I’ve been contemplating for a few weeks about whether to put together a top shoe of the year list. Part of my hesitation was that I find it hard to rank shoes in numerical order – some are good for some things, others are good for other things, and very few (none?) are good at everything. So, instead of doing a traditional Top 5 or Top 10 list, I’ve decided to take a slightly different approach.
I’ve written a few times here about my preference for rotating my shoes depending on conditions. Since I do reviews and get media samples, it’s fairly easy for me to do this, and my shoe collection now numbers over 20 pairs. However, let’s be honest, I don’t need 20 pairs of shoes to fill out my rotation. So, my tactic in this post is to answer a seemingly simple question – if I had to reduce my rotation to only 3 shoes, which shoes would I keep? The first two choices are easy, and will probably come as no surprise to readers of this blog. The third choice was difficult as no other shoe really stood out. Here goes:
1. Saucony Kinvara
I have a strong fondness for the Saucony Kinvara. Perhaps it’s because the shoe carried me quite comfortably to a Boston Qualifying time at the Smuttynose Rockfest Marathon in early October, or perhaps it’s because the shoe rescued me from two ITBS scares as I detailed in my previous post about the New Balance Minimus Trail, but the Kinvara gets first nod as my favorite shoe of 2010.
The Kinvara is a special shoe for a number of reasons. As I explained in my full review of the Saucony Kinvara, it has gotten rave reviews from runners all over and has been a big seller for Saucony. As a gateway/transitional minimalist shoe, it will also be remembered by many runners as their first foray into the world of less shoe. It’s success also seems to have convinced Saucony that minimalist style shoes can be big sellers, and they are moving forward with a number of new shoes clearly designed to capitalize on the success and popularity of the Kinvara (e.g., the Mirage, Cortana, Peregrine, and Hattori).
If there are knocks against the Kinvara, it would be that it has a moderate heel lift (4 mm without the insole, 6.5 mm with the insole) and durability can be an issue for some given the minimal amount of outsole rubber. I have run 150+ miles in mine and they still look fine, but I don’t yet have a sense of how many miles I will be able to get out of them. Though they fit me great, some find them to be on the narrow side (Saucony should make these in widths!), and they are on the softer side in terms of cushioning. Regardless of these potential complaints, they work fantastically well on my feet, and are my go-to shoe for mid- to long distance runs. The Kinvara is simply a great shoe, and I look forward to seeing what Saucony has in store for the Kinvara 2!
2. Vibram Fivefingers Bikila
If I was only able to run in three pairs of shoes, an ultra-minimal, true zero drop shoe would definitely be one of them. Barefoot style running shoes are an essential part of my training, if for no other reason than that they provide an incredible strength workout for the legs and feet. Among shoes that came out in 2010, the Vibram Fivefingers Bikila would be my top choice (see my more detailed review of the Vibram Fivefingers Bikila here).
The Vibram Bikila was not my first pair of Fivefingers – that honor would go to the VFF KSO, which I purchased in mid 2009. However, it is the Vibram that I most enjoy running in, mainly because of the fact that it really hugs my foot like a glove (my KSO’s are a size too large I think). Additionally, unlike the KSO, which has given me heel blisters, the Bikila is an ideal sockless shoe, which really enhances the minimalist experience for me. Some have complained about the Bikila having a bit too much cushion, but I don’t mind a bit of give, and for me it’s just about right. Perhaps most importantly, the Bikilas are an absolute blast to run in. Vibram will be seeing some stiff competition in the zero-drop, ultra-minimalist market next year with new offerings set to arrive from companies like Altra and Merrell, but for 2010, the Bikila is my top choice in the ultra-minimal category.
3. Brooks Mach 12
The third spot is a real tough one for me. My initial thought was to go with a trail shoe, but to be honest, I really haven’t done all that much trail running in 2010. After a few genuine trail runs in the New Balance MT101 I’m liking it a lot, but my experience with the NB Minimus Trail has taught me to be a bit more cautious about first impressions (my gut tells me that the NB MT101 would be #3 if I had put more miles on it at this point).
Putting the trail shoe idea aside for now, my next choice would be a lightweight shoe built for fast racing and speedwork, particularly one suitable for running on a track (the Kinvara has a bit too much cushion to work well on a rubberized track). I have yet to find the perfect shoe in this niche – the Mizuno Wave Universe and Saucony Grid Type A4 are both nice, but have their drawbacks as well. If pushed to make a choice, I would probably go with the Brooks Mach 12 spikeless cross country flat (I’d actually probably go with the Mach 11 over the 12, but it’s now a discontinued model).
My reasons for choosing the Mach 12 are that it fits pretty well for a racing flat (XC flats are notoriously narrow), and it has worked very well for me for both 5K racing and track workouts. It rides low to the ground, has a low heel (about 4mm drop from heel to forefoot), and has a fairly firm sole (perfect for the track). I even managed to run a hilly 20 mile long run in the Mach 12 without too much trouble, so it can handle distance in a pinch. Despite these positives, the Mach 12 does have one big drawback that will bother some people – huge toe spring. Toe spring isn’t usually much of a problem for me, but the spring in the Mach 12 is the most exaggerated in any shoe that I own. Despite this, I still find the Mach 12 to be a nice shoe, and until someone makes a cross country flat with a roomy toe box, the Brooks Mach series will suffice for me. You can read my full review of the Brooks Mach 12 here.
So there you have it – my top picks for 2010. I should emphasize that these are simply my personal preferences, and represent the shoes I would keep if I could only run in three at this moment in time. In reality, I enjoy running in many more shoes than are listed here, some of which I have only recently started running in (e.g., Saucony Grid Type A4, NB MT101, Newton Distance Racer, Vibram Trek Sport). In fact, some of these may become favorites as the weather starts to warm back up and I get back into more regular speedwork, and some of the shoes on this list may fall by the wayside given the crop of exciting minimalist shoes set to arrive in 2011. Either way, you can be sure you’ll hear about them all here on the blog.
How about you – what are your top 3 shoes of 2010?