Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


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Review: New Balance Minimus Zero Trail

You guys have all heard of that brassy-haired, thieving little spoiled brat, Goldilocks, right? “This porridge is too hot, this one is too cold, this bed is too soft…” Make up your mind already, little girl! And while we’re at it, how dare you complain about the quality of the stuff you’re stealing from that poor family of bears?! I hated Goldilocks, she was such a bitch.

Unfortunately for you, today I’m going to sound a little bit like her. But without all that thieving stuff, of course.

See, the thing is, if you’re a minimalist runner like me who likes to go out and explore a lot of different terrains – along sandy beaches, out in the woods, up rocky mountain trails, and on plenty of smooth roads as well – then you know it’s next to impossible to find that one “just right” go-to shoe that fits every run. Most of the shoes you’ll find out there are either too smooth for trails, too rugged for roads, or too heavy for summer, and so on. Eventually you end up spending a crap load of money on a closet full of shoes for every occasion. That’s no big deal if you’re rich, or lucky enough to be an imposter a shoe tester like me. So I suppose this is where my Goldilocks comes out.

I really wanted the New Balance Minimus Zero Trail to be my “just right” shoe. The one I could take on every run, no matter where I was going. Maybe I was expecting too much from it, but from all the incredible talk and build-up it got prior to release, this shoe just had so much promise!

The Details

The Minimus Zero Trail is New Balance’s answer to last year’s original Minimus Trail shoe (now renamed the MT10). To those who wore and loved that shoe, the original Minimus really was the every-shoe. I had friends who wore it running trails, then roads, then to a Crossfit workout. But at the time, many minimalist and barefoot runners dismissed the shoe because of its 4mm heel height and its relatively inflexible sole. Some complained that the toe had too much spring and the sole’s rubber pods were placed inaccurately so the shoe wore out too fast. Even still, I loved the design of that shoe. But it was built way too narrow for my wide foot and high instep (although they do make a wide version now, go figure). So in other words, to many in its actual target audience, last year’s Minimus shoe wasn’t quite “just right.”

To answer the collective desires of the minimalist world, this year’s model, the Minimus Zero Trail, touts a zero drop heel, an extremely lightweight, strategically-designed Vibram outsole, no toe-spring, seam-free construction and an exceptionally breathable upper with drying speeds that will blow your mind. This shoe doesn’t look or act like anything else out there. The semi-transparent fabric of the upper seems papery and course at first, but once you’re wearing it the shoe becomes a surprisingly light and comfy home for your foot. There’s no more rubber binding across the mid-foot like in the earlier version, so it is a much roomier shoe overall.

Speaking of roomy, this model does come in regular width (B) and wide width (D). My amazingly generous contact at New Balance sent me one of each to try, and they were both comfortable and wearable for me. If you typically find yourself buying wide-width shoes, you may be happier wearing the D-width version, as it is exceptionally roomy and cozy. However, if you prefer your shoe to fit a little more snug and secure, go with the B-width because it’s slightly tighter across the toes without being too uncomfortable, and since the tongue is not attached, there is a good amount of room to adjust the laces. You can see in the picture below that I’m wearing both, and the B-width (left) still fits but the lacing is much wider.

Just a little FYI, the first day I wore the B-width version I took them out sans-socks for ten miles in the rain, and I did get some chafing on the outside of both feet, above my pinky toes.

The Profile

One thing I don’t have to complain about with the New Balance Zero Trail is its looks and style. It is really super cool looking! Right now the shoe comes in five bold and bright colors for men, six for women. I think testers automatically get the boring colors, which is fine, but I am in love with every colorway they show on the site, especially the yellow and turquoise blue. The overall design is sporty, clean and just a little bit flashy. And I kind of like that I can see my toes through the material.

The Test

The New Balance Minimus Zero Trail is truly and absolutely the embodiment of a minimalist trail shoe. It has every feature (or lack thereof) that you would expect from one:

  • exceptionally lightweight at 3.5oz each (which is nearly non-existent)
  • highly breathable upper that can be worn without socks
  • zero-drop
  • super flexible, paper-thin sole
  • foot-shaped last with a roomy toe-box

But what maybe some of us didn’t expect is that…well, getting what we expected might not give us the results we expected. Yep, I just wrote that sentence, and I’m leaving it.

I want to mention that I have not actually read a lot of other reviews about this shoe, because I didn’t want anyone else’s opinions to influence mine. So I don’t actually know if other testers feel the way I do. But how I feel is this: the Zero Trail is not “just right” for every trail. In fact, it sort of sucks on most of the trails I’ve run.

Okay, that was a big statement. Let me clarify before the media people at New Balance black-list me forever.

The first handful of runs I did in this shoe were on hard-packed soil in the wooded trails of New England. Those trails are pretty easy on the feet but there are a lot of lumpy rocks and roots to contend with. I loved this shoe on those trails because, as I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I need to feel the ground below me so I can respond to it quickly and keep myself upright. This shoe allowed me to make all of those minute adjustments to the uneven surface of those trails, and it gave me an amazing feeling of control.

Once I moved out to southern California, I was in for some much more unpredictable trail surfaces. Around here you could end up on loose sand, chunky rocks, steep hills, patchy weeds, pavement, just about anything. And sometimes, all in the same run. But because I loved this shoe so far, I wore it out to the trails by Lake Hodges with a friend of mine. We started along the loose sand paths for a bit, and then headed for the rocky hills. The rocks were sharp and replete, and I came home with several bruises on the arches of my feet because the Zero provided absolutely no protection against them. Moreover, every time we came upon a sandy incline, I was sliding all over the place and had some serious trouble getting my footing down. The rubber pods of the sole have surprisingly little traction for a trail shoe, so it’s really no match for those slide-worthy surfaces.

Another thing that kills me about this shoe is that they chose not to attach the tongue to the upper. I’m really not sure why they made the choice on this model even though just about all their other trail models have an attached tongue. And although I think it serves well to add adjustability to the shoe’s width at the laces, it’s a really flimsy tongue that does absolutely nothing to keep debris out of the shoe. I’ll run 50 feet in these and already have rocks digging into my toes. It’s a total bummer.

Because of the reasons I said above, I am probably going to be the first to say this shoe is really at its best on roads. Yes, roads. If you think about it, all of its best qualities fare well on paved surfaces, and all of its drawbacks are minimized by them. Right before I started writing this review I went out for a 4 miler in this shoe, half on sandy, rock-free trail and half on road. Once I emptied the handful of sand out of them and got onto the pavement, I felt great and the transition was pretty seamless. I’m not really sure how long this shoe will last if I keep using them on pavement, because the Vibram rubber is only molded to certain parts of the outsole, and the rest is all EVA foam, which tends to break down pretty quickly on road surfaces. The shoe is already starting to show some signs of wear. But then again, a minimalist runner can’t exactly fault a shoe for becoming even more minimalist, right?

The Final Word

I definitely like this shoe, but I really wanted to like it more. I wanted the NB Minimus Zero to be my every-shoe, my “just right” fit for all my trail running, from the woods of New England to the mountains of SoCal. But it turned out to be only another single-purpose addition to my closet. I’ll continue to take the Zero Trail out when the right run calls for it, and I will absolutely recommend it to runners whom I feel will benefit from its best qualities. But it’s really not the all-around super star that some have made it out to be.

And it’s funny that this is how this review turned out, too…because wasn’t it just a week or so ago that I was telling you I wasn’t sure the New Balance WT1010 was exactly right for me? Well, that porridge was too hot, and this one…well, it’s too cold. Go figure.

I’m now wondering if the runner who wants a “just-right” shoe to bring out to every trail should be running in the New Balance Minimus Trail 20. It seems like a good happy medium. Ya think they’d even bother to let this picky little Goldilocks test it now? :p

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Review: Merrell Women’s Dash Glove

First off, I’d like you all to give me a pat on the back for finally breaking out the old DSLR camera for my review shots. Up until now I’ve been a lazy ass and have been taking pictures of shoes with my iPhone camera. And while the iPhone is not bad for drunken bar night candids and quick snapshots of weird people at Walmart, I can do much better with the Nikon I paid $800 bucks for and therefore should really be taking out much more often. Besides it saved me about an hour of Photoshopping.

With that said, on to the review.

Fun fact: I didn’t actually have to do a review on the Merrell Dash Glove. Before I met any contacts at Merrell, I was lucky enough to win them from a giveaway on Running and Rambling‘s awesome blog (which I read pretty religiously). Soon as I learned I’d won them I decided to write a review, because up until now I have had nothing on here from Merrell, one of the biggest minimalist shoe companies out there.

Looks
The look of the Dash Glove is bar none. I’ve gotten a ton of compliments from friends, coworkers, even strangers on my pink and purple pair (titled “Ultra Marine” on their site). They look as great under a pair of jeans as they do on the roads. Lots of right-on color choices too. I almost went with the juicy orange-toned “Lychee” color instead, they looked good enough to eat. Much kudos to Merrell’s designers on the look of this shoe – they got feminine and sporty all at once, something not everyone does right.

Fit and Feel
How do they fit? Well, as most of you have heard at least 27 times, I have really wide feet. My only previous experience with Merrell’s barefoot shoes before winning the Dash Glove was of a pair of lime green Pace Gloves that I bought and nearly maimed my poor feet, from their obscenely narrow width (this was before learning that they offered a wide width version). But that’s for another post. What that experience earned me, though, was a wary fear of purchasing anything else from Merrell. So I suppose it was sort of good that I won these shoes. No monetary risk if I didn’t like them. I figured I could give them away to my friend Killeen if they didn’t fit me, because she has a much narrower foot.

So the first time I wore them, I put them on with jeans and wore them to work. At the end of the day I still wasn’t 100% sure about them. They do have a much wider sole than the Pace Gloves, but it was still narrower than I’m used to. I figured they would probably give me some major foot problems if I ever wore them on a run.

So in typical Trish Reeves fashion, I wore them on my 4-miler the next day.

And I’m glad I did, because something interesting happened to this shoe once I got running. The mesh upper started to soften up after about a half mile (probably from sweating – which I didn’t do at work the day before), and molded to my foot. I wasn’t wearing socks so it got a little swampy in there (and I did get a little blister on one big toe), but by the end of my run the Dash Glove really did earn its name. I have been pleasantly surprised.

One interesting, if contradictory thing, about the fit of the Dash Glove is that it is rather constricting to my mid-foot. I would typically find this to be a disadvantage, given that the constriction is technically a form of support, but I admit I like the help (sshhh – don’t tell the minimalist shoe gods). Doesn’t make my foot work quite as hard and keeps the tired away longer.

But it also keeps me from wanting to recommend this shoe to a newbie minimalist runner, because I believe a beginner should run in practically nothing until they get their form down (more on this below).

I’ve put about 30 miles on these babies so far, and you can see the footprint I’ve made on them in all the pictures (I prefer taking worn-in photos – you can see brand new shoes all day long on company websites). I very much like these shoes, they are quickly becoming one of my favorites.

Minimalist vs. Barefoot
The biggest thing to know about the Dash Gloves is that they’re actually the most shoe I have ever worn running since I went barefoot/minimalist two years ago. Most of the shoes I tend to reach for the most can be described as “slipper-like” or “kind of like a sock dunked in Plasti-Dip.”

Although they are definitely zero-drop and by anyone’s definition, absolutely a minimal shoe, the Dash Glove has a thicker, firmer sole than anything else in my closet. So to me they definitely fit more in the “minimalist shoe” category than the “barefoot shoe” one. Because of this, in my own (only slightly humble) opinion, a beginning minimalist runner might be better off first perfecting good form in a more lightly-soled shoe than the Dash Glove, because this shoe has just enough sole thickness to shield poor/heel striking form.

With that said, after two years of minimalist running experience, the thicker sole has been nothing but a relief to my feet. After about 6 or 7 miles, my feet typically start feeling a little beat up, especially on the roads where my forefoot hits the ground in the same place over and over again. Those extra millimeters of rubber between foot and pavement kept the beat-up feeling at bay for much longer. Last week’s 11-miler in these shoes was on the hilly streets of Boston, and the balls of my feet thanked me when I was done.

About six months ago I probably would have shunned such a statement. I would have proclaimed that if my feet can’t handle 7 miles of pavement, they didn’t need more shoe, they needed more training. But now I am starting to see that everything, like the Dash Glove, has its place and its moment.

And to me, the perfect place for the Merrell Dash Glove is the long road run, and it will be my shoe of choice at my next half marathon, coming up in the next few weeks.

My only question to Merrell is this: Since these shoes are basically the female equivalent of the men’s Road Gloves, why didn’t they just call them (Women’s) Road Gloves? The word “Dash” just doesn’t come to mind as easily. Just me…?

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Review: VIVOBAREFOOT Neo

I realize I’m a little late in the game to review the Neo, it’s been out for a few months now and lots of people have reviewed it already. But that’s okay, because I don’t mind playing catch-up and I have a few things to say about this shoe.

Let me start off by saying this is going to be a pretty good review. In the past I’ve been asked to write reviews for different kinds of products, and I’ve never been the type to crank out fluff articles just to make suppliers happy. I have tried stuff I don’t like and I’m happy to say so, but so far I haven’t had much opportunity to write proper reviews before every other minimalist blogger already had them covered like grass on a golf course. And I won’t write about anything until I’ve tried it out sufficiently enough to give it a fair shake, this being why no review exists yet for my InvisibleShoes.

But enough of that blather, on to the review.

Well hello, there. Cutest minimalist running shoes I've worn so far.

I want to start with a point of reference: I love my Vibrams. They’re a fantastic minimalist running shoe. Until I met the Neos, I never thought I’d find something to replace them. But since I got these babies in the mail three weeks ago, my Vibrams haven’t seen the outside of my closet. It wasn’t something that happened right away, though. The first couple of times I wore them just around the office for the day, and while running errands. Like my Kalis, they were a little stiff to begin with. But after a bit they became molds of my feet and I’m not sure I’ll be wearing anything else running for awhile. Or at least until VIVO comes out with something even more genius.

Physical Details

Made of soft Microfiber and Airmesh, the VIVOBAREFOOT Neo is 100% vegan (if you care about that stuff), and eco-friendly with its recycled insole. The materials of the upper seem to have a water-resistant quality, so my foot stays dry longer. The flexible, zero-drop rubber sole is 4mm thick and puncture-resistant. These puppies are lightweight, too. Weight with insoles is 5.7 ounces, 5.2 without. I left the insoles in, mostly because I can’t really tell the difference, and because I like the idea of stinking up a removable insole and then replacing it later. The Neo is designed to be worn with or without socks. I have worn mine both ways – there were no seams to bother with, but the shoe is roomy (more on that later) and very warm for running so I prefer wearing socks to protect against chafing from moisture. The design and construction of this shoe is exceptional in quality, and absolutely adheres to the minimalist runner’s ideals for a running shoe.

The Neo has a durable, yet exceptionally flexible sole.

Looks

When I was given the generous discount by VIVO to snag a pair for review, I went first for the Evo II. And why not? It’s the most popular running shoe they offer. But I will admit I’m not totally in love with the look of them. The Neo is more my taste, it’s simpler, cleaner. It doesn’t even look like a running shoe to me, so I’m happy to get more wear out of my pair for non-running related stuff. The Neo is built on basically the same platform as the Evo II, but it’s a little lighter and the upper is made differently. Also the price was a bit more feasible for me.

A view from both sides.

The shoe comes in a bunch of colorways, which is pretty rare I think, especially for women’s athletic shoes. I chose the gray and red. When they came in the mail I thought they were really cute, and I got a ton of compliments. The only setback to their look is the lack of normal shoe-contour. When I put them on and looked down they looked sort of lumpy and shapeless, because they don’t tuck in at all where the natural arch narrows my foot. This is unusual for a shoe, but I don’t know that it hurts the Neo’s actual performance for me.

Fit and Feel

VIVOBAREFOOT doesn’t make shoes like Vibram or Merrell does. The Neo doesn’t hold tight to your foot like a sock. For a long time it seemed to me that was the only way to make a great minimalist shoe. But the Neo is a great minimalist shoe, probably one of the greatest, and in a completely different and unexpected way.

Like I said in a past article  “My Favorite Things (So Far in 2011)“, the VIVOBAREFOOT Neo fits like a slipper. It fits snugly and has traditional laces for adjusting, but there’s a good amount of room in there to move and flex. It doesn’t pinch or constrain my foot in any way, which is a downright miracle for someone with feet as wide as mine. The shoe and sole is soft, pliable (especially after a few wears). I can feel the ground in a spectacular way: brick sidewalks feel like brick, trails feel like rocks and leaves, the ground feel is there but in a different way than other minimalist shoes. The shoe is so pliable that it just seems to bend around surface texture. Not only does it curve upward with your toes, it curves downward and sideways as well, all while not having to conform to your foot. It truly is like running inside a soft, comfy slipper.

The Neo fits like a slipper, roomy and soft.

That point about not conforming to your foot does two more great things: 1. it keeps your feet warm. These will be my winter running shoes, I have no doubt about that; and 2. it will fit more people. You don’t have to compromise a good fit for your gnarly long toes or your beastly wide foot.

The only downside I can think of for the roomy fit is for someone with a very narrow foot. The laces are pretty adjustable, but I bet if you’ve got an exceptionally narrow stomper then you might find yourself floating around in these. I’ve met some minimalist shoes that would be well-suited for the narrower foot, like the Merrell Pace Glove and the NewBalance Minimus, both of those are made way too narrow for me (at least the 2011 models). So I guess there’s something for everyone, right?

Conclusions

  • construction is sound; this is an exceptionally well-made shoe
  • completely zero-drop
  • made of light, flexible eco-friendly materials
  • stylish and retro, not at all garish or strange-looking
  • a good alternative for VFFs, if you don’t like getting weird looks from people
  • excellent ground-feel, as compared to most minimalist running shoes
  • fit is roomy, made more for people with normal to wide-width feet
  • more suitable for cool weather months
  • hands-down, one of the best minimalist shoes on the market

If you’ve got a pair of Neos, let me know how you feel about them, I’d love to hear. And for the rest of you, I hope this review was helpful. Thanks for reading!