Friday, February 10, 2012

Merrell Trail Gloves: A Review

My intention in buying the Merrell Trail Gloves was very specific: to keep my feet warm in the Winter months here in Michigan. In warm weather, I much prefer running barefoot, and if for any reason I use footwear, I've been happy with Barefoot Ted's Luna huaraches, a sandal that just covers the bottoms of my feet and leave the rest open to the air. And if I need any more protection than that (say, for the ultramarathons I ran) I used my Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs).

My first year as a barefoot runner I even went 'hardcore' and ran barefoot all Winter, though that was only possible because I lived in Ann Arbor, which keeps its sidewalks very clear (something to do with a student suing the university for missing a class due to a snow day is what I heard), and the Winter was, if not mild, then not extreme either.

The following Winter (last year) I had moved to Jackson, which is not very good about clearing it's sidewalks or bike trails at all. Plus, that Winter was on the extreme side, with a good two feet of snow on the ground most of the time. The huaraches were out of the question, and so were the VFFs: the KSOs do not hold heat at all, with the separate two 'sockets' actually preventing the toes from gathering together and keeping each other warm. (I have not tried the Vibram Flows). Adding the Injinji socks allowed me to go out in plus 32 degree weather for short spurts.

My favorite footwear from that Winter was my Minnetonka moccasins. The leather holds heat really well. The problem is that they get wet, and the soft leather bottom wears out quickly with anything other than walking. I know making them with a hard leather bottom would be possible, and as a side note here, if Minnetonka did that, they'd have the ultimate minimalist running shoe!

But this is about the Merrells. I chose them, out of the myriads of minimalist shoes out there, for a few reasons, the main one being that they sponsored the Naked Foot 5K run over in Grand Rapids that I ran in (please see my earlier post on this) and I was impressed with the company's seeming desire to educate people about actual real barefoot running, and how minimalist running can compliment it. They're also a local Michigan company, and they were convenient, being the only other minimalist footwear available in downtown Ann Arbor (at Bivouac on State Street). The one thing I really dislike is that they call the various types of shoes “Barefoot,” as in “Barefoot Run Trail Glove.” I disagree with using the word 'barefoot' with any kind of shoe (I prefer 'minimalist') so for this review I will just call them Trail Gloves.

Merrell Trail Gloves definitely look shoe-like, and probably most people wouldn't even be able to tell they were minimalist, but on closer inspection, the soles are significantly thinner, no cushion at all, with absolutely no raised heel. The sole is Vibram design: that is, Merrell is using the sort of the same material as for the VFFs, but although the shoes can be folded over, and feet can be moved fairly freely inside, the Trail Gloves are thicker than the VFFs, by design, with a somewhat sturdier (I don't want to say 'harder' though I guess it is) middle section which, depending on your needs may or may not be a good thing. The thicker soles 'protect' feet better than the VFFs from the small pokey things on trails.

The downside of that is of course that sensitivity is significantly decreased, so that I find myself striking harder when I run. This is especially true on pavement (sidewalks and bike trails) where, after runs, my legs, muscles and joints, just feel hammered and sore. I definitely run differently in Trail Gloves, even when I'm really trying to run in proper 'lifting feet' mode, and I know I'm running differently because different muscles get sore. Whereas when I first started running barefoot my lower calves got sore, now I find my shins do, and again, my joints get particularly sore: knees and ankles.

Once I started running in the Trail Gloves, I found myself going back to how I ran in 'regular' (ie evil) running shoes: avoiding pavement whenever possible, running in the dirt or grass next to roads, and tending towards trail runs. I will now never run on pavement with Trail Gloves, my legs just hurt to much afterwards.

That said, the Trail Gloves did fulfill my original intent: to keep my feet warm during cold snowy trail runs. My first real test was only two weeks after buying them, when I ran a Fat Ass Marathon in Brighton (again, please see my earlier post about this). The course was fairly level, but with a layer of packed snow over dirt. The temperature was below freezing to start off but by late morning was maybe upper thirties, so that there was some mud. I wore only the Merrells, no socks, and felt a little coldness on the toes waiting around before the race, but once I started running, my feet were fine. So, mission accomplished, though again, I knew I was running with a longer gait, striking harder than I would even in VFFs, but on the dirt/snow trail the 'wear' on my legs wasn't as great.

Trail Gloves 'feel' light, weight-wise, and thin. In fact, they look a lot like climbing shoes, which I'm sure the designers borrowed from. The difference is that, unlike with climbing shoes, or even 'regular' running shoes, the 'toe box' area is spacious, with plenty of wiggle room for the toes. In fact, the design of the shoes is such that the shoes are held tight on the sides, through the lacing system, allowing the toes to spread out as much as they want. The lacing system is hard to describe, but well designed, maybe even a little too well designed, since pulling the shoes tight (like, really tight) around the feet is really easy, again, sort of like climbing shoes. I think that Merrell thinks this is a good thing, and maybe for some runners it is, but I found the tightness around my arch uncomfortable, and after a few weeks use I ended up keeping the laces really really loose, enough only to keep the shoes on my feet, which is more of how my moccasins feel.

Here in Michigan, we've had an almost balmy Winter, with hardly no snow, and temps in the 40s, so that I've actually been out barefoot running in February! I've still be using the Merrells for trail runs, more out of curiosity than need, since with those temps I could be in VFFs, or even huaraches, and I've even gone for night runs, when temps dip down below freezing, in huaraches with Injinji socks on and have felt fine (keep in mind that I hate the cold and bundle up the rest of my body). When we have had snow, say one to three inches, the Merrells are perfect for trail running, keeping the snow off my feet, and they tend to dry overnight.

But, I really do not like the lack of sensitivity. After running barefoot so long, I can't really 'go back' to wearing what are basically shoes. For colder climates, I would recommend Merrell Trail Gloves during the Winter months, for trail running only. If I lived in southern or western climes, I would say they are just not necessary for barefoot runners, which I think are most of my readers. For those that are mainly minimalist runners, and are comfortable running in VFFs (say, even on pavement) the Trail Gloves would offer you a little more protection on trails, and the one time I could imagine wearing them during warm weather might be during that later stages of ultra runs, when I'm brain-foggy and running sloppy anyways.

For those who might be transitioning from 'regular' running shoes, Trail Gloves might offer the basic shoe feel while giving a bit more sensitivity, though really I would urge readers to just go all the way to barefoot, with maybe huaraches for minimal protection. The more minimal you go, the less protection you will want, and in any case I would NOT recommend running on pavement in Trail Gloves, especially if you are not familiar with proper barefoot running technique. Do NOT run by heel striking in these or any minimalist shoes.

More interestingly, Merrell makes a form of the Trail Gloves that is a dress shoe, the Barefoot Life Tough Gloves, with black leather, though with laces and the same bottoms, kind of LL Bean chic, which would be great for the barefooter who wants no support or cushion, but needs a dress shoe for work or interviews. I plan to acquire a pair of these, because the Trail Gloves are comfortable to walk around in.

Approximate cost: $110