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The thrill of victory, and agony of the feet

Ski Boot and Stiletto Challenge a fun fund-raiser in Maine

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Staff / October 27, 2011

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PORTLAND, Maine - They stretched, shook out their arms and legs, crouched at the ready - then, at the announcer’s call, took off in a sprint.

But what followed wasn’t the unmistakable smacking of rubber soles on pavement, and the racers looked a little, well, dainty - even awkward - as they pumped their arms and motored their legs toward the finish line.

That’s because there were no sneakers here: no cross-training Reeboks or ergonomic Nikes, no sole-cushioning New Balances. Instead, the half-dozen or so women raced heel-to-heel in one of the most maligned shoes of the 20th century - the stiletto - as part of a playful charity run last Thursday night.

“I didn’t really have a strategy,’’ said 39-year-old nurse Kristi Alling of Scarborough, who dashed to the finish in a pair of black, 4-inch-high cage heels, accented with a zipper up the back. “My strategy was to run like hell, and to not get hurt.’’

Stilettos have clicked their way into a reputation for discomfort, impracticality, even injury. But about a dozen women ignored all that - and likely horrified their podiatrists in the process - when they substituted heels for the cushy comfort of sneakers in the second-annual Ski Boot and Stiletto Challenge. The event, held in the parking lot of DiMillo’s Restaurant on Portland’s Long Wharf, certainly didn’t support arches, but it did support three charities: Fight PLGA and Lift Up Foundation (both dedicated to fighting childhood cancers and diseases), and MAPS Worldwide (an adoption agency).

“It’s a silly idea, a creative way to get people’s attention,’’ said organizer Scott Manthorne, who was inspired by similar races in Buffalo, Amsterdam, and Moscow that have no doubt kept cast-setters busy for years.

The waterside event included two 100-yard dashes: a stiletto race for individuals, and a team relay with members wearing either ski boots or stilettos. Wedges weren’t allowed, and qualifying heels had to be at least 3 inches.

Considering that many women can barely walk in them - steadily, at least - how exactly do you run in stilettos?

“You have to try to stay on your toes,’’ said 32-year-old Amee Rice of Westbrook, who took first place in the individual race, steaming ahead of her competitors in 3-inch-high, open-toed, brown suede stilettos.

“Just lean forward and keep going,’’ was Alling’s advice as she exposed her freshly-pedicured red toenails.

The self-described “heels girl’’ runs “here and there,’’ usually in 5Ks or charity runs.

Mandy Howe, on the other hand, is very much flat-footed.

“It’s my first time wearing stilettos,’’ professed the 35-year-old, from Scarborough, elevated 4 1/4 inches in a black, strappy pair she bought several months ago but never put on.

Before lining up beside her well-heeled competitors, she added, with a mix of wit and nerves, “I’m hoping it doesn’t end up with a hospital trip.’’

Luckily for her, it didn’t: Her four-woman team, “Half Booty,’’ came in first in the relay dash. (Their name arose out of a silly accessory they all donned: Fake plastic behinds from the costume store.)

All told, the lofty sprinters were a conglomeration of social runners, occasional joggers, and marathoners. The races, before a large crowd lined up on the wharf, were a rapid blur of straps, open toes, and bedazzling flowers, clicks reverberating on the pavement. The few ski boot competitors, meanwhile, clunkily squeaked and slapped their way through 100 yards.

Some cruised right along, while others were a bit more tentative, shaky, and leaden - sort of like Oz’s Tin Man. Rice, for her part, quickly pulled ahead of the pack after the “go’’ call, throwing up her arms in victory as she crossed the finish line.

Her strategy? Simple. “Not to fall.’’

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.