“A couple of my triathletes showed up to workouts wearing them,” Scott recalls. “The shoes looked like therapeutic boots.” The six-time Hawaii Ironman champion, who freely admits he enjoys dishing comic grief when the occasion presents itself, was merciless.
“One of my athletes, Marty, was 58 and had knee issues, surgeries and all. He was wearing Hokas. He told me that the shoes were like magic, that his knees never felt better. Like he was running in a bowl of butter.”
Scott rolled his eyes.
“I ridiculed him to death,” he says. “But that’s not an atypical response from me when I see something new. If it interests me, I’ll come around to at least checking it out, despite my skepticism.” This is what Scott did with the Hokas, eventually donning a pair with the intent to test. “I would wear them at night when no one could see me.”
The stealth investigation bore fruit. “They had a great feel,” he says. Scott began to make notes about why. It had the heel-to-toe drop of a 4-ounce minimalist shoe, but with cushion. It had a lot of cushion, which Scott assumed would interfere with muscle elasticity and recoil, but that wasn’t the case. It may have looked like a block of marshmallow, the truth was that it was more of a bucket than a block.
Hoka One One Tracer $130 hokaoneone.com
He also noticed how the “meta-rocker” design and shape of the shoe brought the runner forward in it, a good thing that encouraged better form. Scott laughed in recounting the change of heart.
O’Hara’s adoption of the holistic view, along with the Newtons, revitalized his running. “I couldn’t believe it,” he told me. “I was running better, longer and easier than I had in years.” The nagging injuries vanished.
“I was a total convert,” he says. “The shoe didn’t look that snazzy, but it was amazingly functional.” Years later, Scott was engaged by a presentation of the Hoka team detailing the engineering of a track and field spike. To Scott’s delight, there no fluff, just hard-edged, original and innovative thinking. He was especially impressed by the French mountain runner Jean-Luc Diard who created the Hoka with fellow runner Nicolas Mermoud. The underlying idea for the Hoka was channeled from the conceptual design used in full-suspension mountain bikes and extra-long skis. A larger, organic build with an eye toward pure functionality made for a much smoother running experience.
And in the four years since Hoka’s invention (and also having been bought by Deckers), the fashion of the shoe has been given a lift. “The new line is looking really terrific,” Scott says.
Hoka One Ones have invaded triathlon. The early adopters include sponsored pros like Heather Jackson, Leanda Cave and Luke McKenzie. Not to mention Scott. But it’s more than just the pro ranks. Jim Gothers, owner of Fleet Feet Menlo Park in the heart of Silicon Valley, told me that the vast crew of age-groupers coached by former pro, Tim Sheeper, have all been directed to buy Hoka One Ones. In June, the New York Times reported on the Hoka phenomenon. “Anyone who hangs out with distance runners has doubtless noticed the sudden popularity of these shoes,” Gretchen Reynolds wrote, describing the Hoka as “voluptuous.”
Reynolds also used terms like “maximalist,” “extreme padding” and “super-fat.” But are these words faithful descriptors? Is the Hoka—a shoe launched at the same time a wave of Born to Run-triggered early adopters were limping, bruised and enraged at their 3-ounce “barefoot” shoes—really the super-fat maximalist shoe it’s been made out to be? And is it possible that Hoka has ushered in a new era of functionality in running shoes that under-the-radar companies like Pearl Izumi, Topo Athletic, Newton, Peirce, Scott, Zoot, On, Altra and other nimble companies are innovating within?
While the visuals of the Hoka stack heights may incite words like “maximalism,” a patient examination suggests this is a misnomer. Top specialty running stores are now grouping Hoka and other brands embracing what might be called a more nuanced interpretation of the word minimalism. Within this view, “minimalistic” is not defined as subtracting raw material to be barefoot-like. Rather, it’s stripping all technologies, gimmicks and materials that don’t contribute to a purity of function.
This is precisely what you see at Marathon Sports, a shop on Boylston Street near the finish of the Boston Marathon.
On a weekday afternoon in June, I walked into Marathon Sports to talk with Shane O’Hara, who has managed the store since 2001. His shop is a running mecca, decorated with memorabilia from a city steeped in marathon history. Even more, the store has a spiritual significance in the endurance world after being turned into a M.A.S.H. unit when the terrorist bombs exploded nearby in 2013. Security footage from the moments following the bombings were presented as evidence in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial. The tape showed O’Hara and another quick-thinking civilian, amid the shock, violence and confusion set off by the pressure cooker bombs, frantically grabbing running shorts and shirts off the rack to use as bandages for the bleeding wounded.
The fewer pieces and parts incorporated into a Topo shoe, the better, both for the final product and as an intentional contrast to the number of trademarked technologies you might see in the tech specs of a big company shoe.
O’Hara is tall and friendly, a longtime runner who played volleyball and football in college. Before Marathon Sports, he put in time at a Niketown. He knows the running shoe business inside out. It was around the same time Dave Scott was coming around to like Hoka’s construct, O’Hara, frustrated by a foot injury, assimilated what a Newton shoe rep had been telling him: that Newtons reversed the equation. Their design wasn’t based on the age-old misconception that a shoe could shield you from injury via a complicated mass of nylon, stability supports and foam embedded with polymer widgets. Rather, a properly functioning shoe should be a less-is-more thing: holistic, natural and allowing the foot to operate. The shoe is just a part of the story, O’Hara would realize. It was also about good running technique, mobility, strength and proper maintenance. In concert, a shoe like Newton enabled pain-free running and encouraged a mid-foot strike. O’Hara’s adoption of the holistic view, along with the Newtons, revitalized his running. “I couldn’t believe it,” he told me. “I was running better, longer and easier than I had in years.” The nagging injuries vanished.
“It’s changed the way we sell shoes here,” O’Hara says. Now, when customers come in and have chronic injuries they want to eradicate, it’s a different conversation. Rather than presenting shoes as panaceas, O’Hara instigates a series of empowering topics, like space for the toes to move and strengthen, lower drops in shoes that help restore tendon elasticity and, perhaps most important, how to overhaul running technique and body mobility.
From Marathon Sports, you can jog down to the Charles River and run west about 8 miles to Topo Athletic, a start-up running shoe company founded by Tony Post, a longtime distance runner who had cut his shoe business teeth at Vibram. Rather than building a tank-like shoe, Post and his staff focus on a simple set of values: a roomy toe box so that toes can spread and recapture utility and strength, light weight and a heel-to-toe drop that is slight or flat.
On that run, you’ll pass the expansive new headquarters for New Balance at Boston Landing, the architecture seemingly inspired by the United Federation of Planets’ Starfleet headquarters. Upward of 700 people work there. New Balance is a running brand selling more than $3 billion globally. Topo is in a brick building stylishly revamped from the days it served as HQ for Raytheon. I counted five people in the office as Post was packing up for a trade show. We sat down in a conference room with Georgia Shaw, his director of marketing. The Topo line was displayed on the wall and we talked through the shoes, each with varying degrees of cushion and drop. Less is more, is the applied thinking. Post seemed especially proud of how streamlined their waterproof shoes were, reciting innovations kindled by a tight materials budget and their philosophy: The fewer pieces and parts incorporated into a Togo shoe, the better, both for the final product and as an intentional contrast to the number of trademarked technologies you might see in the tech specs of a big company shoe.
For example, consider shopping for the Asics Kayano, version 12. You and I would both like to think we are savvy consumers, so we check out the product details. It’s hard not to gasp at how much work the Asics lawyers have invested in copyrighting all of this stuff: Kayano features include the I.G.S., FluidRide midsole, the FluidFit upper, the Heel Clutching System, rear and forefoot Gel, a Dynamic DuoMax support system, the Guidance Line midsole technology and Guidance Trusstic System Technology—all trademarks. And finally a Comfordry X-40 sockliner and lasting.
In its place, Topo puts an emphasis on ancillary support for the shoe. In other words, they not only want your toes to wake up and spread out, they want you to fix your injuries before they start by going through a mobility assessment that gives you a plan and a set of exercises to fix them.
“All of those trademarked gadgets support the great misconception that shoes are the be-all, end-all of not getting injured,” Post told me. Shaw added that the more gadgets, the more a shoe has to cost. The more materials, the more steps required to make a shoe, and—I might add—the more billable hours. “We don’t want our shoes to be priced at $160,” Post says. Most of the shoes in the Topo line are around $100, the waterproofed trail shoes, the Hydroventure, being the most expensive at $130.
While I was reporting on this story, I recalled when Pearl Izumi, a longtime cycling and triathlon apparel company, joined the running shoe biz in 2003. “It was a crazy leap of faith,” says Michael Thompson, a global product manager for the company. “Triathlon was an extension of the cycling brand. We were a high-performance apparel company known for durability. What were we going to do with a shoe? Our original goal was to make it seamless.”
Seamless as in seamless. I remember slipping on one of the first pairs of road shoes they came out with. And it was a buttery feel, to steal the adverb used by Dave Scott’s 58-year-old Hoka pioneer. But as Thompson mentioned, Pearl Izumi “trudged along” for a few years before they got things dialed in.
But not well enough. “It was about 2011 when we decided we just weren’t seeing the impact in the market we wanted,” Thompson says.
They started from scratch and localized their goal to a smooth foot strike. “We wanted the smoothest ride we could come up with.”
Using sheet-stock EVA foam, the team began to spin out prototypes and experimented. Shape was everything, as it turned out. “We wanted to rid any slapping of the pavement,” Thompson says, adding that they gutted anything that wasn’t contributing to the goal, like the thermoplastic SyncoFrame that had long been a feature component for Pearl. The result was a lightweight prototype that was realizing their intent. “I loved it, we all loved it, but I was afraid we might be drinking the Kool-Aid, and so we beta-tested.” The love continued.
Similar to Hoka’s timing, the Pearl Izumi relaunch of their running shoes was spot-on. Minimalism was being declared dead, but certain under-the-radar companies were busily redefining it.
“For a product line manager, the minimalist sensation was both a good thing and a bad thing. It ultimately was part of why we re-thought traditional running shoe design. We went back to being simple. We let go of the bells and whistles and the acronyms.”
They also left behind the paradigm that suggested to runners and triathletes that they should only use one shoe in their lives. “A person could get stuck thinking, ‘I have to run in the Kayano or I’ll get injured.’” Thompson believes this is flawed logic. Instead, he subscribes to the idea that someone who wants to enjoy running for a long time is much better off exposing their mechanics to a variety of shoe architectures, Pearl Izumi and otherwise. “Even when I travel, I bring two different pairs of shoes with me to rotate.” From run to run, changing shoe shape and heel-to-toe drop, engaging different muscles and movement patterns. “The feet never get lazy,” he says.
“Before, there was a point when I struggled to find a solution for my IT band problems,” Thompson says, describing his approach of trying every insole and shoe he could find to fix the problem, to no permanent avail. Then he stumbled on a way to tweak his running form—and things changed. Running form work, stretching and strengthening, and rotating shoes became a way to prevent problems at the root.
A lightbulb went off. He also makes run form work and hip mobility part of his daily life. “It’s like brushing my teeth now.”
It was almost eerie—talking with Scott, O’Hara, Post, Shaw and others. They were all saying just about the same thing.
“I think the minimalism/maximalism debate has a sweet spot, one that is devoid of the whiz-bang technology,” Thompson says. Along with a post-consumerism simplicity that the likes of Hoka, Topo Athletic and Pearl Izumi are driving toward, here’s also been an awakening that it’s not all about the shoe.
“People have to take ownership,” Thompson says, alluding to muscle balance, running technique, sensible mileage increases and mobility work. “If you think it’s just the shoe, you’re kidding yourself.”
This first appeared in the August 2016 issue of LAVA. Get your issue here.
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