Friday, May 6, 2011

VivoBarefoot Ultra: First Impression Review

Modular Ultra
This is one of the shoes I've been most eagerly awaiting.  Not just for me, but for my Croc-loving girls.  And not so much for running, but just to have a light, casual shoe for the summer.  Crocs are a mighty attractive package, which is why they've been so successful, but they're designed to please podiatrists, not my feet.

So I've been eagerly awaiting the Ultra's arrival, and here they are.

In the picture above, from left to right, you have: 1. An Ultra with the sock liner in; 2. two removable tongues, designed to be worn in the Ultra when the sock liner is removed; 3. the sock liner, removed; and 4. the other Ultra, with no liner and no tongue.  The bits pop together and seperate very easily.  I think most of the time I'll wear arrangement 4.

The only bummer about this arrangement is that the kevlar* liner that makes Vivo's soles puncture-proof is in the liner, not the sole.  This is due to a manufacturing problem with including the liner in the sole, but it means that if you're running in an area with cactus thorns, for instance, you're probably going to want to wear the liner.  Hopefully they'll be able to improve this at some point.

This morning turned out to be a good one for a first run in the Ultras.  It was in the low thirties when I set out for a short, three-mile run, so I started out with the sock liners in.  (Low thirties Fahrenheit: May in New England.  If you don't like the weather, wait a minute.)  My feet were plenty warm, and I continued for the first half of the run with the sock liners.  No abrasion or blisters, no real issues at all. 

At the halfway point, I stopped and took the liners out and stuffed them into my pockets.  I noted that there are little hexagonal nubs on the inside of the Ultras.  You don't notice these with the liners in, but they're quite noticable when they're out.  They're actually quite pleasant, and after a few minutes my feet got used to them.  They do provide some traction when running up or down hill: your feet don't slip around inside the shoe.

Standing there in my bare feet pulling the liners out reminded me that this would be a perfect morning for a barefoot run, but...  Sacrifices. :)

I did not use the tongues on this run, and frankly, I don't know why I ever would.  Again, there was no abrasion or blisters for the second half of the run.  I think the tongue would just get in the way, and, since the design of the Ultra is completely open, it would do nothing at all to keep debris out.

Ground feel was better with the liners out, but they don't make much of a difference.  The Ultras were simultaneously firmer than I was expecting (a good thing) and had a bit less ground feel.  I'd say the Ultras have ground feel between a KSO and a Bikila or Trek.  You only feel the larger rocks.  This would make them ideal for running a race, although since you'd run the risk of aquiring a rock due to the open Ultra EVA construction, they might not be the best race shoes.  I'd be more likely to use my Speeds, frankly, which also have a bit more ground feel.  However, while getting rocks in the Ultra is the obvious thing to worry about, due to the open design, it didn't happen on my short run.

The issue that has plagued VivoBarefoot's primary running shoe, the Evo, has been creasing of the material over the toes, leading to abrasions and blistering.  My wife won't wear her Evos at all for that reason.

Happily, that issue is entirely absent in the Ultra.  Didn't notice anything unpleasant about them at all, in fact.

My only concern with the Ultra is that the elastic laces don't do much to prevent your foot from moving around, they don't have that dial-in feel that you get with a laced sneaker.  So running up or down steep hills might be problematic, and trail running would probably be very problematic, since they're so open.

I've been a fan of VivoBarefoot for quite a while, but none of their shoes have been my favorites.  The Russell Mocs and the Vibrams are the shoes I generally reach for first.

The Ultra could easily leap to the front of the pack as the warmer weather arrives, although I may save them for a casual shoe, as these would be best for running in conditions when I could as easily be barefoot.  This is not a criticism, just an observation.  I think they would be a fine running shoe for anyone who chooses to use them as such, and I'll probably do so from time-to-time myself.

I expect that my daughters, whose favorite shoes are the VivoBarefoot kids' shoes, will be wearing these everyday.  No more Crocs!  Hurrah!

* They use some compound that's not Kevlar, which is a trademark, but is the same chemical.

Ultra Toe Spring
P.S.  I'll note that the Ultra has a lot more toe spring than the Evo does.  It was always my theory that the Evo had so many problems with abrasion because there was not enough toe spring, which is to say, too much material over the toes.

P.P.S. Wore them for a run with Chris McDougall.  They were great.

My one concern with these is that they'd be too sweaty underfoot, but this has turned out not to be the case.  There's so much airflow around your foot that your foot stays quite dry.  The only time I had a problem with sweat in the Ultra was while doing leg presses in the gym.