The first time I saw a pair of Hoka's I was four hours into an all day hike. I stepped to the side of the trail to let a runner go by and my eye was immediately drawn to the enormous shoes on his feet. He was covered from head to toe in dirt and sweat and I couldn't help but pause for a moment and watch him make his way effortlessly down the trail. Such an odd sight so far into the mountains, to see a runner moving with that kind of speed and efficiency of movement. I was impressed with his athleticism but I was sure he had to have a screw loose since he was wearing gigantic shoes on what was certain to be a very long run. The rest of the running world seems to be infatuated with the 'less-is-more' idea when it comes to shoes; and Hoka OneOne's certainly buck the system. A few months later, I was lined up at the start line of a half trail-marathon and there they were again; in fact, there were a LOT of them. My curiosity was sufficiently piqued. I began seeing them at triathlons. I couldn't help but wonder, what was so great about these shoes that the athletes would choose them over what seemed to be a much more efficient race flat? I e-mailed Hoka OneOne and one of their founders, Nicolas Mermoud, was gracious enough to meet with me in Park City, Utah, where he currently lives, and answer my questions about this unusual looking shoe.
The shoe has it's beginnings near the mountaineering mecca of Chamonix, France, where Nicolas is a recognized force in the Ultra-Marathon distance world, among his other accomplishments. He and his partner, with an excess of experience in the running shoe industry, set about to solve the problems that plague runners (i.e. plantar fasciitis, sore joints, chronic back pain etc.). The two went through many prototypes and the result is surprising. Using 2.5x the amount of EVA volume in the midsole you'll find in a traditional running shoe, they have incredible impact absorption. This was most noticeable to me while running steep down-hill trails. Thanks to the large soles, my foot placement was greatly simplified. I didn't have to avoid much of the rocky terrain with my fancy 'downhill dance', that would have sent my ankles rolling but could plow right through. I count on the downhills to catch my mountain goat-like competition so right away I was hooked on this shoe.
Having had a disastrous experience with another trail shoe that left me with chronic tendon damage in my arch, I'm extra picky about what shoes I will wear for long miles in the mountains. I had concerns that one roll of the ankle and the higher sole would be the end of my running. However, I found them to be more stable than my current trail runners. Their patented bucket seat design allows the heel to fit snugly down into the sole of the shoe allowing for optimum stabilization. In addition, the platform (bottom of the shoe) is 35% wider. (Although Nicolas mentioned that people may stumble once or twice getting used to the wider platform, I didn't have any problems at all.) I have been running in them for more than a few months now and haven't rolled or tweaked an ankle even once. On the contrary, I have found that since wearing the Hoka OneOne's, my chronic tendon issues have become much better. The first few days, my calves were a bit sore from using slightly different muscles but it resolved itself rather quickly.
The grip on the Mafate was great on dry trail, but I did find them a bit sloppy in super wet mud. It's so seldom that I run in such deep mud so I didn't find it much of an inconvenience, however, they have made changes to this season's trail shoe by adding slightly bigger lugs for traction in sloppy conditions.
Inevitably, the first question I get when wearing them is "Why are you running in butt-shaping shoes?" followed quickly with "How much do those weigh?!"
Sadly, there are no claims that wearing your Mafate's to the grocery store with give you the shapely bottom of your dreams but I have good news about the weight. They run just under 11 oz. for size 9 unisex. (To give you a comparison, my 2010 Women's size 9 Brooks Cascadia's come in at 11 oz.) I was surprised when I first put them on at how light they feel while running.
Now to address the barefoot fans:
Are they barefoot? No.
Are they Minimalist? No, quite the opposite.
Are they considered 'Natural Running'? Yes.
Why? They encourage the foot to function as it was designed to do, initiating and utilizing tiny muscles and tendons that remain dormant in conventional running shoes. In fact, in a brief discussion with the co-founder of minimalist giant Altra, he spoke highly of the shoe. He's actually a fan of Hoka OneOne, and considers them a member of the Natural Running family.
Another bonus in buying Hoka OneOne's is that they started from scratch and re-designed the women's version to be specifically proportioned for women, while still offering a men's and unisex version to fit the needs of any athlete. They have versions for road (Bondi.B) and trail (Mafate) among others, and will work for any kind of foot strike. They wear the same as any running shoe, so you'll want to rotate them the same as you would your old standby pair.
The Final Say: I really put these shoes through the thrasher; mud, rain, dirt powder and sand, rocky terrain, steep ascents, steeper descents and some good miles and they're now my new favorite pair of go-to trail runners. Since the first day with my Mafate's, I've been unable to convince myself to go back to my old favorites. They may look different, but I can't deny the fact that I am faster and more comfortable when running in them. Much of the pain that I'd come to accept as part of running is gone. Like any shoe, Hoka OneOne's don't fit everyone's taste but they would certainly fit any runner looking for the benefits they have to offer. The best way to find out is to go to your local running store and take them for a jog, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
For purchase information, stop by your local running store or go to: www.hokaoneone.com