Outdoor Retailer Summer Market '06: Trail running footwear under every rock

Although footwear labeled "trail running" popped out at us every time we turned a corner at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, not many companies truly launched something that made us sit up and say, "We must try this." At the OutDoor Show in Germany in late August, we also checked out a couple of companies that were touting new lines of trail running shoes and it was mostly the same story.
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Although footwear labeled "trail running" popped out at us every time we turned a corner at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, not many companies truly launched something that made us sit up and say, "We must try this." At the OutDoor Show in Germany in late August, we also checked out a couple of companies that were touting new lines of trail running shoes and it was mostly the same story.

GoLite in its partnership with Timberland's Invention Factory was a BIG exception on the "nothing really new" scene. It was a big WOW simply because somebody truly was pushing the innovation envelope (we can't vouch for how the system works … yet) rather than just coloring up an outer or shaving off a few grams.

Getting lighter is not a trend that rates much attention
Speaking of shaving off a few grams, weight reduction seemed to be the story of the trail runners we saw. We were actually growing weary of companies starting their schpiel with a variation on the theme of, "our shoes are lighter this year," or "our shoes are now the lightest on the market." We know that lightening up all gear is the biggest push, from backpacks and tents, to stoves and jackets -- and it's a good thing in general -- but if that's the only story you have to tell in footwear, we think your company is simply scrambling to find a story to tell, any story at all, because you have little else to talk about. How about new outsoles, lacing systems, cushioning materials or uppers? There must be something other than saving a few grams that suppliers can find to develop or to innovate. Plus, although we know over the long haul on the trail a few extra grams can add up to an extra weary body, having footwear become so light as to lose support, stability and tread is not what some 90 percent of the running public (or walking or hiking public) hitting the trail needs, since very few people have a truly perfect and neutral gait. Nevertheless, we politely listened. And a few companies we heard even took the high road (such as Vasque and Garmont), saying straight out, no, we aren't the lightest and that's OK because not everybody needs that.

Lacing systems and covers garnering more designer attention
Other innovations, besides less weight, were Lafuma's lacing system that allows separate adjusting of upper and lower areas (OK, not totally new but now fully tweaked) and the BOA dial-tightening system now not only on The North Face, but also on Timberland and Montrail. We also really liked the gaiter slot through the arch area of the Merrell shoes (we are tired of gaiter straps being sliced apart in the first run or two, aren't you?). Kahtoola also re-launched its winter running over-shoe product that it initially showed at the Winter Market, but refinements to the product created delays, and it is now slated for October shipment. This product is definitely creative and worth a look if you are in a snowy area or cater to such adventurers, but its Flight shoe can only claim a super niche market.

And, although not a shoe per se, the "debris sock" Inov-8 showed was a great nod to innovative thinking from a footwear company in the way the sock doubled back over the shoe to also block debris like a gaiter. Only hitch is the remaining strap under the foot. If you wandered by, you may not have seen the sock, though, since it was pictured on the Inov-8 booth backdrop, but was not laying around for all to pickup and inspect. Why? After launching the concept officially at the OutDoor show in Friedrichshafen, Germany, in July, by the third day of Outdoor Retailer one had "walked." In fact, we even saw a representative from another footwear company come in and nonchalantly ask to see the item. When the Inov-8 rep spied the nametag, she declined kindly, but he loitered around awhile before slithering off.

So what really stood out to us?
Of course, we wandered into about all the company booths there we could think of -- hitting up all the names you know and more -- counting more than a couple of dozen between Outdoor Retailer and Germany's OutDoor show, where a few companies debuted trail product (Asolo, Helly Hansen, adidas, among others), and we took a look for fun at a few shoes not sold at North American retail or not at Outdoor Retailer. We got dizzy looking at EVA and counting densities, went cross-eyed inspecting colors, and got our fingers tied up in various lacing systems. What does this mean? Well, most of the shoes were pretty nice, maybe not great, but nice. Many were pretty dang good. A few seemed to be great. But whether a shoe is ho-hum or great depends a lot on the user and the surface he or she is going to run on, so we aren't about to judge them for you. What we will do is pick out a few that had some feature, look, change or innovation that made it worth a mention. With that in mind, here are our quick takes on new products that stood out in trail running footwear. It is by no means a complete accounting! So if you're not mentioned, we were either too worried about our next trail run to see you, too tired from wandering for miles up and down aisles, or we didn't think your product was trend-setting -- you pick one. With that in mind, let's get on with the show:

GoLite -- This was quite frankly THE trail running story of the show. Basically, GoLite in partnership with Timberland took the concept of a shoe and turned it upside down and inside out, nearly literally. Normally, the cushy stuff is in the midsole inside the shoe with the outsole being tougher and harder and perhaps less forgiving going over rocks and debris. GoLite made the outsole softer with big nubby lugs called Trail Claws for cushion, so it could also make the outsole sheet thinner and lighter. Then, the more stable and firmer layer went inside. The point is, the soft stuff on the outside will give to the uneven trail terrain -- like a car's suspension system -- and allow a wearer to avoid ankle sprains and tippiness, offering more stability. The lack of a thick and beefy outsole and midsole also allows the shoe to be lower profile for a lower center of gravity and, the hope is, more stability.

The other new take was the fit system. Basically, trying to make one shoe that fits the various volumes, lengths and widths is pretty difficult. So this alliance went with only even sizes, but every pair comes with a footbed and three forefoot pieces to custom fit the shoe for the person's needs. The intent is better control of fit, as well as fewer SKUs for the retail shelf. The problem is, of course, that those who wear personal orthotics may find their fit compromised. And although the company told SNEWS® it was taking a close look at its ability to fit people (doing its own little fit test at the show by simply allowing people to try on shoes for fun), representatives also said it would not consider adding the half-sizes back to the line.

The line for spring '07 will have six styles in three categories:

>>Speed, which is less techy and lighter and faster. The Sun Dragon style ($95) is 10.9 ounces and is made with men's and women's fits, and the Set Wing style (who came up with these names?) is only in a men's fit, is even more protective, has a retail of $100 and weighs 11.5 ounces.

>> Endurance is intended for more technical trails or longer and more difficult runs. The Trail Fly style ($110) weighs 11.7 ounces and comes in men's and women's fit, and the Spike Tail is $115 at retail in men's only.

>> Recovery is a fully techy after-sport shoe available in either slip-on or slide. The Calamus ($85) is a slide, but still has full fit systems and lacing (men's and women's), while the Eidolon is men's only ($90) and has the leisure streetwear look that we can envision in Starbuck's all over the world.

Inov-8 -- The founders and creators of Inov-8 are really into the techy aspects. No coffee shop shoes for them. When the British company introduced itself to North America last year, the shoes were all pretty thin and light, which flew in the face of tradition here for beefier shoes with huge outsoles and wraps for stability. Inov-8's founding mantra was to let the foot feel the ground, so it can move with the ground. Although it has shifted just a teeny bit this year by introducing shoes for 2007 that have a little more beef to them, we think it also prompted North American manufacturers to sit up and start paring down their styles. Perhaps what's coming is something in the middle. For 2007, it is launching a Roclite 320. For the non-versed in Inov-8 lingo, the name indicates the type of sole and the number is actually its weight in grams. For the life of us, however, we can't keep the soles straight and keep having to say, now, which is that again? And North Americans, of course, can't count to 10 in the metric system, but they don't need to know that's what the number is.

For the trade, just know that the bigger the number, the beefier the shoe, so this 320 is actually, at about 11.3 ounces, pretty much a tank for Inov-8. Interesting is that the way the upper is shaped, it still comes off pretty sleek. On the same sole is the Roclite 305, so that's now shaved down a bit to 10.7 ounces.

If you want to truly understand the Inov-8 system, however, you need to take the new catalog, sit down and get ready for a bit of study. We love the effort they've put into the symbols and emblems and graphics and cute pictures, but it's going to take a degree in shoe-ology for the retail staff to get this. Let's see, if the left side of that yin-yang symbol is black, does that mean more or less waterproof?

The debris sock we mentioned earlier is slated to be on the market for spring 2007 with a price to be somewhere below $20 at retail. Imagine a regular sock of moderate thickness, but at about the ankle bone area, there is an extra little "skirt" knit into it so it then pulls down over the top of the shoe like a regular gaiter. Questions come to mind about what a bummer it is to wear out a sock when it's also your gaiter, or how there are so many different tastes in socks -- but we can't judge until we've tried it, now can we?

Keen -- For spring 2007, the new shoe Wasatch Crest extends the asymmetrical lacing system all the way to the toe (MSRP $95). It also is trimmed down and sleeker than its first trail runners introduced for fall 2006.

Lafuma -- Its tweaky lacing system first shipped nearly two years ago, but is still a head-turner. A dual-adjusting slide allows the wearer to adjust the tightness of the fit separately for the forefoot and rear foot. One new one for spring 2007: the Active Trail Pro ($95) with a Vibram outsole.

Merrell -- Out for spring 2007 is the second version of its shoe, the Overdrive ($90) with a gaiter slot in the outsole right below the arch. No more sliced up gaiter cords! Also in the category, find the Fanatic ($100) with what the company calls an "improved lacing system," which means a kind of a pocket where you hook the laces to keep them from flopping about aimlessly. It also has a seamless upper and its "Trail Spring" system of tubes through the outsole for, yes, extra spring in your step. Its entry-level Octane model ($75) also has the gaiter slot.

Montrail -- The faces were different in the Montrail booth after its sale in January to Columbia, but three new shoes that had been in the works (we presume) were introduced. The Slipstream has the new Boa lacing technology that eliminates traditional laces and instead uses a dial on the heel to tighten down or loosen up a cable system that secures the shoe to the foot. At $110, it's the highest priced shoe Montrail has ever offered. And, if the beef of the ever-popular Hardrock isn't enough for you, then how about the Miwok (13 ounces, $95), which can also play well in the multi-sport adventure racing side of the world. A real visual pop in the Montrail line was the new Nitrius ($95) with rather shocking (for Montrail) oranges and blues.

The North Face -- Although its Radial trail shoe has been quite the hit on the dirt, guess what? For the first time in spring 2007, the new footwear team is launching real women's lasts. So the Arnuva 100 ($105) will be the first to feature a shoe that really is designed to fit a woman's foot -- what a concept. The only men's intro (Amp Boa) will feature the Boa lacing system and is built to handle short stretches of road in between the trails. In the after-sport category, we must mention the 3-Point Optimus Boa, which looks like a flip-flop but actually uses the Boa dial system so you can secure the flip and the flop to your feet ($70, and why isn't there a women's version, our female SNEWS® members want to know? Well?)

Teva -- It continues with its Wraptor system of bands that wrap around the mid-foot to add support and stability. Teva is also utilizing drainage, per Teva sandals, as a calling card in the trail running line. And then there is the weight-saving flag being wafted about with the X-1 Racer for spring 2007, dropping all the way down to a mere 9.3 ounces per shoe (from an original 9.8), while its X-1 Control will go from 10.3 ounces to 9.8 ounces.

Timberland -- Bringing out a sleek line of spring trail shoes, Timberland's styles should make a hit. The Endurion Drift is a crossover shoe (trail to road) with a Vibram outsole and a sleek Toray soft-shell exterior that is highly water repellent and seam-sealed. The Endurion Low has an all-mesh upper for breathability, which is also intended for crossover use. Both have the Timberland three-quarter length clefted "Agile IQ" stability plate that allows the forefoot to flex independently on varied terrain.

Salomon -- For spring 2007, Salomon has totally revamped its uppers. The top-end S-Lab XA Pro 3 (MSRP $140) is 15 percent lighter than the previous model and has an integrated gaiter of nylon Lycra with hook-and-loop closure up the side for easy entry.

Vasque -- The popular Velocity model will also come in narrow for spring 2007, while its Blurr shoe launched in spring 2006 will get a new last that is straighter with a bit more room in the toe box.

Looking across the pond
In addition to the above companies with product available in North America that SNEWS® saw either at the OutDoor show, the Outdoor Retailer show or both, we saw a couple of companies in Germany not available here. Still, what they had or claimed to be developing is of interest:

Berghaus -- Out of the United Kingdom, Berghaus launched its line of outdoor footwear outside of its homeland. The company also launched its first-ever line of trail running shoes, developed by product manager Martin Jones, who himself is quite the elite trail runner. The Phobic Light at a mere 300 grams (10.6 ounces), while the Phobic Stable with medial posting is 315 grams (closer to 11 ounces). It points to its Phobic technology that uses an open-cell foam and direct molding to create a system that works to expel water from the shoe without compromising breathability. Also, its so-called "Opti Stud" sole looks like a bunch of little Vs with the points pointing in the direction needed for more control and grip.

Salewa -- Salewa's signs were everywhere and not to be missed. Its footwear -- a debut for the company -- is "100 percent blister free." And the company actually guarantees it, we were told. From sleek loafers and city slickers to hikers and trail runners, if you wear them and get a blister, you can bring them back to the store. Yes, the company also gives a pair of socks with each pair of shoes sold. Why should they be blister-free? Because the shoes are seamless inside. We're not convinced one pair of socks and no seams will keep a wearer free from blisters, but whatever floats its boat. Salewa, by the way, is now an Italy-based company, but started in 1935 in the mountains of southern Germany. Salewa is short for (in German) "SAttel und LEderWAren" or, in English, Saddles and Leather Goods. That's our trivia for the day, and you heard it here first.

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