’s do it a few more times.” Each time he did it, I leaned forward.

“That’s what you’re doing during the descent,” he explained. “Your balance is off, and you’re leaning forward, which puts too much weight on your toes.”

After selecting a set of insoles and putting them in my new hiking boots, we did the test again. Each time, I stood perfectly straight and didn’t pitch forward once. Not only do the insoles give me added comfort, they give me stability.

Unfortunately, as I noted above, the boots, laces and insoles were no match for the collective trauma brought on by the half dozen prior hikes. I came off Whitney vowing that I wouldn’t put on a pair of hiking boots again until my nails had grown out and my toes had recovered.

It’s been a long process. Six months after Whitney, and the nail on my left toe is almost back to normal. One more round of clipping, and it should look like its old self.

My right big toe is another story. The good news is that healthy nail is growing back. But the top half is thick, uneven and sort of a green-gray color. The bottom half looks relatively pink and healthy, save a small red splotch, a reminder of dropping a baby gate on my toe a month after the Whitney hike. It’ll probably be several more months before I’m able to trim off the last of the damaged part. Wanna see it?

toe damaged from hiking

I mean, it’s not exactly the big reveal at the end of Boogie Nights, but after 1,100 words, I figured I owed you something.