What a 2 year old shoe taught me about trail running in Utah

In 2013 I picked up a pair of HOKA ONE ONE Stinson Tarmacs. I picked them up because my pair of Stinson Evo Trails was one of very few that “cratered”, a collapsed area that HOKA assured me occurred in less that 1% of all of their shoes, and which they replaced, no questions asked, through a local shop. I’ve used them in my rotation a lot, often mixing them in while testing out max cushion wear test prototypes from Skechers to give me perspective and a comparison bar.

Last week I traveled to Utah for an incredible family reunion at the wonderful Best Friends Animal Sanctuary (more about them in a later post, you should really support them though), and then headed into the various parks in Utah & northern AZ for some hikes.

Originally I had planned on using a shiny new pair of HOKA Tor hiking boots. These suckers looked amazing. My ultra attempt is quickly turning into what will likely be a power hike due to my inability to train from ongoing injuries mostly unrelated to running, so a cushioned hiking shoe seemed like the ideal tool.

Sadly, it wasn’t. I’m chalking it up to this being something new for HOKA but their legendary “out of the box” comfort was not there. The last was odd, tight, stiff & uncomfortable. While I had a thought that I could probably wear these in, I wasn’t going to do that in Utah. They stayed in the box, and I went to plan b.

Plan b, as it happened, was my pair of Stinson Tarmacs.

Yes, I know. Trading in a pair of super duper hiking monsters for a pair of worn out road running shoes with little in the way of traction or upper support seems like a great way to end up hurt or in the local paper. But something I’d read a while back made me decide to give it a shot. I’m not sure who the runner was, but he was someone worth a listen, finisher of numerous ultras. His feeling was that road shoes helped him stay fresh longer on trail runs, as the soles didn’t catch as often, which meant less wear and tear on his quads. You had to always be ready to slide a bit, but years of inline skating made that second nature. Plus I had a pair of insurance plans: my trekking poles.

The combination of trekking poles and the Stinsons was incredible. I flew. On downhills it was as close to skiing as I’ve ever been off snow. Even if an ankle began turning, I was in contact with the ground for a minute period of time before my pole caught my weight and I pushed off with my upper body.

I was a sight to see. A 40+ overweight guy with a screwed up back, a torn quad tendon and a pair of knees sore and achy from years of skating (boys will be boys), absolutely flying down the hill. A pair of German young bucks tried to keep up, pole-less and each in a pair of light-weight hikers. They managed to stay close for all of 10ft before each stumbled. 10 minutes later as I sat drinking some water at the bottom of that section they came trotting in, significantly slower than earlier, likely having had several near misses.

I’d had more than several. In fact, the entire exercise was more fall than run, more flow than canter. I imagined myself as water heading downhill, and the effect was magnificent. And at the end nothing hurt, little ached. The next morning I felt like someone had thrown me down a set of stairs, then ran me over with a Hummer, but that was muscle soreness. No joint pain or back aches from my little endeavour.

I also made another discovery, which might change the way I run forever. A couple months back I was sitting with my friend Ann in a little diner in Davis, CA talking about HOKA. She’d been to a seminar a while back where the reps talked about how their shoes allowed people to bound along “like kangaroos”. We both kind of rolled our eyes. We both absolutely love their shoes, but the marketing speak was a bit much. There was also talk there apparently of the shoes having both high cushioning AND energy return.

Readers here know my thoughts on the subject, but I discovered something in Utah that changed some of my views.

Normally when you run, the motion is very up and down. It has to be. Your contact is with a point at the very bottom of a very tall structure (your body). Through a whole lot of muscle chain activation we manage to stay upright AND move along at a fast clip. It is frankly somewhat incredible.

If your energy is being sent primarily downward, any return will be straight back up, right into your joints. That’s generally not what you want, and normally it isn’t really what happens either. The energy turns into heat and is redirected in a few different ways, but HOKA shoes do tend to be kind of bouncy if you bounce in them. It is part of the fun.

Here’s the trick though, if you happened to have some method of adding a high level of stabilization to your upper body, something that could push it along, you COULD bound along like a kangaroo by allowing your shoes to roll and spring forward with each step. Oh wait, I DID have that. They’re called trekking poles. And timed right, you can really bound along with very little actual movement of your leg muscles.

It is difficult to describe the feeling unless you do it, but anyone who has hopped along on a trampoline has felt this sensation. Don’t get me wrong, you’re not getting anything for free here. This takes a lot of upper body activation, and may even use significantly more energy. But very importantly, it seemed to spread out the muscle use and be fairly easy on the joints.

I’ll be returning my Tors tomorrow and plan on replacing them with a pair of lightweight new HOKA road shoes, or possibly the Mafate. While the Stinsons are great, they are heavy as a pair of bricks and there’s definitely some degradation happening in the cushioning. That happens after 3 or 4 hundred miles. With any luck, the new shoes will carry me through my very first ultra, and beyond.

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