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Wednesday, May 25, 2011
VIVOBAREFOOT Ultra Review
I've never really known how to feel about Crocs. On the one hand, I think wearing them puts you one short step away from completely giving up on fashion. I think they represent Holland's conspiracy plan to slowly take over the world. They also go against my firm belief that anything that Mario Batali wears or does should be avoided at all costs.
On the other hand, even though the squishy, pillow-soft Croc represents everything that a barefoot runner rails against, I also think they are ridiculously comfortable. A dirty little barefoot secret...we don't always want to wear shoes with toes in them. Sometimes there's nothing wrong with wearing a pair of foot marshmallows okay! Occasionally your feet need some relief from the hard ground. And nothing soothes an aching foot like a Croc. After spending a whole day in wafer thin soles, 12 inches of EVA rubber looks pretty damn appealing.
Now, the folks at VIVOBAREFOOT certainly didn't intend to create another Croc when they designed their newest minimal shoe: the Ultra. They describe the shoe on their website as a "light-weight barefoot amphibious running shoe". As you'll see, that description certainly is accurate. But still, it's hard not to draw comparisons when you look at these things.
Again, point proven.
Like the background for these pictures? Now that Minnesota isn't a giant puddle of muck from all of the snow and rain we've been having, I thought I would take review pictures somewhere other than my kitchen table. Although the woodgrain on that thing is fantastic!
Anyway, I've been excited about these shoes since VIVOBAREFOOT announced their release because of their weight. I think that previous VIVOBAREFOOT running shoes are two steps away from being perfect. Step one, lower the price. Step two, make them lighter. The Ultra was hyped as the lightest minimal shoe ever. And it was set to retail at $80. Score!
On paper, these shoes were my one true love. And if these shoes were just EVO II's with a bunch of holes cut in them, they probably would have been. But VIVOBAREFOOT didn't make a slight variation on a theme here. They made a completely different shoe.
Well, as I said before, my initial reaction to these shoes was, "Hey look! Crocs!" The construction of these shoes draws a lot of comparisons to those little rubber foot-missiles. Most notably, the upper is made entirely of EVA rubber, just like a Croc. Of course, the Ultra has a lot more holes in it than your average Croc. This construction is intended to help that whole "light-weight amphibious" thing the Ultra is trying to achieve.
Mission accomplished! This lack of upper material makes these shoes the lightest closed-toe shoe I've EVER tested. Ever. EVER! My pair of Ultras barely registered on the scales at a slight 3.5oz (size 44). That's the same weight as some of my huaraches!
Here's a top view of the shoes. As you can see, the Ultras have a very distinctive look. I really like it, and I've gotten a lot of positive feedback about it. Crocs are so prevalent nowadays that the rubber shoe look is commonplace. And the profile of these shoes is much less Swiss Miss. If Crocs are the Volvo of rubber shoes, these are the Ferrari (Or maybe the Saab? Is that a Dutch car company?).
As with all VIVOBAREFOOT models I've tested, the Ultra has a wide profile throughout the length of the shoe. This makes it a good choice for the fat-footed among us. The shoe secures to your foot using a quick-lace system popular with triathletes. I've never seen this on a minimal shoe before, and I like it. It makes the shoes quick to tie, and easy to slip on and off.
One great feature of the Ultra is customization. The shoes come with a removable Nylon/Airpene/Neoprene sock lining as well as a removable tongue so that you can decide how much contact you want your foot to have with the shoe's EVA upper. The neoprene liner is essentially a very thin EVA insole surrounded by a neoprene sock. The insole is the same one used on all VIVOBAREFOOT shoes. I find that this insole doesn't add or subtract much from the feel of the shoe.
The lining is secured to the shoe with rubber pegs that pop into matching holes on the upper and on the heel. Here's a good view of the peg in back.
The tongue insert clips on in the same way, to a peg that fastens right below the laces.
With the liner removed, the shoes again become more Croc-like. Like their Clogs Gone Wild cousins, the footbed of the Ultra is made of the same EVA rubber as the upper. The footbed is also textured with tiny nubs that run down the length of the footbed.
Upon first glance, the sole of the Ultra looks like the sole of every other VIVOBAREFOOT shoe. It is in some respects, like its distinctive honeycomb design. And like other models, the sole is 6mm thin and puncture resistant. However, instead of the normal Latex and TPU used in models such as the Neo, the Ultra uses a dual-density EVA rubber. This makes the sole much more flexible than the Neo sole. It also makes it more "squishy".
Now the Neo and Evo sole is the thing of legend in terms of its durability. I have yet to hear of any reports of runners who have worn a hole in the sole of their Evos. I would expect the same durability out of the Ultras if they came with the Evo sole. However, the squishy quality of the EVA sole on the Ultra causes me some concerns. It just doesn't seem like it will be as durable.
In fact, I've heard from a few people that the durability of the Ultra sole is somewhat questionable. As one of my fans pointed out, the puncture resistant portion of this shoe is not the sole. It's the neoprene liner. This fan had some debris go right through the sole into his foot during a trail run. I've also heard reports of the sole coming apart after relatively few miles.
Then again, keep in mind that these are not meant to be high mileage trainers necessarily. VIVOBAREFOOT has set out to make a complete line of minimalist footwear that span a wide swath of activities and lifestyles. This is less of a runner shoe and more of a shoe for water activities like kayaking, canoeing, and trekking through amphibious environments.
On the other hand, the downside of the Evo sole is that it's a bit on the stiff side. In comparison, the Ultra sole is incredibly flexible. I would put it on par with the Vibram KSO.
Comfort and Feel
I did my standard battery of tests in these shoes; first with the liners in, and then with them removed. As soon as I put on the shoes while the liners were in, I immediately noticed that the liners pinched my feet. The liners seem to be significantly smaller than the shoe itself. So although the size 44 shoe fit me perfectly, the liner was very tight.
Note that I could remedy this by going up a size without worry that my feet would slosh around in the shoe. Since the liner secures to the shoe at the heel and the tongue, it doesn't move around at all. So I wasn't really disappointed that I couldn't comfortably wear the liner. The material used to make it reminds me a lot of the upper of most traditional trainers, which I find to have poor breathability. And although I'm sure the liners would be great for keeping my feet warm in cooler weather, this function could be just as easily accomplished by wearing socks. I would be surprised if most people purchased this shoe for that feature anyway. But if you are interested in wearing the liner, you might want to look for a bigger size than you normally wear.
After taking the liner out, I immediately noticed the footbed. Again...very Croc-like. You could definitely feel a bit of squish from the EVA sole. I found that simultaneously comfortable and annoying. Comfortable for the same reason I like Crocs...everyone needs a bit of squish now and then. At the same time, I thought that feeling also imparted a springy quality that diminished groundfeel and reminded me of traditional trainers. Springy is a good quality for your mattress, but not for a minimal shoe.
I was also a bit weirded out at first by the nubs on the footbed. I've never had that tactile sensation in a minimal shoe before. Again, I liked it and hated it. It felt like a little foot massage. Everyone likes a foot massage! At the same time, as I walked around the nubs interfered with groundfeel by providing a sensation just different enough to throw me off.
I had the same love/hate relationship with the other features of the shoe. The EVA upper was pretty comfortable when making contact with my skin. But at the same time, it made the shoe a bit hot and clammy. Of course, that feeling didn't last very long because the shoe is definitely well ventilated. I felt every breeze and gust of wind as if I was wearing sandals. But on calm days they made my feet sweat easily if I wasn't moving around.
My love/hate relationship with these shoes turned more toward the love side the more I ran in them. My big love: the weight. Holey shoe! I mean it...the holes in the shoes are what make these things worth buying. Air doesn't weigh anything folks, and these shoes are definitely airy. The holes also pretty much eliminated all of the breathability problems I had with these shoes. Once you get moving, your feet won't sweat. You also won't feel nubby footbed. After a few steps it felt like the footbed of any other VIVOBAREFOOT shoe.
My big hate: the sole. Now it wasn't all bad. Groundfeel was actually fantastic. Better than in my Neos, and certainly comparable to the KSO. But I think EVA is always a bad idea in minimal shoes because its squishy. Us barefooters threw out our trainers to get away from that squish. So although I didn't feel that same Croc squishiness I did while walking, the EVA imparted a springy quality to my step. It wasn't much, but it was just enough to put a sour note on what was otherwise great groundfeel.
On my longer runs, the upper caused me some irritation around my ankle. I expected this to happen though. Rub rubber against your skin for long enough and you'll get some blisters. I found that wearing the tongue accessory reduced or eliminated this problem however. And wearing the tongue didn't affect breathability too much. Once the tongue accesory was on, I had no comfort issues with these shoes while running. But with all the rubber in the upper, I'm not sure these are the shoes you should pick for your long runs.
Since these shoes are described as "amphibious", I also ran them through the aquatic ringer. I not only ran in them during rainy days, but I also took them through several ankle deep puddles. With all of the holes in the upper, these shoes drain almost instantaneously. I also expected the footbed to be slippery in those conditions, but I found that not to be the case. It seems those nubs on the footbed prevent your foot from slipping around, and may help any water that remains in the shoe dry faster. I'm not sure how an amphibious shoe fits into my bloated footwear arsenal, but if such a situation arises this is the shoe for the job.
Finally a VIVOBAREFOOT shoe without the enormous sticker price! You can purchase a pair of Ultras for $80, which is becoming the norm for most minimal shoes these days. For those who would buy a VIVOBAREFOOT shoe if not for the price, this is the one for you.
In the words of the great American Idol judge Randy Jackson, "It was just a'ight for me man." When you boil it down these things are Crocs for barefoot runners. I don't know how I feel about Crocs, so similarly I don't quite know how to feel about these shoes. They left me feeling blah.
I think other folks will either love these shoes or hate them. There are quite a few reasons to love them. They are definitely a solid minimal shoe. All of the qualities that make up a good minimal shoe are there. Good groundfeel, good toebox, zero drop. Plus, they are the lightest closed-toe shoe on the market so far (although they may soon lose that title to the ZEM 360). They are super-breathable. And they are the least expensive VIVOBAREFOOT shoes you can buy. On the other hand, if given the choice between wearing Crocs and eating dog poop, I know a lot of folks that would grab the knife and fork.
For that reason, I am only giving these shoes a 7 out of 10. As many times as I was saying, "These are the best shoes ever!" I was saying, "Stupid freaking Crocs!" Without the EVA soles, I think these shoes are a home run. With them, they make me waffle too much to give them much more than an above-average score.
But barefoot Croc lovers rejoice! You now have your shoe...
You can buy the VIVOBAREFOOT Ultra at any of the banners or links on this page. Happy Croc hunting!