I like to run in mountains. Under normal conditions, Merrell’s Trail Gloves perform brilliantly. However, when running fast, in the dark, or over hidden terrain, the lack of a true hard rock plate can result in some seriously bruised soles.
I’ve tried a few other shoe, but everything else either offers less protection or WAY too much protection. The best of the bunch is New Balance’s new MT110. The fit isn’t spectacular on my foot, the lacing isn’t as good as the Trail Glove, and the slightly thicker sole limits proprioception. It’s an adequate solution, but I’d prefer something that wouldn’t require so many tradeoffs. Instead of waiting around for the perfect mountain shoe, I decided to build my own by hacking a pair of Trail Gloves.
Would my modded Trail Gloves, which I’m dubbing “Mountain Gloves”, outperform the MT110s?
I needed something to add to provide protection without dramatically affecting weight or traction. Adding something outside the outsole was impractical. The only real solution was an insole-type insert. I decided to make something that covered the entire sole as arch and heel bruising can be a problem when you can’t see the terrain. I needed something hard, moderately flexible, thin, and light. After digging around our trailer, I found some potential materials- a thin plastic-ish cutting board and a Rubbermaid storage container lid.
Experiment #1: The Cutting Board
Construction started with tracing the sole on the board. Since the insole would extend the entire length of the shoe, I just traced the entire outsole then drew another line about 5mm in from the original. The arch extends inward quite far as I need minimal protection in that specific location.
Since I couldn’t cut the cutting board, I used a soldering iron to “melt out” the shapes. This worked well as it was both accurate and fast.
Once I cut out the shapes, I rounded the edges with some course sandpaper. I loosened the laces of the shoes and slid the insoles in. The shape of the insole holds it in place so there’s no need to affix it inside the shoe.
The initial testing revealed two issues:
1. The thickness of the plate made the toe box a little too snug. Toes can still splay, but swelling could be an issue in long ultras.
2. The thickness of the plate moves the heel collar down on my ankle. This may cause the shoe to come off if torqued to the side.
Despite these two issues, the plate works exactly as planned. The hard material protects the foot while still maintaining decent flexibility and proprioception at a minimal weight cost. The surface of the plate (hard plastic) wasn’t as comfortable as the normal foot bed, but it was still adequate.
The first test was going well… until I felt a rock in my left shoe. I took the shoe off and gave it a good shake. To my surprise, a hunk of the cutting board fell out. Apparently it is impervious to knives, but also brittle. The plate had cracked in two places and a hunk had fallen off.
On to option 2.
Experiment #2: The Rubbermaid Top
I used the same basic method to build these plates. The material isn’t as thick, but more flexible. Protection isn’t quite as good, but the thin material eliminates most of the fit issues experienced with the cutting board. It also allows for better proprioception. I think I may have found a winning material.
To make the inserts more comfortable, I wrapped the top in cloth medical tape. In theory, this will help prevent the foot from sliding on the slippery plastic and should add to the comfort level.
In practice, it was only marginally better than bare plastic and developed a small hole after one test run up and down a mountain. This tape is definitely not an option. Athletic tape may be more durable.
As far as performance, these felt better than the cutting board insoles. The added flexibility was nice. The reduced protection was noticeable, but sufficient to prevent pain from stepping on very sharp rocks. These insoles allowed me to bomb down the mountain without any discomfort. The slightly lower thickness gave my feet a little more room within the shoe, and the added proprioception gave me more control.
The Big Question
Okay, so the inserts provide the needed protection the stock Trail Gloves lack… but are the ‘Mountain Gloves” better than the MT110s?
Yes and no.
The modded Trail Gloves maintained most of the great fit, but moving up one size may provide even more comfort. The lacing of the TG kept my foot in place much better than the MT110. The stickier sole provided better traction on bare rock faces. The overall thickness of the Mountain Glove is thinner than the MT110, which provided better proprioception.
The New Balance does have some advantages. The foot bed of the MT110s was more comfortable. The fabric-over-EVA insole was more comfortable than my medical tape-over-plastic insole. The lugs of the MT110 gave me better traction in mud and dirt.
Ultimately, my decision on which shoe to use will be determined by the terrain and conditions. I’ll continue to use unmodded Trail Gloves for 90% of my trail running. When excessively sharp rocks and/or visibility become an issue, I’ll opt for the added protection of one of these shoes. The MGs would be better on rocky terrain with lots of climbs and descents. The MT110s would be better in dirt and mud on a flatter course.
My Mountain Gloves would be infinitely better if the rock plate were incorporated into the midsole and covered with one or two millimeters of EVA. They could also use a slightly more aggressive tread pattern, though that would hurt their performance on solid rock. It would be a tradeoff I’d accept. The thinner sole, zero-dropped heel, and Omni-Fit lacing system are definite advantages.