Friday, March 8, 2013

My Merrell Vapor Glove Review

"The perfect running shoe should be something like a heavy-duty ballet slipper - simply an extra layer of protective material around the foot, like a glove." — Gordon Pirie
Originally this was going to be a "first impressions" post, but I didn't get around to it. At this point, from the time the shoe fairy dropped this off at my house to now, I've spent enough time in them to feel that I've got a solid opinion.

Fresh from the Shoe Fairy...
We in the minimalist (barefoot) shoe community have oft noted how silly shoe companies are to offer their wares at the end of the winter, for the spring and summer running season.  We need these for the winter!  When it's warm out, who needs shoes?  Happily, there's still some winter left, and so to differentiate my review, I used these for some winter runs and activities.

Tough Glove on left, Vapor Glove on right
The first thing you note when you hold these shoes is how light they are.  The first thing you notice when you put them on is how little effect they have on your foot.  In the picture to the right, you can see the difference in the toe between my old pair of Tough Gloves (like the Trail Glove, but in leather: one of the shoes I regularly wear to the office), and the Vapor Glove.  The older shoe has a more tapered toe, this is especially evident in the line from the ball of the foot to the big toe.  But there's also a lot more room on the outside of the shoe for your toes to spread out. Room for your toes to splay is one of the required features for a proper barefoot-style shoe, in my opinion.

The upper material is a light mesh, which breathes well enough that you can can feel the draft as you're walking around the house. The lacing system is also excellent, and an improvement over the Trail Glove, as it's wider, making them easier to get on. In fact, I've found that once I've laced them up I can slip them on and off my sock-covered foot like a slipper, while still having my foot located well enough that I can run up and down hills without slipping around. This might not appeal to everyone, but I think it's terrific.

After a run. Those are my footprints from the run...
My first run in them was the morning after they arrived. Happily, we'd just gotten a few inches of snow over night, so the conditions were perfect, with temps in the high twenties. So I donned my favorite summer-weight socks, and off I went.  My feet were a bit chilly at first, but after a few minutes they warmed up nicely.  The thin sole combined with the light wool sock offers just enough insulation to insulate the foot from the cold ground, and once I'd warmed up, my feet were toasty, while being well-ventilated from the mesh.  Perfect for a winter running shoe, in other words.

Vibram Newporter ice-compound sole
And suprisingly, they have excellent traction in the snow.  The first real minimalist shoe that I got was the Russell Mocassin protoype.  I used (and still use) those for running in really cold, snowy conditions, and one of the things that made those shoes excellent was the sole, which was made originally for people working on slippery kitchen floors.  Russell made my shoe with a softer ice-compound version, and those have been my favorite winter shoe when I'm not wearing ski boots ever since. I'm wearing them now, in fact.

Vapor Glove sole
And now along comes the Vapor Glove.  While I probably won't be wearing these to run up and down snow-covered mountains in Vermont (I'd use the Russells or Merrell's excellent Sonic Glove soft-shell sneaker), these did just fine, and as you can see, the sole is quite similar, sort of a Newporter-lite.

I've done several more runs in these, up to 10 miles, both with and without socks. Mostly not in the snow.  While I think the idea of a sockless shoe that won't cause any chafing or blistering is a bit of a chimera, so far I've not had any problems.  Knock on wood.

8 inches, he's ready to go - and barefoot!
The sole is thin enough that you can feel pebbles through it, but offers enough protection that the pebbles don't hurt.  On this morning's run in 8 inches of snow (the roads were mostly plowed) I could feel the salt crystals as I ran down the road.  Needless to say, my feet were a bit chilly while running through the deep snow, but were fine once I got to the plowed bits. (I wore this sock for this morning's run.)  I decided to run one of the hilliest routes around my house.  Traction was excellent.  My feet slipped a few times, but it was never anything that made me feel like I might fall.  They are outstanding in the snow!

To really test the Vapor Glove as a winter minimalist shoe, I decided to continue wearing them when I got back from my run to clear the driveway.  I used my barely-adequate push snowblower which tested the traction of my Vapor Gloves far more than my run did. I tried to keep my feet out of the deepest snow, but didn't entirely succeed, and the entire enterprise wound up taking over an hour, in temps in the high 20s. The Vapor Glove did surprisingly well: while my fingers got cold, my feet remained reasonably warm, although the socks did get pretty well soaked. Yes, I have excellent circulation in my feet. No, these will not be my snow-blowing shoes in the future, but it was an excellent experiment.

I've also worn these to work on Friday, and to the gym a number of times.  They were fine in both situations, and unlike Vibrams, do not draw any attention, while offering a similar level of protection and feel.

Needless to say, while close-fitting, they have no arch support; barely any structure at all, in fact, and hardly any cushion underfoot.

The shoe that the Vapor Glove most reminds me of is the VivoBarefoot Ultra, without the quirks that make that shoe less-than-perfect.  And while these shoes did yeoman's work in the snow, practically speaking, they're not a winter shoe.  They will give my beloved Vibram Speeds tough competition when I start doing some road races this spring.  That's going to be a really tough choice, as I think the Vapor Gloves could be worn sockless in a race, while the Vibrams are a little too scratchy...

I've come to realize that this is Pirie's dream shoe, without requiring his caveat: "Unfortunately, the ideal running shoe is not offered by most major manufacturers." It is now, and Merrell's a class act as companies, and shoe companies, go.  If Merrell's somewhat narrow last fits your foot, this shoe is a real winner.

P.S.: Here's an excellent Merrell promotional video for the Vapor Glove, featuring a cut-away shoe, which really gives you an idea of how radically minimal this shoe actually is.

P.P.S. Thanks to Patrick's comment, a note on sizing. In my experience the Vapor Glove has sizing that is similar to the Road Glove, but about 1/2 size off the Trail Glove. So I wear a 9.5 in the Trail Glove, but a 9 in the Road Glove and the Vapor Glove. Unlike the Road Glove, the Vapor Glove does not have anything under your arch, so there is not the same amount of arch support that you find in the Road Glove.

P.P.P.S. 2013-03-16. So, joke's on me. I went out for a nice, long run with my dog today, without checking the weather. 15 miles, 1/2 rocky, gnarly trail, the other road. Half-way through the temperature drops, and it starts snowing. Did I mention I did not check the weather?

I was wearing the Vapor Gloves with no socks (I had a pair in my pocket, just in case) shorts, an IceBreaker wool T, and a wind-breaker. Happily I had a fleece headband/ear-warmer.

By the time I got home, my hands were so cold they had trouble moving. But my feet were fine! And I never needed to put the socks on. It didn't occur to me until I got home that I should have put the socks on my hands...

They passed the trail-run test with flying colors. Enough feedback to make you watch your step, but enough protection so that you can keep up the pace, and obviously they kept my feet off the cold, wet ground.

These are magnificent shoes.

Oh, and 15 miles; no socks; no blisters or abrasions. I find that you want to tie them loose toward the bottom, and snug toward the top. Did Merrell find the chimera?

P.P.P.P.S. OK, I did another 15 mile run. Got an abrasion on top of the first metatarsal head on each foot. So much for the perfect, sock-free shoe. Although this has been the best sock-free shoe I've ever experienced. So kudos to Merrell, even if they've not found the Chimera.