Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hoka One One Stinson EVO B Review


I am naturally skeptical and resistant to hype that sounds contrived. With so much focus over recent years being directed (with good effect) towards minimalist running, the appearance of a great big clod-hopping "clown" shoe like the Hoka One One seemed one misdirected fad too far. Even the testimony of highly reputable ultra runners was easy to discount as I rationalized product endorsements, sponsorship and back-handers. At the most fundamental level I didn't like to entertain the thought that every premise of my running shoe choice and practice for over 35 years had potentially been wrong. Even my more recent serious injuries and knee and joint pains couldn't provide the evidence for me to challenge my own bias. But over recent weeks my mind was "tipped".

4 months ago I had a long discussion in Boulder Running Company with one of the sales associates. "Just try them," he said. And I did. And they were weird. I jogged around the pavement outside the store. I am sure I was more concerned about how they looked ("clownish") than how they felt and I didn't want to pursue the issue any further. How could I, in all honesty, wear these monstrosities in public? I had a certain style to maintain...standards to uphold...there were issues of public decency. There are reasons why few men wear yellow and purple striped suits. And although in the "style vs. function" balance I trend heavily towards function, this doesn't make style irrelevant. And Hoka's have no style...well, they have style, but in the purple striped suit variety. Wear these, so I reasoned, and I become a clown. So I didn't.

Another store, another discussion. This time in Vertical Runner in Breckenridge. Another sales associate hooked on the Hoka. Was I the only one immune from the hype? Was everyone getting back-handers? But if I explore my psyche, I went into the store to look at the Hokas. It was as irresistible as a boogie on a stranger's nose.  I wanted another drooling experience of sheer horror, disbelief, petulance and disregard. I wanted confirmation about just how stupid these things looked...about how, despite many claims to the contrary, these things just wouldn't work on technical trails...how my ankle would roll...how I would be unable to "feel" the trail beneath my feet...that I would lose touch with my feet wallowing in these great marshmallows. I desperately wanted to be right.

Then two things happened in quick succession. First, I tweaked my calf muscle injury again last week and this was a major blow to my recovery. It happened on a straight forward trail after about 8 miles and I was shocked because I had felt nothing for weeks to even begin to hint that this was possible. Was it my shoes? Second, I had three or four days of serious knee pain during the day that made it difficult to ignore. I couldn't sit still for more than a few minutes without getting up and stretching and walking around. It was distracting and annoying and I worried what my body was telling me about my physical well-being. Would my running days be coming to an end? Was it my shoes?

What stuck in my mind was the testimony of older runners, just like me, extolling the virtues of the Hokas. How they provided protection against the knees. How they nullified the effects of joint pain. How they...well, prolonged the running lives of keen runners like me. So I tipped. And I went straight out and bought a pair. Not the unisex version, but the full bloodied "men only" version. The Stinson Evo B...whatever that means. Not only were the shoes an obvious joke, but the joke of the name was too subtle even for me to understand. I asked the cashier for a bag in order to conceal my embarrassment and hurried back to the car glancing around incase anyone should point at me and laugh. "Another idiot in clown shoes."

And they do look ridiculous.
They are a big shoe, but surprisingly light, despite their bulk. The size 9's fit me perfectly. I deployed the single pull lacing system after remembering to tighten the front eyelets, and they were very snug and tight. I don't wear socks and need a close fit. These shoes fit better than nearly all my other pairs...and I have a lot of pairs. Of course, fit is only one issue - how did they perform?

I was tentative departing the Button Rock trailhead. It was raining a little and the rock was wet. Puddles were forming and this was going to be a decent test. I had bought the new Brooks Cascadia a month ago and was extremely disappointed with their poor performance on wet trails - they had horrible traction on wet rocks and consequently I couldn't trust my placements. As underwhelmed as I was with the Brooks, I was pleasantly surprised with the Hokas. They just worked.

I worried about the spongy ride and then realized that once I started to focus on running the trail this disappeared as an issue. I just got used to it. In fact they felt quite pleasant. I discovered that I didn't have to worry about smaller rocks because...well...I didn't feel them. I cruised across the edges of hardened mud ruts caused by vehicle tires without the usual ankle tweak. I began to enjoy them.

There is one point that needs to be made - it is important to pick your feet up and not drag low on the stride pattern. I sometimes do this when I am tired and going downhill and it has caused a few falls. These shoes would be more prone to that and I was very conscious to keep reminding myself to pick up my follow-through on my trailing leg. Thankfully no falls so far, but I wonder what they will be like when I get really tired?

The tread holds well ascending steep, loose, rocky trails. They stuck to the surface and I didn't feel any scrambling or slipping. But these shoes come into their own going downhill. They were exceptional. I could attack the descent and ignore the usual imperfections in the running surface. They also enabled a fuller downhill stride. Typically, in low profile shoes like my Walshes or Salomon Speedcross, I would be very careful to avoid golfball-size rocks or uneven rocky outcrops - in the Hokas I quickly learned to ignore them. The deep cushioning on the sole simply absorbed them. With the rounded sole I was also able to strike my heel more fully and confidently and this meant a much faster and safer descent. With low profile shoes the heel takes significant punishment on steep descents and my stride pattern shortens to compensate resulting in a slower pace. It is the exact opposite in the Hokas - full stride, confident placement, more even feel and much faster pace. It was just how I remember running when my joints and ligaments were younger and more supple. It was fun.

But the "clown" feeling is still there. It's strange, because I've never had the remotest concern about what other people might think, it's just that these shoes look completely ridiculous. However, I am going to clock up some mileage in them especially on the high level technical trails. I am actually looking forward to it, not only because I think they will be great, but because I rarely encounter anyone. My "clowning" will be relatively private.

UPDATE - August 10th 2013

The Devil's backbone trail near Loveland, CO was a perfect test for my new shoes. Although the trail has no steep ascents or descents there are long sections of nasty terrain with sloped rocks and loose choss. If these shoes were going to fail they would fail here. And because the trail is fairly level that meant the test would be at speed.

Two things are now really clear to me. These shoes are really good on rough, loose, stony ground. You really can ignore most of the loose rocks and undulations that would cause careful foot placement when wearing low profile shoes. Second, they are great for running quickly downhill. I find that I can take a fuller stride and not have to worry as much about an uneven landing. Because the sole is so soft the pain of striking hard surfaces is diminished and my original fear of twisting my ankle has so far proved illusory.

There are some things I don't like...but are unavoidable. First, the lace holder is very poor and I find that the lace pull bounces around across the top of the shoe - it is distracting and it is annoying. I don't know why Hoka couldn't build a lace holder like Salomon on the Speedcross 3. Second, it is hard to accelerate up steep climbs without the cushioned sole absorbing some energy. This is noticeable. Push hard on the ball of the foot and quite a bit of energy is just absorbed by the sole and this makes it hard going up long climbs. It's a trade-off between overall comfort (which I like) and loss of impact (which I don't).

Overall, these are quickly becoming my running shoes of choice for longer distances on rough trail surfaces - particularly those involving nasty, technical descents.

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