Two weeks ago I had the privilege of being able to spend a few days out in Michigan with the design and marketing teams behind the Merrell Barefoot line of footwear. Merrell had invited me and Jay Dicharry, who is doing some testing for them in his lab at UVA, to discuss the state of the running shoe market, to summarize what we know about running form, and to do a bit of brainstorming about the future of their shoe line. As has been my personal policy to date, I accepted no consulting fee for the trip – I just enjoy working with people who are passionate about making innovative shoes. Merrell in particular is a company that I respect, and every person I have met from the company has been fantastic. They’re the real deal, and it was quite a lot of fun to hang out with them on the shores of Lake Michigan (honestly, a “business” meeting with an outdoor-sports company is quite unlike any other I have ever experienced – involved a lot of biking, running, and a few brave souls even did a bit of swimming!). On a side note, it was particularly interesting to be there just as Merrell’s parent company Wolverine Worldwide had acquired Saucony – it’ll be interesting to watch how the two companies interact going forward.
One of the cool things about being at Merrell design headquarters for part of the trip is that I got to see a whole bunch of shoes that they have in the works. Shoe companies don’t typically allow discussion of products in development, so I haven’t said much about most of what I saw, but I got an email today from Merrell giving me the OK to post about their new M-Connect series of shoes, which they are announcing today. Here’s a snippet from the press release put out by Merrell about M-Connect:
“M-Connect Series includes four collections that are designed to enable ground connection but are built on different platforms based on activity – from Barefoot and Bare Access to Multi-Run with Mix Master and Multi-Hike with Proterra. All are built with agility in mind and range from zero to four-‐millimeter heel to toe drop and graded cushioning for enhanced ground response and necessary protection dependent on end-‐use and terrain.
Merrell Proterra is a brand new multi-hike collection that innovates with an agile approach to a traditional hiking product. The design combines Merrell’s heritage performance with Merrell Barefoot learnings for fast, breathable and durable hiking shoes and boots. Proterra is built on a four millimeter drop and demonstrated to improve a person’s stability through an outsole that enhances contact with the ground and a patent-‐pending upper that uses Stratafuse™ technology. Stratafuse injects the foot cage into the mesh upper, fusing it together for a lightweight fit, natural movement and incredible durability.
Additionally, Merrell Barefoot gets a major update with heightened ground feel and a new upper design for running and fitness. Bare Access also gets a design update with greater ground connection and upper design but maintains a minimally cushioned ride with eight millimeters of M Bound™ cushioning throughout. For multi-‐run activities, Mix Master sneakers are fast, flexible and light, and built on a four-‐millimeter drop for multi-‐tasking activities.”
Basically, Merrell is taking the barefoot concept and extending it a bit into the more transitional shoe category, and all of these shoes (barefoot styles included)will belong to the umbrella of M-Connect. They already have zero drop running shoes with minimal cushion (e.g., Road and Trail Gloves), and zero drop shoes with some cushion (Bare Access). They will be updating all of these styles, then adding in 4mm drop road and trail shoes (Mix Master), as well as 4mm drop light hikers and hiking boots (Mix Master Tuff, Proterra). New to the mix are several barefoot-style and zero-drop cushioned training shoes targeted for use in gyms, fitness classes, crossfit, etc (Flux, Hammer, Crush Gloves and Bare Access Shape). These moves make a lot of sense as different people will have different preferences as to just how far along the “barefoot” access they want to go, and this preference may also vary with the purpose the shoes are to be used for.
Below is a grid showing where all of the M-Connect shoes fit:
Having seen most of these shoes, I can tell you that they’ve done some fantastic work on the design end. I’m particularly excited about the Bare Access 2, which is updated with a super-minimal upper and a more flexible sole, and the Mix Master Move 4mm drop road shoe (my sweet spot for longer runs).
Merrell is really excited about the Proterra, which extends the minimalist concept to a hiking boot (Merrell’s roots are in the hiking boot business), and which has a unique sole design with inverted lugs – the light hiker in particular is an awesome looking shoe. The Mix Master Trail was released briefly earlier this year and was recalled, but will return soon with an updated upper that will solve a tearing issue that seemed to be occurring with the original version.
Various models in this collection will be coming up over the course of the next year, and I will hopefully have a few in the not too distant future to try out. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, here are some higher resolution images of the Merrell Barefoot Road Glove 2, Proterra Light Hiker, Bare Access 2 and Mix Master Trail: