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Sole Patrol

Fit To Live


Published September 27, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

With his oversized briefcase, boundless energy and mile-a-minute banter, Gordon Hay could be an old-fashioned door-to-door salesman. He proclaims that his product can provide happiness, improve performance and even save marriages. Hay also spews phrases such as "You can learn how to control your destiny" and "This will just take five minutes." This would be enough to make me politely shut the door and retreat to my living room.

Except we're not at my house - we're at the Shelburne Road Starbucks, where Hay's venti coffee is growing cold as he talks. He has ripped off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pant legs, and now he stands blocking the nearest exit, where customers are doing double takes. I'm cornered; there's no way to escape this sales pitch. But then, his product seems pretty darn interesting.

Hay is the founder of Aline, a new foot-measuring system and line of foot beds whose origins go back to his early days of skiing at Stowe. (He won't divulge his age, but he seems to be fortysomething.) After 20 years in the boot-fitting industry, Hay says he's developed a product that will improve the experience of fellow outdoor athletes everywhere. For everyone from golfers hitting the links before the snow flies, to hikers headed out to climb Mount Mansfield, to free skiers training to huck cliffs this winter, Aline is designed to keep feet happy - and high-performing - in rigid footwear.

Since Aline launched last January, some 250 athletic and outdoor stores in the United States and New Zealand have started using the system and selling the foot beds. "People are just blown away," says Matt Manser of the Ski Rack in Burlington, which uses Aline to equip hikers, cyclists, skiers and snowboarders. "What used to take two weeks to solve now takes five minutes."

Aline is based in Massachusetts, with a satellite "office" at Hay's cabin near Stowe. It offers two components. The first, for retailers, is a rectangular foot-measuring platform, about the size of a breakfast tray, that's fitted with small sliding metal levers and posts and graphics depicting the left and right foot. It loosely resembles the Brannock Device, the nearly 80-year-old doohickey we've all seen in shoe stores.

"The Brannock was great for the 1920s, back when smoking was considered good for you," says Hay. He explains that the old-fashioned tool fails to measure the foot from a multidirectional standpoint and offers little feedback on how the foot is lined up with the knee.

As anyone who's torn an anterior cruciate ligament - a common ski injury - can attest, improper alignment can do more than screw up performance. It could wreck an entire season, or even a lifetime, of skiing. On a smaller scale, Hay says, poor alignment causes pain to boot-clad people, which leads to misery on hiking trails and ski slopes, often inciting flare-ups between couples. (That's where the saving-marriages part comes in.)

The Aline device measures not only length and width but also alignment. Hay demonstrates by placing his right foot on the measurer and locking it in with a tab that slides between the big and second toes. Though he's standing up straight, his ankle is hitting one of the posts. Clearly, his alignment is off. But the measuring gets even niftier. Hay reaches down and flips on a laser mounted to the platform. The beam shoots up his foot and leg . . . nowhere near the center of the knee. It's a red light, literally, signaling that something is wrong.

Creativity has long been essential in getting rigid footwear to fit properly. Olympian Bode Miller once shoved PowerBars in his boots. Hay says he's seen skiers wedge ketchup packets under their socks. Back in the early 1980s, he stuffed cocktail napkins and duct tape in his ski boots to fix his skewed alignment and prevent his feet from sloshing around.

Hay graduated to using foam, cork and glue to fit both world-class and amateur athletes, who tracked him down to take advantage of his expertise. The ski-bum life, he admits, took a toll on the consistency of his custom fittings. "I can promise you that on a Sunday morning, after a good ski boot fitter has been out all night at Killington, chasing women and snowflakes - my old world - well, the heck if the boot I fit that morning is the same as on a Wednesday morning."

Through Aline's predecessor, SoleSystems, Hay researched how high-tech suspension technology might be used to deliver a more consistent, readily available product. Then he cobbled together a design with engineer Keith Orr, who has developed equipment for orthopedic surgeons and helped produce DMX technology for Reebok.

The result is the new company's second component: a flexible clear, light-blue plastic foot bed crisscrossed with reinforced ribs, which customers can slip in any type of athletic shoe or boot. It feels both more pliable than an orthotic a podiatrist might prescribe, and more durable than its sports-oriented competitors, such as Superfeet. And at $50 a pair, the Aline foot bed is also less expensive than many other solutions.

The Aline measuring system uses letters to correspond to the range of available foot beds, which are further adjustable with tiny plastic pegs that add millimeters of height. Hay slips one of the foot beds he's brought to Starbucks under his right foot, then steps back on the measuring device. The pay-off is immediately visible. His ankle rests between the two posts; the laser shoots straight up the center of his foot and shin, bisecting the knee.

Such proper foot and ankle alignment, Hay claims, provides maximum control and power to cyclists, comfort and backpack-carrying capacity to hikers, swing accuracy to golfers and stability and multiple-axis power transfer to snowboarders. He estimates that Aline can help 90 percent of hikers, golfers, skiers and riders, and 75 percent of cyclists.

Even so, do outdoor enthusiasts really need another product to slip inside their shoes? According to the National Shoe Retailers Association, there are now more than 800 types of prefabricated inserts on store shelves - double the number there were in 2000. Hay fits me with a pair of Alines so I can see for myself how his product differs. But as I'm nearly seven months pregnant and have a predilection for falling from bikes and on hiking trails, I can't exactly test the theories right now.

I'm hanging on to them for this winter, though. Hay gives me a slew of testimonials from pro athletes, who keep using the phrase "blown away." Matt Manser at the Ski Rack is so convinced that Aline works, he offers a guaranteed fit for the life of a ski boot for those who buy the foot beds.

As for Hay, he's off to spread the message of proper foot and ankle alignment. Compared with the venues where he plans to sell his wares, Starbucks is small potatoes. "Our mission is to change the entire shoe industry, by letting people be aware of their daily footwear needs and letting them actually have solutions to those needs," he says. "I hope to be on Oprah."