Big brand shoes get a run for their money

If Al Gallegos has his way, every man, woman and child will one day walk with a spring in their steps and a satisfied smile on their faces.

The spring will come attached to the heel of a strange, space age-looking shoe Gallegos wants to sell you. And the smile, well, that will come once you put on the shoe, says the 73-year-old inventor of the Z-CoiL line of pain-relief footwear.


Z-CoiLs first hit the shelves four years ago in New Mexico, and since then, the shoes have become something of a cult item. They're sold only through authorized dealers and are targeted toward people with painful leg, foot and back problems. About 350,000 pairs of the shoes have been sold to date, a relative drop in the footwear market.

So worry not, Reebok and Nike. At least for now.


But at last count, there were 227 Z-CoiL dealers in 39 states, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada, and the company's goal is to open 1,000 stores. The shoes have been featured in major publications, studied by two research laboratories and recommended by the Arthritis Foundation's magazine.

"It's a dream come true after such a long time and so much work," says Gallegos, who flew in from Albuquerque this week to attend the grand opening of the Coil Heaven store in Laurel today. "We knew our product was good, but we didn't think people would cotton to it the way that they have. When I visit these stores, people hug me up and tell me what a huge difference my shoes have made in their lives. I'm constantly surprised when I'm traveling around and I see people wearing them.

"I just want to get a shoe on the next person and make them feel good," says Gallegos, a distance runner who claims to sprint a 5 1/2 -minute mile in his Z-CoiLs.

To make it simple for Z-CoiL newbies:

Yes. They are funny-looking. But they come in different styles including sandals, sneakers, hiking boots, clogs or work boots.

Yes. They do make you bounce. Like walking on a trampoline.

No. They can't cover the coil to make the shoe prettier. Well, yes, they can. (There is a closed-heel boot, with a steel toe, for construction workers who don't want the steel spring to accidentally catch the rung of a ladder.) Covering the coil lessens its ability to compress and expand, allowing it to absorb the impact on your body as you walk, run or hike.

No. They don't do any advertising. Z-CoiLs are sold by word-of-mouth, and dealers will often go to hospital and nursing fairs to demonstrate the shoes for potential customers.


Yes. They are a bit pricey, between $139.95 to $179.95 depending on the style.

But, really, what price, pain? Or rather, to be pain-free?

An estimated 75 percent of Americans will experience foot health problems of varying degrees of severity at one time or another in their lives, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association. Gallegos and Z-CoiL devotees say the footwear helps people suffering from such ailments as heel spurs and plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation to the bottom of the foot. Additionally, Gallegos says, sufferers of lower back pain, arthritis and knee problems have also found relief with the shoe.

He himself has suffered from various foot, knee and back pains and first thought of using springs in shoes while out running his typical seven miles one day. His thought was that every car, from economy to luxury vehicles, uses shock absorbers to take a beating while passengers sit smoothly in their seats. Why not use the same simple technology in footwear?

What he came up with was a 3-inch conical coil steel spring, a rigid orthotic mold to support the arch and plenty of cushioning to surround the foot. The longtime shoe store owner then had a local butcher cut the soles of some shoes and then glued the coil to the heel.

The end product looked like one of Wile E. Coyote's harebrained schemes to catch the elusive Road Runner.


Manufacturers and the shoe industry reacted to it in similar fashion. Some laughed. Some derided the effort. Many doubted its success. It took Gallegos five years to get a patent for the idea and then another couple years, with his son, Andres, to find a manufacturer in Korea to make the shoes.

Last year, the privately held company posted net record sales of $6.3 million and net income of $1.2 million. After the opening in Laurel, Gallegos is heading north to scout store space in New York.

"Man, wouldn't it be neat to put one there?" Gallegos says. "It's really taking off. They make people feel good."

But don't take Gallegos' word for it. Two independent studies funded by grants that Gallegos won from the U.S. Department of Energy - one by the Los Alamos National Laboratory Project and a second by the Sandia National Laboratories - seem to support his claims.

Research indicated, according to Los Alamos' study, that the "design of the Recoil shoe may be an improvement over that of the typical elastomer cushioned running shoe. The initial impact forces appear to be less abrupt in the Recoil shoes, resulting in a reduction of the jarring effect to the foot and the lower leg of a runner as the heel impacts the ground." The Los Alamos study concluded that Z-CoiLs return energy to the foot.

The Sandia study showed that the Z-CoiL also absorbed 50 percent of the force placed on it when compared to a popular name-brand cushioned shoe.


Deborah Brackens, a nurse for 26 years, says the shoe has eased her aches and pains.

"I have osteoarthritis," says Brackens, an administrator at Prince George's Hospital Center who owns a pair of Z-CoiL clogs. "If you're a nurse, you're walking on concrete floor or linoleum all day. By the end of the day, your feet are tired and you're tired. For me, they lessen the pain on my hips. If you're trying to preserve your bones and joints, these are great."

It might be awhile before the word gets out. Z-CoiL has no advertising budget and relies mainly on word-of-mouth. A spokeswoman at the giant shoe retailer Nike Inc. said they've never heard of Z-CoiLs.

That's fine by Gallegos and company. His shoes are popular among police officers, nurses, retailers and real estate agents - anyone who works on their feet - and there are plenty of those kind of customers around. In the area, you can find the footwear on members of the U.S. Capitol Police and even a naval officer in the White House communications department, according to the new Laurel Z-CoiL store.

Rumor has it, there might be a version for golf enthusiasts coming down the road, too.

Gallegos, ever the dreamer, is also working with Sandia labs to develop a Z-CoiL that can harvest the energy from the spring action to heat your boots, run lights or maybe even power a cell phone as you hike up the side of a mountain. With all that imagination at work, you would think they'd be able to design a more handsome shoe.


"If you're in enough pain, you'll try anything no matter what they look like," says Kathryn Ottman, an artist who fell head over heels for Z-CoiLs when she tried them for the first time in March. She now owns six pair and runs CoiL Heaven, 7417 Van Dusen Road, in Laurel. "Besides, we're not in the fashion industry. We're in the pain relief industry."