Based on my experiences with my own search for minimalist shoes, as well as that of others, finding the right shoe to protect one's foot is always an ongoing experiment. The shoe must be responsive and thin enough to approximate barefoot running. There must be enough protection to make it more comfortable than barefoot running. This balancing act is certainly not a "one size fits all" situation. The continuum of keeping ground feel and adding protection is a different for any runner on any terrain. This is one reason that I'm surprised at the uproar and defensiveness exhibited by shoe companies a few months back, when barefoot running was getting a great deal of press. I'd consider myself a part-time barefoot runner, one that attempts to maintain a "naturalist" style of running, no matter whats on my feet. I currently own 5 pairs of "minimalist" shoes(minimalist being the relatively recent term given to thin soled shoes with no supportive features). These shoes are Vibram Fivefingers KSOs and KSO Treks, New Balance MT100s, an old pair of Nike Waffle Racer IVs(with the heel hacked off and the upper sliced up) and most recently, the Terra Plana EVO. The total value of these shoes is over $400. How could the shoe industry be worried about losing money? I've probably bought more shoes since my journey into minimalism began.
As I mentioned, I was given a new pair of EVOs to test out, with the stipulation that I write a review of them. I waited with much anticipation, and they arrived pretty quickly from the store in New York. If the service I received was representative of what any other customer will experience, then the company was well on its way to my approval already. I anxiously opened the cool-looking box, read through a little literature on "getting started," and looked at the shoes. After inspecting them closely, I found the quality be exceptional(not that I'm some sort of textiles expert). There were no seams in the upper, which looked and felt very breathable. The mesh upper was thin(almost transparent, with a lightweight, rubberized overlay on top of it, presumably to give it some rigidity and some strength). I immediately folded the shoe, curious about the flexibility. The shoe folded easily, ranking somewhere between KSOs and Treks with relation to flexibility. The design is a fairly ingenious idea- the hexagonal panels on the sole are rather thick, but the material between them is thin. The small hexagonal panels provide some protection because of their thickness, but the flexibility comes from the thin material in between. Where more flexibility is required,such as the forefoot, the panels are smaller and closer together, providing more ground feel and dexterity than the larger panels on the heel.
About and hour after trying the shoe on, I decided it was time to take them out to test. I drove to a local land preserve to conduct the test, but thought I should run in them on the road first. The plan was to do a 6 mile road run, then do about 4 in the trails, so I could get a feel for how the shoe behaves on both terrains.
The 6 miles I ran on the road went very well. I started out sore, but that was likely a leftover ache from the previous day's run. Once I loosened up, I was running at my normal pace, feeling as loose and easy as I do in my current favorite road shoe, the KSO. I was surprised by how the thicker sole performed on the road. The flexibility allowed me to feel road debris and gravel, but also dampened the jagged edges of some of the bigger chunks of gravel I stepped on. The heel has no discernible lift to it, so the sole performs well for a person who normally runs barefoot or in another minimalist shoe. My problem with most shoes is the raised heel, which seems to alter my biomechanics to a point of knee pain. The wide toe box of the shoe allowed my feet to splay as they do when barefoot. This is a key part to the "natural" feel of a good minimalist shoe. Racing flats, for example, tend to have the narrow toe box that binds the foot and restricts the splaying motion. I headed back on the nature preserve to conduct the rest of the test in the woods.
I returned to the trailhead to start the trail portion of the shoe test. I stopped at my car to grab some more water and a gel(I hadn't eaten in a few hours; I was getting hungry). I felt a bit of a hot spot on my foot, on my achilles of my left foot. I was a little worried, but decided to carry on. The trails are semi-technical, but not a great challenge to run on. There are roots, rocks, hills, loose sand, and singletrack trails on a 4 mile loop .
The trails felt amazing in the EVO. The ground feel was quite impressive, but the thin sole made it very stable. The closeness to the ground, coupled with the respectable traction made the shoe handle very well on the trail. The upper is composed of a mesh that is very tight, so sand and debris doesn't get into the shoe(a common problem with very well-ventilated shoes) In semi-loose conditions, the sole provided good traction, more so than KSOs. On very technical sections, I had to exercise more caution than I would in an "armored" shoe like the New Balance 100. Sharp roots and rocks can certainly be felt in the EVO, but it is worthwhile compromise on all but very rocky trails with fast descents.
Later that day, I ran with Alex Poulsen, my training partner and an amazingly fast runner. He's been dabbling in barefoot and minimalist running with fantastic results. I asked him to try out the shoe to provide the point of view of a person going from more standard shoes TO minimalist shoes. My running experience over the past 2 years is either barefoot or minimalist shoes, so we come from different backgrounds. Alex has done some training in aquasocks and some barefoot, but trains primarily in NikeLunaracers(with about 800 hard miles on them). He really liked the shoe for the duration of our run. We even stopped by the track so he could do a quick(really quick) 400m. He really liked the shoe and is considering buying a pair. He is already a very efficient runner, so muscle memory and good form more than made up for any lack of ground feel in the shoe. The shoe earned his seal of approval as well.
I really like this shoe. Anyone looking for an alternative to the popular Vibram Fivefingers would be well-advised to consider the EVO. The fit is much more forgiving because the foot is allowed to simply move inside the shoe, as opposed to the more precise fit required with Vibrams. The toe box is wide for my feet to move around, but I have normal width feet. Quality seems to be top notch and the design works really well. I would assume that the thickness of the sole will provide a long life for the shoe. The more conventional design allows for socks and draws much less attention than Vibrams, although they are certainly cool looking. Unlike Vibrams, I enjoy wearing the EVO for casual wear and walking around on campus and in town because they are so comfortable. They really do provide a feel that is close to barefootedness(as much as they can- they are shoes after all), but less stares and objections in public(there is NO law against being barefoot in public, but some are mistaken and can fiercely object).
As I mentioned before, the shoe is not perfect. The aforementioned hot spot on my achilles sidelined me for three days. It quickly turned to a large blister that became inflammed and kept me from running comfortably. I cannot entirely blame the shoe. 10 miles on a shoe, never having been tested, without socks, is a bit excessive. I do, however, feel that a minimalist shoe can be worn with no socks to provide the best ground feel. Maybe slowly conditioning my skin to the upper would allow me to wear the EVO sockless. The shoes are also a little on the heavy side when compared to KSOs. Even the NB100, a more substantial shoes, weighs about the same(I must admit, the weight is not very noticeable while running). Finally, my only other gripe about the shoe is the price. Terra Plana is certainly a shoe company for people who are willing to pay top dollar for products of the utmost quality. Their casual shoes retail for similar prices as the EVO(about $160US). Many people, especially those who are fans of minimal shoes, seem to feel that shoes should be cheap and last forever. A price in this range is quite unpopular with people who feel this way. I tend to feel the opposite way. There is about the same amount of material and labor in an EVO as a cushioned trainer. I don't feel that "features" found on traditional running shoes are worth anything at all, so value being placed on simplicity makes a great deal of sense to me. All in all, the Terra Plana EVO is a great shoe for those who run barefoot and want some protection, or even those who run in shoes and would like some benefits of barefoot running.