I’m going to write this review with the assumption that you haven’t read Christopher McDougall’s wonderful Born to Run. If you have, you can probably scroll down a bit. If you haven’t go buy it and read it after ordering a pair of Lunas at the link below.
The reason a shoe review begins with a book reference is because the shoe might not have existed without the events that are recounted in the book.
Basically the book follows two stories. One is about the author’s attempts to learn how to run properly without injury. The other thread is the story of an incredible group of people in the Copper Canyons region of Mexico known as the Tarahumara, (or, as they call themselves, the Rarámuri, which means “The Running People”). By the end of the book, the two threads converge and an incredible race is run which includes the Tarahumara, the author and a cast of wonderful and interesting characters.
One of those characters is a gentleman known as “Barefoot Ted“. Not to ruin the surprise, but Barefoot Ted is called that because his preferred method of running involves either nothing at all on his foot, or very little (just enough to keep the thorns & broken glass out of the flesh of his feet).
While in Mexico, Ted befriends one of the Tarahumara, a man named Luna. This man teaches Ted how to build a running sandal, the same sandals worn by these incredible humans that run hundreds of miles through the harshest mountain & desert conditions.
When he gets back to the U.S., Ted eventually founds a company called Luna Sandals to hand-build his version of the running sandal, also known as a huarache. He figures there’s would be a demand for this sort of thing, with minimalist footwear exploding and lots of people focusing on gait/stride and forefoot running (not to mention the incredible success and popularity of Born to Run).
Barefoot Ted was right, of course. There was demand, and Luna is now one of the premier crafters of running sandals in the world. They still make each and every pair in Seattle, WA. Instead of tire rubber they use various thicknesses of Vibram rubber. While they do offer “traditional” ties for some of their sandals, your best bet is to go for their comfy “ATS” laces. These synthetics are soft and durable, and allow for easy on/off and lots of adjustment potential.
While their website advertises a number of models, the 3 main ones to look at are the Venado, the Mono & the Oso. Readers of Born to Run will recognize the animal spirit names given by Caballo Blanco to Scott, Ted & Chris. Those names aren’t just for fun. The Venado is the “quick” sandal, designed for blazes down roads or light trails. The Mono is the do-everything model. There’s enough underfoot to take the edge off rocks, but not so much that you lose road-feel. It is still lightweight, but built for multi-terrain. Then there’s the Oso. This bear of a sandal is big, burly and built for big terrain. Rocks, ultras, that sort of thing. It includes a special extra strap to really cinch the sandal down.
I went for the mono, as my usual routes include trails, gravel, fire roads & asphalt. I selected the “Monkey Grip Technology” top, as I tend to have fairly sweaty feet and wanted the extra grip. You can also choose a Pittards Leather top.
The Lunas come all set up, but you do have to adjust the straps. This is fairly easy, which is good because you’ll be tweaking them a lot right when you start off. That balance of just right tightness without flop took a couple runs to perfect, but once there they disappear. To adjust them, you slide the ATS straps through the shoe and adjust the buckle. The rear strap is flexible and rubberized to grip your heel. Brilliant.
Now, a word of warning, I’m a minimalist runner. Most of the shoes I own are either zero or low drop. My form and muscles are pretty tuned into that style of running. If you you are currently running in traditional running shoes and you immediately transition into these, I can almost guarantee you will get hurt. That goes for ANY zero drop shoe, but for some reason people seem to think sandals are excluded. No. Start slow, do low miles first, build the support structures. Work on that form. You’ll be rewarded.
OK, so how do they run? Pretty fantastic, actually. I expected them to be light, I expected the wonderful sensation of air all around my foot (has to be experienced to be believed) but what I didn’t expect was how well they kept the sharp rocks from piercing through to my foot. At a 12mm stack, they’re fairly thin for a trail shoe but thick for a minimalist shoe (for comparison, the Merrell Road Glove without the footbed is 9.5mm). But even in my road shoes I’ve encountered sharp stones that just simply went right through the sole and bruised my foot. These sandals are more like armor, they deform and mold but act almost like a lightweight rock plate. A pleasant surprise as I thought I’d be picking my way down the trail much more than I’ve had to.
So far I’ve done both road and trail miles in them and I have to say that they do as advertised. They’re great on the road, lightweight enough, yet protect on the trail. One of the biggest surprises I had was that I hardly ever got rocks up under my foot. I expected that to be a much larger problem, but I guess the straps hold you to the sandal well enough for that to not occur. Running through a farmer’s field (I got lost) I did manage to get some dirt in there but a quick shake and it was clear.
If you’re looking to try out sandal running, the Luna brand is a hell of a place to start. Think about your intended usage profile, then grab a pair. Yes, the price is premium. They’re handmade in the U.S., and they’re going to last you a ridiculously long time.
Luna Sandals Mono (ATS Laces, MGT Footbed)
Cost: $115 (sale prices available on some color/size combos)
Website: Luna Sandals
Score: 10/10 RAWRS (Incredible sandals, you’re going to want more than one)
High: Hand-made in the U.S., great build quality, comfortable & adjustable, sales help the Tarahumara
Low: Won’t immediately confer the ability to run ultras