Thursday, June 5, 2014

Volans 2, in a League of Its Own

About four weeks ago, I got a call from Asep Hadian, the product manager at League, a local (Indonesia) shoe manufacturer. Asep asked if I'd be interested to get a pair of their latest model, the Volans 2 and write a review. My response was "if I can write what I genuinely feel about the shoes, good and/or bad, sure."

Three weeks went by and the shoes did not come. I thought that my "offer" of a tell-it-like-it-is review might have scared them off.

Earlier this week, a package arrived at my doorstep.





Here's my initial impression after a couple of runs in the Volans 2:



The Volans 2 with aftermarket laces.



FIT and FINISH:

As I have wide feet, I was worried that the Volans 2 might be too narrow and constricting to my feet.




On first impression, the airy mesh upper material seems to be flexible and (hopefully) accommodating to my feet.




The above picture (my five-fingers visible) shows the Volans 2 to be wide enough. It's certainly no Altra in the toebox department, but it's comfortable enough up there, likewise the width around the midfoot area.

The photos also show the abundance of "airy-mesh" material all over the shoe. The holes (perforation) in the mesh material seems to be bigger than other shoes, for example, the Skechers GoRun series. I believe League did this to shave the weight off.

Though durability may be a concern, I am liking what I feel wearing and walking with the shoes around the house.

Kudos to League for producing a shoe that can stand toe-to-toe with international brands.

RIDE and COMFORT

At 240 grams (8.5 oz) per shoe, the Volans 2 is light, and they feel the part.





Added with the well-perforated mesh material from toe to the heel of the shoe, the Volans 2 feels minimalist.










The mesh material extends to the back of the shoe, which has a semi-soft heel collar.


In terms of overall comfort, the Volans 2 feels like a 'thin yet secure envelope' for my feet (GOOD), something which I didn't expect before putting them on.




League says the Volans 2's stack height is 22 mm heel, with 14 mm at the toe. The 8 mm drop is an anomaly, since the shoe presents itself as a minimalist, but with higher than the 0-6 mm "norm" of this genre.

Here are a few photos comparing the Volans 2 side-to-side with well-known shoes:


The League's 8 mm drop, visible when compared with the Altra Torin (RW lists the Altra as having 20 mm stack height from heel to toe, a zero-drop shoe).



With the Adios Boost.



Looking curiously as tall as the NB FF 980, albeit the League seems much more "airy."


The League with Newton Energy NR



The Volans 2 besides the Skechers Go Run 2.



Now comes the litmus test, the RIDE of the shoe. The midsole is good 'ol EVA which League names "CushLITE" Handling the shoe and feeling the airy mesh material of the upper, I had expected a soft ride similar to Skechers' Resalyte in the GoRun series. 

From the two runs that I tried them on, the ride of the Volans 2 is firmer than the Resalyte's, without being harsh to the legs and feet.

The Volans 2 is a little muted in terms of road feedback, but still giving plenty of chatter to keep our feet alert.

Overall, I am pleasantly surprised with the ride, as the feel is responsive without being harsh.


CONCLUSION

As an Indonesian, I am very happy for League. The Volans 2 is a legitimate shoe.

I didn't expect to like the shoe, but the Volans 2 is looking to be a solid part of my rotation.

Best of all would be the sticker price, which at Rp. 449.000 is equivalent to roughly US$ 37 (thirty seven US dollars).



With the inexpensive price, the overall up-to-par quality, I am giving the League Volans 2 a solid two thumbs up!




Made in Indonesia. And able to stand on its own two feet.

I am a happy camper.



As the following photos would show, the shoes themselves are no slouch either in terms of look.







******


DISCLAIMER: I received the Volans 2 as a review shoe, but I am not receiving any monetary compensation from League for this blog post. The comments herein are entirely my own.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Certified Fresh! Initial review of New Balance Fresh Foam 980.


The Fresh Foam 980 on display at the New Balance concept store, Singapore.

This is a brief review of New Balance's latest offering, the 'maximalist' Fresh Foam 980. It is NB's first foray into this 'new' TLD (Tall Low Drop) category, perhaps pioneered by shoes such as the Hokas and the Altras. Skechers Performance Division also got into the game, via their max-cushioned Go Run Ultra.

NB's 'maximalist' (FF 980) vs. its own 'minimalist' (Hi-Rez)

If shoe trend comes in waves, I guess the minimalist wave is transforming into the maximalist one, the latter somewhat defined as follows:
  • cushioning of 20 mm or more
  • heel-to-toe drop of 6 mm or less
  • weighing less than 360 grams (12.5 oz) for US size 9
  • adequate toebox room

So how does the FF 980 fare?

FIT

Early reviews of the Fresh Foams indicate they are narrow. As I have wide feet, my immediate reaction upon reading the articles on the 980 = "not happening!" 

When I visited a running specialty store which has the 980s, they only had the 980 in 2E (wide). Hmm.. "perhaps this is meant to be. Let's try it on."

The 980 in 2E fit my foot perfectly. Snug in the middle to forefoot, adequate toebox, and perfect length. 

The 980 with the Altra Torin

When I stood in the FF 980 for the first time, I was expecting "plush sofa" soft, but instead I felt an Altra Torin's firm-but-not-hard footbed. The slight difference was the New Balance felt just a tad more plush. Long story short, the 980 came home with me.

The 980 features a no-sew upper with welded overlays. Combined with the new Fresh Foam midsole, the overall package is beefy-yet-snug-and-light.

Very thick tongue, which fortunately didn't cause any discomfort in terms of fit and ride.

There is adequate toebox room, aided by the fact my pair is the 2E version. In other words, wide-footed runners may want to stay away from the regular D version.

This is 10.5 (US) in 2E width


RIDE and COMFORT

At 290 grams (10.2 oz, for size US 10,5) per shoe, the FF 980 is a LIGHT maximalist.


With a stack height (from RW's blog) of about 26/22 mm (heel/toe), the FF profile is similar to Skechers' Go Run Ultra (see photo immediately below this paragraph). This NB feels unique during the run, with the midsole a tad more plush than the Altra Torin, but not as soft as Skechers' Resalyte.


Unlike the Hokas, there is no rocker midsole to aid stride transition. With the shoe being neither flexible nor stiff, the ride will largely depend on the 'fresh foam' midsole.

The Fresh Foam side-by-side with the Hoka Bondi Speed.

After two test runs, I am happy to report the FF 980 is a responsive shoe, with slightly muted road feedback, and plenty-of-protection feel. 

Plush foam extends to the heel cup area.

**note** A few runners who've tried running in the FF are saying the ride to be hard towards harsh; a firmness which I didn't feel.  I believe the runner's weight comes into play here. As a heavy runner (I am 180 cm / 93 kg , or 6 ft/ 205 lbs), I find the ride to be adequately plush with a touch of (welcome) firmness. There is no 'bucket-seat' enveloped sensation a la the Hoka's, but there is also the absence of the slight marshamallowy ride of the Go Run Ultra (the latter is a good thing).

TECHNOLOGY: 

I am always wary about shoe-related "technology," as I believe that the primary "technician," i.e. the runner, is the most important part of the endeavor. The Fresh Foam midsole is claimed to be a new technology, where the different sizes of the hexagonal patterns (see photo immediately below this paragraph) of the EVA midsole supposedly translate to a cushioned-yet-light-and-smooth ride. 


Runner's World on the FF 980 = "Soft foams can easily deform under weight and create an unstable surface. So, the data, basically a report of ground reaction forces, influences the shape and size of hexagonal structures around the midsole and the bottom of the rubber outsole to deliver a soft yet stable ride. Areas that experience higher impact get larger hexagonal structures. And areas that need added support--such as the medial (inner) edge of the heel--take on a concave shape so that there's more material there to give light stability under foot. A convex design is placed in areas where the shoe should compress more, like the outer edge of the heel or inner edge alongside your big toe."

The different sized hexagonal patterns extend to the full-layer of rubber outsole.

In practice, I am finding the ride of the Fresh Foam to be unique. Neither as soft as Skechers' Resalyte, and nor the snug-sofa feel of the Hoka. 

The 980's different-sized hexagonal patterns, from mid to outsole, provides, at least to me, a cushioned-yet-bouncy ride.

CONCLUSION:

After being largely underwhelmed when I first ran in the Skechers GoRun Ultra (subsequently better running experience with the GRU afterwards, by removing the insoles), I was curious but not keen to try NB's foray into the tall-low-drop game, the Fresh Foam 980 (FF 980).

The 980 so-called "Fresh Foam" (not actually new material, still same ol' EVA, but drawn up differently from the design phase) is proving to be different than other midsoles I've tried, including the Adidas Boost.


The FF's fit is snug at the mid-to-forefoot, even for the 2E pair that I purchased. The tongue is curiously thick but fortunately didn't distract in any way. The no-sew upper (welded overlays) envelope my feet securely. For wide feet, stay away from the D width.

Overall, this NB didn't feel tall. The FF 980, at least for me, provides a smooth ride, with enough protection felt through the Fresh Foam midsole, as well as good (not great) road feedback.


Temporary verdict = this FF is personally "certified fresh!" until more runs say otherwise.


Certified Fresh!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Six Feet. Under Ten - A Compareview

Two trends seem to be underway in early 2014, running shoes that are light yet cushioned. With 10 oz / 280 grams (for US size 10 Men) as the maximum weight for this compareview, it allows the inclusion of Skechers Performance Division's latest shoe (December 2013 release), the GoRun ULTRA, heretofore referred to as GRU. 

As Skechers' first foray into the ultra-cushioned segment, the GRU, with a stack height of 27 mm heel/23 mm forefoot (from +Peter Larson's recent blog post on the GRU), is one rather tall shoe. Here's a photo comparing the GRU to the stack-height King, the Hoka Eva Stinson Tarmac:



This compareview will take a look at the following six shoes:


  1. Nike Free Flyknit
  2. Topo RR
  3. Skechers Go Run Ultra (GRU)
  4. Skechers Go Run Ride 3 (GRR3)
  5. Karhu Flow 3
  6. Under Armour SpeedForm

Not all of the six are cushioned. But each of them is below 300 grams for my size 11 (and definitely below 10 oz for size 10) and chosen for specific reasons.


The Topo because it's Tony Post (ex CEO of Vibram) first creation after he left the five-finger perch, and because of the unique "ninja" look.



The Karhu because of its Fulcrum technology.



The Nike because of the unique combination of a full Flyknit upper and Free midsole.



The Speedform because it is UA's first inroad to the "serious runners" market (whatever this means).



Last but not least would be the 2 Skechers, because I've been a fan of their Peformance Division's products starting from the original GoRun.


Though all six are light, these shoes range from minimalist to "maximalist." Let the compareview begins.

FIT and FINISH:



I have wide feet, which plays a lot into my shoe choice. Fortunately, all six shoes fit my foot well from toe to heel.

I was a worried when I first looked at the Skechers GRR3, since they seem to have too many mixture of materials/overlay going on at the top (compared to previous iterations). The occasional upside of having more materials is a more structured (secure fit) shoes. Fortunately, in the GRR 3's case, this proves true, the shoes being more solid in feel than previous issues of the GoRunRides.



All six shoes have adequate to plenty of toebox room.


As the above photo shows, all six shoes provide ample toebox room, passing with flying colors in this department. The unique shoe here is the Topo, as its construction frees up the single big toe to point in any direction!

In terms of being most minimal, both the Nike and Under Armour take the crown. The Nike, with its one piece knitted-flexible-cloth upper, fits like a real sock, one that has the Free 5.0 midsole "attached" at the bottom.


The UA Speedform is also a work of wonders, having been conceived in a bra factory, using the logic that a woman's breast is the hardest to "cup" securely yet comfortably (it DOES sound like the challenge on the minds of shoe manufacturers/wearers). Combining bra "technology" and a spacesuit was presumably how the UA Speedform came about.



In terms of "technology at work," I would say that the Nike has won out against the Speedform, in terms of achieving the second-skin effect, shoes that disappear on your feet upon wearing (not necessarily when running in them).

The UA is no slouch either, being one of the most flexible shoes out there, and a seamless construction from front to back. The last of the minimal breed in this compareview is the Topo, with its ninja (tabi) split-toe construction, and BOA lacing system. The Topo is, thank God, comfortable to wear with a good fit and excellent construction quality.

The next three shoes are Karhu Flow 3, and the two Skechers. The Karhu has a fairly firm heel cup, while the Skechers GRR3 offers only slight heel support from the play of materials at the back of the shoes. The GRU has a heel counter, which is perhaps necessitated by its tall stack height (to help secure the highly-positioned feet in place).

Most important of all would be how all of the above work in real life, in terms of fit and finish. Here's my personal ranking from 1 (best) to 6 (least best):
  1. Skechers GRR3
  2. Nike Free Flyknit
  3. UA Speedform
  4. Karhu Flow 3
  5. Topo RR
  6. Skechers GRU

HEEL to TOE:

These six shoes range from zero drop (the Topo RR) to 9 mm differential in the Nike Free Flyknit (according to Running Warehouse). The Karhu is at 5mm and the UA is at 6mm.

Of interesting note would be the Skechers, since the insoles in both is designed to be removable. Without the insole, both Skechers are at 4mm drop. With the insole, both Skechers become an 8mm drop shoe.


Here's my initial verdict on this removable insole "system" of the two Skechers: 


** REMOVE the insoles for a better running experience **


WHO'S TALLER? YOU or ME?

The Nike (9mm drop) looking somewhat similar in profile to the 0 drop Topo

Two FRESH (!) minimal shoes, the Flyknit and the UA SpeedForm

Karhu Flow 3 holding its own vs the Topo "ninja"

Both under 299 grams, yet worlds apart.

GROUND FEEL

More ground feel does not necessarily translate to more comfort, thus the separate category here. As expected in shoes weighing less than 10 oz (US size 10 Men), the shoes here give good to great feedback, with 1 being the best to 6 being the least-best:
  1. Topo RR
  2. Nike Free Flyknit
  3. UA Speedform
  4. Skechers GRR3 (w/out insole)
  5. Karhu Flow 3
  6. Skechers GRU (w/ out insole)

It is no coincidence this particular ranking correlates closely to the weights of the shoes, with the Nike being the exception. Although the Flyknit is heavier (and higher-drop than the Speedform), its sock-like construction really produces great road feedback, more so than the lesser-weight UA.

All six shoes are less than 10 oz at US size 10.



RIDE and COMFORT

More important than all the above would be the feel, i.e. the ride and comfort of these six shoes.

In addition to construction and weight, another important comfort factor is usually the shoe's flexibility.


The photo shows all six as plenty flexible, with the GRU being the least limber, due to the thickest midsole in the group.  

At one end of the spectrum would be the Topo, which gives the best ground feel and feedback, without much of a "ride." The tabi split-toe construction of the Topo does enhance the barefoot feel, ideal for days when we want to really connect with the pavement. 

This spectrum's other end would be the GRU, which at 27 mm heel stack-height provides a soft ride, with considerably less road feedback. Right smack in the middle would be the Karhu, which is a light all-around trainer. I don't feel the 'fulcrum' (inverted triangle in midsole area), which is perhaps a good thing. Nothing stands out and scream "new tech" in the Karhu, but the shoe just works like the middle-class is wont to do. Just below the Karhu, in terms of being minimal, would be the Under Armour. The Speedform is a special shoe, and it feels different when you first hold it. Riding this UA makes one feel fast (actual speed differs from one runner to another, slowpoke here speaking), an ideal speedwork or 5K race shoe.

My unscientific belief is a flexible shoe will increase our proprioception, heightening our awareness of foot-strides vis-a-vis our balancing act while running. In this regard, the Nike Free Flyknit, with its socklike (second-skin) fit and flexible Free midsole, provides the best combination of protection and comfort, while still allowing great road feedback.

The caveat is in the long-haul 'protection' department, as I have only taken the Nike up to 9 miles in one outing. I would hesitate to use the Flyknit, UA, Karhu and Topo for more than a half-marathon distance. For 13 miler and up, my shoe of choice in this group would be the GRR 3, without the insole.


The GRR3 (right) with the Newton Energy NR

The GRU (right) with the Altra Torin

The GRR3 (right) with the Adios Boost

Where does this leave the Go Run Ultra? The GRU, at least to me, feels a bit "tall" and marshamallowy, this coming from someone who enjoys the Hoka Bondi Speed (not so much the Hoka Eva Stinson Tarmac). Initially, I was not sure if it was Skechers' Resalyte compound being too soft to be thick, or the absence of a Hoka-like bucket seat platform, but my first ride in the GRU (with the insole) was a disappointment. Thankfully, things change for the better once I took the insoles out. The GRU, sans insole, is light yet very suited for recovery runs. It still feels tall (as would any shoe with stack height over 25mm), but with the insole out of the way, I am enjoying more road feedback, with my foot sitting deep enough in the shoe to be secure, and able to utilize the ultra-cushioning to full (positive) effect.



The GRU (right) towering over the original Go Bionic Ride

In terms of ride and comfort, the ranking from 1 (best) to 6 (least best) would be:
  1. Skechers GRR 3
  2. Nike Free Flyknit
  3. Karhu Flow 3
  4. UA Speedform
  5. Skechers GRU
  6. Topo RR

The Topo is listed at no. 6 simply because it does not provide a comfortable ride for the long run. It provides the plentiest road feedback, and it is great as a "stride don't strike" training shoe. It's just not a comfortable shoe that you want to "ride" in for the long haul, day in day out.


SUMMARY:

The six shoes here end up serving a different purpose for different days. If I have to name a favorite amongst these six, I'd have a hard time choosing one. 

For days when I need cushioning, I can reach out to the two Skechers in this group. 

For runs to remind myself to "stride not strike" and connect with the road, I would wear the Topo RR. 

For speedwork and races up to 10K, I'd grab the Nike first, the Karhu second, and the UA third. For races above 10K, the GRR3 would be my shoe of choice in this group.

These shoes have one thing in common, and that is each one has a sticker price. Though I cannot rank these six shoes in one category, I can give my subjective opinion on VALUE. Based on the Retail Price of each shoe at time of writing (shop diligently, many of these are available for MUCH LESS at time of writing), here is the order of BEST VALUE to LEAST, taking into account build quality and the overall utility equation:
  1. Skechers Go Run Ride 3 (US$ 80)
  2. Nike Free Flyknit (US$ 110)
  3. UA Speedform (US$ 120)
  4. Karhu Flow 3 Trainer (US$ 115)
  5. Skechers Go Run Ultra (US$ 80)
  6. Topo RR (US$ 130)

Mari Lari! **


** bahasa Indonesia for "Let's Run!"