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On Form Change, Minimalist Shoes, Pain-Free Running, and Transition Injuries: Bob C.’s Story

Saucony Kilkenny XC3Though I am personally an advocate, I’ve done my best to keep an open mind about the benefits and pitfalls of stride change and migrating to a more minimalist style shoe. I realize that there is not a lot of evidence out there supporting a change, nor is there much evidence supporting maintenance of the status quo given existing injury rates.

My basic position is that the decision is an individual one, to be made by each runner after weighing their current situation and the potential pros and cons of a change. For many, it is simply a matter of taking a leap of faith. While I don’t necessarily think that every runner has to strive to run only in an ultra-minimal shoe and a migrate to a midfoot strike (and the other stride changes this entails), I have become a believer that doing so has the power to allow at least some subset of people to overcome nagging injuries and run pain-free. How big this subset will prove to be is yet to be determined, but anecdotes that I read and emails that I receive have convinced me that form change and more minimal shoe choice is worth a shot if your current approach appears to not be working.

As an example of this, I’d like to share an email I received a few weeks ago from a runner named Bob C. Bob’s story is a great one, because it shows how someone can find new running success by changing shoes and form, how overdoing the transition can cause problems in and of itself (as he readily admits, one must be more gradual and careful in transition than he was), and how he is frustrated by the lack of an ideal shoe to meet his needs.

If Bob’s story is similar to your own, please send me an email or share it in the comments. The more stories that we can tell about how people have overcome injury and run pain free by changing shoes and form the better, and the stronger case that can be made for the approach. Furthermore, we still need to continue to push education about how to transition carefully so that people like Bob don’t get hurt in the process.

Finally, I want to thank Bob for allowing me to re-post this – I appreciate it! You can find out more about Bob and follow his story at his blog, Bob’s STILL a Triathlon Newbie.


Hi Pete,

It’s been 4 weeks since I broke a 2nd metatarsal running on hard surfaces in my racing flats.  I got my flats in early September in preparation for my first-ever Olympic-distance triathlon (1.5K swim, 40K bike, 10K run).  The shoes (Saucony Kilkenny – see picture at top of post) gave me the Winged Feet of Mercury, immediately slicing 30 seconds per mile from my 4 mile training runs, taking me to a 9:00 PR pace for the distance (with rolling hills).

My last prior 10K was nearly 25 years ago (I’m now 54).  I stopped running when the pain in all my leg joints didn’t go away for days after even mild training runs.  I was a hard heel-striker then, with flat feet, skinny weak ankles, and slightly bowed legs.  Getting into triathlon 2 years ago meant I needed to find a new way to run.

First I went with shoes that would keep the road as far from my legs as possible (Mizuno Wave Creation 10), which made a return to light running possible.  But I was physically unable to go much faster than a fast jog.  I added orthotics, which helped a little.  Then I got knee pain (chondromalacia caused by ITB Syndrome), and I searched for a new stride.  I then read about POSE and Chi Running, adopted a mid-sole strike, and 3 months later my PRs started to improve, though they soon topped out again.

Then in August of 2009 I lost my L5-S1 disc: It simply degenerated away, leaving no padding and lots of pain behind.  Since I had by then become addicted to each of the triathlon sports, I refused the offered spinal fusion surgery and endured months of physical therapy to learn how to live with a damaged back.  And in February of this year I became a forefoot runner: Any significant heel contact would cause intense pain at the site of my degenerated disc, so I had no alternative, since I refused to give up running (and triathlon).

My initial web searches failed to uncover any useful forefoot running resources.  I had to feel my way into forefoot running on my own.  The first thing I noticed was that the towering heel of my Mizuno Wave Creation 10 was hitting the ground way too early, and was forcing me to run either on my tip-toes or in a slight squat (in order to avoid a painful heel impact), each of which caused other problems (ITB and PF).

I switched to an old worn-out pair of Asics that had a much softer and slightly lower heel.  By mid-summer my PRs again started to improve.  Since I wasn’t placing as much weight on my midfoot, I removed the heavy orthotics, and saw another improvement in my PRs.  At this point, I was much more comfortable running a mile than walking one!

When a friend suggested racing flats, I went to each of my local specialty running stores, tried everything, and when I finally tried the Kilkenny, it was love at first step.  I got the shoes, trained well, did my race, beat my optimistic goal time, and kept on running in my racing flats.  I searched the local shops for road shoes that would have a heel compatible with a forefoot strike, but found nothing that fit my narrow flat foot.

In hindsight, a stress fracture was inevitable.  Sure, it was not smart to run exclusively on hard surfaces in racing flats.  But I also must share some blame with the shoe market, for not having a road shoe available that would fit my foot and running style, and also be stocked by local shops.

While I now consider myself to be a minimalist runner due to my forefoot stride, I also realize I’m also a ‘maximalist’ runner:  Maximally ignorant, that is.  It took me way too long to learn the running vocabulary, which is the only way to get useful search results (when entering any area of specialization, first becoming ‘buzz-word compliant’ is mandatory).   Where are the running glossaries?

I’ve reached the point where I’m willing to believe that my ideal road shoe, a padded racing flat, may simply not exist.  And I’m wondering what I can do about that situation.  So far, I’ve come up with five options:

1. Accept the situation: Do what’s needed to adapt to the best fitting shoe available that has an acceptably low H2T drop.  But I’m concerned I’ll have to adapt my stride to the point that I’ll have problems switching back to my racing flats before races.  And I refuse to give up my racing flats!

2. Find a shoe that’s ideal in all respects OTHER than H2T drop, and have a cobbler slice away some foam to remove the excess heel height (a trivial task for any qualified cobbler).  This would require a shoe with minimal heel structure, lacking things like wave plates and air/gel layers.  The Brooks Green Silence may be a candidate, which I’ll try out after my foot finishes healing.

3. Eliminate all hard-surface running, except for final race training and race day.  Which means I keep running in my racing flats, but only on sand and turf.  Not an easy thing to accomplish in my densely packed suburb, but not impossible (just impractical).

4.  Add a thin Sof Sole gel cushion to the forefoot of my racing flats.  I’ve already done this, just for insurance, but I doubt it is enough to prevent another stress fracture.  And I haven’t yet run in the modified shoe, so it may prove unworkable.

5. Create my own shoe.


So, there’s Bob’s story – one with both ups and downs, and one that will hopefully progress in a positive way once his fracture heals. bob and I have had some thoughtful discussions about shoes since this initial email, and it’s clear that he, like me, is an experimenter and is determined to figure this out.

Once again, I’d love to hear your stories if you have them – feel free to post a comment or send an email!

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. I think I was able to transition into a minimalist shoe rather easily because I’m a rugby referee and regularly run on grass or turf in soccer shoes. Maybe this would be a good transition shoe/exercise? Do some ‘track’ runs or any workout really on grass in soccer shoes. There is still something under your foot, but its zero drop.

  2. Karl Jarvis says:

    3 years ago I decided to depart from my fancy pants orthotics and transition to minimalist shoes. I also got a stress fracture – for me in the 3rd right met. It was a risk I had to take and I think it was worth it. If I had to redo the transition, though, I would have run barefoot more frequently on hard ground for better feedback on stride. In any case, now I run exclusively in thin shoes that are zeroed out (heel sliced down to no effective lift). It’s way more fun to run minimalist, and that’s what it’s all about!

  3. Bob… You’re in for a good year, shoe-wise. Altra, GoLite (already on the market), and maybe even the Merrel Barefoot.

  4. Hi, Pete, thanks for bringing this story. Very interesting. I am also new to minimalism running but so far it has worked very well. As I was already in my running lowest point due to plantar fasciitis, it was easy to start slowly. Now, six months later, I think the transition from heel strike to midfoot strike was the best thing that happened to me. My concern is that I read a lot of stories from people having metatarsal fractures and so I wonder if it will hit me someday. I am running now always on hard surfaces and exclusively on flat minimalist shoes. Although I am increasing mileage slowly, I already had pain in my feet and calf, which are now gone. What I am doing to prevent major problems is cross-training (spinning twice a week) and now muscle strengthening (trying to do it also twice a week). I also limited my running to 3 times a week. If that is enough I will probably find out only in the mid-long term. By the way, I also found difficult to find a good shoe to run since my original one is close to an end, also because not all the models come here to Brazil.
    Best regards,
    Sergio

  5. I came back to running this year after nearly 15 years off (once a week jogs — I had gotten to the point that I couldn’t run a half-hour without including a walk break). I had a closet full of stability shoes, Asics Gel-Kayanos and others, with virtually no wear on them, based on the recommendations of running specialty store employees, magazines and internet guidance (I’m a Clydesdale with fairly flat feet and Morton’s toe).

    I bought a pair of Adidas stability shoes, and immediately noticed how I felt pain in the middle of my shin bones. Not shin splints, pain in a particular location where I had gotten stress fractures before.

    Frustrated, I finally decided to try neutral shoes earlier this year. Lacing them up, I was astounded to find that, notwithstanding my size, low arch, etc., I could run without pain in neutral shoes. Sure, I had aches and pains, including calf cramps, but nothing that kept me from running more than a week.

    My fitness improved, and finally my pace. I read with great interest about the Saucony ProGrid Kinvara, and ultimately bought a pair. I’ve run a 10 mile race and a 1/2 marathon in them, and have had absolutely no problems. At the same time, I shaved nearly 4 minutes off my 5k time.

    Are minimalist shoes “silver bullets” for all runners? Probably not. But do they work? For me, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

  6. Thanks for your take Bob! I find myself in the same boat – struggling to find the perfect shoe to fit my personal needs and my quest to strengthen my feet/lower legs and make my stride more efficient with minimalist shoes. I think it’s a balancing act. That’s why I’m such a huge proponent of varying your shoes so you can get the benefits of minimalism without overdoing it.

    Pete has written before that he believes one of the reasons he hasn’t had a major injury in a long time is that he’s constantly rotating his shoes. Different shoes give your legs something different to adapt to and stress them in slightly different ways.

    I’m glad you’re finding what works for you! Cheers, – Fitz.

  7. Tried to post on Bob’s blog, but had some trouble. You might want to steer him toward the new Go-Lites, which are zero drop, but cushioned (though they ARE for trail running, and apparently a bit on the heavy side). They supposedly also reverse the typical sole model by having the firmer sole closer to your foot, and the softer part closer to the road. Also, Altra has well-cushioned, zero drop shoes on their way as well.

  8. Sam Winebaum says:

    I am finding that mixing road runs in more minimal shoes such my Kinervas, Adidas Rockets, and Ascics Hyperspeeds with easy days in my clown shoe Hoka One Ones on both roads and trails is keeping my legs fresher. Like Bob I am 54 with 37 years of running in the legs. I well remember running close to 100 miles a week in the 70′s in minimal shoes such as the early Tigers and Nikes. It worked to PR of 2:37 marathon in HS, 2:28 in my early twenties, 3 Mount Washington junior titles, and a 32 minute 10k in a college XC race. Never an injury beyond a stress fracture when I transitioned from a winter of Nordic racing and snow running exclusively to hilly pavement. Then age, to much shoe, and to much work slowed me down! I am back to less shoe but the speed it is gone. The Hoka twist is that essentially as your foot settles into the foam they are zero drop with the added advantage of superb cushionning which feels like running on grass on the road. Fortunately I have been mostly injury free my whole running career. General stiffness and aches sent me looking for answers.

    Pete, your blog is superb. It has inspired me to write more on mine at samwinebaum.blogspot.com. I cover running gear, some hiking, some technology. I recently posted about the Hokas as Karl Metzler NH native ran the 2000 plus mile pony express trail in 50 days in Hokas without a blister, averaging 50 miles per day!

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for the comment Sam – didn’t realize that Meltzer was from NH. The
      Hoka’s are an interesting concept, still not sure how I’d feel about them.

      Pete

      • I tried on the Hoka’s the same time I did the Kinvara’s (which I bought – obviously my opinion of them was much better). For me… the thick and soft midsole took away any kind of ground feel, and I felt VERY ustable in them (all that midsole sqishing around). Yes, the forefoot is very stiff, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing to me, as I’ve had issues with Frieberg’s Infraction. But… the extreme rocker plus the soft midsole made it feel like the ground was falling away from me with every stride. And basically they look like moon boots cut off at the ankle.

      • Sam Winebaum says:

        I think Meltzer is from Manchester, went to Plymouth State for a while then headed to UT where he has been ever since.
        The Hokas sure are different. They are stiff but at slower paces you don’t notice it because of the front rocker in the sole. I thought at first they would be tough to climb steep trails in but while not as agile as Inov-8 they climb fine and downhill running is incredible. I saw on Meltzer’s blog http://www.karlmeltzer.com they are coming out with a slightly lower profile shoe more suitable for the road and faster paces. As far as recovery running and long easy runs I swear by them after so hesitancy to even try them on the road. I may even wear them for Boston..

  9. I ran my first half marathon in April 2010, and from the pictures, I could totally tell I was a heel striker. When I started doing more of tempo runs and speedwork in lighter shoes, I found that (for me) going quicker allowed me to find my midfoot. And once I started training more on my midfoot, the minutes just came off my race times. My 2nd half marathon was 7 minutes faster, the third was 4 minutes faster than the 2nd. So I shaved 11 minutes off my half time in 5 months. Plus, as a midfoot striker, I can run my mile repeats about 40 seconds faster than what I did as a heel striker. I know these results could be due to training aspects as well, but it is amazing to me how much quicker I am on my midfoot, and also how much less fatigued my legs feel on long runs! Love the minimalist shoes…but I own a slightly heavier trainer as well, because there’s still doubt in the back of my mind that I’m doing the absolute “right” thing! Hope I am, because I’m enjoying the improvements!

    • Pete Larson says:

      Sandy – Thanks for the comment, and nice to see the improvement. That doubt
      is hard to kick after we havce been conditioned for so long to think that
      only one type of shoe will work. Nice to see that things are changing.

      Pete

  10. RicksRunning says:

    I think it’s a good idea to do some conditioning work with your feet if you plan to move into more minimal shoes, years spent inside heavy padded and inflexible shoes can leave your foot muscles and bones weak!
    Start by walking about the house barefoot.
    Do your core training barefoot and add in some foot exercises.
    1/ Do toe walks, take small steps using your toes to pull yourself along.
    2/ calf raises on steps barefoot, start with two legged raises and overtime progress onto single leg calf raises.
    3/Begin by sitting in a chair and come to sit on the edge of it so your feet are easily flat on the floor and knees bent to a 90-degree angle. Place a thick towel flat in front of your feet so that both feet are fully on the towel. Grab the towel with your toes and roll the towel away from you. Doing so will call on five different network of muscles on the bottoms of your feet: strengthening these muscles can help bring a functional arch back to your feet. Repeat this rolling exercise 2 or 3 times.
    4/ as you get stronger you can do plyometric hops in place, starting off in shoes and very gradually moving into barefoot hopping over time.
    Do these type of foot exercises and you will develope very strong functional feet ready to handle the demands of more minimal shoes!

  11. Gabriel Mccormick says:

    I’m fairly new to minimalist running, and running in general.

    I’ve always been athletic playing sports like cycling, boxing, ultimate frisbee, and soccer, but I’d never been able to run more than a mile or two. I’d always wanted to find shoes that were low profile like a pair of cleats since it’s natural to run on the midfoot/forefoot in cleats or while sprinting. Once I found spikeless cross country flats I was able to steadily increase mileage. I still don’t run terribly far, but getting past mile two has been a big step and now I’m training towards a 10k.

    Now with the increase in available minimal shoes I feel like I can be a runner in addition to keeping up with other sports. It just doesn’t hurt to run anymore, and I can continually improve time and distance.

    As a side story my wife has begun the transition away from huge motion control shoes (a la the Brooks Addiction) with a large orthodic to the substantially more minimal Green Silence. She’s had nothing but success so far with reductions in knee, hip, and foot pain.

    Keep up the good work on your blog. It’s an exciting time to be a new runner.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Yes, very exciting time! Curious, how long has your wife been in the Green
      Silence? The transition out of motion control is one that I’m really
      interested in hearing more about as I get a lot of questions about it.

      Pete

  12. Ghgreyhound10 says:

    Pete,
    Great article. I wonder why he didn’t try Newtons as they encourage the forefoot running style. I really like mine and they are in my rotation of shoes that I use.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Newton’s could be a good option, but they are relatively thick soled and
      expensive, which could be turnoffs for some people. I do very much like the
      Distance Racer myself though.

      Pete

      • I was also thinking Newtons would be a good option for him. They seem to fit the bill as a relatively cushioned forefoot running shoe. While they are a tad expensive, the Distance racers with the 10% discount at running warehouse come to about $135 which is within spitting distance price wise of some mainstream running shoes like the Asics Kayano at a local running store (maybe cheaper once tax is paid on the Asics). Kinvaras could also be a good choice.

  13. Whotrustedus says:

    I’ve been a regular runner for about 30 years. Early on I was diagnosed by a podiatrist with over pronation and have been running in orthotics since then. I ran a few marathons and such along the way.

    But eventually, my legs started complaining about the frequency and distances. About 10 years into my running career, i started to get some discomfort in my right knee and right leg in general. I was then diagnosed with a small tear in the minicus of that knee. I was ready to go under the knife until an acquaintance of my mine who had done the same for both knees warned me of his remorse. After a second professional opinion, I decided to forgo the surgery and manage the pain with appropriate strengthening, stretching, & rest. Through much trial & error, I eventually learned that my legs could only tolerate running every 3 days, no more frequently.

    Along the way, I also got DVT (deep vein thrombosis, i.e. a blood clot) in my right leg behind my knee and another one in my left foreleg about 5 years later . Needless to say my legs have felt sore for more time than I would have preferred over those years.

    I switched to cycling a few years ago to allow me more frequent aerobic conditioning. I can cycle pain free so I had pretty much given up on running.

    Then we got a hyperactive puppy about 2 years ago. He demanded exercise so I strapped back into my running shoes and worked my legs back to 5-6 miles so I could try to wear out the canine. By ramping up the mileage very slowly and taking care with rest & stretching, my legs felt tolerable.

    About a year ago, I got wind of VFFs and starting pining for them. My wife gave me a pair of Sprints for my birthday in August. After receiving them, I read a bunch of blogs online (not yet here, though!) and learned that I really needed to work into them slowly. With my previous experiences with my legs, that rang true to me so I took the advice to heart. I started with short walks around the neighborhood and slowly increased the duration. When I finally started running in them, I mapped out a few double routes in my neighborhood that would allow me to run first in my VFFs, end up back my house and switch back to my regular shoes to finish my session. I would run at least 3 times at a given distance in my VFFs before I upped the mileage. It took me a couple of months to get up to 6 miles in my VFFS. the last couple of those weeks were torture for me because I got to the point of dreading putting on my old shoes. But I decided to be focused. Oh, and I ditched the orthotics along the way.

    Once I could do my 6 mile route with my VFFs, I stuck with my 3 day routine. But I noticed that my legs felt great after each run and unlike runs in my old motion control shoes, didn’t seem to really need the 3 days of rest. But I’ve been every 3 days for a long time so i didn’t really think i should press my luck. but after a few weeks, I decided to try every 2 days. Sure enough, no pain! I’ve been doing every other day for a couple of weeks now and feel like I could move up to every day if I felt like it. I think I’ll wait for a while for that !

    Two punchlines for me:

    Running in VFFs have helped my legs (and ankles and knees and feet) to feel the best they have in years. My wife even notices that they look stronger. I had swellness in one of my ankles due to the blood clot and that swellness has basically disappeared! I wear my VFFs for weight training and I am doing weights with my squats & dead lifts that I could only imagine in the past!

    Slowly & methodically working into my VFFs helped me avoid transition injuries. My wife will confirm that I can be a bit obsessive about things so I could have easily jumped in headfirst with these new shoes and got hurt quickly. But i headed the warnings online and am sure glad that I did.

  14. I am a newbie runner. Started running in 2009 at 28 years old with completely flat feet. Loved it, and started doing local 5Ks. But I kept hurting my ankles and kept having to take time off to let them heal. I took about 5 months off at the beginning of 2010 while my husband read up on ChiRunning. I read some of the book (admittedly haven’t gotten much past form) and adapted my running style. When I found my midfoot stride, my fancy New Balance and Spira running shoes were suddenly very uncomfortable, so I stuck on a very simple pair of fashion sneaks and felt great! I went to Payless and bought some cheap Champion brand shoes that are very minimal in the sole. Since running in those, I have reached PRs in 5Ks, and started running 8Ks. My pace was around a 12 minute mile when I started running (before injuries) but is now around a 10:30 minute mile. I don’t even get the shin splints that used to plague me and my ankles are doing great. I’m waiting for the Merrell Barefoot line to come out this spring to get some shoes that are actually made for what I’m doing.

    My husband has also made the switch to minimalist shoes and ChiRunning. He’s seeing faster times, no shin splints (which he constantly had) and hasn’t bothered his old groin injury which he used to aggravate once or twice a year. We are definitely converts.

  15. I have been a cyclist for about a decade now, starting out as a mountain biking weekend warrior and moving into an endurance road and mountain cyclist for the past 4 or so years. I regularly do 100+ mile road rides and race a few 12 hour mountain events each year. I am in good shape, have an aptitude for endurance events, and the mental strength to enjoy the pain of big days.

    A large portion of my left meniscus was removed in ’96 as a result I have knee pain in my left leg when running. I wanted to run but the pain prevented more than a 5k. However this was when heel striking, as this was all I knew. I listened to the audio version of Born to Run while cycling (as I often do) and thought that this new forefoot, mid-foot thing might be for me.

    It’s now kind of the off season for cycling and I have a new job preventing me from my 2-3 nights of cycling after work. There is a nice little gym at the new job and I am running at least 2 times a week. After reading several of your posts Pete and a few from The Gear Junkie I picked up a pair of Asics Piranha P3 from Run With Us in Pasadena, CA. I tried on several different minimal shoes and found these to be the most comfortable.

    Due to my existing fitness level I find it pretty easy to get in a 5K on a treadmill at lunch. I am trying to work on my form but really not sure if I am doing it correctly. I hope to attend a Chi Running workshop put on by a guy in Pasadena early in 2011. So far my knee is fine. I have some tightness in my lower calf / upper Achilles area but that eases within a day and is getting less. I hope to get outside and run in the real world when the weather improves (unusual amount of rain recently in SoCal).

    At this point I do not have aspirations of running a marathon but don’t rule it out. I am more interested in trail running in our local mountains.

    Thanks for the blog Pete, it was very helpful in getting to where I am now and will be helpful in getting to where I want to go.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for the comment Brian. A bit of calf tightness is normal and
      usually passes with time as you transition. Another resource you might
      want to check out is Danny Abshire’s Natural Running book – he does a
      nice job going over most aspects of form with a slightly different
      approach than Chi. Also do a google search for Good Form Running -
      they are working with New Balance on form education.

      Pete

      On Friday, December 31, 2010, Disqus

  16. Eric Johnson says:

    i manage a running specialty store and, while we have embraced the minimalist concept, we strongly caution customers like Bob C when they try it.

    it does not sound like bob was patient enough to let his body adapt to the shoes. the shoe he tried has virtually zero padding and he has been using one of the most highly cushioned shoe on the market for years.

    it doesn’t just take weeks to adapt to a minimalist shoe. i think it takes months or even YEARS.

    i’m also not convinced that shoe would be appropriate for anyone but the most biomechanically perfect on hard surfaces in the long term. it’s just not padded enough. it would probably be fine for dirt/grass.

    much rather see him in a kinvara, a newton, etc…

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for the comment Eric. I also find the Kilkenny to be firmer than
      other XC flats (e.g., the Brooks Mach series). I recall having some forefoot
      pain when wearing mine, but I have largely shelved them due to fit issues.

      I’m curious, as someone who manages a running store, do you find that the
      minimalist concept is widely accepted at specialty stores, or is it hit or
      miss? I usually advise people to go to specialty stores due to better
      selection and better, more knowledgeable service than at a big box sporting
      goods store. How would you advise people to bring up the subject at a store,
      considering that some may still be resistant to the idea?

      Pete

  17. Great post, Pete. Food for thought for those of us just getting started on our minimalist shoe adventure. Thanks to Bob for allowing you to post.

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