Sunday, February 12, 2012

VIVOBAREFOOT NEO Trail Review: Like Traction?

Most shoes are just that: minimal- just the way we like them. Little cushion, little support, and little weight. This, for the most part, is great. I don't know about the rest of the world, but there have been a few times where I'd gladly carry a little extra weight to keep my face and/or ass out of the mud and/or snow.

Enter the NEO trail.

The folks at VIVOBAREFOOT were kind enough to provide this shoe for my review. As I prepare for an upcoming season of running, I'm on the lookout for great shoes.

First Impression:
-This shoe has one aggressive lug pattern. The lugs on the forefoot are nearly 1/4'' long.
-It's cool looking. The "ligaments" on the shoe give it the look of a lightweight, minimal hiking shoe.
-Fit and finish: As usual with VB, these shoes appear extremely well built.
-A little on the heavy side. With all that rubber on the outsole, not too surprising.
-True zero drop - flat from heel to forefoot(a fundamental design of Terra Plana/VIVOBAREFOOT)
Large forefoot lugs grip snow, mud, and wet sand extremely well.

I was excited to wear the shoes, so I wore them walking around casually first. I never know when running stink will set in in a pair of shoes, so I give them the "casual test" first. When walking on pavement, I could feel the lugs pressing into my feet. This had me thinking the shoes wouldn't make good road shoes. Good thing they're trail shoes, right? We minimalist runners have a tendency to misuse shoes, then gripe about their lackluster performance. The upper was quite comfortable and the shoes were very roomy. Since I've been wearing racing flats lately, this was quite a departure.
These things have tons of room.
So much in fact, that it made driving a manual shift car difficult
They're running shoes, not driving shoes.

On the Run:
The first run in these shoes was a snowy, muddy trail loop here in Michigan. In these conditions, I usually make the choice to either wear my yaktrax or leave them at home. I wanted to see how these shoes performed all on their own.

I wasn't disappointed. On hard packed snow, the NEO Trail gripped like crazy. I was able to power up hills without too much worrying about foot placement. I felt just as confident on the way down. The combination of big lugs and a thin sole works well in this situation. The runner's foot is still low to the ground, but lugs are still there to dig in and do their job.

The shoes also dug sand really well. The lugs are spaced out enough to be self-cleaning and keep digging. Another plus was that the shoes don't have the see-through mesh uppers of most modern minimal shoes. Sometimes you just want to keep the sand and snow out. In a really muddy, sandy, or snowy trail race, I'd pick these shoes and maybe a pair of gaiters.

Roads proved to be the bane of these shoes' existence. They simply aren't road shoes. They felt a bit bulky, and I could feel the lugs pressing into my feet. For this reason, I opted to leave the insoles in. The shoes are voluminous enough that leaving them in still allowed for plenty of wiggle room. If I were running a long race with more than a few miles of road running, I'd leave these at home. As I mentioned before, these aren't marketed as road shoes, and their extreme trail-worthiness doesn't require them to apologize for it.

The NEO Trail is a no-nonsense rugged trail shoe. Rather than pleasing a wide array of runners, this shoe fills a narrow niche very well. The thin yet rugged sole offers a great deal of protection, but the flexibility allows the foot to move as it should.
For an ultrarunner, the shoes could may cause issues on courses with lots of varied terrain. For people who insist on owning only one pair of shoes, they may want to look elsewhere. Love running in mud, sand, or snow? Get a pair! They're also great hiking shoes. The hydrophobic mesh panels keep water out and still breathe. They aren't waterproof, but are much better at repelling water than most minimal shoes out there. This class of shoe employs good ideas that have existed in traditional footwear, and allows our feet to move as they need to.

I think these shoes are the best looking of VBs running lineup.

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