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Review: Hoka One One's Stinsons look like clown shoes, but laugh at punishing terrain

I didn’t want to like the Hokas.

They’re expensive, ugly and the complete opposite of my beloved minimalist Altra Superior trail shoes.

I’d never wanted to try these marshmallows of a shoe, but I had the opportunity to test a pair and decided to try some miles with an open mind.

… and they’re kind of great.

I love my Altras — I’ve done up to a 50-miler in them without foot issues — but their rock plate is more like a thin slice of plastic Swiss cheese than anything with real heft.

With several long runs in Virginia’s wickedly rocky Massanutten Mountains looming on the calendar, I was looking forward to trying something with significantly more sole between my tender feet and the sharp and pointy rocks.

(How sharp and pointy? Check out this picture of Retired Army Maj. Tim Hardy on the rocks during the 2012 MMT100-miler.)

The Massanutten Mountain Trail 100-miler is 103.7 miles of relentless rocks. (Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard)

The first and most obvious difference between the Hokas and the Altras is the extra stack height that comes from the Hoka’s generous EVA cushion: 37mm versus 12mm respectively. (The heel-toe drop is advertised at both 4mm and 6mm.) As soon as I put them on I was immediately an inch taller. And bouncier. Wearing the Hokas on the parking lot pavement felt like bouncing around on mini trampolines.

I of course worried right off the bat about rolling or spraining my ankles. It’s a long way to the ground when you’re almost 40mm up.

So far this hasn’t happened, probably because the footprint of the Stinsons’ out-sole platform is 30% wider than the foot bed. This wider sole does make it easier to let my form get sloppy and encourage heel striking, especially when bombing down hills on the trail. It’s really easy to cheat and slam down onto my heel, knowing I have all those layers of cushion to help out. It takes some thought to force myself to continue to land closer to my forefoot like I do when wearing my Altras or Inov8s.

Now I can hear all the minimalist advocates bemoaning these shoes because of the lack of ground feedback and decreased proprioception. I’ve skimmed read the studies too, and I’m well planted in the minimalist camp, but sometimes it’s nice to finish a run on brutal terrain and not have the bottoms of your feet feel like they’ve been worked over with a meat tenderizer.

Function: Great on punishing technical terrain or if you’re going to be on your feet for a long time. These also do ok transitioning from trail to pavement during races, though I probably wouldn’t wear them in real road races. The quick lace system is really easier to use, even with gloves on.

Fit: Hoka says these run big, and suggests ordering half a size down. I went with my usual 8 (I’m an 8.5 in Brooks and Altra) and found they fit just fine. My biggest complaint about the fit is the toe box is too snug. I’m used to a big, roomy toe box and the Stinson’s are just a tad too narrow. I put 70 miles on them on Saturday and my toenails took a beating.

Cons: The upper on the Stinsons comes up so high that I can’t wear my usual no-show socks. When I do, I tend to get rubs on my Achilles.

Hoka also calls these shoes “feather light.” At 10.7 ounces they’re pretty average, and  more than 2 ounces heavier than my Altras.

When these get wet they feel even heavier. During a race with 30+ stream crossings, I found after each crossing I just had to bear it for a quarter mile until the water squished out. They dried fairly quickly, but all that cushion seems to hold water like a sponge.

And there will never be any way that these don’t look ridiculous … and they’re almost double the cost of other shoes.

Lifespan: Reps say these could last up to 800 miles. Mine are just at 400 and I think they’re ready to get recycled. There’s no more bounce, and they just feel ready to go.

Verdict: I don’t plan to wear them for every trail run, but I will save them for runs when they’ll save me from the horrible, pointy rocks.

Buy: Get these at most major shoe stores or at hokaoneone-na.com for $170.

Sara Davidson is an ultrarunner and our resident women’s gear destroyer. She just ran the Laurel Highlands 70-miler in her clown shoes.

Sara Davidson

Sara Davidson is an ultrarunner and contributor to PT365. She's run 7 marathons and 32 ultramarathons -- including her first 100-miler. This fall she is training for the Marine Corps Marathon using our PT365 Run Plan. Reach her at sdavidson@gannett.com .

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