It would appear a new running shoe is being launched almost every week. And the world of trail shoes is no exception. There is so much hype written about running shoes these days. The marketers go out of their way making claims to get their brands noticed. And a lot of this hype usually precedes the launch of the brand with very little evidence to support these claims and often with dire consequences for the poorly informed runner as injuries bite and time away from running increases just so they can be seen to be in the shoes of their hero.
Late last year similar noises were being made about the impending arrival of the latest shoe from Salomon, the new Sense. This is the shoe we first got to witness as Kilian Jornet strode to a new course record at The North Face 100 2011 in Australia. Several prototypes over the coming months were developed to ensure he was as well prepared as any for his first victory at Western States 100 2011 and then on to repeat his victories at UTMB and Kinabalu. So with the usual circus that surrounds the shoe that Kilian wears, I was filled with much trepidation that the actual experience of running in this shoe would not live up to the pre game hype. Thank goodness no clowns were on hand and the shoe rocks !
As we already noted in our initial review, this shoe is pretty darn awesome when you first slip it on. Not only is it super lightweight, less that 215grams for a US11 but also the design, fit and feel is out of this world. So in order to give it a thorough review and ensure we give it the usual Ultra168 10 hour minimum hammering, I have spent the last month wearing this shoe on some of the most incredible trails known to man.
First runs were in my own backyard of the Blue Mountains. This is the sort of playground that Kilian first tested the shoe and delivered his famous quote that he thought the TNF100 course was “Flat”. Well whilst this shoe was designed for Kilian, it will be bought by mere mortals and the mountains west of Sydney have enough versatility to test the most rugged of shoes. I clocked up 65kms for the first proper run. I set out on some wide undulating firetrail and whilst I was slowly losing height as the trail unfolded, I was somewhat surprised to clock up a 45 minute first 10k of a 65k run. Was it the shoe, was it a placebo effect ? Who knows, but I can tell you that these shoes certainly know how to motor !
I then moved to Europe where they were given their toughest workout on the highly abrasive surface of the volcanos on the island of La Palma. Finally they were subjected to the rocks, mud and snows of Zegama in the Basque Mountains
So what is it that makes them so different? Where do I start ?
Well first cab off the rank is the fit. This shoe has been designed to be worn barefoot if necessary and as such the fit has been tailored to be on the snug side. How is this achieved, well a tongue that is made up of three parts forms an almost complete sock-liner. The closest shoe I can compare is the latest Nike Free 3.0. The Sense has an elasticated tongue that forms a pretty tight fit and you will notice that it takes some getting on. Its not the sort of shoe to slip into, it takes a little time to get the fit just right. And once on, it stays on. The only downside is that they take some getting off, especially if they are wet and you are tired. I found I had to sit down and wedge my thumbs around the tongue and heel to get them off and even then it was a struggle.
On the positive side, this means that this shoe can be worn on dusty terrain with very little material making its way into the shoe. Adding to the snug fit is the quick lacing system Salomon have been using for a few years now. The only major difference is that the laces and locking mechanism are thinner and shorter and that the normal lace lock housing or “Lace Garage” is now opened through the top of the tongue rather than from the bottom as seen on the rest of the Salomon range. Apparently this was a request by Kilian to make the shoe less likely to snag on brush and rocks.
The other thing you will notice about the fit, is that they feel quite narrow through the mid foot, something those with a wider foot may need to consider. The toe box is on the larger side which gives the toes plenty of room to move around. The toe protection itself is halfway between the more rigid S-LAB 4′s and 5′s and the more softer SpeedCross 3′s. After a month of wearing them on some pretty gnarly trails I found the toe protection to be about as good as it gets. When I did kick a rock, the toes were protected without them bunching up. Again I put this down to the tight hold the lacing and tongue creates.
Dan also bought a pair of these shoes too and some of his feedback is for people to watch the narrow fit. If you have wide feet you should spend some time deciding if these really are the shoes for you and try them on in a shop. It’s a big risk buying these blindly online as both Dan and Marcus went half a size up on their normal shoe fits for these and their gambles paid off. Dan also experienced some slight rubbing on the outside of the little toe on both feet once above 50kms, and particularly on the downhills. This again suggests that if you have wider feet just be sure that these will be the right shoe for you.
So if you are going to take the time to ease your feet into these shoes, how do they feel on the trails ? To start with, they feel very cushiony. Almost too soft. In fact, the EVA used in these shoes has come in for some criticism in recent months as being too soft and not durable. All I can say is that on my pair, there is minimal wear and only some minor deformation on the inside rear of the heal, but for an 85kg runner and 350km on the clock, they still feel brand new. So its good to see the rumour mongers are being proved wrong that this shoe is only good for 200km of racing.
It is rare to run in a shoe that you feel so in control on the descents by having so much impact protection without losing any of that nimbleness to get up on the toes when climbing. I was able to choose my line on steep technical trail, and just pin the ears back and go for it. The last time I was able to do this so quickly was in my Altra Lone Peaks. This shoe also feels very fast when climbing. I put it down to a mix of its lightweight construction and the redistribution of the main working parts of the show towards the forefoot. In fact, there is very little material in the midfoot and heel. But should you happen to get a little sloppy when planting your foot and land on your heel, there is sufficient there to prevent any heel bruising. As it is a neutral shoe that favours those runners who like to run more naturally with a lower heel drop (4mm) it does take a little getting used to if you have not made the transition fully to minimal shoes. In fact, of all the minimal shoes I have worn, this one gave me sore calves more than any others after the first run. This went away after a couple more runs.
Impact protection surprised me on these shoes. The sharpest of rocks were prevented from being felt even when foot placement was compromised. There is a two part construction under the outsole that helps to absorb the impact and diffuse pressure points. My favourite minimal shoes, the Nike Frees always seem to get away with this by having plenty of rubber between my foot and the ground, but the Sense has three cut outs along the forefoot that appear to deform under impact and spread the load better.
The one real stand out about this shoe is the grip. Whatever surface I tried them on, they just seemed so reassuring. The soft outsole construction obviously endows itself to moulding to any surface, maximising contact points and giving a strong grip as you push off. What really impressed me was on wet grass, mossy rocks and mud. This really came to the fore during my time at the Zegama Mountain marathon in the Spanish Pyrenees. Whilst most of the field who successfully navigated the snow and mud of the peaks were in more traditional SpeedCross and even the more extreme FellCross, I was able to confidently make it down the mountain as the conditions worsened in my Sense.
To be honest I am not 100% sure why this so called “race shoe’ grips so well. Maybe it is the soft compound, maybe its the novel last it is built on or maybe its one of those marketing hypes I talked about? I do know that Salomon have lived up to their reputation of pushing the envelope when it comes to innovation and design, but apparently, they are still not satisfied with the grip and will work tirelessly to improve the grip of their shoes even further in the coming years. The only time I came unstuck was on horizontal slopes where latera grip was less impressive. Maybe I should run more like Kilian and take the most direct route down the mountain – a straight line !
The other impressive feature of these shoes is their drainage. The upper is a mixture of mesh, rubber and a cloth tongue. This allows the water to pushed out quickly within a few foot strikes after crossing a creek and as there is very little material to absorb moisture they dried very quickly. And as recommended by Kilian, these shoes can be worn without socks with minimal risk of abrasions from material entering the shoe via stream beds.
I briefly mentioned that some people have been going around complaining that the Sense is built to last only a handful of races before it is to be discarded. And whilst we would all love to have the support and budget that follows the likes of Kilian around, these shoes were bought with my own hard earned cash and I want them to last. So it is great to be able to report that the construction of the Sense lives up to the high quality you can expect from a product out of the S-LAB. A bit like my S-LAB 12L backpack (which has over 3000kms of use and still minimal wear) the Sense seem to be wearing better than some of my more robust trail shoes.
Whether they will eclipse my current 1500km Nike Free’s for wear I doubt it, but in terms of pure enjoyment I am getting and quality design and a feel that is like no other shoe, I was happy to pay a premium safe in the knowledge I will be wearing these shoes for a few more months yet. Considering the types of terrain I have subjected them too, I am impressed that apart from a couple of logos being worn from the sole, the loss of a small piece of white cosmetic rubber from the forefoot and some fading of the colouring on the cloth sections, they still look pretty new.
As there are minimal parts in the construction of this shoe, it is clear to see where the thought has gone into making them look and feel a quality piece of craftsmanship. The stitching around the tongue and eyelets is clearly done with the attention of a Saville Row tailor and the threads used in construction are high quality. I imagine the downside to this is the usual supply issues we have come to love from Salomon as they try to scale up production to meet the impending demand.
So where does this shoe fit into the ever growing range of shoes applicable to certain types of runners, surfaces and distances? Well, unless you are Kilian and can run a 100 mile trail race in around 15 hours, then this shoe would be ideal up to 100kms or around 12 hours of wear time. Why do I say that ? Well I think as you run through the day and into the night during a 100 miler, comfort starts to take over from performance in my view, and with such a low heel drop and a super light weight construction, this must take its toll over the hours ?
Could you wear it for a 100 miler, maybe ? Only time will tell as I my training block at the moment includes 100 mile training as I prepare for UTMB 2012 but will I be on the start line in the Sense ? I doubt it as I go for a slightly more traditional shoe. As for everything else, I will be wearing my Sense as it is by far the best shoe I have worn this year and last.
What else do I want from this shoe ? Well only time will tell, but at the moment this is the only shoe I will ever need.
The Salomon Sense is available to buy at Footpoint Shoe Clinic
I final foot note, there are rumours circling that Salomon will extend the Sense range to bring out a more hardcore version and a cheaper priced more mainstream version. Watch this space for more information.