You basically have a choice of three shoes in the range. The Mafate is the full trail shoe, with a more aggressive grip pattern but I found these much too wide across the toe box area. The ComboXT was my preferred choice, being the intermediate shoe (recently superseded by the Stinson), unfortunately, I was not able to get a pair in my size. This left me with the Bondi B road shoe, which at least came in a more conservative colour scheme.
Out of the box, there is no denying that these shoes are unorthodox but don’t be put off. When I initially tried on the Mafate trail shoes I was a little concerned with the lacing system that uses small webbing loops for eyelets. I am sure they are strong enough to cope with the rigours of ultra-racing, but I much prefer the more standard lacing system on the Bondi B and ComboXT/Stinson models. There is a loop on the tongue to thread the laces through, something I always use in my running shoes, just to help keep everything in place.
The uppers have a number of reinforced areas, including the toe box, main flexion points and the sides, linked to the lacing system. Despite the fact that these are designated the “road” shoe in the range, they have proved to be very resilient. Apart from the mud, the uppers show no sign of wear and tear, even after two particularly long runs on the West Highland Way and the Lakeland 100.
The top of the shoe is literally only the tip of the iceberg; it is what happens below this that makes these shoes special. The mid-sole is up to 2.5 times thicker than most trail shoes with the aim of dissipating up to 80% of the shock associated with foot strike. This is what jumped out at me when I first started to look at the shoes. Recovering from an operation to both the heel bone and Achilles tendon, anything that might ease the pounding was worth a shot.
The first real surprise is just how light the shoes are. These shoes are no heavier than most of my other running shoes (Yes, I’ve got quite a few pairs) and when they are on your feet they certainly don’t feel clumpy in any way. In fact, with some of the other attributes, you actually feel lighter out on the trail – go figure!?
Despite the size of the mid-sole, you don’t sit 6cm off the ground; you are partially sunk within the shoe which, I feel, is rather clever. What this does is hold your foot in a really stable position so that when out on the trail, even along technical single track, you never feel that that you are running on soft sponges and the shoes feel surprisingly responsive. You do not feel as in touch with the trail as you would in a minimalist shoe but that was never the aim of these.
When you first run, you assume that you will be forced to heel strike but nothing could be further from the truth. The shoe has a very small drop from heel to toe (4mm), this means that you run with a natural mid-foot strike but still get all the benefits of the cushioning – win:win?!
I have noticed that the shoe has “loosened up” as the miles have been clocked, particularly in the flexibility of the mid-sole; further adding to the comfort.
My main worry when buying the road shoe was the grip; would a road shoe give enough traction to run with confidence on the trails? I spent some time in the shop comparing the grips from all three shoes in the range and, whilst the Mafate do have a more aggressive grip, I thought that at the speed I move at in an ultra race, I could live with the Bondi B grip. Out on the trails, I’ve had no real problems apart from the adventures in the snow, though I doubt even my old faithful Salomon Speedcross’ would have coped with that. The footprint of the shoe is huge and this certainly helps with the grip and the stability, installing confidence on all surfaces.
When you first put the shoes on and start to run, they feel different, as I’m sure you would expect. I started with small strides and concentrated on a smooth mid-foot strike and within just a few miles I felt very much at home with them. After a long day at work, I find the comfort of the shoes quite refreshing and the thought of training on tired legs is less daunting.
The shoes are especially good on rough, rocky terrain where you would normally suffer with the pounding, feeling every rock and bump. With the Hoka’s you tend to run over this type of terrain worrying less about where you place your feet. On my two 30+ mile runs, it has been the cumulative effect of this stress free running that I think has made all the difference. At the end of these runs, my legs have definitely felt less pounded, with a little more life in them. Now, I am quite happy to acknowledge that all this could just as easily be psychological, rather than physiological, but I will take any benefit I can, especially after 80+ miles!
Downhill is a dream. I would not consider doing a fell race in them but that is not what they are designed for. The type of descents we get in ultra races suit this shoe down to the ground. Again, you don’t have to worry too much about where you put your feet, the shoes simply take the sting out of the trail, meaning your quads take less of the strain. Think; how will your legs feel towards the end of your ultra? Think; how would you like them to feel?
That final thought is the one you have to keep in your head. These shoes are not for everyone; if you are a minimalist runner, walk away from these. If you are really that bothered about how your shoes look, perhaps you should walk away. If you are on a budget, walk away. If you are looking at running fast 10kms or half marathons, walk away. I am a runner recovering from surgery who wanted a shoe to allow me to race and train ultra distances. I asked myself what is most important to me and the answer kept coming back to “enjoyment of my running”, these shoes give me that.
I now have a dilemma. When I did the West Highland Way Race, putting fresh shoes and socks on at the halfway point was one of the best decisions I made. I am definitely going to wear the Hoka’s for the Highland Fling 53 mile race in April, but what to do for the Lakeland 100 in the summer? Do I wear the Hoka’s for the full race and forego the magical shoe swop at Dalemain? Do I wear my Speedcross’ for the first half and then change into the Hoka’s? Do I get hold of another pair of Hoka’s (I still like the look of the Stinson B combination shoe)? What’s a boy supposed to do?