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Out of the (toe) box thinking

Out of the (toe) box thinking

The very first thing I hear when people look at my running shoes is usually something along the lines of – “Wow, they’re so wide!”

And while I’ve learned to smile and nod, what I really want to say is this: “Altra running shoes are not wide. We are just brainwashed into believing that we should be squeezing our feet into shoes that have, for decades, been designed with too narrow a profile.”

But that comeback’s quite a mouthful and I hate to sound like a third-grade teacher when someone is just making a casual comment.

The truth is this: Altra running shoes are perfect just the way they are. Since I’ve been running in Altra’s road and trail shoes, I have had no more bunion pain – none! – and no more nitpicky aches and pains that came and went when I was running in a much more cushioned shoe with deeper drop.

Altra’s common-sense design is to thank — simply made to more accurately reflect the shape of the human foot. Thus, the toe box is relaxed, giving each toe more room to spread and do the work of running. If you look at the X-ray image of a foot in a traditional running shoe next to one in an Altra shoe on the company’s website, you'll see an astounding difference. Why didn't this happen long ago?    

From the Altra website, behold the breathing space with an expanded toe box. Ahh!

From the Altra website, behold the breathing space with an expanded toe box. Ahh!

Actually, it’s been here since 2009, when company founder Golden Harper launched Altra in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains and revolutionized the way running shoes should fit. At the same time, he defined the Zero-Drop system that levels out the variance of heel-to-toe differential in a shoe’s platform. The result is a smooth ride that feels like a mitten on the foot.

I got my hands on a couple of pairs of Altras in early March and have since put about 750 miles on them, combined. The Torin 2.5 road shoe and the Lone Peak 3.0 trail shoe have been my constant companion on running trails and roads in my home state of Alaska, as well as Oregon, Washington state, Colorado, Virginia and South Carolina. The bottom line: I’m sold. These aren’t the prettiest shoes in the world, but fashion is the least of my concerns (ask my husband who endures my obsessive attachment to wearing my favorite black sweats. Every day.)

I like a shoe that lets me run comfortably and for longer distances without aches or pains and the Altras deliver.

Let’s start with the Lone Peak 3.0. I spent lots of time getting muddy on some of the mountainous trails around my home in Alaska, such as Baldy and Bear mountains, and the Beach Lake trails in Chugiak. My go-to trail runs there covered 5 to 12 kilometers of dirt path, sandy dips and rocky peaks. The rugged sole delivered firm footing on trails, although when combining trail and road running on longer runs, the stiffer sole did not fare well on gravel or paved roads. The Lone Peak is a friend of the mountains and trails and isn't comfortable elsewhere. I reverted back to the Torins when planning runs that covered multiple surfaces.

Photo credit/ Andy Hall The Lone Peak is a sturdy, yet flexible trail shoe for fast trail running and great cross-country workouts. The newly released 3.5 is even more long lasting than the 3.0 model (shown above).

Photo credit/ Andy Hall

The Lone Peak is a sturdy, yet flexible trail shoe for fast trail running and great cross-country workouts. The newly released 3.5 is even more long lasting than the 3.0 model (shown above).

The Lone Peak has a newer version out now, the Lone Peak 3.5, which boasts a sturdier updated mesh upper, which is good news since my shoes are showing their wear after six months of moderate use.

For road running, I turned to the Torins, covering gravel paths, paved country roads and multiuse paths running through city centers. In my enthusiasm to try the shoes out, I ignored the company’s suggestion to transition slowly from my previous shoe (Hoka One One’s Clifton) to the new shape and feel of the Zero-Drop Torin. I’m not advocating you do the same, but I had no problem, so I forged ahead, putting miles on the shoes with no negative effects.

Photo credit/ Andy Hall The author spent the summer testing the Altra Torin 2.5, which had some sizing challenges that have been addressed in the 3.0 version, available now. This Zero-Drop shoe offers a smooth ride and is a new shoe of choice for the 25- to 35-mile-a-week runner.

Photo credit/ Andy Hall

The author spent the summer testing the Altra Torin 2.5, which had some sizing challenges that have been addressed in the 3.0 version, available now. This Zero-Drop shoe offers a smooth ride and is a new shoe of choice for the 25- to 35-mile-a-week runner.

My initial response to the Torin’s feel is that while super comfy to the bottoms of my feet – not so much to my toes. They just felt too small. I’d been running in the same-sized Lone Peaks with no problem, but the Torins felt too short. My big toe and second toe consistently met the front of the shoes, even wearing small holes in my socks, indicating that yes, I would need to go up a half size. The inconsistent sizing between shoe models is something that even Altra’s designers have recognized, and Torin’s recently released 3.0 version claims to have a better fit. This is good news because despite the snug fit, I am attached to these shoes for their buttery, bottom-of-foot pampering.

Torin’s Zero-Drop platform is not something I paid much attention to at first, and it has since become one of the shoe’s selling points. At first, I was convinced it was superior cushioning that relieved my tendency to suffer forefoot numbness on long runs. But I soon realized that by no longer running in the “high heels” of previous running shoes, I was landing more naturally, my big toes pointed forward thanks to the added room in the toe box and my forefoot-striking dialing back to a more level foot placement. I’m no scientist, but this works for me.

Photo credit/ Andy Hall The author runs up Skyline Drive in Eagle River while wearing the Altra Torin 2.5 road shoe. Light and smooth with an accommodating toe box, this shoe offers even better sizing in its 3.0 version, available this season.

Photo credit/ Andy Hall

The author runs up Skyline Drive in Eagle River while wearing the Altra Torin 2.5 road shoe. Light and smooth with an accommodating toe box, this shoe offers even better sizing in its 3.0 version, available this season.

In labs, running shoes are tested for things such as stabilizing heel counters, footbed design, stitch contouring and other details that are not relevant to my day-to-day running. At the end of the day, I am like a vast majority of everyday runners who are out there for the sheer joy of the run. I don’t care what a shoe looks like: It has to be comfortable. I don’t care about brands: If I find a better shoe, I will switch. And I don’t care about price: Call me foolish, but running preserves my physical and mental health and if paying big bucks for a shoe that allows me to stay physically active, I see it as a bargain.

Right now, Altra is my bargain. I admire Golden Harper’s outside the (toe)box thinking, and will be running in Altras until someone convinces me there is something better out there.

Runner Statistics
Age: 49 years old
Gender: Female
Shoes Tested: Altra Torin 2.5 and Altra Lone Peak 3.0. Current versions of these shoes are the Altra Torin 3.0 and the Lone Peak 3.5.
Weekly mileage: 25-35 miles per week, 1/3 trails, 2/3 road
The ideal shoe: I require lots of forefoot cushioning to avoid the balls of my feet going numb on long runs. I also have a bunion on one foot, likely the result of years of running in squeezy shoes (or unlucky genetics!).
Running locations: Mountains, trails, roads and multiuse paths in Anchorage, Kasilof and Chugiak, Alaska; Roanoke and Blacksburg, Va.; Bend, Portland and Eugene, Ore., Grand Junction and Denver, Colo., Charleston, S.C.; and Seattle, Wash.

 

 

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