Friday, May 3, 2013

My "Evo"-lution Into The "Hoka Nation"

Over the past few years of ultra-running, it had become a common sight to see some of my fellow runners wearing Hokas.  They are hard to miss with their uber-thick soles and outlandish colors.  However, the thought never crossed my mind to actually try a pair, until I started up with some foot issues last October.  I decided I wanted to try a shoe that offered more protection for my feet, especially on long training runs and ultra-length races, but still offered a 4mm drop.  Of course, Hokas were the first shoe to pop in my head. 

Hoka One One (pronounced O-nay, O-nay, I learned from watching many online reviews.) is a company  known mostly by ultra-runners.  (Don't believe me.......wear them to a local road race, and watch for the stares of those who have never seen them.)  I've seen them at every ultra race I've ever done.  They are thick, ugly and stick out like a sore thumb, but how do they ride???  I decided to find out for myself, after much debate on some key issues:  1) Sizing.  I live in Louisiana, and there is not one store in LA that sells Hokas.  The closest place to me is Dallas, which is 4 hrs away.  So, I would be guessing at the right size for me.  2)  Quality.  These shoes are hella-expensive, and if I'm going to drop a bunch of money on a new pair of shoes, I want to know I will get the most mileage out of them., 3) Weight.  They claim to look heavy, but feel light.  How true would this be?  4) Price.  Although, I hate to admit it, it is a factor.  I am a "thrifty" guy, and it pains me to lay down $150 - $170 for one pair of shoes.

I initially ordered a pair of Bondi B 2.  Again, those crazy Europeans pronounce that "Bond-I" with a long I.  This would be my primary road shoe.  Two months later I followed up with a pair of Stinson B Evos for the trails.

Bondi B 2
Stinson B Evo

First, let's talk sizing.  I had read on many reviews that Hokas are sized a little funny, and in many cases you would need to size up.  Well I quickly learned with my initial purchase of size 13 Bondi Bs, that sizing up was not necessary.  My standard 12.5 was a pretty good fit.  The toe box in the Bondis is huge.  Big enough that I would say, if anything, you might want to size down a 1/2 size.  I also got size 12.5 in the Stinson Evos.  These fit much differently from the Bondis.  The toe box is quite a bit smaller, but contrary to many complaints about a "too small" toe box, I felt mine fit fine, and they had no less room than a standard trail shoe.  They only feel small compared to the Bondis.

Next, weight.  How do Hokas compare to other running shoes?  They advertise as being light, but how light?  Well I was able to get some good weight measurements, compliments of my wife's food scale, which measures in ounces.  All of the shoes I weighed were a men's size 12.5.  Saucony Kinvara 3- 9 oz., Saucony Xodus 3.0- 15 oz., Brooks Infiniti 2- 14 oz., Brooks Cascadia 5- 16 oz., Hoka Bondi B 2- 14 oz., Hoka Sinson B Evo- 15 oz.  So as you can see, they are not as light as a minimalist shoe, but are equivalent  in weight to most standard road and trail shoes.

Now,  quality and feel.  The first time I put on the Bondis, they felt huge.  The toe box felt enormous with all the extra room.  At first, I thought even a 12.5 would be to big for me, but after putting in some miles, and my feet found their place, they felt fine.  There is a short adjustment period of a few weeks for these shoes.  They felt a little awkward at first.  The first thing I noticed was the pull on my quads from wearing a road shoe that was 5 ounces heavier than the Kinvaras I had been running in for the past 3 years.  After about 2 weeks this passed.  The protection was like no other shoe I've run in.  I felt nothing.  I even found myself going out of my way to step on rocks, cracks and sticks, that I would normally avoid in Kinvaras, just to see if I could feel them.  99% of the time I could not.  It took about 50 miles for my feet to really settle in to the "bucket seating" of the shoe.  As time went on, they felt more natural, and my run times began to return to what I was running before in my Kinvaras.  I was also concerned about losing my mid-foot strike in these shoes, due to the thickness.  Not a problem!  The 4mm drop in the shoe made it very easy to maintain, and heel striking never tried to return to my stride.  I never used the Bondis on the trails.  I made them strictly a road shoe.

The Stinsons were the same, but very different.  I was initially confused on whether these shoes sported a 4mm or 6mm drop.  I saw websites advertising both ways.  Initially, the gradient felt higher than the Bondis, but after a couple of runs, I didn't notice it anymore. There are many complaints on the web about the fit of the Stinsons. By far, the biggest was a too small toe box. As I said earlier, the toe box is smaller than the Bondis, but not excessively small. I had no difficulties running in them as a result of the toe box. I ordered size 12.5 and the fit was great. I especially like the snug, wrapped up feel of the Stinsons. Not snug in a bad way; more like a newborn baby wrapped tightly in a blanket. My feet felt very secure, and I much preferred the fit to that of the Bondis.  These shoes also come with speed laces, which are a little cumbersome to deal with, but I still prefer them to standard laces. The speed laces can be cut out and can be replaced with standard laces that are included. If I had to have one real complaint about the Stinsons, it would be the tread.  For a trail shoe, the Stinsons probably have the least aggressive lugs I have ever seen.  They are shallow and small.  They perform well on dry trail, and hard packed wet trail.  However, if you get in some sticky clay-like mud, the shoes are quickly made ineffective.  It is basically like running on slick tires.  On the plus side, because of the shallow lugs, once you get out of that type of mud, the lugs clear themselves out pretty quickly and you get some decent traction again.

Wear and durability. Hokas are expensive, so it is naturally expected that a $160 shoe would give you maximum mileage. As of this writing, I have 210 miles on my Bondis and 125 on my Stinsons. The harder tread on the toe and heel of the Bondis appears to be holding up well on the road. The much softer, "marshmallow type" tread on the midsole doesn't seem to serve much purpose. It is very soft and was quickly worn down after about 100 miles. I think the tread on these shoes will wear long before the cushion does. My goal is to get at least 1000 miles out of these. Hopefully even more than that.

Bondi tread after 100 miles.  Notice the wear on the soft mid-sole tread.

Bondi tread after 200 miles.  More wear on the soft mid-sole tread.

The Stinsons have tougher tread, and I would expect to get max mileage and little tread wear from regular trail usage. I'm hoping to also get 1000 or more miles out of these as well.

Now for a few common myths:
1) Hokas cause unusual blistering. (I have had no blistering issues.)

2) Hokas sizing runs small. (Maybe in the early days of this company.  Now I think they are true to size.)

3) Hokas encourage heel striking. (I have found it very easy to maintain my mid-foot strike.)

4). You can "bomb the hills". (This applies mostly to trails. The extra cushion and protection does allow you a certain ability to take the downhills faster. However, I don't necessarily like the term "bomb the hills". I would prefer to say that you can take downhills with a certain degree of disregard. You can definitely go faster since you don't have to worry about stepping on a crazy rock on the way down, especially on long, gradual downhills.  However, it doesn't pay to "bomb the hills" if you lose control and are eating some dirt when you get to the bottom. You still must use a certain degree of caution.)

5). The stack height increases your chances of ankle injuries. (The stack height is higher than most trail shoes, but the base is much wider, so it kind of balances out. I didn't feel like I was at any greater risk of ankle injury with either shoe.)

If I had to make any complaints about these shoes, it would be the tread.  The Bondi tread is too soft in mid-sole of the shoe.  I would like to see a tougher tread in future models.  The Stinson tread is tougher, but the lugs are certainly not aggressive enough.  The lugs need to be larger and deeper.

At the end of the day, I would say that I am happy with both pairs of Hokas. Good protection and hopefully long road and trail life. I had long runs of 16 miles in the Bondis and 20 in the Stinsons, but I'm confident either would do well on ultra distance races, and I can't wait to try.