Monday, August 23, 2010

Inov-8 F-Lite 230 Initial Review

I've been interested in seeing how a mountain racing flat compares to the KSO Treks on highly technical trails. In the case of basic dirt and gravel trails with a moderate density of rocks and roots, I would choose the Treks without a second thought. However, the prospect of moving to Boulder or Fort Collins has prompted me to consider some minimal trail shoes. The trails through the Flatirons and the Rockies beyond are rugged.

A number of trail runners that prefer neutral shoes with little cushioning have recommended to me the Inov-8 F-Lite 230. The company's manifesto:

"We’re committed to providing you with functional, lightweight products that will enhance your performance and enjoyment. If we cannot innovate we don’t do it. All of our products are extensively tested by enthusiasts and elite international athletes to guarantee they perform."

The 230 contains some interesting components - a "fascia band" that mimics the function of the plantar fascia, sticky rubber which aids in traction, and a "two arrow" midsole, which has a minimal level of cushioning and a small heel-to-toe drop. Personally, I would have loved it if Inov-8 went the extra step and just eliminated the heel-to-toe drop (seriously, can these companies make even one shoe without this nonsense?) 

Tech Summary:

Weight: 230g (~8 ounces)
Heel-to-toe drop: 12mm 
Upper: breathable mesh with structural webbing, fabric heel cup
Sole: sticky rubber outsole (no lugs)
Arch support: essentially none

 I remember shoe store salespeople back in the day telling me to test shoes and make sure they weren't this flexible. El-oh-el.

That said, the shoe is very flexible in the toe box and twists quite well. The foot compartment as a whole is large relative to other shoes out there, but due to the muscle mass my foot has gained since switching to the Vibrams, it's still pretty snug. The fit is true to size, for those that care. 

As you can see, there is no cushioning - just the hard rubber outsole. The heel counter is rigid but doesn't ride too high on the Achilles. The upper is thin and breathable, and unlike other trail shoes, flexible.
I took the pair for a test drive on Tiger Mountain.

Nook/Section Line Trail: this section of trail brings you to your knees, whether you are going up or coming down. The average grade is ~28%, climbing just over 1500 feet in one mile. The ascent is slow and draining, the descent jarring and mentally exhausting. I find myself pin-balling off of tree trunks and grabbing at roots to keep from falling. In addition to the switchbacks, sheer drops, and narrow ledges, there are large boulders and roots crisscrossing the trail. No matter what you wear through trail like this, you are going to be going slow. I felt much less in control with the F-Lite's - I think shoes are at a major disadvantage on such terrain. Despite that, their flexibility granted better traction over obstacles than I would have thought.

NIER Bypass/Bootleg Trail: this dark section of trail skirts the high energy radio towers on West Tiger #1, sharply snaking its way through the densely-packed trees. The ~15% grade downhill on Bootleg is peppered with large rocks and muddy patches. Again, I feel much less in control over roots and around the sharp turns, however I was able to pick up considerable speed on the way down compared to when I wear my Treks. Not having to worry about stone bruises is certainly helpful, but I almost twisted my ankle a number of times.

 You do not want to hit any of these on the way down.

West Tiger Trail: The lower portion of this trail has sections of natural cobblestone which are a pain to navigate in Vibrams when going downhill. The F-Lite's made this section a bit easier and thanks to their flexibility, their traction over the uneven surface didn't suffer as much as I expected.

These have their advantages and disadvantages. For someone used to running in Treks, they feel much less stable, despite the relatively thin sole. They were worse than the Treks over steep and technical terrain, but seemed to do a as well or a bit better on medium slopes. Anything less than a 10% grade and I'd call it dead even between them. While I had no problem keeping a high cadence, I had to fight the raised heel to preserve my midfoot strike. 

Whose feet are you designing these for? I'm a human, my toes are the widest part of my foot. These are not human shoes, they are elf shoes.

My biggest complaint as far as design is the toe box geometry. When going downhill, your feet slide forward a bit and your toes get squished into the tapered toe box. Seriously guys, make your toe boxes wider and less tapered, like Terra Plana's. 

I won't be wearing these shoes for most of my runs, which I will continue to run barefoot or in Vibrams. I'm working these into one or two trails runs per week with the idea that they can serve as a backup or alternative on nasty terrain. For those used to "true" minimalist footwear (Vibram, Feelmax, et al.) these will feel bulky at first, but they really aren't. They are comparable in weight to a cross country flat.

The good:
-Low heel-to-toe drop
-Flexible sole (for a shoe)
-Fits true-to-size, spacious arch/heel compartment
-Sticky rubber grips rocks and wet surfaces
-Flashy blue and white color scheme

The bad:
-Low heel-to-toe drop
-Toe-box is way too tapered
-No rock plate so you still need to exercise some level of caution

The ugly:
-Low heel-to-toe drop
-Hard to find at brick-and-mortar stores

Why do you shoe companies have a heel-to-toe drop in all of your shoes?! 

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