Hoka One One Stinson ATR, size 13. Clown nose not included.
“Those are ugly, bro.”
That was the first response to my posting the above image on Facebook.
“Really fugly,” came the next. It’s hard to argue that point. But I didn’t buy my first pair of Hokas in order to impress anyone. I bought them to see if the hype measured up to the reality, or at least my reality.
My reality is that I run too many marathons for a mediocre 45-year-old guy, about 14-15 a year, and sometimes, it beats me up more than I’d like. I ran my 60th marathon earlier this month: Steamtown. It’s a great, old-school marathon, point to point, running down a ridge in Pennsylvania from Forest City to Scranton. You drop some thousand feet over the course, most of it in the first eight miles, and almost all of it on pavement. Though it can be a fast course, all the eccentric loading on the quads burns up beginners’ legs, sometimes making them whiff by tens of minutes on their expected times. I run a decent amount of downhill courses, and this wasn’t my first rodeo in Steamtown, so I played it safe and just tried to hit my goal pace despite the downhill boost. I missed my goal time (sub 2:55) by a couple of minutes, finishing up in 2:57:12.
Even though I know enough not to blow out the front half of the race, which has the most descent, my legs turned to lead around mile 20 anyway, and once I realized my sub 2:55 was gone, the fight left me too, and I didn’t even push to stay close. I didn’t know the real reason that things were so tough. Could have been the 3:01 marathon I ran four weeks earlier on a warm and 100% humid day, or just one of those unknowable differences in performance that make marathon running such a challenge.
What I did know what that my legs felt beat. Really beat.
After the race, at the finish line, I sat down to drink a Coke and when I went to stand up, my legs informed me I’d be sitting a few minutes longer. When I finally got out of the folding seat, I headed for the showers and my car, 6 blocks away. Every step hurt, the kind of ouch I haven’t felt for years. On the way up the hill, a blue-haired old lady with a walker and an oxygen tank, with tubes running up her nose, outpaced me up the incline.
I just plain felt banged up. My mileage is up. My age is up. A couple of days later I was perusing my twitter feed and saw a tweet from Sage Canaday that included Michael Wardian. Well, that made for two fast dudes (and not just trail fast) drinking the Hoka Kool-Aid. I decided to try a glass myself.
A $160 experiment?
But man, they look expensive. And I wasn’t about to roll the dice with 160 bucks, especially since these shoes would represent a pretty radical departure from my normal stable. For reference, I run mostly in Brooks Ravennas, which are a light stability shoe with pretty good cushioning, but fairly light and pretty quick. I use Brooks Cascadias on dirt-road and light trails, but my feet move around in them too much for me to trust them on more difficult terrain. So, more technical races with bigger climbs and descents, I switch to La Sportiva Crosslites because they’re the only shoe I’ve ever found that fits my foot perfectly, meaning fewer black toenails to drill out after a hilly trail marathon. I have high arches but need arch support anyway, so in all of these shoes, I insert Sole Karnazes footbeds, with the arch supported even more with a strip of 3mm industrial felt (something I learned from my podiatrist years back).
I decided to try the Stinson ATR for a few reasons. Most of my daily eight-miler and longer weekend run is done on light trail, where a slight dirt tread helps in the frequent muddy and loose dirt sections. But because about three miles of the out-and-back is on pavement, I really wanted to find something with actual rubber along the whole sole to cope with wear. The ATR has that covered too.
Finally (and luckily for me), the heel-to-toe drop maxes out (in the Stinsons) at 6mm, and while that’s much less than the 10mm I’m used to, it’s the biggest drop Hoka offers. I have had my share of Achilles issues, and I didn’t want to wreck them again by moving to a really flat profile and stretching the tendons out all at once. Even with the 6mm drop, I figured some test miles were in order, but I might need more than a month (Hoka’s $-back trial period, if I’m not mistaken) to figure out if the shoes would work for me.
Who will let you wreck a $160 shoe, risk free?
I’ve entertained the thought of trying Hoka’s marshmallow-bottomed shoes before, but the store where I buy my gear, Roadrunner Sports, which offers a superb, 90-day money-back guarantee on shoes, didn’t carry them for quite a while. Now they finally carry Hokas, and after a bit of miscommunication, when I went up to get a fresh pair of Brooks for the upcoming Marine Corps Marathon, it turned out they had the Stinsons ATRs in my size. I felt a little built guilty walking out with a shoe that expensive feeling a high likelihood that I might return them in un-re-sellable condition, but I tried to remember that I’ve probably bought more than 20 pairs of shoes, plus other gear, from these folks over the years, and have only ever had to take advantage of that return policy one time (when an Asic shoe that felt fine in store gave me horrific knee pain during the first 4 miles I put on them).
To my great surprise, the Stinson ATRs fit my feet. They fit my feet very well. I have a skinny midfoot and heal, but somewhat wide toes. In trail shoes, the only one I’ve ever really loved has been that original Sportiva Crosslite, because the narrow, banana-shaped last fit me like a glove. The ATR isn’t my sole-mate in the same way, but it’s far better than any other typical trail shoe I’ve ever tried.
So, my first worry was gone. It was apparent that my feet wouldn’t be sliding around inside the shoe, which is the thing that gives me the biggest sensation of instability on trails. However, I wasn’t sure if I’d feel completely stable on technical terrain because of the skyscraper height. The only way to find out would be to try some out.
I first wore the Hokas to work. Walking around in them for a day would, I figured, alert me to any potential issues from the lower heel and make clear any potential funkiness in the construction. I was hustling down the back hall stairs, hard ones, thin carpet over cement, when something felt odd. I soon figured out what that was. There was no jarring impact as I dropped my heels on the steps. I wear running shoes every day, but with the Hokas, it was like wearing them for the first time. Eight hours of walking around wear didn’t reveal any issues, so I decided to take them for a spin when I got home.
I don’t have any gnarly mountains nearby, but I am lucky enough to live on a multiuse Creekside trail that’s paved along the stretch right outside my back yard, then fades into dirt road and trail, with single-track mountain bike trails stemming off it into the woods. That gave me a good 1.5 miles of pavement to get used to the feel of running in the Hokas before getting to anything rougher. Typically, the hardest part of my daily run is the short, steep downhill sidewalk that leads to the trail. It’s 200 meters into the run, when I’m not warmed up, and every one of those downward drops seems especially jarring. The Hokas took away that tooth-clattering shock like magic. When I hit the 90-degree left turn to the trailhead running faster than usual, I wondered if the stack height meant I was going to blow out and roll an ankle, but the turn felt no less stable than in any of my Brooks.
I said it out loud, “Holy Shit!” I took a disapproving look from a nearby squirrel, but he soon forgot my uncouth profanity and went back to hiding his nuts.
I hit the flatter pavement on the trail and tried to get used to the springy feel of the Hokas. I noticed that the usual creaks and ouchies that come with being 45 and doing the first mile of the run were gone, or at least heavily muted. The patellar tendon that had been bothering me a bit since Steamtown was quiet. The hips felt fine. My quads, which had every reason to continue barking after a hard, downhill marathon the week before, didn’t say peep, man. (Apologies to The Dude.) The ability of Hoka’s thicker, softer foam to take the edge off the moment of impact is incredible and seems stupidly obvious once you’ve run a couple hundred meters in the shoe. But there’s more to get used to than that.
It took me half a mile to get over the worst of the unfamiliarity of the rocker action built into the design of the shoe, and I felt slow, slow slow. But when I checked my Garmin at the half mile and mile marks, I was running a bit faster than usual, probably owing to the fact that I didn’t have the usual first-mile pains. It remained tough for me to gauge my speed because the mechanics of my stride were obviously a bit different and the sort of internal speedometer is calibrated to estimate based on a variety of sensory variables, one of which is obviously the shock of footstrike.
(Random side note, I’ve actually done controlled accelerometer experiments on my treadmill to plot G-forces on legs with running, and they increase linearly with increased running velocity.)
By the time I got to the trail, I was used to the road feel, and I wondered what would happen next.
When the pavement ends, most of the trail is a fairly smooth access road, but there are places where the frequent floods scour away the dirt and leave behind only the bigger stuff, like what you see below. The rock in the center right is a proper “baby head.” The one in the upper left is plum-sized. While most of the way is smooth, there are periodic rock gardens like this. Those aren’t so scary. You see them coming. You’re ready for them. What’s much more scary are the random plums and babyheads and roots that appear along the smoother parts of the trail. Bicycles and the occassional utility truck have worked these into typical rough dirt roads, with a couple smoother tire lines to the sides and a nastier spot in the center where the bigger rocks congregate. On a typical day in typical shoes, I stay in the smooth lanes all the time, except for the few spots where those disappear and you’ve got only the crunchier rocks.
With the Stinsons, I ran the smooth lanes for a while, then cautiously experimented with the rougher stuff. I began slowly, picking out a single root or decent sized rock and heading straight for it, planting my foot right on it.
I could barely feel it. Another rock, another nothing. I moved up from acorn size to apricot. OK, I could sense the rock, but it didn’t tip my foot or even register as an obstacle. Moving on to plums. Those I could feel, and they might have tilted the shoe a tiny bit, but hitting them in my regular trail shoes would have necessitated a significant weight shift and shock absorption by my leg in order to compensate – and that’s if I noticed it in time to avoid an ankle roll.
Within a couple minutes, I was running lines I would never have run on that trail in my other shoes, right through the chunkiest gravel. The Hokas just surfed through it. It was a very strange sensation, disconnected from the typical pain and minor panic that those rock strikes impart, but connected enough to feel them and compensate, if necessary, to a slight foot roll.
I felt a bit like I was on water skis. I could definitely sense what was going on below the sole of the shoe, and I felt in complete control, but the niggling details of what was going on down there didn’t matter.
Suddenly, I began to get it.
What is stability really?
I’d read many reviews that claimed the Hokas would be unstable on trail because of the stack height and the loss of “trail feel.” The contention seemed to make sense on the surface, but other reviews insisted that the shoes were really stable despite the soft ride and stilt-like elevation. As I plodded along, busting through terrain that would have had me stumbling in my other trail shoes, or reduced to the flexed-knee, ass-out, sure-foot shuffle, I decided that the armchair understanding of trail feel and stability is naïve, if not specious, and in the end, utterly flawed.
With no apologies to the barefoot crowd, “Trail feel” for its own sake is meaningless. I have never wanted to feel every rock and root because that shit hurts and it can give you real injuries. I have always thought the minimalist approach was ridiculous, yet part of me was always trying to find a happy medium, feeling the rocks without feeling them, as it were, in the mistaken belief that quick response to all of that stuff underfoot could somehow make me more agile, and faster.
It seems pretty stupid, now. You want to feel the rocks? You’re going to feel the rocks. How does that help? Whether or not they hurt (rock plate anyone?) doesn’t matter a whole lot. If you need to adjust your posture and gait radically in order to unweight the feet landing on the worst of the rocks, you’re going to end up slowing down. And that’s the best-case scenario, including the assumption that you’re physically seeing the roots, rocks and other obstacles – something my aging eyes can’t guarantee – and that you’re mentally seeing them as well – something that happens much less frequently as you get really tired in a long trail race.
Until I put on the Stinson ATR, the issue was moot for me, since I was forced into a somewhat minimally padded trail shoe by my need to find the best fitting upper for my feet. Those La Sportiva Crosslites might fit me like a glove, and they have great tread for mud and gravel, but I can feel every single rock under my foot. That’s never stopped me from rolling ankles in them.
In reality, it’s the opposite. Trail feel = more rolled ankles.
I’ve know I have rolled my ankles in my crosslites more than in any other shoe I own, and I now believe it’s not despite but because of that trail feel. When I think about it logically, the ankle rolls come not from big obstacles, which you tend to notice, but from the smaller stuff that you don’t see (physically or mentally) and then you feel underfoot. In the thinner shoe with trail feel, when you step on that unexpected or apricot-sized rock or root lump, there’s little to no attenuation of the shock within the sole. Your foot begins to roll, pitch, yaw, or some combo of all three. By the time the brain gets this signal, it needs to try to figure out the right response – which in my experience is very often an over-reaction in the opposite direction, leading precisely to a rollover while trying to avoid a rollover in the original direction.
I’m lucky that a lot of work on stretching my ankles has made me relatively immune to rolls, even rolls so far and so hard that I bruise the outside of my foot on the trail. (On the way down Pike’s Peak in August, I rolled my ankles half a dozen times, never hurting the tendons or ligaments, but bruising the side of my feet on the rocks.)
With the Hokas, it only took four miles before I realized I could stop worrying. Even in the leaves, the most treacherous condition on the trail, I didn’t fear the random apricot.
Careful. Here there be monsters.
Right now, most of the trail is covered in a layer of tree trash which obscures the frequent roots and rocks, meaning you find random, plum-sized rocks with your feet, not your eyes. Those smaller obstacles are always the most likely to send me stumbling, turning an ankle, or outright yard sale-ing. I’m cruising along on what I believe is a smooth line, my foot plants on a hidden lump, I get surprised, over-compensate, and get that sickening ankle roll-over accompanied by gnashing of teeth.
With the Hokas, this was no worry, because that thick sole soaked up anything I rolled over. I was free to actually enjoy the scenery, and I was much more efficient, because I didn’t have to twinkle-toe through the gravely bits or hop leaf piles.
Go ahead. Run right over that. You’ll barely feel it.
Angling for a problem
My final stability worry was angled trail. Again, the idea had been planted in me by some random review that the height of the shoe would mean trouble on angled terrain. I have plenty of that, if I want, on the BMX trail embankments nearby. I used a closer piece of angled turf, a place that’s given me trouble before if I space out.
I ran that line off to the left and didn’t feel any more likely to roll in the Hokas than I have in any of my lower shoes. The wide stance afforded by the oversized soles was more than capable of keeping me secure, and the depth at which the foot nestles into the foam bed makes it feel very stable. In fact, after this run, I stood around in the Hokas, then my new Brooks, and flipped my ankles outward. They reached the tipping point and rolled more easily in the (lower) Brooks than they did in the Hokas. I attribute that both to the Hokas’ wider stance, and the fact that the Hokas wide stance uses foam up and around the heel and back foot, seating the foot so low, so that as it tilts outward, it’s gently nudged back toward center, rather than being resisted by a hard block which suddenly gives way, as with the Brooks or my other hard-bottom trail shoes.
At euphoria’s end
I had meant to just do an easy, 4-mile taper run in the Stinsons, but they felt so great, I couldn’t stop running. I went out four before I turned to head home. In my eupohoria, I never wanted to put my foot into another shoe again. I was sure the Stinsons had ruined me for anything less than a couple inches of plush cushioning. I didn’t turn around for four miles, and by mile 6, I swore I’d visit the Hoka booth at the Marine Corps Marathon expo, buy a pair of the road version of the Stinson (the “light”) and run the marathon in them, brand new or not. By mile eight, however, I knew that wouldn’t be the right plan. I could definitely feel a little tightness in part of my quads and hamstrings – I assume from new use of muscles that don’t get worked the same way in my other shoes. That’s far from a dealbreaker for the Hokas, but it did convince me to go with my original plan of phasing these into my training in steps, one run a week at first, then two, then three, and no long run in them until I had a good dozen runs in them at shorter distances.
I can’t call myself a zealot or a complete convert, at least not yet. However, I have recommended to several of my running friends and colleagues, as well as my wife, that they give the Hoka a chance. The fat tire approach to cushioning is self-evidently awesome, but I’m more impressed by the (at first) counterintuitive increase in real, usable stability on trail. Put the two together with a nice, snug fit, and I cannot imagine I will want to run long trail ultras or anything hilly, like Pike’s Peak Marathon or Blue Ridge Parkway, in another shoe.
Alas, few things are perfect, and the Hokas aren’t. First of all, the speedlaces suck. They suck-diddly-uck. They’re thin, uncomfortable, and they’re not all that speedy to fasten. (Locking the plastic retainer and tucking the excess beneath the elastic straps takes a lot longer than just double-knotting a quality shoelace.) The mountain-climbing cord-like laces create little pebble-like hot spots at each lace grommet, exacerbated by the completely unpadded tongue. The laces also hurt the tops of my feet where they cross each other, and where they dip through the tongue retainer slot, which isn’t a separate piece atop the tongue, but a cutout, so the crossed laces dig into the top of your foot directly. The replacement laces aren’t much better. I tossed them both and used some spare Brooks laces, and they made the top of the shoe as soft and comfy as the bottom. Hoka really needs to fix that situation.
I was going to also write that the tongue needs padding. Maybe it still does, but I’m not so sure. Getting rid of the abominable speed laces might be enough to make it tolerable. Although the shoes fit pretty snug on my foot, I feel like they could benefit from a bit of a dedicated midfoot retention strap, similar to the Nike “flywire” or the strappy deal in the Brooks Ravenna: something that allows you to tighten that one pair of laced in the center and really anchor your foot in the shoe.
In the end, the good far outweighs the bad or the meh. After only a dozen miles in the ATRs, I felt ruined for my other shoes. I daydream about that puffy ride. I’ve had honest-to-Gawd dreams about running on and on and on. (That’s never happened to me before.)
I wandered past the Hoka booth at the Marine Corps Marathon expo and…
So, that’s the Stinson Lite up there. I’m sorely tempted to use them in Sunday’s marathon, despite the fact that I’ve only got 20 miles or so in the Hokas. They just feel so much better, especially on those pounding downhills. The Lites don’t fit my feet quite as snugly as the ATRs seem to, but it doesn’t matter on the road. More important to me, the Lites feel faster. And they’re very well ventilated. Look closely above and you can read my socks. That’ll be a plus for me, as my feet sweat like a Wisconsiner eating cheese curds in August.
My last little taper run today, a three miler, saw me stepping into the Lites and hitting the paved part of the trail. I ran the first downhill (the painful one) at a 7:40 pace versus the 8:40 pace that I’m usually forced to hold by my aching, complaining, cold legs. From there on out, I had a hard time settling back. I ended up doing the whole thing at target marathon PR pace, despite the fact that I also had 3 giant tacos swimming around in my gut from an ill-advised lunch choice a mere two hours before.
We’ll see how I fly on Sunday.
Addendum: Crap, I’m going to need another go bag for my frequent marathon trips, because I don’t think the Hokas will fit in the shoe slots on the side of my favorite race backpack. I think Hoka needs to make a few accessories.