Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


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Review: Merrell Ascend Glove

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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).

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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.

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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).

frontAside 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.

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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.

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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.

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A Place Called Home

carlsbadbeach

I am now approaching the eve of a full year spent living in San Diego, on the other side of the country from where my life began. I have been procrastinating this post for awhile now; partly because I’ve been keeping myself too busy to write (more on that later), but mostly because I wasn’t really sure what’s left to say on the subject without worrying that it’ll sounding braggy or trite. But I think I’ve finally come down from that surreal, vacation-like state of having first moved here, and I’ve had time to reflect on what this year has changed about me.

To be honest it doesn’t even feel like a whole year has passed. More like five or six months. A strange thing happens as we get older: the world just keeps spinning faster and the years fling by like boomerangs. Christmas, birthday, Summer, Autumn, Christmas. I remember being a kid and thinking how very long a year was. “Summer is right around the corner,” my Grammy would ponder, but to me it felt as if decades passed before swimsuit weather was upon us again.

Speaking of my Grammy, she lived here in San Diego once. She and my Grampa schlepped themselves west for promising work right after high school, along with my Grampa’s brother Pete and my aunt Pauline. They only stayed for a year, living for a time in the North Park area with my aunt Marion and her husband. It was tight living quarters for sure, but that was part of the family-centric culture back in the 50’s. Even though it was short lived, my grandmother definitely loved it. I know this because she told me so many stories about San Diego when I was a child that I think the soul of this place was permanently imprinted on me even back then.

Views of Lake San Marcos from the top of Double Peak, just ten minutes from my house.

Lake San Marcos from the top of Double Peak. My house may actually be in this photo.

This was apparent when I first vacationed here with Shawn in 2005 – and then kept finding excuses to come back. I knew it then as much as I know it now: this town, by the truest definition, is my home. For 33 years I existed in eastern New England, floundering a lot, finding friends and losing them again, moving from town to town. I looked hard between the forests and the cities for a place I could call mine. A town I would fall in love with. In 33 years I never found one. Finally I began to fancy myself a floater: I figured I must be just one of those people who prefers to be unbound to a particular place in favor of trying everywhere. I realize now I was just unsatisfied.

Unlike just about everyone I knew, I never retained a close-knit group of longtime friends who would drop by the house to borrow a cup of sugar or feed my cat while I was away. I had one or two very close friends whom I love like siblings, but because I moved all over the state we always seemed to be an hour’s drive away from each other. I’ve never been very close to family; both of my parents are deceased and my family of aunts, uncles and cousins are spread out all over New England. And frankly, our emotional distance is even wider than that. I’ve never felt I could count on anyone to be there for me the way I saw others could. I always thought it didn’t bother me, but I understand now that it really kind of did.

But you know, I think we all live our lives normalizing whatever is around us. Palm trees and year-round temperate weather is business as usual for a native Californian. But they were a far-off daydream to me, as I dug my car out of snowdrifts all winter long. A dream so big that I think part of me simply waited to begin living any actual life until I had a permanent tan and a back yard full of queen palms.

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The SoCal Sunset.

And so here I am. Home, and finally living my actual life. This place suits me like a soul mate. I now get to look out the windows of the loft I’ve made into my home-office at a landscape rife with southern Californian beauty. Rocky hills and mountains in the distance that make way for sun-struck glimpses of the great Pacific, hawks flying above, coyotes howling at night, and skies so wide and so blue that I finally understand what it’s like to feel miles of open space and the roundness of the earth as it curves away before my eyes. The mercury hardly ever rises so high that I need air conditioning, nor falls so low that I need to put socks on my bare feet. That perfect happy temperature and humidity level, which tends to elude New England for all but ten days per annum, is the absolute norm here. And so is the sunshine. Sunshine, which has ever been the perpetuator of my deepest personal happiness, couldn’t be more plentiful: it has rained only 6 or 7 times since we arrived.

The beach-sandy, easy-living culture of SoCal plays to all the best parts of my personality. All 70 miles of San Diego coastline is public turf, which means you can park anywhere and walk, run, swim, surf, kayak, paddle or relax on the beach all year round, any time of day or night and never have to be elbow-to-elbow with a bunch of annoying overly-tanned strangers. There are stretches of beach, and even an entire island, dedicated to San Diego’s love of dogs, and a large number of restaurants welcome our canine friends with spacious outdoor seating and plenty of doggy water bowls.

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A view of my neighborhood

San Diego is one of the largest hops-brewing cities in the world, housing over 100 breweries and microbreweries within the county lines. The city’s passion for beer has spurned some of the best hashing in the country as well, with something around 15 kennels of trail-running, beer-drinking Hash House Harriers, littering the earth with chalk symbols and baking flour dollops on just about every day of the week. People who become Hashers and Harriettes tend to be a lot like me: they are mostly educated, laid-back people with a love for good trails, fine beer and dirty jokes. Many of them with either no kids or grown kids, they are free to live the social lives they desire. They are athletic but not competitive, health-conscious but not militant. They tend to be quite comfortable within themselves, which makes for an exceptional (and exceptionally large, for me) network of friends and acquaintances who have kept me busy, entertained and running dozens of insanely awesome local trails for over eight months now (which explains my lack of time for blogging). Because of Hashing, I finally have the opportunity to gain that centralize social circle that has always eluded me in life.

Trails in Escondido

Trails in Escondido

And at least two-thirds of the people I have met here, hashers or not, are transplants like me. They have been equally drawn in by the magnetic pull of the SoCal life. It only figures that people who are bold enough to leave their original lives behind for something better tend to have a lot of other personality traits in common too. Because of this I find it much easier to be present in the friendships I have made, and I feel much more understood. Nobody here bugs me to have kids or to buy a home, or alienates me for my divergent choices. I no longer feel surrounded by complainers who hate their lives but are too lazy or cowardly to improve them. I sense more independence amongst these San Diegans: people play more active roles in their own lives and don’t seem as likely to expect from the world (or their parents) that morphine-drip of emotional and/or financial support that I saw so often back east.

I once heard the advice: “Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Southern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.” I used to worry that losing my east coast roots would bring forth the departure of my soul, my grit. But now I see that’s a completely bullshit notion. The only thing I have lost since I’ve moved out here is my bitterness: bitterness about the weather, about the traffic, about friends lost, about the insane cost of living and the life-sucking obligation to always settle for less than what I wanted. I don’t feel that way out here. I don’t feel poor like I did in New England, even though I make roughly the same amount of money. I don’t live in a crappy neighborhood because that’s all I can afford. Instead I live in a nice house in a quiet community, close to the beach and a few minutes from the nearest mountain views.

No, I have not lost my soul: instead I have introduced this soul to the joys I never knew I could afford or deserve. I have not lost my grit: instead I’ve applied it to more positive endeavors, like running for miles up mountains and learning how to stand on a surfboard (it’s much harder than it looks, by the way). I have learned that people desire different things in life and that there is just no good reason – not family, not a job, not fear – to relegate myself to a place or a lifestyle that’s less than what I ultimately desire. I only get one body and one finite period of time to live in it, and I’ve done myself a disservice to have even for a moment wasted it at the hands of my lesser obligations.

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A photo taken after my first surf lesson

As a result of this realization, I have come to no longer care what my distant family members think of my free-wheeling lifestyle. I don’t care how new parents feel about my rejection of the parenting life. It means less than zero to me whether other married couples think Shawn and I act married enough or spend an adequate amount of time participating in each other’s chosen pastimes. I don’t care if fellow runners think I drink too much beer or if fellow hashers think I run too many races. It took me 33 years, but my choices finally feel like they’re completely mine. I finally feel beautiful. I finally feel whole. I finally feel happy. And I mean really, honestly happy. And I don’t even give a shit if you don’t believe that. This is what it means to “find yourself”.

This, my friends, is what it feels like to find your home.


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The Great Big Wild World of Hashers: It’s Not What You Think

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It’s been awhile since I’ve added posts to this blog. There’s a bit of irony to this fact, because it seems the busier I am the less time I devote to writing – but the more things I experience, the more I have to write about.

Well, what have I been doing with myself, you ask? True to form, I plan to answer that only in part, and I plan to do it in a very meandering, roundabout way. Starting with a conversation I had last night.

My cousin Alysa and I joined a Monday night running group sponsored by my friend Jon, who works for Merrell. I hadn’t seen him since the Raptor Ridge half marathon last fall, so we used part of the 4 mile trip to catch up.

Jon: So what have you been doing over the past few months?

Me: Well, I went through a brief running rut back in December, but then I picked it up again. And then more recently, I became a hasher.

Jon: So what…like, you smoke hash now?

Clearly, the popularity of the hash run isn’t as widespread as I originally thought. The reality of which has spurned this very post.

What is a hash, you ask? Well, first I’ll refer to Wikipedia for a history lesson:

Hashing originated in December 1938 in Kuala Lumpur, then in the Federated Malay States (now Malaysia), when a group of British colonial officers and expatriates began meeting on Monday evenings to run, in a fashion patterned after the traditional British paper chase or “hare and hounds”, to rid themselves of the excesses of the previous weekend. The original members included, Albert Stephen (A.S.) Ignatius “G” Gispert, Cecil Lee, Frederick “Horse” Thomson, Ronald “Torch” Bennett and John Woodrow. A. S. Gispert suggested the name “Hash House Harriers” after the Selangor Club Annex, where several of the original hashers happened to live, known as the “Hash House” where they also dined.

After the end of World War II in an attempt to organize the city of Kuala Lumpur, they were informed by the Registrar of Societies that as a “group,” they would require a constitution. Apart from the excitement of chasing the hare and finding the trail, harriers reaching the end of the trail would partake of beer, ginger beer and cigarettes.

The objectives of the Hash House Harriers as recorded on the club registration card dated 1950:

  • To promote physical fitness among our members
  • To get rid of weekend hangovers
  • To acquire a good thirst and to satisfy it in beer
  • To persuade the older members that they are not as old as they feel

At present, there are almost two thousand chapters in all parts of the world, with members distributing newsletters, directories, and magazines and organizing regional and world Hashing events. As of 2003, there are even two organized chapters operating in Antarctica.

Most chapters gather on a weekly or monthly basis, though some events occur sporadically, e.g., February 29th, Friday the 13th, Typhoon ‘T8‘ or a full moon.

At a hash, one or more members (“hares”) lay a trail, which is then followed by the remainder of the group (the “pack” or “hounds”). The trail periodically ends at a “check” and the pack must find where it begins again; often the trail includes false trails, short cuts, dead ends, back checks and splits. These features are designed to keep the pack together despite differences in fitness level or running speed, as front-runners are forced to slow down to find the “true” trail, allowing stragglers to catch up.

Members often describe their group as “a drinking club with a running problem,” indicating that the social element of an event is as important, if not more so, than any athleticism involved. Beer remains an integral part of a hash, though the balance between running and drinking differs between chapters, with some groups placing more focus on socialising and others on running.

Generally, hash events are open to the public and require no reservation or membership, but some may require a small fee, referred to as “hashcash”, to cover the costs incurred, such as food or drink.

The end of a trail is an opportunity to socialise, have a drink and observe any traditions of the individual chapter (see Traditions). When the hash officially ends, many members may continue socialising at an “on-after”, “on-down”, “on-on-on”, “apres”, or “hash bash”, an event held at a nearby house, pub, or restaurant.

In most chapters, the use of real names during an event is discouraged. Members are typically given a “hash name,” usually in deference to a particularly notorious escapade, a personality trait, or their physical appearance. In some chapters the name must be earned – that is, hashers are not named until they’ve done something outstanding, unusual, or stupid enough to warrant a name. In other chapters the process is more mechanical and hashers are named after completing a certain number of events (5-10 being the most common).

A few weeks ago, I joined the North County Hash House Harriers. Since then I have run with the group three times, and also attended an annual event with the larger San Diego Hash House Harriers, where they renamed their management group. I have not yet earned a hash nickname, but I am looking forward to finding out what it will be. And also a little scared.

I like being part of this hash group, the North County Hash House Harriers, or NCH3. I like it so much that I’ve even volunteered a chunk of my free time to designing their weekly newsletter. We have published one issue so far and it was met with a fair amount of appreciation, constructive criticism and good suggestions.

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Newly designed header of the hash newsletter.

And that’s all the really boring, above-the-board stuff. What I really like about the Hash Harriers is that they are a world-wide group of completely irreverent, politically incorrect, gutter-minded, disrespectful, beer worshiping, bushwhacking trail runners. They ignore fashion trends, make fun of each other, drink booze while exercising, and utilize completely inane terms like “on-in” and “down-downs.” After the runs are over, they call out those who have done stupid things to earn the Grand Master’s attention, and sing ridiculous, barbaric songs to each other. All while consuming at least one keg of beer together.

In other words, I absolutely love it and cannot wait until next Saturday.

Many of my readers (and a few estranged family members) might question my judgment for becoming part of such a group. Perhaps you’d ask why I’d let a bunch of almost-strangers make fun of me publicly and give me a trashy nickname, full of insult and sexual innuendo. You might want to know what kind of training I’m really getting with a running group that spends more time drinking together than running. You might even begin to question my own moral code (as short as it may be), running with a crew of folks who wear knee-socks with sayings on them and call themselves “hashers.”

The truth is, over the course of these few weeks I have met some of the most honest, open-minded, caring and considerate people imaginable. So what if they have names like “High Twattage” and “Anal Rose”?

All kidding aside, I recommend finding and joining a local Hash Harrier group (there’s probably one in your area). And here are 16 reasons why:

  1. It’s really refreshing to hang around an entire group of people who have quick wits and a wickedly good sense of humor.
  2. Hashes are a great example of social Darwinism: those without such a sense of humor typically won’t stick around (and from what I hear they usually leave shortly after their naming ceremony).
  3. There’s beer.
  4. The group is mostly made up of trail and ultra runners, so nobody bats an eye if you have to spit, snot-rocket, trip and fall, or make a trail-side pit stop (although they might bring it up later at the down-down).
  5. You don’t get assigned a hash name until the group knows you, which in a way is endearing and thoughtful (even if your name ends up being something like “Asian Orange”).
  6. Beer checks.
  7. Most groups run a different trail every time, so you get to experience a lot of new trails and see so much more of your local area than you probably would by yourself.
  8. Trail is planned ahead of time. You just have to follow it, sort of like a scavenger hunt. This way you can follow a cool trail without getting lost.
  9. You still might get lost.
  10. It’s a fantastic way to meet new people, especially if you’re new to an area. Or if you just hate all your friends and want to make new ones.
  11. It only costs a few bucks to run a great new trail, socialize with people and enjoy all the beer and food you want afterward.
  12. Lots of beer.
  13. Running in a large group like this is really good exercise, the kind you don’t feel like you’re doing. Instead of just running in a straight line up and down your street, you may be searching for the right trails, doubling back, traversing through heavy brush, climbing excessively steep hills, balancing on drainage pipes and jaywalking across busy roads. It’s the kind of stuff you probably did as a kid. Only with more beer.
  14. Boob checks.
  15. Hashers love dogs. People who love dogs are A-OK in my book.
  16. Being part of a hash group is like being part of a fraternity, only without all the hazing. Actually that’s not true, forget that. Once you’ve received a hash name, you become part of this network of thousands of people. You have instant credibility to other hashers all over the world. I mean, how many other social circles have that perk?

Those are just the reasons I can think of while writing this. Hashes are my greatest new find: they are a lot like your average running group, only with a little extra pomp-and-circumstance and a whole lot more beer.

Are you a “hasher” and love it? Have you never heard of such a thing and think it’s fantastic or horrible? Share your story/opinion/questions in the comments below! I would love to hear from you.


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Notes from 3,000 Miles Away

One of the really bright flowers growing in my yard. What is it? No idea.

Shawn and I are about a month into our new life on the West coast, and a lot of friends have been asking me how I like it here. My answer is always: “It’s Great! I love it!” because, well…I simply don’t have the time (nor do they) to sit down and explain my whole array of feelings about it. The true and short answer is that my feelings about the move are great, but mixed.

Just yesterday Shawn and I were talking about this, and I’m pretty sure we feel roughly the same way at this point. The “oh-my-god-we-are-finally-here” honeymoon is over and the real feelings are starting to move in like so many storm clouds. I have a tendency to hold in my feelings, but I think it affects Shawn in a more outwardly obvious fashion. As he explained it to me, he’s been feeling sort of “blah,” and as a result he’s been unmotivated to do much more than sculpt and watch television. It’s hard to get him to even come out for a walk or go to the movies. He knows that he made the right decision to move out here, and he knows intellectually that his feelings of homesickness and uprooted discomfort will pass, but it still bothers him at the moment. It doesn’t even matter that he grew up here. The friends we have known for a dozen years are 3,000 miles away. Our families, our favorite restaurants, roads and highways we are able to navigate without help from technological devices, they are no longer things we can get to without a pricey plane ticket. And although we thought the decision through for several years, no amount of sureness and careful planning can circumvent that feeling of having been transplanted into such an unfamiliar section of the world.

I love San Diego, and I have no doubts in my mind that I belong here. In a very general and sweeping way, southern California people are more like me than New England people are. They’re…sunnier. More calm and trusting. Open-minded. They like to be outdoors a lot more, and are healthier in many ways. To them, life is less complicated. Of course, I’ve made some great friends with all of these qualities back in New England, but here I see people like this just about everywhere I go.

This is a beautiful place to live in, as well. Yes, of course there’s those several hundred miles of beaches and ten months of summer each year, but it’s a little deeper than that. We have mountains. Everywhere. In the next town. In your back yard. I’ve seen views from places less than ten miles from my home that stop my breath and make me so thankful to be alive that it’s almost like praying. There are bunnies and lizards, coyotes, hawks and deer everywhere, and there are even a couple of bats that like to sleep in our palms. There is a myriad of trees and flowers all around me that I’ve never seen before, like eucalyptus and olive trees, cacti, three types of palm tree, and several decadent, bright florals that I can’t yet name. There is so much sky that I don’t know what to do with it, except feel really, really small. And it’s blue…all the time. I know that these things are all novelties to some people, but I’ll never get tired of seeing the beauty the world has to offer. And this is one incredible place to see it from.

See if you can figure out what’s different.

But upon my inevitable exit from that sweet, rose-colored honeymoon phase, I’ve found myself mixing old home comforts with the new ones. I put the same books on the same book shelves and kept most of the old knick-knacks from my cubicle desk in the Boston office. I work the same hours every day and go to bed around the same time at night because routine comforts me. I listen to radio stations that play the same seemingly incongruent mix of 80’s hair band, 90’s alternative and Mumford and Sons that populates my iPod. I pump Florence + the Machine through my earphones during runs because the sound of it reminds me of winter long runs back home. I spend as much time as I can keeping up with my friends back home, texting them, reading their blogs and watching their lives unfold on Facebook. I make the same recipes and shop for my favorite food brands.

But even still, the unfamiliar has crept into my bones and caused a melancholy sort of homesickness that will take me some time to recover from. I am eternally in love with the sunshine but it is so strong here that it sometimes feels alien, as it leans heavily over my shoulder during an afternoon run. I have become a friend of shadows, darting from one to another and seeking the rare tree cover that was so prevalent in New England.

I miss the tall and shadowed forests of trees, and I miss the smells that the air carried in – the scent of fresh life. Wet grass, rich soil, pine. Here the air smells heavier, spicy. It’s so different, in fact, that it was the first thing I picked up on when we arrived.

In this heat I have learned the usefulness of house-cooling window blinds, which were previously a nuisance to me, always keeping out the precious light of day. I’ve learned to appreciate the cooler air, as well as the hot summery days. That’s something I didn’t exactly expect to happen.

But I have also embraced so many things quite seamlessly. I relish the prevalence of runners, bikers, dog walkers and lots of other folks getting exercise and enjoying the day. I appreciate the wider roads and freeways, the fresher produce, the prolific Starbucks stores and Mexican restaurants. I can’t stay away from the beaches, and the thought of driving only twenty minutes to one puts a huge smile on my face.

The trails here are achingly beautiful; moreover, they feel so much more like real trails to me. I don’t know why, could be all the books and blogs I’ve read with photos of western trails have shaped my own internal definition of what a trail should look like. They’re dustier, more sandy and dry. The hills are astounding. And, surprisingly, I have found myself seeking out hills during runs, rather than shying away from them. It’s as if I’m finally making peace with them.

I miss my friends back east. Some I miss so much that it’s difficult not to cry a little when I think of the vast new distance I’ve put between us. At the same time, I appreciate the few friends I have made since we arrived. Friendships are important to me. I don’t need many, but I enjoy nurturing the good ones.

Working from home has been a blessing I didn’t quite expect. I mean, of course I knew it was going to be awesome to be able to work in my pajamas. But would I thrive working this way? Could I keep motivated and stay happy working outside an office environment? I didn’t know. But what I’ve learned is that working in my home suits my personality much better than working in an office. I like having my own space, and the relative quiet helps me focus better. I like being able to start work early and end early, or work later if something comes up in the morning. I can get to my work files at 8pm on a Sunday if I think of something, and I can go for a run on the beach before it gets dark. It’s like I’m always working, but also never working. This is an ideal situation for me. And for my employer, who gets a happier, more motivated employee out of the deal.

Overall I can see myself slowly becoming a much more centered individual, with more balanced priorities and a healthier outlook on things. Almost everything is better for me here, but I still need to get used to it, give it all time to sink into my soul and start to feel like home again. And that’s okay because I’ve got lots of time.


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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: Vibram FiveFingers Spyridon and Spyridon LS

Take a look at all that California dirt. 🙂

Just the other night I went for my first trail run at Torrey Pines State Park, near my new home in San Diego. My friend Vanessa has talked about this place enough for it to have become a place of legend in my mind, and once I arrived I could see just why it deserves such legend. Lining the shores of the Pacific, several windy, sandy paths cut through the brush and tan-colored cliffs, every one of them elevating and descending at whim toward the golden sands of the state beach.

My new running buddy Kate took me here, and after run-walk-climbing the first big hill toward the bluffs, we bounded up, down and through the trails at ankle neck-breaking speeds (well…not really, but it seemed like it, anyway). Sometimes the ground was hard-packed, and sometimes the sand slid under our feet, revealing all the loose stones hidden beneath. Ever so often we came upon a sharp downward turn that merely avoided a 20-foot cliff. The air was thick with salt, the ocean view was simply vast, and the setting sun grew heavy under the thick marine layer that was blanketing itself over the land and sea.

Yesterday’s run rivaled that of any run I’ve ever done, in beauty and in sheer enjoyment, with a person I’d just barely met but already felt bonded to. We ran four quick miles before it got dark, and by the time we were done my face ached from smiling.

And luckily for this review, I had chosen to wear my Vibram FiveFinger Spyridons.

I wore the Spyridons for this run because it was a new trail for me that could have had anything on it, and there’s just something so rugged and so sure-footed about this shoe (which I will of course explain shortly) that it felt like my safest choice among the many which populate my closet.

I’ve been running in the Spyridon trail shoe for several weeks now, most of them while I was still living my previous life in New England. I loved the trails there, because they were mostly made of hard soil with rocks and roots all over (easier to trip you with, my dear). With experience I have learned that I am very picky about a trail shoe. I need it to be lightweight of course, but also supremely flexible and grippy (the WordPress dictionary tells me “grippy” is not a word, nonetheless I’m using it; to hell with proper grammar usage).

I have learned that I must have a feeling of control over my feet when I am running trails; the notion that I can sense and respond to everything beneath me in a split second. That my feet are part of the trail floor. And if you feel the same way about a trail shoe, then you are probably going to like the Spyridon as much as I do.

Specs and Tech

Top: original Spyridon LS (laces)
Bottom: new Spyridon with hook-and-loop closure

So, what I’m really reviewing today is two shoe models, the Spyridon LS, which came out earlier this year, and the Spyridon (sans laces) that just hit the market sometime in July.

Both of these shoes are pretty much the same, but the Spyridon LS is essentially just the model with laces. I received a pair back in May, but the upper is made to fit so precisely along the mid-foot that I quite literally couldn’t get into them without some major discomfort. It was just too tight for me. So, despite the laces being there, the shoe is just not made for someone with a wider foot. I never ran in the shoe, so really the only things I can write about here are width pitfall (which shouldn’t be a problem for people who don’t normally have width issues) and the overall look, which is earthy and tonal for both the men’s and women’s models. Oh, and I also took some pictures before sending them back. 🙂

So you can imagine how thankful I was that my contact over at Vibram was feeling charitable enough to send me out a pair of the non-lace model to test once it was available. It fit me so much better! The lace-less Spyridon is made with an upper very similar to the KSO and Treksport, with the same hook-and-loop closure that runs around the back of the heel. But of course everything else is different about this shoe, from its Coconut Active Carbon upper and 3.5mm Vibram rubber sole, to its super deep, aggressive lugs and tough mesh “rock-block” layer molded into the center of the sole to your feet from trail debris. Not to mention it’s altogether pretty spiffy-looking, with its fuchsia, black and lime green colorway (the men’s shoe has two colorways: orange/ black and green/black).

Here, you can see the width of my foot as compared to the Spyridon LS. The tightness occurs where the laces are, although it’s not just the laces that make it tight – it’s the whole upper. Sorry about the bad manicure.

Fit and Feel

The rest of this review is going to be based on the hook-and-closure model, since it is the only one I really used.

Like the historically popular KSO, the Spyridon also has an elasticized collar that grips tight to your ankle and…well, KSO (Keeps Stuff Out). I appreciate that aspect of this shoe because there’s nothing more annoying than feeling a tiny rock digging at you inside your shoe while you’re trying to enjoy a trail run.

Elastic collar keeps stuff out.

I like the ground feel on this shoe despite its aggressive tread, and I’ll tell you why. To me, there’s just something about the basic structure of a FiveFinger sole is just perfect for trails, so I was psyched when I found out Vibram was developing a trail-specific shoe (finally, no more having to make do with the Bikila). Like I mentioned earlier, I base a lot of importance on having a trail shoe that is flexible and pliable. I need my foot to sense and react to rocks and bumps and debris, to curve around objects and make minute and immediate corrections to my balance at all times. A thick-soled or stiff shoe doesn’t do well for me, I just tip over and injure myself. But in the Spyridon, with its infinitely pliable sole, I feel extremely sure-footed and confident on trails. I can feel the rocks and bumps and respond to them, without getting as many dings and bruises. The molded mesh rock plate does a pretty okay job.

My one complaint with the fit is, believe it or not, the hook-and-loop closure. It’s actually the one reason I never bought a pair of KSO’s. The fabric of the upper stretches over my foot just fine, but the closure has no give at all and when I close the velcro strap at its widest point, I can still feel the nylon strap digging into my heel. I’ve thought about just cutting out the whole strap contraption altogether. But strangely enough, it doesn’t actually bother me at all when I’m running (a similar outcome as with the SeeYa and its droopy heel cup – review here), so I just left it. I know that seems weird, and well yeah…it is. Can’t explain it. It is what it is.

Performance

I have a lot of darlings on the trail side of my running shoe collection, and they’re some mighty fine players. I’ll be honest: I didn’t think the Spyridon was going to fare well amongst them. I mean, I’m talking Merrell Pace Gloves and New Balance Minimus 00’s here. Some mighty fine minimalist trail shoes. But the Spyridon really  stacks well up to them, believe it or not (and I know there are some non-believers out there). The two biggest factors are the excellent tread that really lets me tear up some trail without sliding around like a cat on ice skates, and (again, believe it or not) the benefit of separated toes, for that added feeling of control in the front of my foot. Our feet were built with those digits on the end for a reason, folks. And putting them in an anatomy-driven shoe that allows them to work independently of each other is really beneficial for balance and proprioception. Which I, for one, really need…because I am remarkably accident-prone by nature (see left-handedness).

Lots of important movement in these.

You can still decide to knock a five-finger shoe if you want; but the Spyridon impresses me. It serves me well and does it silently, no bells, whistles or cushioning needed. If you’re looking for a lightweight or minimalist shoe that will give you back some control on the trails, I’d say this one’s definitely worth a try.

So to wrap up, here’s the quick-reference rundown:

Pros

  • unique tread pattern and mesh “rock plate” provide excellent traction without taking away too much ground feel
  • still a relatively lightweight shoe at around 6 ounces each
  • separate toe pockets add to your control over tricky terrain
  • two options, lace closure or traditional KSO hook-and-loop
  • stink resistant coconut active carbon upper
  • no-seem liner for sock-free wear
  • gnarly color ways for the Spyridon, earthy ones for the Spyridon LS

Cons

  • the LS model might be too tight in the mid-foot if you typically fall into the “wide” category with your other shoes
  • hook-and-loop closure was pretty much a non-necessity for me (similar to the SeeYa)
  • would have liked to see one or two more color ways in both models

Have you tried the Spyridon yet? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 


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Review: New Balance Women’s 1010 Trail

Hello readers! Man, it’s good to be back! I am thrilled to mention that this is the very first review posted from my new home in sunny San Diego. I’m so thankful to the PR chick over at New Balance for her patience in waiting for this review, while I took a bunch of time off to pack up my life and move it clear across the country.

The first shoe that New Balance asked me to try out was the Women’s 1010 trail shoe. I got it a week or two before the release date so I had no idea what it would be like. The 1010 is a transitional minimalist shoe, or for you hardcore mountain trail runners, it’s a lightweight-but-protective trail shoe. I say it that way because I feel it’s a good choice for those two types of runners (just to clarify, I don’t necessarily encourage transitioning to barefoot or minimalist running through transitional shoes, but if that’s the way you’re going to go, then this would be a more than reasonable shoe to do it in). I’m not really either of those types of runner, but that’s okay because I am rather good at being objective.

Weight and Structure

Even though the WT1010 is not even close to being the lightest shoe I’ve run in, at around 6 ounces each it’s not totally out of the ballpark. This shoe is rather rugged, compared to what I’ve usually got on my feet, and it looks like it could take a lot of hard miles. As to be expected, there is a rock plate in this shoe and some aggressive tread, too.

Interestingly enough, the multi-circular Vibram sole pattern is reminiscent of the one on the bottom of the latest Trail 00’s, only with some heavy duty 2-directional ribbing that looks like it would give you amazing grip in the snow. I didn’t try these in the snow, but they felt really sticky in the rock and dirt trails I ran them through. Pretty solid, I’d say.

As for the drop, it’s 4mm on this model. Now, I realize there’s a bit of controversy among minimalist runners about putting a drop in shoes like these. I personally don’t see much of a reason in bothering with 4mm, when you could just drop it to zero and call it a day. I kind of see it as the worst of both worlds. Four millimeters isn’t significant enough to provide much lift to those who want it; and for some of those who prefer zero drop, four millimeters can be just enough to throw off their form. All conjecture aside, I barely noticed the drop. Could be I haven’t put enough miles on these to reap any ill effects from the drop, or perhaps my form is good enough to circumvent any issues, who knows. But maybe it’s because all I could feel was how cushiony these were!

Fit and Comfort

Wow. I had forgotten what it was like to wear a shoe with a mushy sole. It was like running inside marshmallows. Of course that has its disadvantages (i.e. harder landing, lost of proprioception, etc.), but let me enjoy this soft and heavenly feeling for a moment, okay? Yeesh.

I think the best advantage to the cushiony shoe for a runner like me (100% minimalist/barefooter who runs on roads and easy-to-moderate trails) is rest and healing. I have enjoyed taking these shoes out for short, easy trail jaunts between difficult runs, running errands and for walking with my dog. I believe a cushiony shoe definitely has a place in my lineup, because sometimes my feet need a rest. Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.

Some of the other good features of this shoe are the super comfortable blister-free liner (thank you NB!), the attached tongue that keeps out a lot of head-on debris (I hate pulling loose stones out of my shoes mid-run), and the generous toe box. The wider toe box is especially something I want to talk about because in the past I have had some width complaints in general with New Balance’s minimalist shoe lineup. For example, the original NB Minimus Trail (which has been renamed WT10) was so low and narrow I couldn’t even get my foot into it. Also, I had to go with the wide-width version of the 00 Road shoe (see review here) for the same reason. I expected the same problem with this shoe so I asked my contact to send me the wide (D) width of the 1010, as well as the regular (B) width. Turns out, it was totally unnecessary. In fact, I wouldn’t even recommend getting the wide width unless you have an exceptionally wide foot, as in, a very good deal wider than mine:

My foot is wider than most people’s, as compared to its length (size 8.5). The regular (B) width was more than adequate in this shoe.

Just walking around in the D-width, the shoe was literally falling off my feet. Now, just as an FYI, they’re also offering a narrower width (2A), for all you ladies with slimmer peds. Oh, and I hate you. 🙂

I have found there is one big drawback to the comfort of this shoe: the heel. Like many newer models in the Minimus line, the heel cup is quite high and somewhat unforgiving for the first few wears. It did soften up after awhile, but not before taking a chunk of skin from my achilles with it. I’m really not sure why New Balance chose this route with the heel. Maybe it’s less of a problem for taller people with higher heel bones. I’d be interested to hear of anybody who didn’t have this issue, and if they’re also taller than me (5’3″).

Performance

I’ll admit I didn’t do any long trail runs in these (greater than 4 miles). Why? Well, because these shoes are too much like a traditional shoe for me, and the last time I wore a shoe like this on trails I sprained my ankle pretty badly. When I run I often supinate, which is to say that I lean toward the outside of my foot (the opposite of about half of all runners, who pronate). In a cushioned shoe with stiffer soles and lowered proprioception, I have a greater chance of landing badly on a rock and injuring my ankles. Since going barefoot and minimalist my ankles have certainly strengthened a lot, but I am still cautious about hitting the rocky trails on any shoe with that stacked sole. I prefer a shoe with a much more pliable sole. This could perceivably change in the future if I start to run very long races and find a need for a shoe with more cushioning, but for now I prefer to avoid the risk of tipping on a rock and hurting myself.

To expound on my point about the stiffer sole, I want to say that I felt a lack of control in this shoe, especially going downhill. The grip is nice and sticky, sure, but I still want better perceptual control over my foot landings. A shoe like this doesn’t allow my foot to curl downward at all, and the rock plate keeps me from forming my sole around the rocks and debris like it would naturally. So for me, overall this shoe didn’t feel safe as I got more tired (and sloppy) several miles into a run.

That said, I know a few ultra-runners who would benefit from a shoe like this. During those long 50 and 100-mile races, they have reported a need for a shoe that offers more protection, while still remaining light and relatively flexible. The WT1010 is both of those things.

Overall Pros and Cons

While I don’t think this shoe is perfect for everyone, and perhaps not me, I would recommend it to the strong and seasoned minimalist trail runner who wants less exposure to the elements over a long run, as well as someone who does just fine in a traditional trail shoe but wants something lighter and more foot-friendly. So, below is the quick list of pros and cons that I found with the WT1010:

PROS

  • great example of a lightweight, transitional trail running shoe
  • dense, somewhat cushiony sole with rock plate that provides prolonged comfort and protection against rocks and debris while remaining relatively light
  • aggressive, sticky tread provides amazing grip
  • soft and comfortable upper can be worn without socks
  • attached tongue keeps a lot of dirt out
  • generous toe box, with three levels of width to choose from
  • relatively all-weather
  • on-trend color ways

CONS

  • stiffer sole cuts off a fair amount of proprioception, giving less control to your foot
  • heel cup lacks comfort
  • 4mm heel-to-toe drop is somewhat unnecessary and may not be all that conducive to proper running form, especially for anyone who still needs practice (although one could argue that transitioning to lighter shoes over time is easier if you absolutely can’t start your mileage over from scratch).

Happy running!