I’ve done a lot of shoe reviews over the past couple of years, and in so doing I’ve come to approach each new offering with the same sort of mild expectation of unspecific excellence. Being that I’m ever in search of the absolute perfect minimalist running shoe for myself, it’s kind of hard not to always put each new shoe on with the highest of hopes. In the end some shoes I’ve tried have wowed me, and some have not. But that’s not what happened at all with the Merrell Ascend Glove. Maybe it was my bad past experiences talking, I don’t know, but I gotta be honest: I kind of expected to not like this shoe.
Why? Well, because it’s not what I would normally prefer in a trail shoe. It’s cushiony (6mm of it), and it’s got a huge stack height (10.5mm) and a rock plate (“TrailProtect pad”). The sole is stiff, the upper is super thick, and the women’s shoe wasn’t offered in a wide enough width for me so I had to order my pair from the less-than-pretty-for-obvious-reasons men’s line. I was sure this would be the kind of shoe that would do nothing more than assist me in jacking up an ankle or contributing to the degradation of my already only barely-good running form. I immediately relegated the Ascend Glove to the back of my mind, alongside the NewBalance 1010 and the HOKA One-One (which I have still not tried but secretly really want to).
Needless to say, I was skeptical at first. After having spent two years wearing paper-thin minimalist footwear, the Ascend Glove felt like a god-damned marshmallow. It took a little getting used to. Aside from the zero drop, this shoe looked on paper to be just like every running shoe I’d ever worn before I discovered barefoot running. If I wore this heavy (8 oz) foot coffin on the trails, how would I ever reconcile my identity as a minimalist runner?
That last sentence was kind of a joke. Sort of.
But I decided to put the question on hold once I happened to snag a pair from my favorite Merrell rep. I figured why the hell not just try ‘em, right? And anyway, at the time that this shoe arrived I had been offhandedly looking for the next really good trail shoe. I’ve been running a lot more rugged trail out here lately, the kind with steep dirt hills, sharp, rolling rubble, lots of technical stuff and at times, obvious danger. I needed a shoe with better grip that would keep me from falling on my ass all the time. I also wanted something that wouldn’t feel so much like a cleat when I had to mix roads into my run. As it turns out, the Ascend Glove may be just the answer I was looking for.
My first run in these was a short, mixed-terrain run. I took them over pavement, through loose dirt trails, down steep, rocky embankments, up some sandy hills and over about a half mile of 3” drainage “gravel.” This is a pretty typical run for me these days. The first thing I noticed is that I didn’t slip as much on the steep downhills because the lugs on this shoe are pretty deep and substantial. After about 60-70 miles I have managed to visibly wear down the lugs on the balls of both shoes and on the lateral edges, but since I have been putting them through the ringer I would say this is a fair amount of wear (more on this later).
Aside from the narrow-ish last (which is more or less Merrell’s modus operandi) that forced me to switch to the men’s version, I am impressed by the way this shoe is made. Like the men’s Trail Glove, arguably the best minimalist shoe Merrell ever made, the upper is rugged, durable and reinforced in all the right places (toe, heel, etc). I should also mention this shoe has also taken on a lot of crud, dozens of foxtails and several throws in the washing machine, so far to no loss of durability. The laces are traditional on this model, none of the lace-locking system that I know many of you loved but I didn’t particularly care for. From what I can tell, there are only small cosmetic differences between the men’s and women’s model. This is refreshing to me because in the past the women’s versions of Merrell’s best minimalist shoes have been much flimsier than the men’s, and that totally bummed me out.
Basically, the two big things I really like about this shoe: its rather simple, straightforward and durable construct, and its specificity. Even though it’s a bigger, heavier shoe than I typically wear on roads or on easy trail, the Ascend Glove is simple and knows its job. It’s not all bells and whistles, and it’s not trying to be a do-everything, go everywhere shoe. I dig that. Even though the original Trail Glove was an excellent model, its non-specific construction was only great on mixed or easy runs. It wasn’t my best trail shoe, and it wasn’t my best road shoe either. But the Ascend Glove is a great choice for any tough terrain or a long trail run because I know it’s going to have excellent tread for the shiftier terrain, it can take a beating and the thicker sole provides more protection than many other minimalist shoe choices, without being too mushy. So, contrary to my original expectations, I have been wearing and loving the hell out of this shoe.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that this is one of the very few truly rugged trail shoes I have seen out there with a low enough profile and also absolutely zero-drop. I know some people are just fine with a 4mm or 8mm heel, but for whatever reason I just cannot hack it. I have tried. The drop is a deal-breaker for me. If you are the same way as me, then this is the shoe for you.
As always I know I’ll learn more about the Ascend Glove as I put more miles on it, but so far the only down sides that I have noted (and already mentioned above) are the lack of width choices and the tread wear. I think it’s safe to say that I support Merrell offering a wide-width version for all of their shoes, considering the regular lasts they make fall so far off on the narrow scale. We have all seen what happens to me when I try to wear the regular stuff they make for women! It would be nice for those of us who have strong, wide, barefoot-runner’s feet to have an option that better fits our feet, without having to hit up the men’s selections all the time.
And a moment on the tread: although my Merrell rep has told me that my amount of wear seems normal, I guess I expected this shoe to wear a bit more slowly. But after inspecting the tread wear on my other beloved Merrell shoes, and comparing the amount of erosion on each, I realized he was probably right. So if you’re putting your shoes through the ringer like I am and will be counting on the tread to keep you safe, you’ll want to replace this shoe at around 300 miles or so. It’s odd for me to recommend this, too, considering that one of the great things about minimalist shoes is you don’t have to deal with replacing shoes for their “supportive” qualities. But if good tread is important for your runs, then the replacement factor still exists.
All in all though, guys, this is my best trail shoe now. It’s an ideal choice for men and women who are real dirt devils like me and want something that will hold up to the terrain while protecting your feet from the harsher bits, and also from the longer miles. It’s also a great shoe for anyone who loved the Trail Glove / Pace Glove, but would like to move on to something a little less minimal. If you’re on the fence I suggest you check it out, you’ll probably be as pleasantly surprised as I was.