Friday, October 21, 2011

Soft Star RunAmoc review

Softstar Original RunAmoc Lite
I said I would wait until I had notched up several hundred kilometers in these shoes before writing a review but I love them so much that I can't wait that long. Having said that, I have done well over a hundred miles in them, on tartan track, on the treadmill, on tarmac and trails (with anything between small stones and rocks) both with and without socks. Just as I suppose it is possible to fall in love with someone and subsequently find them attractive rather than experience "love at first sight", I now regret the harsh comments I made about their appearance after first un-boxing them. Especially as I received a very polite reply from one of the Soft Star "Elves" that makes the shoe after reading my initial review, saying that they had another, more conventional looking shoe (the Dash RunAmoc) if I was still "unsatisfied with their appearance".

The first thing to note about these shoes (which, strictly speaking, are in fact moccasins) is that they are extremely comfortable for wearing about the house. I have always gone around barefoot in the house for as long as I can remember (in spite of having trodden on a nail on one occasion and getting a massive splinter from wooden floorboards on another) and yet my feet seem to feel even more comfortable with these shoes on, even if I have my feet up. I can't really explain it. I think it may be something to do with the quality of the soft leather, or the breathablity that the hundreds of tiny perforations provide. Leather shoes make me think of sweaty, stiff and clunky work shoes but it stands to reason that millions of years of evolution can come up with a material that is tougher, more waterproof, more breathable, flexible and quicker to dry than any synthetic material we are capable of inventing.


I've said it many times before but it's a fact: I've got very big feet. In the RunAmocs, according to the measurements I took, I am a size 12A, which is the biggest standard size they do. If you go up to 13A, you have to pay a little more (which is fair enough - at least the size exists) and you can even send in a tracing of your foot and have custom shoes made exactly to order. (You can even customize the colours if you so desire.) In my case, the fit is perfect. The toe box is very generous giving my toes plenty of room to splay out. As I mentioned in my initial review, the "bagginess" of the shoes is a little disconcerting at first. Many other people have also commented on this. The reason it feels weird is that the sole of the shoe is free to move around slightly as your foot is in mid-flight and you have to trust that the sole will be in the right place at the right time when your foot hits the ground. At first, there is a tendency to try to grip the sole with your toes which is a thoroughly bad idea but, once you realize that the sole sticks firmly to the sole of your foot while your foot is preparing for landing, you begin to relax and even appreciate the extra ventilation that is provided as a result of the bagginess. Some people have also commented on the importance of getting the tension of the drawstring right. To be honest, I haven't had an issue with this. There have been days when I have pulled it slightly too tight and been left with a red, slightly itchy impression around my ankle; other days it has been on the loose side and the shoe has flopped around in mid air more than usual. Neither of the two extremes bother me that much. The proof is that these are the first shoes I have ever been able to run sockless in without incurring any blisters. I should qualify this by saying that the part of my sole around the forefoot is quite leathery itself, rather like a Hobbit's foot but less hairy. Nevertheless, I usually get blisters at the ends of my toes, under my big toe or in random places on the top and sides of my foot where the uppers crease or have seams; with the RunAmocs there is no possibility of this happening. One aspect I appreciate is that there is a piece of hard leather that comes into contact with your foot and, over time, molds itself gently to the contours of your foot.

Ground feel

I chose the thicker 5mm "trail" soles so the ground feel is ever so slightly worse than that of my Vivobarefoot Evos, for example. However, there is a clear trade off between ground feel and ground hurt, and it is certainly the case that I also feel the small stones and sticks on the trail much less than I did with the Evos. For the mix of roads and trails that I run on, I definitely made the right choice, although Soft Star do offer a thinner, "street" sole which is only 2mm thick.


As I've just mentioned, the protection offered by the soles is much better than other minimalist shoes that I have tried. I recently gave the RunAmocs a run for their money in Morocco where I had no choice but to run on trails that were more rocky and treacherous than any I had previously attempted. Here I reached the limit of the shoes and had to slow down although I was able to continue to run without injury. I think that minimalist shoes are simply not appropriate for this kind of terrain. I'm sure there are people that are able to run barefoot over such terrain but that is not really the point. That takes many years to develop and has to be constantly maintained to the point that, given the norms of the society we live in, it would have to be a lifestyle choice. The uppers give excellent protection against grazing against rocks although, unlike the Evos and most running shoes, the sole doesn't wrap around the foot: the sides and top of the foot are only protected by the leather upper and the generous size of the sole.

Here you can see the wear after 100 miles or so

So far they seem to be withstanding admirably the paces I am putting them through. My other shoes have tended to show signs of wear on tear on the uppers by now - partly because they are more tightly sized and partly because they are made of flimsy synthetic materials. As these are made of leather, you can actually clean and polish them as you would any other pair of leather shoes. The soles are made by Vibram and seem to be quite durable, as you would expect. The little nodules on the bottom are starting to wear down in the places where I make ground contact but I think I will get many more miles out of them before I think of replacing them.


This is where the shoes really come into their own, in my opinion. If I could get away with it, I'd wear them around the house, to work and for running. Even just being able to use them equally on roads as on trails is enough for me, as many of my routes are over mixed terrain. I would even consider using them both for training and for competition.


The shoes are very flexible as you would expect. Having a relatively thick sole for a minimalist shoe, they are slightly less flexible in the sole than the Evos, for example, but the roomy uppers mean that the toes can bend upwards (the technical term is "dorsiflex") without meeting any resistance whatsoever. Part of the protection given by the sole is by virtue of it dissipating any sharp pressure points over the whole surface - this kind of rigidity you want but not at the cost of not being able to flex your toes. In fact, the only structure that the shoes have other than the sole itself is a small rubbery insert in the heel which keeps it from collapsing completely.


I''ve talked about the fit but there are other aspects to comfort. Firstly, they are very breathable and airy so your feet are kept nice and cool. Either my feet sweat less as a result or the leather wicks away sweat more effectively - either way, the shoes are usually dusty dry after a run. The exception is when I run on the treadmill. On the treadmill there is no wind chill to cool you down so you tend to sweat a lot more and your sweat falls directly onto your shoes (partly because of lack of wind and partly because of lack of lean while running). Even so, the shoes dry out very quickly and don't become stiff and crusty with dried salt (sorry) unlike other shoes that I have known. They also still smell of leather which is not just a bonus but an indication that they are not going to rot away any time soon.


The grip on the soles is about as minimal as it gets: just enough to prevent you from hydroplaning on a puddle of water. Actually, this is just how I like it because I don't believe in running with an active push off (which would rely more heavily on traction). On the other hand, most of the trails I run on in Spain are dusty with stoney patches and I rarely have to cope with mud. I'm not sure that they would perform well either running uphill on wet grass or through marshland or bogs. People tend to use spikes for those kind of conditions.


They are clearly very light compared to regular running shoes and they still compare favourably to minimalist trail shoes. The 5mm trail sole does make them weigh a little more than the thinner, 2mm version. What is perhaps a more significant aspect of performance is the response of the sole. Being very hard it has a very sharp response like the Evos but quite different from the spongey feel of the Vivobarefoot Ultras. When I run on tarmac my footsteps are virtually silent - this is definitely a good sign.


These shoes have quickly become not only the "ultimate minimalist all-round running shoe" that I was looking for but also my "favourite shoes of all time". Sometimes you buy something that gives you so much pleasure that you want to buy it again, even though you don't need it and you know that the pleasure will not be the same as a consequence. I'm already thinking of buying another pair with the thinner 2mm street sole, or perhaps with the more funky stylings of the Dash model.

WARNING: As mentioned on the Soft Star website, these are minimalist running shoes that require a certain period of adaptation for the muscles, tendons and bones in your feet and lower legs if you are not already accustomed to them.

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