Monday, January 20, 2020

The Never-ending Search for the Perfect Shoes

In my 12+ years of writing down my thoughts and ramblings here, it has been generally rare for me to comment on specific products, or to make any sort of personal endorsements for a brand. There have been some occasions where I've touted the success of certain things, particularly related to my thru-hiking experiences, but often I've found that many of those products fall out of favor with me given enough time.

A few things do make it through all of the cuts over the course of the years and I find myself still using happily, like my Casio Pathfinder watch, or my old Golite Jam pack...but almost always I find that a product that once seemed to serve me well, just doesn't hold up to longterm scrutiny. Many times it's simply because over the years products just change, and often for the worse. This is especially true for footwear. I'm sure everyone reading this has at some point found themselves running or hiking in the 'perfect shoe', only to find out a year later that it's being discontinued or replaced with an 'updated model' that is decidedly a step backward for some reason or another.

Wearing my Casio Pathfinder in 2007 on my AT thru-hike

My watch this morning (13 years later) while writing this post....

My trusty 2006 go-lite Jam on my Long Trail hike this past summer

I can recall the Brooks Cascadia 5 shoes I wore for most of my PCT thru-hike. They ended up being fantastic shoes for the hike, and I remember singing their praises in all my post-hike posts. Then, the Cascadia 6 came out and I noticed that they changed the design. They were never quite the same after that.

Brooks Cascadia 5's with over 1000 PCT miles on them

The bottom line is, that I've never been one that really embraces 'sponsorship' or 'endorsements' I've either never liked a product enough to truly dedicate myself to using only that product...and because I kind of just like doing my own thing. While I worked for a government lab, I definitely enjoyed being on the Promotive 'Army Corps of Engineers' government discount...which allowed me to score many brands at pro-deal prices. But I think I would feel not only a little disingenuous touting specific product (as no product is perfect), but also a bit boxed-in. I like being able to put on whatever shoes or clothing I feel like for a race or event, and not feel pressured to wear something because I'm 'contracted' to. To be fair, this is generally not a problem for me as I have only very rarely actually been contacted about 'sponsorship'...and I think it has been 100% because of my Barkley experience. Had there not been a documentary the year I ran, I probably would never be quite simply, I'm a proud middle-of-the-pack runner. Middle-of-the-packers, really don't get sponsored all that often.  Again...I'm ok with this, as I've always been one that has just done my own thing. In all cases I've been offered sponsorship, I've passed on those invitations (except for a 1-year pro-deal with Brooks back in 2009-2010)


With all this said, I find myself really wanting to relay my personal story and journey navigating the maze of running footwear over the past several years. Shoes are the golden pedestals that we all stand upon for our sport/hobby. In truth, it's really the only thing you need to be a runner (and some would argue you don't even need them, as you can simply run barefoot). I wanted to relay my story not because I'm hoping for, or want any kind of sponsorship, but simply because it has been a long journey for me, and I may have finally stumbled upon an unlikely happy solution. Perhaps my story can help some of you out there going through a similar journey.

When I starting running again in earnest back in 2008 (after several years of 'not running'), I was exclusively a road-runner. I was training for my first marathon, and so all of my miles were on pavement. I went to the local sporting goods store and bought a pair of simple Asics 1120's. These were my chariots for over a year. They were perfectly fine, did the trick, were relatively cheap, and honestly I didn't think much about it. 

Asics 1120's

After my first marathon in 2008...rocking the 1120s

As the years progressed, and my interest turned to trails, I found myself starting to plunge into the quickly growing world of trail footwear. When I started to think about what shoes I was going to buy for this crazy new hobby of mine: 'trail running', I immediately thought back to what I wore on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike a year earlier in 2007. When I initially researched 'how to complete a thru-hike', I realized most faster hikers wore 'trail runners' and not clunky hiking boots. Upon some quick searching, it seemed like most were using Montrails. So...before my thru-hike I bought couple of pairs of Montrail Hardrock shoes, and they worked out swimmingly. Again, I didn't really put much thought into just seemed to be what was successful for other thru-hikers.

On the AT, wearing my trusty Montrail Hardrocks.

Exactly one year later, while thru-hiking the Colorado Trail, I had my first experience with what I like to call "shoe extinction". The Montrail company had been recently purchased by Columbia, and the design and quality of my 'favorite' trail shoe, The Hardrock, changed drastically. After just a few hundred miles on the CT, I started experiencing major problems with my new pair of Hardrocks, leading to significant foot bruising and abrasion. For an entire day on the hike, I had to hike on-and-off wearing my Waldies (foam crocs). I was annoyed that such a great shoe had so quickly become effectively unwearable.

One Hardrock, one Waldie (croc)

I didn't want to give up completely on Montrail as they had been so good to me, so when I finally ran my first trail ultra (The 2008 Vermont 50), I went with a pair of Montrail "Continental Divide" shoes. Just as with the Hardrocks on the CT, the "Continental Divides" ended up rubbing my ankles raw at around the 35-mile mark. I still finished, but just about gave up on Montrail after that. I did ultimately end up giving Montrail one final try on my 2010 PCT hike, with a pair of their "AT Plus" shoes. They were supposedly designed with a thru hiker in mind. But..they too also failed miserably, and came apart after just a few weeks of hiking. Below is what I wrote on my PCT journal about the AT Plus shoes. It's a bit harsh, but really reflects my frustration and disappointment. True to my statement, I have not worn a Montrail since taking off the AT Plus shoes 10 years ago.

"The Montrail AT Plus. I so wanted to believe in Montrail again.  Desperately.  The 'Hardrocks' were my chariots on my AT hike. In a last attempt, I logged on to in March and noticed that there was a brand new shoe out:  the AT Plus.  Montrail stated on their website, "You complained, and we listened".  The AT Plus was supposed to be Montrail getting back to their days of "well designed shoes" and be a solid replacement to the Hardrock that lived up to the reputation of its good ol' days.  Thousands of people complained to Montrail that their shoes had gone down hill, and they responded with a new and improved shoe line.  I had hope again!  I bit the bullet and bought the $110 pair of shoes, and stowed them away as my "Sierra Shoes".  They were tougher and sturdier than the Brooks Cascadias, and would make for great mountain shoes.   Long story short....they were CRAP.  Within the first 100 miles, they began falling apart.  Both shoes.  Seams started coming undone, tread starting coming off, and I started getting friction spots and sore feet.  Add to that the fact that they drain horribly, and I was walking over 500 miles on some of the toughest trail, in TERRIBLE footwear.  I can't stress this enough....these shoes are GARBAGE.  Every other hiker that I ran into wearing these I asked about their experience....and they all had similar ones.  Shoes falling apart, making their feet sore...etc.  Sorry Montrail, but you've lost me as a customer for life.  I really wanted to believe that you had come back to your old ways, but you haven't.  Good luck in the future."

Running in the Montrail "Continental Divides" in 2008

On Mt. Whitney in 2010 wearing my disappointing Montrail AT Plus shoes

Amongst this frustration though, was a source if real hope. Before my PCT thru-hike, I had poked around quickly on some blogs of other middle-of-the-pack runners, and found out what has been good for them. This is when I came across the Brooks Cascadia 5's that I noted above. After an incredibly positive experience with these shoes, I felt that I had finally found a longterm solution to my trail running. My plan was this: I'd continue to wear the Adidas for all of my road or 'junk' training miles, and then use the Cascadias for any trail miles.

And so it was for a while. All was well. I was happy and my feet were happy. But then Brooks released the Cascadia 6 model, and while they worked sufficiently, it was never quite the same. My feet just didn't fit the same, the cushioning on the bottom just wasn't right, and they just weren't as comfortable. I brushed it off and for years continued to use the various iterations of the Cascadias...including for 3 loops of my 2012 Barkley run in Cascadia 7s.

But...what has followed over the years has been an ever evolving, and never-ending quest for the 'right footwear'. I have changed out brands and styles multiple times, experimented with different road and trail shoes, and while sometimes finding a few gems, have never been completely satisfied with my footwear. Allow me to walk though through my 8+ year experiment...

Cascadia 5's still working great in 2011 at the Laurel Highlands 50k

A few months later at the Slacker Half Marathon in Colorado

Sporting the Cascadia 7's at the 2012 Barkley

Cascadia 7's at the 2012 Finger Lakes 50

Cascadia 8s? at the 2012 Leadville 100

Cascadia 8s? at the 2012 Oil Creek 100.

For a short period of time I started experimenting with a few different styles of shoes just to 'see what was out there'. I tried just once playing around with 'minimalist footwear' with a pair of New Balance M100's, only to severely injure my toe on a rock (an injury I still suffer from 9 years later).

Experimenting with minimalist New Balance shoes at the Rothrock 30K

At some point around 2012 I also played around with a few pairs of Salomons as well, and ultimately decided they were too stiff.

Wearing some Salomons on a training hike

Using some Salomons at the TWOT 100

I can recall for one race, and one race only (Massanutten 100), I stumbled upon a pair of Scott Eride Grip2 shoes. They sort of worked ok, but they were really hard to buy online and that model was discontinued shortly after the race.

My one and only elusive pair of Scott Grip2 shoes at Massanutten

After my 2013 Barkley attempt, a friend of mine suggested La Sportiva brand. I started with a pair of Helios and thought I had found my solutions. I settled on a few different models...all that seemed to do a pretty good job at the time. On the trail side of the footwear coin, I was somewhat content. After  while though, it seemed every pair of Sportivas I purchased was narrower and narrower....causing me some foot discomfort.

Sportiva Helios

Sportiva Bushidos

Sportiva Mutants

On the road side of the footwear coin however, I found that the pavement pounding was starting to hurt my legs and feet a bit more. This is when I discovered Hoka brand. For several years I was quite content to pound out my road miles in the soft rocker-style pillows that were Hokas. I even experimented in their trail shoes as well, although I would often roll my ankle quite a bit due to their large stack height.

Around 2013, I started running a lot in Hokas

The Bondi's were a life saver at very long paved miles

Bondi's on the Vol State Course

Hokas on Badwater course

More Bondi's at a 72-hr event.

Hoka trail shoes at Western States 100

I can't remember when it was in all of this, but I also experimented a bit with Mizuno for my 'junk mile' shoes. They seemed to be great for daily trainers. I even wore some for the first 20 miles of Badwater. I can't recall exactly what it was about them, but ultimately I stopped wearing them. I think they may have given me some mild Plantar Fasciitis.

Mizuno's made it into my rotation at one point...

Mizuno's at the Pine Creek Challenge

It was sometime around 2017 or 2018 that I started noticing a couple of things happening to both my preferred shoe lines, and my feet. I started noticing that the toe boxes of all of the various shoes that I liked...were all becoming more narrow. Along with this, I was noticing that not only did my toes feel squished in those toe boxes, but that I was starting to develop what's known as a Tailor's Bunion (or Bunionette). This is where the pinky toe bone starts to pop out due to the tip being pushed so far inward.

The newest Cascadia model has a incredibly pointy toe box

Who the heck has a foot shaped like this Hoka??

You can see the small Tailor's bunion starting to form on my right pinky toe.

What a Tailor's Bunion looks like...

And so once I started realizing these trends, I began investing 'wide-toed' shoes. As expected, the most common brand that came up in my searching was Altra...known for the 'foot-shaped' wide toe boxes. So naturally, I gave them a try. It seemed like no matter what race or event I went to, everyone was wearing Altras. They were the hot new shoe brand that picked up an enormous amount of the consumer market. People were raving about them, they had established almost a cult following, and they had become so big that they were sponsoring major events like Western States. They made both trail and road shoes, so I thought if they worked out, perhaps I'd have the ultimate shoe solution after all!

So...I started running in Altras. I wanted so very badly for them to work out, to the point that I forced it beyond the point that I knew they weren't working. In truth, nothing about Altra ever quite worked for me. The cushioning never felt enough, I hated the zero-drop platform, and most of all, I was CONSTANTLY tripping in them. The road shoes worked out ok but they never really provided the cushioning that I was used to with the Hokas. Still, I kept trying. When I found the Timps, I thought I had finally found a trail shoe that was a winner. They had decent lugs, felt comfortable, and seemed like a good fit. I even wore them on my 270+ mile VT Long Trail speed hike. But in all honesty, they just weren't very good. The insole kept moving around in them, and the heel was also incredibly loose (along with an already roomy toe box). In addition, was the huge fact that for several trail races in a row that I wore the Timps, I tripped hard in them...once hitting my head really hard on a rock (and almost losing teeth). I even tripped a few times in the road shoes and just couldn't figure out why the hell I had such a hard time in them. I never had tripping problems before in any shoe, and it had gotten so bad, that I was literally afraid to run on trails for fear of hitting my head again. I would be out on trails, and terrified of falling. I could no longer enjoy the scenery and instead was just constantly watching my feet. I tried desperately to convince myself that Altra was the answer, and it took me a really really long time to admit to myself (after trying for over two years) that they were just a terrible fit for me. 

But...who else made shoes with wider than normal toe boxes? Nobody really. I was honestly somewhat despondent about it.

Rocking some Timps as my 'everyday shoes' while running lab instruments

Some Altra's during a run on the Long Trail

Wearing the Timps on my VT Long Trail speed hike

Wearing Altras at the Javelina Jundred - the last time I'd race in them

But then, in my last-minute desperation, I stumbled across a shoe brand that I had not previously considered, or really even knew about in all honesty. In searching for "wide toe box trail runners', I stumbled across Topo brand shoes. I figured why not try them and see. I picked up a pair of their Ultraventure trail runners and was pleasantly surprised by the ample toe-box size, the amount of cushioning, and the Vibram/grippy outsole. I tested them out at the Barkley Fall classic and was ecstatic at how well they worked out. No tripping, excellent cushioning, and great traction throughout. Could this be? I had also worn them for a shorter 35K race at the Mogollon Monster and they worked great there as well. A couple months later, I put them on again for the MMTR 50 in Virginia with my Barkley friends, and they were again a big success. I have still not tripped or fallen in them, and they continue to impress me. I have been up and down the Mt. Humphreys trail here in Flagstaff a few times in them with no issues, and ran a really fast race at the Coldwater Rumble 20 miler last weekend. I have been nothing but impressed with these shoes since purchasing them. They fit my feet, have a snug heel...yet wide toe box, and fantastic grip. They also have a moderate amount of heel-to-toe drop (~5 mm), which is perfect for me; I cannot stress how much I dislike zero-drop. This is the first time in almost 10 years that I can honestly say a shoe feels right on my feet and that I'm genuinely happy with. I really really hope Topo does not discontinue this line. I have never felt the need to write a post on here about specific product...but having searched so long for a shoe that really works perfectly for me, I had to relay my experience. These are genuinely great shoes...that for whatever reason, you just don't see that much at trail events.  At the Coldwater Rumble last weekend (of course being the data-driven scientist that I am), I looked around at what everyone was wearing on their feet to gauge what is leading the shoe market right now.  I would estimate probably 80% of those I looked at were either Altra or Hoka, with a few Sportivas or Salomons in the mix. In all the feet I looked at, I saw only one other runner wearing Topos, and all I thought was...'man, if people only knew!'

As far as Topo road shoes, I've been trying out both their Zephyrs (daily trainers) and the Phantoms (more cushioned long mile shoes). I'm still forming a full opinion of these models, but so far they have also been quite impressive.

So for those of you wondering...please understand...I get nothing by saying these things. I'm not sponsored by Topo, I have no skin in the game. I simply wanted to relay my story hoping it may help some of you out there going through the same never-ending search for those perfect shoes. Sometimes, you just have to look little outside of what's most popular.'s to hoping that Topo keeps the Ultraventures going strong for years to come, and that they don't significantly change their design, or narrow the darn toe boxes!

Wearing my Topos at the BFC 50k

The Ultraventures at the Mogollon Monster 35K

Enjoying my Ultraventures at MMTR with my Barkley friends.

Awesome Vibram/grippy lugs

and a fairly ample toe box and wide mid-foot

One last thing....I hope to have my 2019 year-in-review post up soon as well. For now, keep on hiking/running...and please don't trip on any trails!