Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Maxx Staxx! Merrell Bare Access Trail, TOPO Runventure, Altra Superior 2.0, and Hoka One One Huaka Reviews!!

Ok... for those of you who are way into minimalist shoes, have you noticed the trend in the last year or so towards more protection, hence more stack height in running shoes?   Ok, so maybe the picture above exaggerates slightly, BUT...  its true that one of the aspects of minimalist shoes has been putting on weight, and girth lately!

So... being the amateur running scientist that I am, I needed to find out what was up... especially as I kept seeing more and more "minimalist" shoes at races with a hefty stack.   Now, as you know, my basic requirements of a minimalist shoe are (in order of importance) 1) a 0mm (or close to it) drop from heel to toe, 2) A wide and comfortable toe box, 3) A thin/flexible sole that allows natural movement and ground feel, and 4) less structure around the arch and upper.

So just a heads up that the 4-pack review that follows includes shoes that kind of miss at least one of these features, but I still believe they are worthy of review.

Bare Access Trail

TOPO Runventure

So..  my experiment in Maximal/Minimalist shoes includes the Merrell Bare Access Trail, The TOPO Runventures...

Superior 2.0

As well as the Altra Superior 2.0's and the Hoka One One Huakas!
Hoka Huaka

Ok... before I dive into my thoughts about each shoe, here is a table of specs for each shoe so you can do a quick compare/contrast etc....   just because I know you shoe geeks love the numbers... so here you go:

Merrell Bare Access Trail
TOPO Runventure
Altra Superior 2.0
Hoka One One Huaka

0 mm
           Total            Stack Height
15.5 mm
19-17 mm
21 mm
27-25 mm
     Lug        height
4 mm
~ 3-4 mm
~4-5 mm
~ 1mm
     Weight in oz
8.25 oz
8.9 oz
8.7 oz
9.3 oz
         Materials, lugs, other info
 Vibram sole, Mesh/TPU Upper. M-Bound mid sole
Molded TPU Mid sole, gussetted tongue
Removable rock plate, d ual layer eva mid sole, gaiter grabber, tail rudder
 Hoka Race Lace system,  full ground contact design, meta-rocker geometry

Merrell Bare Access Trail 

Ok.. so lets kick this off with the lowest stack shoe of the mix, the Merrell Bare Access Trail.  First off, you might question this as a "Max" stack shoe, at 15.5mm.  My B2R Trail Performance shoes are 17mm.  But, the difference really is in the feel.  While the Bare Access Trails aren't jacked up in stack, they certainly have a much greater feel of a thicker shoe, compared to other Merrells such as the Trail Glove etc..

While maintaining some decent flex in the sole, compared to the other three shoes, the ground feel just isn't there, giving it a feel of a much thicker shoe.  Combine that with a somewhat sturdier and stiffer upper, the Bare Access Trails just edged their way into the Max Stax arena.

Besides being a little stiff, I found the toe box to be just a tad narrow for my taste.  Granted, after running in these, I realized I would probably be better 1/2 size bigger, and that may have granted a little more space.   They also have a bit of an arch bump that I wasn't too crazy about.

That being sad, the traction on these was pretty good.  I did do a 12 hour trail relay in these, and they performed pretty well. The lightest of the group, these make a great zero drop trail shoe, provided you are looking for heavier protection, structure, and a muted ground feel (which I guess is going to apply to most shoes in this category!).

TOPO Runventure

OK.. next up in stackage is the TOPO Runventure, and it is also one of the non-zero drop shoes, coming in at a 2mm drop, with a 19mm heel to a 17mm toe.  This is my first try of the TOPO brand, but I remember seeing the cool split/tabi toe models they had out a few years ago, and I thought those were pretty cool... since that time, TOPO no longer has a split toe model, and they offer a few road, gym, and trail shoes. 

What I like the most about the Runventures is the toe box.  As you can see, they are pretty wide, and the squared-off shape prevents bunching up at the front of the foot.

Traction is decent, and the TOPO's do a good job of not getting clogged up in muddy conditions etc...  The flex is ok heel to toe, but not much twist flex at all... sorry, forgot a pic of that!

For those of you that like to run sockless, the interior is pretty well designed and smooth, and also includes a gusseted tongue to help keep stuff out.   My main issue with the TOPO's is that the upper is really really rigid and structured. The most structured out of the 4 shoes reviewed.  As you can tell, the shoe is kind of holding its shape, without a foot in it.  For those of you that like that feel, and if they fit well, then this may not be an issue, however I lean much more towards a loose, soft and unstructured upper in my shoes.  For this reason, these will probably remain a casual/walking shoe for me, and not a long haul trail runner.

Altra Superior 2.0
Altra has been one brand that I have been pining to try for a long time, so I was really excited to get a chance to try out the Superior 2.0's. One of the forerunners in the minimalist shoe market, I see a lot of Altra's out on the trail.  Although these come in at 21mm stack height, I'm going to spoil the surprise now and tell you... I love these shoes, and they are far and above my favorite of the 4 reviewed.  Why?  For a variety of reasons, but primarily, these feel like a shoe with less than 15mm stack, which is really surprising.

The tread pattern is not super aggressive, however they feel "sticky", and they have a lot of great flex, which enhances traction.

Also of interest, is this little "Trail Rudder" feature on the back of the sole.  At first I thought it was just kind of goofy, however when coming down steep trail inclines, the rudder provides more surface contact, especially when leaning back on the really steep stuff.... clever feature that I can feel working..

Just above the rudder, is a cool built in Velcro Gaiter Trap... for those of you that use gaiters (I am just now experimenting with them), this is a great feature so you don't have to add your own fastener, and it closes up when not in use.

Altra also includes a thin, stiff Stone Guard as an optional insert into the shoe.  I haven't felt like I needed it, with the 21mm stack,  but if you run some really gnarly stuff, this could come in handy.

Finally, the Altra's offer a relatively soft and flexible upper. Much more so than the other models in this review.  The foot bed shape is a little different, with a curve inward that gives me more space on the outside of my big toe, which was fine.  I still had plenty of room all around.  I know some folks have a problem with this, as its not a good fit for their foot.  For me, the fit is great.

As I noted earlier, running in these is like running in a shoe with much less of a stack height.  I haven't figured out how Altra managed a protective stack height, that still reflects a pretty decent ground feel and flexibility.  Whatever they did, it works for me.  Granted, they still are more protective and muting than my first choice, but these will definitely be my drop bag/back up shoe if I need some relief in a long haul race.

The ONLY odd thing about these, is the funky little fold I get along the tongue (above).  Doesn't cause any issues, but it's just weird.  But it's a fair trade off for a flexible upper.  Stuff might get in there, but running with gaiters should help.  Otherwise, LOVE these...  oh, but they do run small... order up at least 1/2 size from what you normally wear. 

Hoka One One Huaka

Finally, the grand daddy of max stack... Hoka One One!  I know, kind of the antithesis minimalist for sure, but I had to find out what the draw was.  Although the last on this review, it was the first max stack low drop shoe I tried out.  I actually wrestled with the whole idea of trying them, and polled Facebook followers for direction.  The "yea's" outweighed the "nays", and prompted not only trying these, but bringing in the other 3 to get a good feel for what is out there.  

I felt so weird still, reviewing such bulky shoes...   so before committing, I reached out to Bobbi Nicol, a hard core bare footer from Canada that I have a ton of respect for.  Anyone that enters something called a "Death Race" ultra, running barefoot is totally awesome in my book! I had noticed she was sporting Hoka's in a pic, and after I picked up my jaw, I had to ask her what was up....  here's a snapshot of our conversation:  "Amazing tool when required. I would never start a run with them but if the need arise I know they will help me get to the finish line." "I am still a barefoot / minimalist runner at heart and that will never change. I really do not consider Hoka's anything other than a platform variety minimalist shoe, very minimal heel to toe drop and I do not have to change my running stride in them. Another bonus is that I gain 2 inches of pure height."

So...  I do agree with the idea that shoes are really tools, and it's great to have a variety available.  Since I spend a lot of my time reviewing shoes, here's my tool box!  :-)

So, that being said, I did give these Huaka's a good go.  And, this particular model is the lowest stack from the Hoka line, with a mere 27mm at the heel, and 25mm at the toe.  Additionally, the sole wraps up fairly high around your foot, which gives the shoe a much thicker look from the outside.  The drop still allowed me to run with decent form, but the cushioning blocked out just about everything from the trail.  It was much like riding a fat bike... I felt like I could run over anything without worry!  Certainly a different, floating, kind of feeling.  Would be really easy to heel strike in these as well.  I can see where these may come in handy if your feet were destroyed at the tail end of an ultra and you just needed to try and finish... otherwise, not a good fit for me to trail run in.  I was surprised however that they are pretty stable... I thought I might roll an ankle or lose my balance, but the stability was good.  They also come with speed lacing, however I really prefer old school laces, which are included as well, but I think you have to cut the existing ones off to use them.

As far as traction goes, there isn't a very aggressive tread, but the sole is soft, so that aids in traction.  I did notice though that the softer material is prone to wearing out much quicker than the other models here.  Wear above is with about 80 miles on them.   The things I really liked about the Huaka's was that they are the only pair I own that I can easily put sheet metal screws into for use on snow/ice.  I did do this over the winter, and it worked great.  3/4 inch screws in the bottom and I couldn't feel a thing :-).  Also, as Bobbi mentioned, I do love being taller!  So they make a great casual shoe as well.

Next pair to review... ;-)

Phew... ok, thanks for sticking around if you lasted this long.  Back to low-stack shoes for me, although the Altra's will probably be in my regular rotation..

As always, if you have questions/comments, let me know!  

Happy Trails!



  1. It is sad, Jeff.
    At first, I would not buy any of these. Too much structure.

    I see I will have to wear my Xero Shoes on races once my Inov-8 Road-X-Treme 138 wears off :)

  2. The core of your writing whilst appearing agreeable in the beginning, did not really sit perfectly with me after some time. Someplace within the sentences you actually were able to make me a believer unfortunately just for a short while. I however have got a problem with your jumps in assumptions and you might do well to help fill in all those gaps. If you actually can accomplish that, I will definitely end up being impressed.
    formal shoes


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