Thursday, March 21, 2013

Gordo Goes Head to Head: The Merrell Vapor Glove, Trail Glove, and the Inov8 Bare-XF 210

First 5k, first age-group win.
Gordo is one of the many terrific people I've met through barefoot running. An engineer, he has the discerning and demanding approach to things which that discipline requires. Gordo is a dedicated barefoot runner, but not a zealot. Shoes are tools, and Gordo gets that. But few have met his high standards.

Gordo and I ran the Run for Rwanda 5k a few years back. It was Gordo's first running race, and he ran in bare feet, on asphalt and gravel. As a lark the Race Director had added a barefoot category, to show solidarity with the simultaneous sister race run in Rwanda. Gordo not only won the RD's age-group, but did so in his bare feet, thereby winning the barefoot category too. Flabbergasted doesn't begin to describe the RD's face.

So when Gordo has an opinion on something, it's usually a good idea to listen. Below is a review that he posted of a couple of my favorites shoes, and a third shoe.

Garden of the Gods
I got my new Merrell Vapor Gloves a couple of days ago and decided to run over to Garden of the Gods and do a little bouldering on sandstone friction slabs. I went for a little run first, of course. ;)

First, my impressions. I love the Vapors. They are the shoe I expected when Merrell announced the Barefoot line. They are so close to perfect that any complaints I have are quibbles. I ordered both 10 and 10.5s. When I tried on the size 10s, my first thought was "I shouldn't have bothered with the other size." Then I started getting pickier. The rubber toe cap that wraps over the top of the shoe (one of my pet peeves – who the heck runs on the tops of their feet?) was hitting one of my big toes when I walked. Annoying. I tried them on with the neoprene socks I wear for canyoneering. Hmmm, these are now pretty darn tight across the midfoot. So I tried on the 10.5s. And never looked back. They're wider through the midfoot, don't hit my toe funny, let my toes splay, etc. The heel cup is exactly what I like; minimal and clean. The construction is typical Merrell, which is to say very high quality.

I ran three miles of moderate trail in the Vapor Gloves and then switched to the Inov-8 XF-210s (size 11). They felt somewhat tight and pushed against my left little toe in an annoying way. When I took the insoles out, they were fine. I really disliked the big padded heel cup. The ground feel was similar to the Vapor Gloves, as was the traction on dirt, gravel, and rock. I didn't notice the strange flex pattern [reported in another review] at all, they're quite flexible under the BOF and stiff elsewhere. I have no idea what this is supposed to buy you, it's the BOF that gets the heavy loading when you run. I didn't run in the Trail Gloves over that section, but from what I recall, their traction is about the same but the ground feel is much less. [These are the v1 TGs, there's a v2 out soon.] All three shoes felt like too much shoe for the trail, but this is a trail that I regularly run barefoot. It's moderately rough sandstone, which tends to be barefoot friendly.

Next, I headed over to a friction slab for the main event, testing stickiness. I found a smooth, low-angle slab close to the ground and went for a little traverse in the Vapor Gloves. They didn't work as well as I might have hoped, but they weren't awful with my heels down. About what I expected. When I placed my feet sideways, the shoe rolled and slipped badly (Duh). Next up, the XF-210s with the "sticky" rubber. This was a major disappointment. I don't know what Inov-8 is smoking, but their sticky rubber did no better than that on the VG. If that's their sticky rubber, I want nothing to do with the regular stuff. Sideways, with the insole in, they were much better. No surprise. Next up, the Trail Gloves (original, size 10.5). The first thing I noticed was that putting the left shoe on was a bit difficult. OK. Then the right, which I had modified a year or so ago. I could barely get the sucker on and it was so tight that it became uncomfortable in minutes. Off I went across the slab. Exactly the same performance as the other two with heels down and the same as the Inov-8 sideways. It's clear that I'm going to have to extend the cut in the upper much farther toward my ankle on the right shoe if I'm to keep wearing them.

To say I was disappointed is an understatement. The Merrells performed exactly as expected, so the disappointment was entirely with the Inov-8s. I'm really glad I only paid $55 (delivered) for them and have a couple of trips coming up this summer that should reduce their life by half. To be fair, they aren't a bad shoe if you don't care about traction and your feet are narrow.

On the way back to the car, I ran across some 3 - 4" crushed rock half embedded in the ground with a scattering of 1" crushed rock on top where the park is trying to control erosion. Hmmm. On went the VGs. I could run comfortably and carefree across the stuff. Cool. Inov-8, up next, performed at the same level. I really couldn't tell much difference feel-wise. Trail Gloves (these are going to kick ass, right?) Wrong. They were a little better than the other two shoes, but not nearly enough to outweigh their negatives - the extra cushion, pointy toe box, and the stiff, rockered forefoot. Then, for calibration, I ran the section barefoot. I know, I know. ;) I slowed considerably, had to pick my way, and experienced enough pain that I stopped half way through the section. I guess shoes do have a use or two. ;)

Conclusions: The Vapor Glove is a fabulous shoe. Merrell hit this one out of the park. If they ever get discontinued, I'm going to pull a Harry and fill the closet. Seriously. It's enough shoe to just blast over moderate/moderate plus trails and thin and flexible enough to feel like I'm not running in combat boots. The lack of any real cleats will be the biggest limiting factor, closely followed by probably not quite enough protection on really sharp rocks. The Inov-8 wasn't bad, but it wasn't particularly good, either. Middle of the road, if it fits you and it's cheap, go for it. The sticky rubber is strictly marketing BS. The original Trail Glove, for reference and calibration to my tastes, is both too much shoe and too little shoe at the same time. It's too thick and stiff to be a real minimal shoe but it doesn't have the cleats necessary to be a real trail shoe. Neither fish nor fowl. Not recommended. I'll be interested in trying on the TG2 to see if the improvements make enough of a difference to put it back on my short list. But if they don't have better cleats, that's not going to matter. The Vapor Glove is all the shoe I need for anything that the original Trail Glove can handle.

Caveats: I have fairly narrow US10.5D feet that are pretty thick. Think bricks with toes. If you have wide feet, none of these shoes will work for you. The Vapor Gloves are the widest. I normally run moderate/moderate plus trails barefoot, so I tend to automatically place my feet. I did try to intentionally land on some of the pointy rocks in the challenging section, but I may not have succeeded very well. I might be pretty hard wired at this point to avoid such stupidity. You may or may not be able to run carefree across similar terrain. If you try it and it sucks, it's not my fault. ;) I could feel my feet getting pretty worked. If your feet aren't stupid strong, best not to try a rough trail ultra in them.

— Gordo

Originally posted here. Scroll down at that link for the discussion; reposted with permission, lightly edited.

I'll observe that there's only one truism about the perfect shoe: my perfect shoe isn't your perfect shoe. I continue to love my original Trail Gloves, but I'm not Gordo, and he's not me. :) Nice to see we both agree 100% on the Vapor Glove. And it's a shame that Inov-8 continues to disappoint. I have friends that swear by them, but I just don't see it, personally.