I finally got down to the Marathon shop today. Since I had dug out an old pair of trainers and web-master Rob had put the death-count clock on to the website I had thougth I might not need to go. But after a short run this morning in my rubbish trainers my foot was hurting, so I decided I'd better get expert advice and expensive foot-protecting shoes. And perhaps seeing the countdown clock above a door, rather than on my own website would give me a more accurate sense of my own mortality.
The Marathon shop boasts special computer technology that will evaluate your running style and inform you which kind of running shoe you need. I didn't quite get the gist of it, but apparently it depends on which parts of your foot impact with the pavement: your foot can roll inwards, outwards or be neutral and your shoe should be cushioned accordingly.
A slightly nervous looking and meek man took me down into the shops basement to test what kind of foot or feet I had. I had expected their to be a lab down there, with lots of whirring memory banks and at the very least one of those machines they used to have in Clarks which you'd put your foot in and then metal blocks would slide downwards and across to measure the exact length and width of shoe that was required (surely one of the most futuristic inventions of the 1970s - I am beginning to wonder if I just dreamt it).
But there was no such machine. All they had was a laptop attached to a small mat that was placed on the floor. The idea was that you had to run across this pad and then the computer would analyse the impact zones and it would tell you what kind of support you required.
Which would have been fine, but my meek shop assistant was having difficulty getting the computer to work. He pressed a few buttons but all that was on screen was that little hour-glass that indicates that you have to wait for something to happen. There was an awkward silence, with occasional interjections from him about how technology always let you down. He tried to reboot, but nothing seemed to be happening. All the time the clock above the doorway ticked downwards, unseen by us; wasted seconds and minutes of our valuable lives. Ever closer to our inevitable deaths. I think at one point he tentatively suggested that there wer ways of doing the test manually. Surely this computer technology wasn't just a gimmick to lure suckers like me into their shop? I had come to get my feet checked by a computer and I wasn't going to go until this happened.
I had taken my shoes and socks off as soon as we had come downstairs and so I'd been standing in my bare feet for several minutes unnecessarily. For some reason this made me feel self conscious.
The assistant asked for help and finally, at least, the computer went back into start up mode. It felt like a couple of days had passed already in this sub-terranean dungeon. In fact I wouldn't have been surprised if the minute I'd finally purchased my shoes someone had come in and told me to hurry myself up, because the Marathon was about to start.
As he entered the foot-examining programme, the man explained that I would have to jog across the room, going over the pad and placing one of my feet in the centre of it as I passed. To be honest, I was beginning to think that the Seventies Clark's foot-measurer was a lot more sophisticated than this. Possibly running over some sand and looking at the footprint might have provided as much information.
Not only had I been bare-footed for longer than necessary, I was now being asked to jog across the floor of a basement (and you know how I feel about running indoors) whilst wearing my ordinary non-running clothes. What was worse was that another customer had just arrived and was also waiting to have a go on the amazing technology. I would have an audience. What had happened to the days when you would just go into a shop and choose some trainers because you liked the colour?
I did a sheepish shuffle across the floor, hitting the pad with my right foot and coming to a nervous stop a few paces further on. I looked at the floor and laughed uncomfortably.
The equally sheepish assistant fiddled with the mouse and looked blankly at the screen. The computer hadn't work. The image remained in black and white, where it's meant to be coloured in contours, like a map of my running foot, which might be used by sophisticated mountaineering bed bugs. I think on this occasion the probelm was down to user error. This experiment in social awkwardness relied on the shop assistant being confident and brash and knowing what he was doing, to make the artifice of the situation disappear. But he was as uncomfortable as me and perhaps wishing he'd taken the job at Clark's instead. Anyone can operate that foot-measuring thing (although I'm sure a few clumsy salesmen and women pressed the start button too hard and ended up crushing a few children's feet like so many cars at a scrap metal yard. From then on the only shoes they required were tiny and box-shaped).
The the computer froze out.
The sales assistant who had come down with the other customer (now also awkwardly shoeless and wearing a suit) was more brash and confident (as was required) and had been filling in time by making his customer stand facing the wall and bend his knees. From this he'd made an assessment of what kind of shoe he might require, but obviously the more accurate computer would resolve the issue to 99.99% accuracy.
The brash assistant, now slightly annoyed by the time that the timid one was taking (time ticking downwards, ever ticking down) and moved in to offer some help.
He rebooted the computer.
I considered selling this tale of social uneasiness to the playwright Mike Leigh.
Finally things were working properly. I ran across the pad again. The assistant clicked the right thing this time and a colour image of my foot appeared. It meant very little to me. "Now press the left icon," said the bossy man and the timid man did. "That was my right foot, though," I protested. They seemed to think it didn't matter, though clearly it did or why would you get the option. My man seemed to think it indicated that I wasn't rolling over on to my toe as I landed and that this foot was neutral. He didn't seem particularly confident about this though.
I thought it was over, but now I had to do the other foot. Would I ever get out of here alive. I was already in a cellar. Perhaps they were trying to make my run so much that I would be too weak to escape and they could keep me here forever as their slave. Forcing me to run over little pads and look at colour images of my foot and tell them that I liked doing that.
I tried to land on my left foot this time, but I slightly misjudged my run up and had to do a little hop to land on the reqired side. Everyone acknowledged that this was unacceptable. A hop was not a running step. I had to do it again. The second time I managed to coordinate myself correctly and landed squarely on my left. We looked at the image. Again a somewhat uncertain diagnosis of "neutral" was offered. The man then asked me to do my right foot again. Clearly he knew that pressing the left button on the right foot had caused all kinds of problems. My right foot was still neutral on both sides, which is nice to know if I ever have to swop my feet over for any reason.
This meant I could now, after fifteen or twenty minutes, progress on to buying some trainers. "Did you have any ideas which one you'd want?" said my man, hopefully. "Whatever you think is best," I replied, giving him a carte-blanche that most shop-keepers would have relished, but that I could tell from his face he didn't want to have.
As I waited for him to return from his stock room I was able to watch the other man, awkwardly going through the same rigmarole as me (though slightly more efficiently, thanks to his sergeant-major style assistant). He looked as stupid as I felt and he also took about three attempts to get his stride right so his left foot hit the pad. The besuited idiot. As we both waited for our men to bring us some trainers he asked me if I had learned anything about my feet from this experience. I replied that I hadn't really. I was beginning to wonder if I was on some very poor hidden camera trick TV show.
My meek man, meekly meandered in, with four shoeboxes. I tried on all four pairs. I chose the ones that I liked the colour of the best.