Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The quest for the ultimate all-round minimalist running shoe...

As I noted before, in my post on minimalist running shoes, buying running shoes can be something of an obsessive activity. There is nothing quite like a new piece of kit to motivate you to get out and hit the trails. So my quest for the ultimate running shoe is the perfect excuse to acquire ever more outlandish shoes. The shoes I have been using for most of my training since June are Vivobarefoot Evos which are so tantalizingly close to being perfect but have a few drawbacks (apart from being fairly pricey): they don't make them quite big enough for my plates-of-meat (feet) and the uppers can't handle the paces I put them through so, while the soles have still got many kilometers left in them, the uppers are torn in several places. Also, I have to admit, that there are few things quite as annoying as landing directly on top of a stone and the Evos (with the inner sole removed to make room for my aforementioned extra large feet) do not offer quite enough protection for the trails I often run on. On the other hand, I certainly don't want a soft, spongy sole, nor do I want a sole with thick, grippy lugs on, which would only get in the way and wear down while running on roads.

Here is my list of demands for the ultimate all-round minimalist running shoe:

- Minimalist. That means zero drop, low profile, no toe spring, light and flexible.
- Versatile. It needs to have a hard sole that is thick enough to protect my feet from sharp objects and stones while still having good "ground feel". It should be equally at home running on tarmac.
- Durable. I don't want to have to replace them every few months. Not only should the soles be tough, but the uppers must withstand rubbing against the odd jagged rock.
- Breathable. I hate sweaty feet and wet feet are more prone to blisters.
- No "hot spots". I expect to build up thicker skin around the balls of my feet but I want to get a whole new set of custom blisters from a rubbing strap or flexing material.

With this list in mind I asked some of the experts in minimalist running shoes in the blogging sphere for recommendations and came up with the Run Amocs from Soft Star which arrived yesterday in the post, less than two weeks after I ordered them. Considering they are handmade in America (by the "Elves"!) and the postage was quite reasonable, this is pretty remarkable.

As their name suggests, they are not really running shoes but running moccasins. My youngest son said they looked like my wife's orthopedic slippers (which, incidentally, I used to take the piss out of my wife for wearing around the house). He asked if they were for running (even a 6 year old with me for a dad has preconceived ideas about what running shoes look like) and then commented that they were "strange". I think a more appropriate description is UAF.

With no disrespect meant to the Elves, this photo just doesn't do justice to how ugly these shoes really look in real life. But who cares about how they look? Exactly. What we perceive to be ugly are those things which don't follow certain norms. I didn't include "they should look cool" on the list above. What if you were to design a minimalist running shoe purely based on function and not on form? You would probably end up with something like the Run Amocs.

Soft Star has actually been making handmade shoes for 25 years, long before the whole barefoot / minimalist running fad got underway. The Run Amocs are the product of active feedback from runners, such as Donald from the running and rambling blog. They are made of a exquisitely soft leather which is perforated making the uppers both durable and breathable. They even smell great although I'm not sure how long that will last. The only problem is that, if you wear them with white socks (in an effort to be as uncool as possible), then you will find that you white socks are no longer white. I suppose this effect will wear off in time. The shoes are more like little leather bags that you tie around your ankles with the shoelace. There are two big vents either side of the tongue which add to the airy feel.

What is for sure is that they are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn for padding around the house. I almost prefer them to being barefoot which is really saying something. At least I don't have to keep brushing off bread crumbs and dog hairs from my feet when I am wearing them. The sole is made by Vibram and has a very subtle tread pattern. I prefer to have very little traction on my shoes and I believe that generally we should learn to run relying as little as possible on the tread, as I explained in a previous post about running on ice. The soles come in two variations: one a 2mm thick version for road running and the other a 5mm thick version for trails. I went for the thicker sole because I am fed up of treading on stones and terrified of getting another stress fracture. They have slightly less ground feel than the Evos, for example, but this is an inevitable trade off and, for this reason, they offer both models.

What is curious about running with the Run Amocs is that you have to trust that the sole will be firmly in place when you put your foot on the ground. While your foot is in flight, the bagginess of the upper allows the sole to shift around slightly but, as your foot prepares for landing, the sole fixes itself tightly to your foot and doesn't budge one tiny little bit. One reviewer put this feature down to "magic" from the Elves; my explanation is somewhat more mundane. As your foot prepares for landing the toes curl up a little - this has the effect of tightening the leather around your toes and holding the sole in place. It seems to me like the leather bag inflates with air slightly in the process and then expels it, adding to the ventilation. At first it is slightly disconcerting and you tend to try to "grab" the soles by curling your toes in mid-flight. This is definitely not a good idea (and, if my theory is right, actually works against the shoe's mechanism for holding the soles in place). Once you learn to trust that the sole will always be there for you when you need it, you start to relax your toes and forget you are wearing any shoes at all. I have to get some more mileage in before I can really say that I don't get any blisters or hot spots but, so far it's looking good. I'll write an update on whether the Run Amocs are the holy grail I have been searching for once I have logged several hundred kilometers in them.

Another bonus is that they pack extremely flat because the uppers have no structure whatsoever (except a tiny piece in the heel). This means that I can take them to Morocco without sacrificing any luggage space. Although they are so comfortable that I'll probably want to wear them on the plane, even if they are UAF.

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