When I first heard of Merrell’s plan to produce a zero dropped cushioned shoe, I was dismayed. I have been a long-term opponent to any cushioning in shoes. The main reason is simple- cushioning increases the force of your foot landing. For a barefoot runner, this is a big deal. Cushioning turns our normally-gentle foot landing into a clomping trot. Unless we consciously lighten our stride. The problem is that cushioned shoes require you to constantly monitor and adjust your stride, something that is normally unconscious. A lapse in concentration means stride falls apart.
Also, cushioning hides bad form. The more you place between the foot and the ground, the more sloppy your form can become before you receive any sort of negative feedback. People will think their form is decent when it may actually be terrible. I see this issue frequently in road races… most recently in the Dallas White Rock Marathon.
So I initially assumed the Bare Access would be a terrible idea.
Four significant things changed my thoughts.
1. I tried a pair of Hoka One One Mafates. While I really didn’t like the shoes due to a complete lack of proprioception, I was able to run with decent form over terrain that would have required more energy if I had been wearing more minimal shoes. I could use a relaxed, deliberate gait in the Hokas, whereas I would have jumped around a lot more in something thin and light. That planted the idea that cushioned shoes may have a good use.
2. The Grindstone 100 kicked my ass. It’s widely regarded as one of the most rugged 100 milers on the East Coast, and it lived up to the title. The Trail Gloves I wore didn’t provide enough protection on the leaf-covered rocks during the night. That began a quest to find a better gnarly technical mountain trail running shoe that still had minimalist qualities.
3. I began rethinking the logic we (barefoot runners) dispense to new barefoot and minimalist runners. Our long-standing recommendation was to begin running barefoot. Add shoes once you learn good form. Avoid raised heels, cushioning, and support. I think barefoot is still the best route, but I’m beginning to lighten up on the other options. The reason is simple- a lot of people have no interest in running barefoot. If we can get them to run with better form in a different shoe, I view that as a success. I think we need to be completely honest about the short-comings of learning good form in various types of shoes, but we probably shouldn’t vilify it as much as we do. We’re turning people off, which is NOT a good thing. I’m not trying to create an exclusive club of pretentious d-bags- I’m trying to convince people there’s a safer, more efficient way to run.
4. Across the Years 72 Hour Footrace. I just finished running this race yesterday. Seventy-two hours is a hell of a long time to be on your feet. The Bare Access was one of seven pairs of shoes I used during the event (the race itself served as an experiment-look for the race report soon!) I ended up putting over 70 miles on these shoes during that time and came to appreciate the cushioning.
All of this transpired between first hearing of the Bare Access and actually getting a pair to test… except for the last. I went from being horrified at the idea to being genuinely excited.
So… how about these shoes?
The shoes are nearly identical to the Road Gloves as far as fit and feel. For those that haven’t tried the Road Gloves, the fit is similar to the Trail Gloves with a different (flatter) foot bed. The cushioning is much stiffer than expected. Less like marshmallows and more like a pair of thick-soled huaraches. That turned out to be a very good thing, which I will get to later.
The sole is flat as it is designed for navigating urban environments. The weight is lighter than expected. I’ll get another scale one of these days, but they are nearly identical to my Trail Gloves.
The liner is designed to be sockless, and it worked pretty well. The shoes did rub at the Achilles. I’m not sure if this will be an issue. My first Road Gloves did the same the first few times I wore them but haven’t had a problem since. I suspect this is more of an issue with my feet.
The lacing system is a standard lacing system. I’m in love with the Omni-fit system and wish these would have used it, but I’d be using these shoes on steep mountain trails, not gently-rolling roads.
The shoe appears to be made on the same last as the rest of Merrell’s barefoot line as the fit is identical to the Trail and Road Gloves. If those models fit your feet, these will, too.
Ventilation is on-par with the Road and Trail Glove, also.
The Intended Use for the Shoe
The shoe is intended to be a transition shoe. If someone is going from a cushioned, supportive trainer to a true barefoot shoe, this would provide a stepping stone. For those that have some injury history or prefer the feel of a more cushioned shoe, the Bare Access could be a good choice. The caveat, of course, is the cushioning is substantial enough to allow pretty bad form. I wouldn’t recommend using any transition shoe unless you have external feedback, the ability to video tape yourself, or are VERY conscious of your form. If you’re confident you can still maintain good form, give them a shot! They will help bridge that gap to a true barefoot shoe.
My Use for the Shoe
I wasn’t interested in the transitional potential of the shoe. I was looking for a mountain running shoe. The Bare Access was a candidate because I knew the fit would be good and the cushioning would serve the same purpose as a rock plate. It would allow me to run over rough terrain I couldn’t easily see. The shoes would serve the same function as Hokas without the ridiculously-high stack height (sole thickness) that makes those shoes dangerously unstable on cambered surfaces.
My trail running “proving grounds” were mountain trails in Arizona. The trails are exceptionally rugged with a high density of sharp, jagged rocks. The trails weren’t obscured, so the testing involved actively stepping on the sharpest rocks I could see.
For the most part, the shoe was a success. The EVA sole provided just the right amount of protection. The sole thickness negated the “pokiness” of the most jagged rocks. That’s exactly what I was looking for.
There are some negatives. The lack of the Omni-fit lacing means it’s difficult to tighten a single set of eyelets without using locking knots. This isn’t a huge issue, but my toes did have a tendency to hit the front of the toe box on steep declines.
The stack height was a little more than I was used to, which made proprioception worse than the Trail Gloves. It was, however, a little better than the New Balance MT110s.
The cushioning, while much harder than I expected, still robbed a little efficiency. Having a hard surface under foot allows for a more efficient gait. That little bit of “give” gave the shoes a slight feeling like running in hard sand. Because of this effect, I think a thin sole with a hard rock plate would function better than a softer, thicker cushioned shoe for rugged mountain running.
The zero drop heel was very nice compared to the few models that have a minimally-rasied 4-6mm heel. I thought 4mm wouldn’t be an issue on trails… until I tweaked my knee outside Las Vegas.
The flat road running sole performed very well on bare, dusty rock, though it would probably suck in mud or on gravel-laden hills.
The other testing condition was over the pancake-flat hard-packed gravel and asphalt of the one mile Across the Years loop. I used the shoes for both running and walking- from approximately mile 35 to 105 or so. The hard cushioning turned out to be awesome as the miles and hours piled up. Softer cushioning would have altered form too much; no cushioning would have been harder on the soles of my feet. Again, I’ll talk about this more in my Across the Years race report.
The Bare Access turned out to be better than I expected. As a transition shoe, it will work if used correctly. As technical mountain running shoe, it performed better than anything else I’ve tried except maybe my modified “Mountain” Gloves. As a long-distance road shoe, it worked well. If I were running anything up to and including a marathon, I’d stick with the Road Glove. I’d bust out the Bare Access on the longer distances. This shoe should work well in the right situations… a good tool to have in the toolbox. If I end up using these for a mountain ultra, I’ll post the results of the experimentation.