talking authenticity, shoe tech and community with Karhu’s Lee Deleon

featured image by Julia Urbano

Lee Deleon is a former Fleet Feet Houston employee turned Karhu sales rep, photographer extraordinaire, and all around genuine, creative human. In this interview, Lee and I talk about the way working in run specialty has impacted his life and influenced his personality, why Karhu is a brand to get behind, the impact of the running community, and more.

In this conversation we talk about Karhu’s upcoming back to school drive benefitting students in Houston’s Third Ward. If you’re in Houston on August 20th, sign up to run or bike here: https://runsignup.com/Race/TX/Houston/BacktoSchoolatEmancipationPark

If you can’t make the Saturday event, you can use the link above to donate, or stop by Doshi House or Tipping Point Coffee to drop off school supplies for a child in need! Donations are being accepted through August 12th.


Kenaia: We can start by talking about Karhu! So, tell me about Karhu.

Lee: You want the abridged version or…

K: I want the Lee take.

L: The Lee take.

K: Yes.

L: Okay. One, I always tell people this at the store, or just in general, we’re the best running company you’ve never heard of, right? So, very small brand out of Finland, and our main thing is creating running shoes that are used for a daily trainer. A daily person, right. And we are exclusively with Fleet Feet, we have a partnership with them in order to kind of make that happen. We’ve partnered up with them to use their fit id foot scans. But as a company we have a long standing heritage of just making quality products out of Finland, ’cause we started out as a military outfitter.

K: Oh really?

L: Yeah, yeah, well we used to make skis. So the brand has had multiple transformations from making Olympic equipment like javelins, discus and all that stuff, making tracks, in Finland. So the 1920s- we were established in 1916, first of all- 1920s, we decided to make footwear out of kangaroo leather and all sorts of high quality materials. So Karhu started off with a really strong start, catering to the Olympic elite athletes from back then. I think by the time the 20s and 30s came around we’d amassed double digit gold medals from Finland.

K: So why has no one heard of it?

L: Well, there are a few factors there. We’ve decided to just try to stay authentic, right? Which we still do. But as globalization kind of took over, you know, brands like Asics and Nike, they were able to mass produce and market their product a little bit more globally, right. So we just wanted to focus on staying in our niche, you know, creating quality product. Other brands just had a much more broad global reach though their marketing.

K: How did you get into Karhu?

L: So how did I get into Karhu? That’s a really good question. Because I was working at the Fleet Feet in Rice Village [in Houston], right. So I first started to hear about Karhu through these little white boxes that came into the store. They had a bear on it. I was like, I’ve never heard of this brand before, I don’t know what it’s about. But I randomly decided to look it up- this was back in like 2017, 2016- and I found out that Kanye West started wearing the shoes, like the old lifestyle retro shoes, and then coincidentally we got a shipment of Karhus back into the running store, and I decided to try them out. I was a big Mizuno guy- huge Mizuno guy. [Karhu] were making shoes with this thing called the fulcrum, and I was like ok this must be a gimmick, right?

K: Explain the fulcrum for people who don’t know what that is.

L: So the physical attributes of the fulcrum, right, is to just provide more propulsion, to kind of get you to the distances where you want at a shorter amount of time. So in relation to running it’s just creating a platform and kind of a launch pad for you to get into your velocity phase of the gait cycle.

K: Would you say it’s also some stability or is it mostly propulsion?

L: Yeah! So if I had a broken-down fulcrum for you, it’s actually kind of crazy cause both of those medial and lateral pivot points in the midsole are a little bit more raised and a little bit more organically shaped, almost. So it kind of props up the foot in the lateral arch and the medial arch, so it creates kind of a- there’s really no other good way to say this- kind of a guide rail? Essentially what the fulcrum does is reduces side-to-side peak overpronation and underpronation. so in essence when you start running and you apply weight to that fulcrum, it’s easier to kind of like shift your foot’s mechanics over to the next step a bit faster, so you don’t have that much time to overpronate or underpronate. It’s pretty cool. But also, it feels really smooth.

K: Have you run in it?

L: Oh yeah! So back in 2017, when we got the Fast 7 shoe, that was the first ever performance runner Karhu I ever got. I just found it was really easy to establish rhythm and momentum with the shoe and I was like okay, that’s different. They’re not really aiming to just cushion the foot, like other brands were trying to do- like Asics Gel, Mizuno Wave Plate. It’s not just a suspension piece, it’s also a momentum builder. And they kind of established that kind of directional cushioning early on in the industry back in the 80s.

K: They have have so much more history than I realized.

L: Yeah, I mean you know the Adidas story? The three stripes? So Karhu was the original holder of the 3 stripes… I’m not gonna say brand cause it wasn’t a brand thing, it was just a function to mesh it with the lacing system. So that as you tense up the laces it’s gonna hold the foot, and the arch a little bit more securely. So our friends from Germany were like “all right I like that,” so Karhu said “alright we’ll sell it to you” for 1600 euros and 2 bottles of whiskey.

K: Do you know what brand of whiskey?

L: Probably something crazy, some Kentucky import or some Finnish moonshine, right… I’m not sure of the specifics, but it’s a really quirky story. But also we had some history with our friends in Oregon. I think the Karhu guys came over to Hayward Field to train with Pre and Bowerman and everything. I think we have some pictures at the main office of that. Everyone was wearing the- they called it the Champion Air back then. Karhu was the first proprietor for air cushioning.

K: Define air cushioning.

L: Essentially it’s a hollow channel between the medial and lateral sides to kind of dissipate and reduce weight through the cushioning system. I think Nike patented encapsulated air. So Karhu invented that and patented it, but I think the guys over at Nike figured out a different way to kind of implement that. And then we invented fulcrum in 1982, I believe.

K: Let’s hear more of your personal running background, and how this intersects for you.

L: Running for me was just kind of an accident, honestly. I had friends that were in cross country in high school, and I thought they were insane for running 40, 50 miles a week, maybe even 80, right. But for me I was really into mixed martial arts, with my brothers, and I needed a shoe I could run in and not hurt all the time, ’cause I was wearing a pair of new balance 574s from champs that were on sale for 40 bucks.

K: That hurts my feet…

L: No, it hurts me now, I really like cringe… then I went to Fleet Feet, cause one of my best friends, Austin Butler, I met him at community college- I was like I don’t have a job, I’m just going to school, and he was like hey we’re actually hiring at Fleet Feet Louetta, which I credit to this day for me taking off. They changed my life, essentially. The trajectory of my life was just way different. Furthermore, I mean I got fitted for shoes over there, and they showed me everything that they did at a running specialty store. Cause I had no idea that’s what Fleet Feet did. From there on out, I got obsessed with the gear, I got obsessed with the geek side of running, how people train. What people ate and what their bathroom habits were…

K: Weird thing to be obsessed with.

L: The logistics of potties, dude!

K: It’s actually so important.

L: It’s so important… I learned a lot, for sure. And then I think the running community is one of the most open communities out there with it comes to hearing intimate things like that. Which is great. Being vulnerable is something I really take pride in. It’s really hard and people were just really welcoming in that community, so.

K: Why do you feel like running does that? Like, does martial arts have that community? Why do you think one or the other?

L: They intersect. I think it’s just the search for peace within oneself when it comes to running. Or you can go the other way and go full chaotic with it, right, but I think the main common goal is to just try to unravel yourself mentally and just kind of know yourself. Cause you’re pretty much alone the whole time, right, it’s a one on one thing, like you and yourself. But also in martial arts learning how to control your emotions, learning how to think five steps ahead of somebody when you’re in a fight, but with running it’s very serene, it’s very mentally fortifying I would say. It breaks you down but also you get back up from it. I just saw running as more of a cardio thing, something I had to drudge through, I had to do to get better at martial arts. But then it kind of changed, I think of running as a way to be a better person.

K: Did you have a certain moment or experience that made that change? Or was it just over time?

L: Over time, yeah. I just started going out on runs and started really enjoying it in contrast to getting hit in the head, getting punched in the stomach… like I love the art of fighting but I think the act of running is such an innate, primal thing to have, to be accessible with… it’s important. I think the mindset behind running, for me, completely changed. It wasn’t just some sort of way to lose weight or get faster to impress people. As a connection to Karhu, I’m always about bringing the underdog out. I saw myself as the underdog growing up.

K: Why?

L: I was smaller than my other brothers, but I feel like I had redeeming qualities that took away from that.

K: Do you feel like that’s more difficult being a man?

L: Yeah, I mean the structure of masculinity is more present today than ever before and I feel like me learning how to fight was just sort of a necessary thing to learn to survive, right.

K: Like physically, actually in your day to day or as a projection?

L: Day to day, just to control aggression, right? Ironically fighting was a way for me to find peace, to get the steam out, right.

K: I feel like people are trying to be more accepting these days, but there’s still a lot of men who struggle with society’s definition of masculinity.

L: It’s an uphill battle, societally. But I think as I get older and as I talk to a bunch of people, it’s just about confidence and knowing yourself.

K: How do you think running helps with that?

L: Oh, just setting little goals, man! And just blowing through them has been kind of a boost in my confidence, right. Like okay, I might be doing a 12 minute mile right now, but you can always come up from there, it’s nothing to be frustrated about. I think the notion of comparison just kind of went away for me, because I’m just comparing with myself and not other people.And that’s my main beef with Strava sometimes, that’s my main beef with social media: competition. As long as Im beating myself it’s great.

K: Okay, so I want to talk about social media because you are also a photographer. I’m curious especially because you don’t do photography to sell it-

L: No.

K: – you do it because it’s your passion. But- you get more opportunities to go do cool things kinda because you’re out there, so how do you balance social media knowing it’s a place to showcase your passion and artwork?

L: My balance with social media is historically 80/20. I do a lot of things on social media, I share a lot of things on social media aside from my photography, because I tend to sit on pictures for… months. I don’t edit, like when I get my pictures uploaded onto my computer after I scan my film, they just sit there. Then I come back to when it’s a much more objective perspective, versus sitting there like ah I should have done this, I should have watched that light or burned this highlight out…. there’s something beautiful with just getting fresh eyes, seeing oh my god I really did take a picture of that and it’s pretty cool. I don’t think Instagram or other social media platforms have seen a fraction of my work… I tend to use social media now to promote the brand and also promote myself as a person, just kinda show my personality there. I’m pretty much only internet funny, in real life I’m really shy.

K: I disagree! Once people get to know you…

L: Well, yeah once you get through my shell I’m a pretty open person.. but yeah social media I’ve learnt to just curb it a bit, not make it the focus of my life. I try to make it not my focus. In the infancy of my interest in photography everyone was sharing images online and I remember thinking if you’re taking the same pictures as everyone else following trends, no one cares, it’s boring, you’ve seen that before. A blurred background, great. You have this really moody lighting, awesome- so does everyone else. I was tired of seeing the same stuff and I was getting really tired of taking the same stuff so people would like my pictures. Which is not the way I have been approaching it for the last four years.

K: It’s hard because you can’t not be on social media as a.. media person. As a writer, as a photographer, as a creative person that’s where you can display stuff. You said something interesting I want to talk about too, about marketing yourself. We have this whole thing going on right now with everyone wanting to create a personal brand. If you’re a creator, you kind of have to do that, or at least think about it. So what are your thoughts on that?

L: Ii think for monetization that’s great. I just want to have people see me… I’m not gonna manufacture something weird, but I think on social media I want to be the most authentic version of myself. However you see it is how you’re gonna see it. That’s my whole goal. Like I’m not gonna front here and just be a cool influencer. I want my personality to be in real life as it is in social media. I dunno I don’t really put a lot of stock into it, but it is important sometimes.

K: We’ve talked about burnout on social media… what do you think brings us back to creative pursuits when they occasionally lead to burnout, like running or photography?

L: That’s the most philosophical thing I’ve thought of today… I think us being disciplined and creating a habit out of it is one facet. But also just… you feel fucking good doing it. We feel amazing doing that stuff. Circling back here, it’s just about seeing where you can go. With your running, with your improvement as a person through it. Just finding community in that.

K: You had touched on community earlier too and that’s a huge thing for runners. In what ways is that valuable to you?

L: I’ve seen people make life long friends, I’ve seen people find partners. As humans we’re inherently social. If we can find that and find commonality with somebody is becomes very addictive, but I don’t know- it’s always a great thing to see other people doing the same shit.

K: I think there’s something too about running that makes it feel like you’re part of something. It’s interesting that you say that about the social aspect, but then that you’re also a shy person. Cause I’m that way too, I’m very introverted. I have to work up to social events- and yet community in running- why is that so much easier than, like, chatting people up at a bar?

L: I think with running there’s this beautiful thing where you do something where you’re struggling together, and you’re- no matter what mindset you’re going through, you’re breaking yourself down, right, physically to get better and that’s a beautiful thing. But also I think Fleet Feet broke me. I think it unlocked, I dunno, my intrapersonal skills a lot. I could not look anyone in the eye or even think about working at Fleet Feet. I was a very different person at 18 to now- 29- which is nuts. But yeah, worked at Fleet Feet for 9 years, and when you just get thrown into the fire like that you just learn fast. Just observing the top fit specialists around that time, they were so confident, knew what they were talking about, and I really wanted to emulate that. Typically that’s how I learn things, through emulation and failing. Sometimes I would say the wrong thing and they were really good about correcting me and directing the verbiage I was using. It’s almost like acting every day.

K: Because you have to be a little bit outside of yourself, especially if you’re an introverted person.

L: Yeah, after 7pm clock-out I don’t say anything to anyone, really, because I’ve spent my social battery. But for me it was all about creating an environment for someone who might be new to running, new to fitness in general, just to not have it be intimidating anymore. That was a bit goal for me.

K: So many people get into running like that. And run specialty, you see so many people like that… And now you get to do that a bit with Karhu.

L: I think Karhu in Houston is just elevated so much. It’s getting recognized a lot more. a brand like that that’s been around for 116 years, there’s no reason for it not to see the light.

K: Speaking of community, and the brand, and Houston… you guys are doing a Karhu event!

L: Yeah! Initially the event was a Karhu initiative- cause the logo is a bear, a gorgeous curvy bear. But our whole thing was the teddy bear trot. That’s usually donation based, back to school. So the initial idea for that was to make it a fun event, like a 5k, maybe a bear costume. The main donation item we were going to ask for was teddy bears, right. Which is gonna be great for Thanksgiving and Christmas when it comes back, but I was like you know what, back to school is coming out, and there’s a neighborhood in Houston that gets overlooked all the time, and it doesn’t deserve to be that way because it’s provided so much more flavor and history to the city. It’s right by U of H, TSU, tons of kids are super active in that area, and they just don’t have the resources. And this is Third Ward. It’s a place where I pretty much roamed around and grew up. It’s definitely seen some improvements but not enough to be like “all right we’re part of the community”. Like every part of the city, the Heights, West U, they’re all pretty affluent, they’re getting gentrified, slowly.

K: It’s hard too cause I think people stop considering things part of the city unless they’re gentrified. Which isn’t fair, because gentrification can do some good things, but it eliminates a lot of the culture.

L: Correct. It pushes a lot of people out.

K: Yeah, there’s a lot of displacement, there’s a lot of negativity, I think, there’s a lot of bias.

L: A lot of bias. And they are typically a more underprivileged part of the city, and that’s not good. So my goal was just to hold a back to school drive so that the parents won’t have to worry about another thing, right. The kids will have school supplies, they’ll have a quality shoe on their feet. Just cause, I mean people come to Fleet Feet all the time and we see them in tattered footwear they’ve had for three years, outgrown and their toe is poking out of the upper, you know. I wanna just have them save that money and have people donate to that cause. Instead of having teddy bears out there, you’ll get the bear on their feet if people donate $30 to the run we have. We’re hosting a run and bike ride with Coffee and Bikes, Jen with Fleet Feet has set up a route for a 5k fun run… it’s not gonna be timed, just like a kick-back, start your school year with something active. we just wanna have everybody hang out, find community within that community, get some stuff! Jen’s route is great, it goes in a little rectangle around the neighborhood.

K: Yeah, she told me it’ll be great cause you get to see where you’re giving back to!

L: Yeah. I don’t think people want to step into third ward a lot, so it’ll be great to get people there.

K: Yeah, as someone who isn’t from Houston… a lot of people moving here told me not to go there. There’s definitely a lot of bias, and I think it’ll be great to get people into that area and supporting their community. It might help dispel some of that bias. These are your neighbors.

L: These are your neighbors, right! After class I would actually walk around the neighborhood a lot, just to take some photos and take my mind off of business tests and all that. I would talk to people there and they’re so nice! I think that you invite fear if you are fearful, right. So come on guys.

[event details at the top of this post!]

K: While we’re still on the subject of community- I wanted to ask- you went and photographed the Boston marathon earlier this year, and I thought that was just the coolest thing. And I know that’s not your niche… but I saw your photos, they were amazing. you know, I know what Boston marathon weekend is like, what was that like? Talk about that.

L: First of all to be a successful photographer in a niche, you have to be in that niche, right. I was somewhat into the running space but that caliber of marathon I’ve never come close to really. But I really enjoy the humanness inside of pre-race, during the race and after. I kind of tried to absorb that environment and show it off.

No matter if you’re a runner, participant, spectator or staff member. I want to showcase the experience of everybody in that space. That’s why street photography is my favorite genre, if you can even call it a genre. It’s more of a documentary of life, you just kind of photograph as you see it and try to make it as logical as possible. That’s what I want to do. But seeing the race at the finish line, seeing people break down and bonk and have a heartbreaking moment… there’s this one photo I took where this guy collapsed 50 yards from the finish. He was like at 2:45, he ended up on that barrier, sprawled against it, doe-eyed… he couldn’t believe it, like he just ran out of fuel at that spot. And he was on time to break 3. He was struggling to get up, he just looked like a newborn horse when he was trying to get up. People were trying to help him and stuff and he ended up crossing I think at three hours and 50 seconds- and I was like damn.

K: Yeah he’s not gonna be happy.

L: Yeah he was probably beside himself. But I really wanted to capture things like that. But first and foremost, I love how light interacts with places. That’s what I love and that’s what I want to show and how people interact with that light. The green spaces are incredible, that park in between everything was awesome, the architecture is incredible, incredible.

K: Not like Houston.

L: Haha yeah, there’s no zoning laws here. But as far as photography goes, there’s a bunch of buildings that reflect on the roads and when the sun is in a perfect position sometimes you just gotta find it. When it reflects off people on the street, you get a really nice diffused light. So I started paying attention to that. I would be walking with [Karhu CEO] Huub and my coworker Mike… I was constantly losing them cause I was just finding pockets of light I really loved.

K: The mark of a true artist, you lose them to the light.

L: No seriously, it’s weird. I stop listening and I just start noticing. That’s one thing I’ve learned- I’ve tried to learn- is learning how to notice and not just see things, right. What to do with focal length, and your perspective on the lens, considering where the light is and what direction it’s coming from, making sure your corners are interesting and… putting everything together and shooting a frame of it is just so alluring to me.

K: I think that’s why you photograph so well.

L: It’s thinking, how can I make this visually appealing for not only myself, but maybe someone might like it and have an emotional response. That’s kind of like where I come from.

K: I assume some of this is subconscious.

L: It’s a mix – candid street photography typically you have a moment, and if that moment passes you’re fucked. You will think about that image for years. I have rolls of film where I was like I really missed that moment, even in digital photography, the most fast and most convenient method, even on the phone, I’m like I should have just taken that picture. I think about those moments all the time. But to the point of conscious and sub conscious thinking, you just have to kind of ask yourself, why did you stop there, why did you want to take this photo? How can I organize this image to make it more legible? I want you to be able to figure it out without observing too much, and I want you to come back to the image and be like what makes this good, why is it so visually appealing? My friend Daniel always says there are no rules to photography, but there are concepts that bind us. Like with running, correct? Your body will naturally choose a path of least resistance and you have to work on it. Just like running, you have to learn to be a better runner, you have to learn to be a better artist. We get what we put into the craft, right? We reap the benefits of our actions. People are like “that’s corny!” but it’s true.

K: So I want to do what people do on podcasts and finish this up with a few questions… First, I know you’re a big foodie.

L: I’m originally from the Philippines, right, emigrated to the US in 2001. Being in Houston, I’ve been very fortunate because the food here is just dynamite. My mom, she’s an excellent cook, she just cultivated our tastes for what’s good and what’s bad. But also just appreciating that people work really hard for us, and we gotta appreciate everything that people do. My brother Josh is a big fixture in Houston right now, he’s the owner and CEO of Underground Creamery, which is a cult favorite around town. He makes small batch ice creams, he works his ass off for a week to release flavors that will just knock you out of the part every week. 400 pints a week and it sells out in less than 10 seconds… he wants to create something special that only Houstonians can get, which is super admirable honestly.

K: It really is. So knowing all this… if you could only go to one Houston restaurant for the rest of your days, what would it be?

L: Oh fuck.

K: Okay you can pick two!

L: I would probably go to 93-Til. It’s great, it’s one of those little gems in Houston, where it’s a neighborhood spot but also these chefs are trained well. They have accolades that we would not expect coming from a little restaurant.

K: And they had the rabbit sausage!

L: Y,eah bring back the rabbit sausage… they overpopulate anyway. But their osso bucco is ridiculous, their PB & J foie gras

K: It sounds horrible but it’s the best thing you will ever eat.

L: It’s a savory peanut butter and jelly that’s perfect for an evening snack, with the brioche, extra butter… it’s one of those places where you can’t really nail down the cuisine and that’s on purpose. They use a lot of Chinese styles and French technique, Italian as well, it’s all different.

K: There will always be something unexpected, which I love.

L: Yeah, so that’s one. Probably somewhere in Bellaire. Bellaire has my family in a chokehold cause when we came to America we wanted to find somewhere that was Asian-centric. We used to eat a lot of Chinese food in the Philippines, so as a family we started going to this place called Vinh Hoa. It’s a Vietnamese-Chinese seafood place where they have big tables, it’s really quirky, they have all the fish they’re gonna kill for you, you know in the aquariums. You know they know us, 20 years down the line, they always want us to come back and we do every time we have a big celebration. Those are where my brain and heart kinda responded so I’m going to stick with that.

K: What’s your favorite running spot? And then, favorite photography spot?

L: I mean Memorial Park is always great. That’s where you can bump elbows with somebody and say hi, you see so many familiar people that it’s hard to not be there, just to find some sort of boost, right. Feeling bad today? Go to Memorial Park, you’ll see a friend there, and that’s why I like running there! And since it’s made for runners, right. The trail is easy on the joints…

K: Bathrooms are always open…

L: Bathrooms are always open, there are some calisthenics areas, where if you wanna work out a little bit you can do that. I think it’s a really well-designed park. But also in the Woodlands/Spring area where I live now, Lake Woodlands. It’s tons of shade, and a beautiful place to be.

K: And favorite photography spot?

L: Anywhere where I can play with the transition of light and how it spills on top things. There’s not necessarily one spot because in my firm belief, if you can’t photograph where you’re at, and you just have wanderlust and justify good photography based off of that, you’re not a good photographer. You wanna be able to take really pretty pictures of places you’ve been and that’s understandable, but you have to be able to find the beauty, and the beauty in the mundane. That being said… New York City. New York City is a great place to photograph.

K: There’s just so much.

L: Yeah there’s a lot. And I dunno, photography.,street photography and candid photography for me too, you have to be kind of aware of what people are doing and you have to recognize emotion in moments and you have to capture that in the blink of an eye. I think in New York with everyone being so busy and just kind of going point A to point B not giving a fuck, it’s easy to kind of capture that. But on the same coin, my favorite thing to do is to ask people for their portraits and talk to them, get their story and then ask for the portrait later on. Because that is an environment in itself. You get to step into someone’s world, capture their expression and say thank you. That experience is more valuable than the photo itself, and that’s what I try to look for.

You can check out more of Lee’s photography on his Instagram. Also, check out Karhu’s website or your local Fleet Feet if you want to know more about the brand!

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