[The following post was written by BRU contributing writer Kate Kift. Read more of Kate's work here, and check out her blog "Ramblings on Barefoot Running, Motherhood, and Life."]
At the moment whenever a new minimalist shoe is in development or is about to be released, the internet is swamped with press-releases and reviews. It’s such a growing and popular market that new shoes are blogged and discussed on the forums months before they ever hit the shelves. Just use “Google” and you will see.
The anticipation for each new entry into the minimalist market is so heated that if it wasn’t for the fact that minimal and barefoot runners are still a small percentage of running shoe sales (obviously), there would be line ups and camp-outs at the Running stores. Heck, I have just spent 2 months pestering Merrell; asking them when the Pace Gloves were coming to Canada and THEN happily paying a 30% mark-up so I could be one of the few in Canada to own them. None of us are immune to the latest fashion.
So it’s rare when a minimalist shoe comes into the market and is still unknown, relatively untested and undocumented. I am lucky however to have been instrumental in the development of this shoe and have been one of the few -in fact the only one- to have tested it.
I am talking about the “Smithie”. As far as development goes, the company that makes this shoe, “KittyK Inc” has created this shoe with limited funds and a quick development cycle. Forget the millions spent on research and design. Forget the months sourcing materials from the leading manufacturers, this shoe was conceived (and developed) over a bottle of wine and the uppers/soles were sourced from Mountain Equipment Co-Op [MEC] – the Canadian version of REI.
The purpose of designing and creating this shoe was to fit a very specific consumer demand. Its goal was to appeal to the 35-40 year old trail runners, who had to find a winter alternative to Vibram Five Finger’s but who were sufficiently miserly that the didn’t want to pay $100-180 for a pair of shoes whilst waiting for the Merrell Barefoot range to come out.
The creation of this shoe was documented on my blog a little while back and I am happy to say after a winter of running in them I can now feel confident to finally write up a review of it’s performance.
Over the last 3 or so months I have probably logged about 150-200 miles in these shoes, 80-90% of it on easy(ish) trail.
On taking them out of the box – oh wait, there isn’t a box. Right, so the initial impressions part of the review is out of the window. Okay, next step.
The weight was calculated using a precise scientific method. Five year old digital kitchen scales are, as we know, the latest method of determining the mass of a minimalist shoe. See all those blogs out there; thousands of reviewers can’t be wrong. Weighing in at 8.1oz a pair, they are lighter than the equivalent sized ‘Vibram Five Finger Classics’ and the ‘Merrell Pace Gloves’.
On the first run it became apparent that there was a lot of rubbing from the upper shoe material. As there is no tightening mechanism -no VFF straps or Merrell lacing here, thank you very much- there was no way to secure the upper material tightly to the foot. Unfortunately this meant that socks, (inijini, were the best), had to be worn. As it was pretty cool and wet out there and I am a huge tenderfoot – blame funky toes and drunken accidents – this didn’t prove an issue for me.
What was also apparent on the first run was the warmth. I had spent the Autumn season with frozen toes and it was heavenly to actually have sensation in the bottom of my feet. One reason for needing to help create an alternative, was that the Five Finger seperated toe system was literally leaching the heat from my feet. As a consequence I was landing harder than I would have liked and was suffering “stone bruising” on my sole during trail runs. This was immediately cured with the “Smithies”.
The 4mm Neoprene upper and sole in fact kept my feet very warm. I managed a -7C (20F) run where my feet were so warm that I left little sweat marks on the laminate flooring as I entered the house after the run. I have also run with them in torrential rain, hail and snow, all with no problems with warmth. They are very water-resistant and kept my feet very dry. You have to remember I am a runner who likes warm, dry feet as much as possible. In fact the warmer and dryer the better. If we could move the Vancouver trails to somewhere say.. California then I would be ecstatic.
The additional 1-2mm “Shoe Goo” (or in this case it’s competitor “Free-Sole”) and sand layer did mean that the ground feel wasn’t brilliant initially. However I am happy to say that the Neoprene layer broke down quite quickly, added to the fact that the “glue/sand” layer did wear on the trails, within a week or two, the ground-feel seriously improved. I would say that the forefoot, midfoot and heel part of the shoe are only about 1-2ish mm now. There is obviously no heel-toe-drop in these shoes – heck, it’s a water sock! It is also very flexible which means I can do that “rolling the shoe into a ball” thing that you see other minimalist shoe reviewers do.
Another advantage of the Neoprene breaking down was that the shoe effectively “moulded” itself to my foot shape. You can clearly see on the shoe the shape of my arch and if you are brave enough to feel inside, you can feel the indentations where my toes and forefoot have battered the minimal cushioning to the (now) 1mm layer. This “wearing-in” also improved the fit and reduced the rubbing associated with the upper. Still not enough to allow you to run in them sock-less but enough that your socks aren’t being destroyed.
As to dis-advantages, the glue and sand layer initially does create a lot of grip on the trails, but this does wear down and the traction does deteriorate. Also because the sole is made from “Shoe-goo” (or it’s competitor) it will need a new layer added every 150 miles or so. Saying that, this “maintenance” is very cheap and easy to do at home. At $5 for a tube of “Free-sole” and the sand stolen from your kiddies sand table, it’s not as if it will break the bank. The actual repair takes only minutes, although you will need to leave 24 hours for the glue to cure, which if you are running multiple runs a day could be an issue. Remember to put on the layer of sand after 3-4 hours have elapsed after the glue stage. I forgot this and found the new sole to be very slick. It’s not unusable, but it does make trail running very… ummm interesting. If you aren’t an experienced minimal trail runner you could find a very quick trip to the ER.
Another dis-advantage is that they aren’t very pretty to look at. Don’t expect people to come up to you and marvel at it’s funky design. However, they do not go un-noticed. It just depends on the type of notice you are looking for. If it’s for a “wow, those shoes are bright and shiny” you will be disappointed. If however you are looking to be noticed for your ingenuity and crafting skills they are a winner.
The beauty of this shoe is firstly and most importantly it price; they cost $22 to create and additional $5 for each maintenance period. They also seem to be wearing very well. After 150-200 miles and one repair they are still going strong. I could see these shoes lasting well into next winter and despite now having the Merrells I will be using them occasionally on my easier trail runs as a “form-training” tool. They are very good at perfecting and maintaining good running form. If you aren’t completely balanced then you will know about it – probably by the above mentioned trip to the ER. I have managed to become a better runner after my half-repair. I have also had the most terrifying and exhilarating run’s due to the forgotten sand layer. Fear of the paramedics finding you on the trail is enough to spice up any boring run. Saying that, if the paramedic was cute.. umm.. I would have to weigh up the pro-s and con’s between the fantasy of being rescued by a handsome stranger on a forest trail and the humiliation of having the cute stranger see me in my TMI running tights and a horrific fractured femur.
The second beauty, if you are a tech-geek like me, is that this shoe is completely “open-source”. It’s the ‘Ubuntu’ of the minimalist running shoe market. The development plans and techniques are not hidden behind NDA’s and big legal departments. If you want to make your own version of the “Smithies” then go ahead. Get the development equipment (Neoprene water shoes, “Shoe-Goo” and sand), download basic instructions (oh, there isn’t any, well make it up) and you too can have your own version. Okay, you don’t have the fancy barefoot how-to-run guides on a website. You can’t download a funky little app to go on your Apple iWhatever. There aren’t video’s of some corporate guys kicking a ball on a trail, but that’s the point of an open-source community; you don’t rely on the big corporations to support you, we rely on ourselves.
As you can tell, I am very proud of my work in the development of these shoes. I know this makes a biased review, but I think the fact that everyone can experience the same thrill of making their own minimalist shoes negates that a little.
The ultimate reason I have created this review -my first- is because I will use the “Smithies” as a benchmark in my other reviews. If another company can make a pair of minimalist shoes for less than $30 that is so unique and provides as much fun, then I will gladly change my criteria, but until then…
Merrell, Vibram and all you big name players, you have your work cut out for you. Go on… Impress me!