Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Help Me Find an "Ultra" Shoe

I have a problem.  I like running barefoot. I like running in minimalist shoes. This isn't the problem.  The problem lies in the intersection of the minimalism of the shoes and the "maximalism" of ultra running.  I don't seem to be able to run more than 31 miles in these minimal shoes.  Maybe I just need tougher feet and extra time refining my running style to be more gentle and flowing.  Whatever the problem is, I need a solution.  My Vibram FiveFinger shoes (KSO, Bikila, and TrekSport) do not offer enough protection for 30+ miles on trails. Likewise, my Merrell Trail Gloves don't have the protection or cushioning I need in longer ultras.  My New Balance Trail Minimus do better, but similarly come up short. I can finish a 50K ultra with them, but I suffer.  I wouldn't be able to complete a 50 mile, 100K, or 100 mile race in these shoes.  I need a little more protection and cushioning for these longer ultra distances.

Can you help me find an "ultra" shoe?  

Here are the basics of what I'm looking for in an ultra shoe:

  • Lightweight (less than 10 ounces)
  • Wide toebox (let my toes spread out)
  • Fairly flexible (let my foot act naturally)
  • Close to zero drop (max 4mm heel to toe drop)
  • Some cushioning and protection (rockplate, thicker midsole, etc)

If it has trail traction/tread, that would be a plus, but not a necessity.  The trails I run tend not to have too many extreme ups/downs or slippery sections. Road shoes often work fine on them. In fact, racing flats have worked fairly well--but lack the extra bit of cushioning/protection I need for a 30+ mile race.

Here are a couple of contenders for my next ultra shoe:

Altra Instinct (US13 was too short, 14 might be too big, no 13.5 available)
NB MT110 (comes out in early 2012)
Saucony Kinvara (road shoe, but might work)
Inov-8 (tend to run narrow in forefoot)
NB M700 cross country spikeless racer

Any thoughts on these shoes?  Others I should consider? Maybe I should simply become a tougher runner and suck it up--my NB Trail Minimus might be all I need?  Help me!

UPDATE: I have ordered the Saucony Kinvara shoe. It's a road shoe with a 4mm heel to toe drop (but with more midsole than my other minimalist shoes).  Lightweight with reasonable tread, airy mesh, and a medium to wide forefoot. No rockplate, but I'm hoping the thicker midsole will provide protection and a bit more cushioning for the longer ultras.

UPDATE #2: The Kinvaras are too narrow/tight and they have a slight arch support that bothers me.  I'm sending them back. Damn. This minimalist stuff is tough--I want a little more protection, but I don't want to lose the ability of my foot to act naturally and still sense the ground. I hear Merrel is coming out with a new trail shoe in 2012 designed to provide a bit more protection than the Trail Glove (called the Bare Access). And there's the New Balance MT110 in early 2012. Guess I wait? Or just get tougher and forget all this shoe stuff?  Or maybe I should't run beyond 20 miles...almost any shoe can get me to 20 miles.

UPDATE #3 (Oct 27): Ordered the Altra Instinct in size 14. After blog comments, I'm also considering the NB M700 XC racer (spikeless version in 2E width).


Larry Huffman said...

Chris, I'm in a similar boat. I've been transitioning to low/zero drop since early spring and now wear Altra Instincts for most road runs. I've tried them on gravel roads and they do fine, but they don't work for me on rocky trails like we have here in VA; probably due to lack of rock plate. Maybe the upcoming Altra Lone Peak will work better. On less technical trails, I've come to like the NB MT101 but, like you, I find I can't go much above mid-20s or on technical, rocky trails in them. I'm considering something from Inov-8 next, perhaps the 295, or the Lone Peak. Good luck!

Chris said...


Inov-8 is a possibility. They have so many models it's hard to keep them straight. Lots of them have a fairly narrow forefoot. I want a wide forefoot/toebox. Maybe the Altra Lone Peak for togher trail ultras. Since I don't have tons of rocks (like VA trails), I may be able to utilize the Altra Instinct.

John said...

I was going to suggest road flats. That's what I wore in my only ultra. I ran 24-ish fairly rough miles in the NB101 last weekend, and it was enough for me to realize I wouldn't like to go past 50k in them. Have you tried the Kinvara? It might give you the extra cushion you need, although I don't think it has the traction for really slick stuff (ie, McNaughton mud/hills) or anything too rocky.

Chris said...


Funny you would mention the Saucony Kinvara...I just ordered a pair! They seem to be well-liked among the "minimalist" crowd for those that still want some cushioning, but keep a low heel and light weight. I have a 30 miler (McNotAgain) in 10 days...and I plan on trying the new Kinvaras! McNaughton should be dry this fall (not in the spring)--and doesn't have too many roots/rocks. The Kinvara looks to have reasonable traction (not trail specific, but OK). I'll give a race report and shoe review all in one post.

John said...

Cool! I hope they work out for you. One thing I forgot to mention: the mesh drains well. That should come in handy on the creek crossings. Best of luck at McNotAgain!

Joshua said...

same boat as you chris. exact same boat. right now i'm in the same process of trying to figure out my "long" trail shoe for next season. i'm mostly leaning towards the 110 but i'm also interested in trying on a pair of the brooks pure grits. i was skeptical of them at first but read some good reviews. they're a bit "more" shoe than i'd normally prefer but frankly, i really want to get past my 50k block and my feet just become mashed potatoes after that long on the trails.

Jerry Davison said...


Adam L. said...

Have you looked into the Saucony Peregrine (http://www.runblogger.com/2011/06/saucony-peregrine-review-rugged-low.html)? They're built similarly to the Kinvara but appear to be wider (according to the review posted above), and are certainly more rugged.

Hope you have luck finding a shoe!

Chris said...


Thanks for the tip. I follow RunBlogger, but missed the post on the Peregrine. It seems to be a _bit_ wider than the Kinvara...but less wide than the NB MT101 (which I find too narrow). Not the show for me! I'm leaning toward the Altra Instinct (size 14) or one of the new shoes this Jan/Feb (NB MT00 or Merrell Bare Access).

David said...

I normally run trails in the UK version of the MT101 (because it has cleats that help with traction).

That said, I have the Altra Instinct and love it for roads / well manicured trails. Which is why I'm stoked that Altra just released the Altra Lone Peak; their trail version of the Instinct with better grip and a rock plate. Maybe give them a try?

David Henry said...

I've been running in the Merrell Trail Gloves for my last 2 50k's and they have been great for me. One shoe you may consider that has worked well for me (ran White River 50 mile in them in July) is the New Balance M700 racing flat in a 2E width avail here: http://www.shopnewbalance.com/men/shoes/running/comps-and-spikes/M700XOR Only $60 and they have a flexible rock plate in the forefoot with only 2mm drop. They work pretty well as an in-between say a Trail Glove and something like the Altra's or MT101. Good shoe, but once the MT110 comes out, I'm thinking it won't be as appealing. If you have any more questions feel free to ask, I've tried nearly all the shoes from Inov-8, New Balance, Saucony, VFF, Soft Star, on the minimalist spectrum...after trying probably 30+ different models (from VFF being the most minimal to the Saucony Peregrine probably as the least minimal), the Trail Gloves are by far the best for most circumstances for me.

David Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

To both Davids,

Thanks for the tips. I just bought the Altra Instinct (size 14) and hope those will work for most roads and easier trail marathons and ultras. Their Lone Peak may be good too...but it's pretty beefy.

I like the look of the NB M700 XC racer. With the 2E width, it might work too. I need to wait on the Altra to arrive and see where I go from there. I do have the Merrell Trail Gloves...maybe with more "minimalist" training I'll grow into them as my go-to shoe.

David Henry said...


I will say the m700 is as wide as the Trail Gloves if not a tad wider because he material is pretty loose type mesh. I'm a size 14 in Trail Gloves and the 14 2E flats fit pretty good on me. It doesnt fit at all like most other racing flats I've tried and is fairly good quality for a $60 shoe. I think it is probably one of the most underrated minimalist shoes out there, but is overlooked because it is a racing shoe. I tried the Altras (in a 13 before they came out with the 14) and while I liked some of the concepts (zero drop, good toe box shape) the shoe just seemed a little too clunky for me on anything more technical than a road and far too heavy for what it is/does. Just my experience. I feel that a good, lightweight trail racing shoe for ultras is still a missing link for many minimalist runners and I'm still on the search somewhat myself.

Chris said...

David Henry,

That's was my next Q for you--how does the sizing compare to other shoes? Thanks for the answer... before I asked the Q! Now you have my REALLY intrigued by the NB 700. I've had good experiences with racing flats on trails in the past. I'm mostly worried about the longer ultras (50-100 miles) and needing a shoe with more protection and cushioning for my dead and tired feet.

I'm close to ordering a pair of the NB 700s...

Max Keith said...

Hi, I came here google in about NB M700, I can't find much info of the shoe in the internet. Did you bought them? If so, how are they?

Chris said...


I did get the 700s and found them pretty good EXCEPT they were a little too narrow for me. Ended up returning them. I think they would work well for many people.

Max Keith said...

Thanks you very much for the insights! Have you tried the MT110?, if you have, is the cushioning and toe box similar between this two?

Chris said...

I did get the MT110 and like it quite a bit. Posted a quick review here:


SKA Runner said...

I bought the 700XC and I like them. My foot shifts a bit if they are not tied enough and put a little pressure on the top of my foot when tied tight. But I do like them. In fact I just ran 13 miles in the snow with 2000+ feet of gain.

I returned the Kinvara as well - too narrow.

I am looking at the Saucony Shay XC3 now.


Anonymous said...

I read runblogger so I guess that's where the talk of narrow fitting INOV8 shoes comes from. In reality it's not the case, go for their natural fit shoes, they have a nice wide toebox and a good sized range of shoes with varying degrees of protection and cushioning.