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Crossing Borders: Merrell Bootmaker Now Gets People Back On Their Feet…Literally

Tim Magnuson

“I just finished my 10½ mile run,” gasped Travis Peltier as he struggled to catch his breath in a selfie video recently posted on social media. “I want to announce that I started training for the Top of Utah Marathon. This is my 10-year anniversary of getting orthotics.”

Travis, a 25-year-old college student, was a competitive high school athlete. Back then, doctors said that he would likely be confined to wheelchair by now if he didn’t undergo three major surgeries to fix his severe foot problems.

“Every morning when I would wake up, it was like I was like an 80-year-old man,” he said. “I would roll out of bed and just all of my muscles would hurt. But when I would step down, it felt like I was stepping on tacks right on my heel.”

There was a hefty price to be paid for multiple surgeries though, something unimaginable to the young, budding athlete—a life filled with the competitive sports he loved could very well be off the table…forever. Little did Travis know at the time, that his neighbor would get him back on his feet and influence him in ways he had yet to see.

Credit Randy Merrell
Custom hiking boots made by Randy Merrell.

“I grew up right by Randy Merrell, [co]-founder and previous CEO of Merrell [Boot Company],” said Travis.

Any outdoor enthusiast knows Merrell Boots. At one time, Backpacker Magazine named them “the most comfortable and functional boots in North America.” Life in the corporate world took its toll however and over 30 years ago, Randy Merrell left the company that still bears his name to become his own boss. He continued his masterful art of boot making, but also discovered a gift for designing shoe inserts to restore natural function in those who are limited by their feet.

“Through scouting I got to know him really well. We were actually on a trip and without me saying anything, he noticed the way that I was walking,” Travis recalled. “He started to ask questions about the pain I was having and suggested I get a pair of his orthotics.”

I wanted to meet the master bootmaker and foot fixer, so I drove to Vernal, Utah. On my way, I discovered that this town of 11,000 people really is remote—about 2.5 hours away from any major city.   

“If I were to choose a location to make a custom boot shop/pedorthy clinic, I couldn't find a place more difficult to do this job than here,” Randy remarked upon my arrival. “But, this is home, a place that I love. It’s where family is and so I've chose to do it in my way, on my terms.”

Situated in a beautiful green valley surrounded by mountains on one side and desert on the other is Merrell FootLab. A stream meandering through, a herd of yak walking aimlessly nearby, and Randy’s hobbit-like home situated across from his shop make this property as special as it is unique. And it’s here where countless people have been given back their quality of life.

I stepped inside the foot lab where Randy spends his days making people's steps “pure, straight, and correct.” Whether you're there for a foot appointment or not, he can’t help but evaluate your gait, just like he did with Travis on that backpacking trip many years ago.

Credit Travis Peltier
Travis Peltier's custom orthotics crafted by Randy Merrell.

“Travis has what we call cavus foot. I mean his arch is so high that you could drive a truck under it. The inside edge of his feet are almost off the ground, and then that is exacerbated by the fact that he is bow-legged,” he said. “So, you add all that up and it's just a perfect storm.”

But Randy had the perfect solution—a pair of orthotics built specifically for Travis that would put his feet in the proper aligned position.

“The real magic happens when we make an impression of the foot, and I use a very old fashioned way,” he said.   

Rather than using digital scanning technology common today, Randy uses a foam box to capture an impression. He physically presses a client’s foot down into the foam. 

“That allows me to capture the foot making the motion that it needs to be making, not the motion that it’s been making on its own causing the problem,” said Randy. “So, there’s where the magic happens—the position we capture the foot in.”

He says this step is critical, because many people that dispense orthotics often just replicate the problem by capturing the motion the foot has been making on its own, and this can sometimes make things worse.

Once Randy’s completed the impression, he uses it to fabricate the orthotics.

Credit Travis Peltier
Travis Peltier and his wife Shannon at the 2017 Top of Utah Marathon.

“I have two goals for myself,” Randy revealed. “First, to treat people as I would choose to be treated myself. The second goal is to knock their socks off.”

We’ll, he certainly did that for Travis. And when I asked Randy if he knew about the marathon Travis was getting ready to run…

“It almost brings tears to my eyes. I mean, I couldn’t love him more if he was my own son,” he said.

But the story doesn’t end here. Travis had the opportunity to apprentice with Randy and started up his own custom orthotics business in Logan, Utah.

“I have my own story,” Travis said. “It's a miracle that I'm even walking today. Being able to run, jump, play and do whatever I want is a miracle to me. To help other people with that is the most special thing I can think of.”

And just so you know, Travis did finish that marathon.

The UPR Original Series "Crossing Borders" is a yearlong storytelling project between UPR and the USU Office of Global Engagement - providing services for international students and scholars; and facilitating study abroad opportunities for students and faculty. Details found here