Monday, July 16, 2012

Mountain Running Shoes

A personal view

Back in the day, amongst the UK fell running community, there was only one name in mountain running shoe - Norman Walsh. It seems funny these days, with so much $bn brand hype that this cobbler from Bolton, Lancashire, who hand made running shoes to order should be so revered. If you didn't own a pair of "Walshes" you weren't in the game. English and British fell running champions alike all wore Walshes.

It seems that every sport promotes unwritten standards for acceptable participation. Whether for safety - kernmantle rather than hemp rope for climbing - or performance - carbon fiber skis rather than wood - breakthrough technologies sponsored by early adopters make a compelling visual appeal. The 1960's UK fell running crowd adopted Walshes, and for very good reason. Norman made them on a last that provided such a good general fit. Even after manufacturing processes were automated the shoes, although never as good as the hand made variety, were a pleasure to wear.

Before the emergence of modern specialty running shoe manufacturing, when companies like Addidas and Nike were in their infancy, Walsh had the complete market. And it was a fairly small market with the total participant field numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands. Lacking any incentive to get involved these larger companies ceded considerable brand positioning to Walsh and they became not only the default brand but the pre-eminent one.

Not surprisingly, as a young athlete in the late 1960's and early 1970's I owned Walsh fell shoes. I loved them. The distinctive pyramid studded soles seemed a perfect solution to the wet and boggy moorland and fellscape of Northern England where I lived. And they lasted for ages. With the current fad for "barefoot" running epitomized by Merrell Trailgloves, Walsh were already cut-down and low profile with a very small heel height. They were lightweight before lightweight became a trend. The big revolution came when Walsh brought out a second type of shoe specifically designed for training on mixed terrain and rocky trails where the need for heavy studding was less pronounced. This doubled their market for many runners could see sense in having a shoe more suited to certain kinds of terrain. I certainly bought a pair.

During the late 80's and 90's I drifted in and out of fell running and the explosion of products designed for the outdoors passed me by. When I did venture out I had my Walshes and didn't really consider other options. When I left the UK in 2001 and moved to the US I just brought them with me. But Maryland isn't exactly an off-roader's paradise and apart from the odd weekend on the Appalachian Trail my Walshes gathered dust. When I took up serious running again in Colorado I naturally bought more Walsh shoes from my friends at Pete Bland Sports in Kendal, UK ( But this is expensive for shipping and I have also accumulated designated off-road shoes from other manufacturers to complement my Walshes...or usually to wear while my Walshes are drying out from a recent run. The list is hardly extensive...

La Sportiva Crosslite 2.0
Salomon Fellcross
Montrail Bajada
Merrell Chameleon
North Face Double Track

Walsh PB Trainer

There are things about each of these shoes that I like, but none match the allround performance of my Walsh shoes. I like the Crosslite's grip but feel they sit too high and my ankle rolls on uneven ground. I really like the Fellcross but the fit is too narrow and they are punishing over longer distances. I like the Bajada for smooth trails but find the tongue too insubstantial and they allow grit and stones to enter the footbed. The Chameleons are just disappointing and lack the usual Merrell fit and quality. The Double Track are a failed hybrid with the sole just a little wide and less suited for rocky terrain.

I own three separate Walsh styles with multiple pairs of each. For allround mountain running, particularly in the Winter and Spring, I choose Walsh Spirit React. These shoes are rock solid, especially on tricky descents. They are not quite as heavily studded as the PB but they have good waterproofing, fit really snugly and are great for really long distances.

If I know I'm going to be running over wetter terrain interspersed with rocky ground, or even snow and ice, I wear Walsh PB trainers. The heavy studs and low profile combine with light weight to make this a really comfortable ride. I wore them on Niwot Ridge in a snowstorm and was very thankful I had them on.

My Walsh Spirit Peak's are a lightweight version of the Spirit React and I like to wear these in drier conditions with high mileage. They have a little less bulk than the React but are just as stable on rocky ground.

At some point in the future I'll try the Innov-8 range. I tried on a pair at but felt they didn't fit well. It could be my feet because I know people who think they are great. I also see that Montrail has continued its investment in new products with the Mountain Masochist and it's too much to keep up with all the new versions out there.

But so far, as I wait for me newest order of Walshes to arrive from the UK, I see no reason to make a permanent change. So if you are following a runner in the Indian Peaks/Boulder/ RMNP area and you see the Walsh name on the heel of the shoe, you've likely just met me.

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