HOKA ONE ONE MAFATE
When is the last time you burst into spontaneous laughter at the pure joy of running down a hill? If you can’t remember then take these shoes out for a ride. Hoka is using the logo ‘time to fly’ for their Hoka One Ones and now I know why. When the entire world seems to be hurtling down the barefoot trail, Hoka have taken the high road and decided some of us just need some cushioning. And they don’t come any more cushioned than these.
To look at you would expect them to be heavy and cumbersome. Far from it. They are deceptively light (372gm size 11M) and in fact lighter than most conventional trail runners. This really helps them perform running uphill. Nimble? Hard to imagine from a shoe with such a thick and wide midsole and while they are never going to compete with the latest low profile minimalist shoes for nimbleness they are surprisingly responsive.
Open trail is where these babies really excel. With the large surface area and thick cushioning they soak up the impact and are totally forgiving of hard surfaces. The rebound generated by the midsole is accentuated by the rocker bottom and you are into your next stride before you know it. Put this combination onto a downhill and the only thing that will slow you down is the limit of your leg speed turnover. You can really cut loose on open downhills and the Hokas just plow over any imperfections in the trail. Sharp rocks or roots disappear in the plush underbelly. Put simply: these shoes were born to fly down hills.
The principle design feature is a massive, thick EVA midsole that extends up around the foot, so that your foot almost sinks down into the midsole. Think of dodgem cars at a carnival with big thick bumpers all the way around and you get the idea. The result is similar: you can crash into the ground and just keep going. With this recessing there is actually very little rise in the heel, making them better suited to midfoot strike than you would expect. The overall effect, however does tend to encourage heel striking and there is almost no feel for the trail.
The wide-open geometric tread pattern provides great traction on all terrain except wet rock (to which almost no shoe will grip). There is an enormous amount of surface area on the sole. This allows plenty of contact with the ground be it loose dirt, gravel or even rock. The tread is quite aggressive yet fairly low in profile creating a good blend of grip and smoothness of ride. And this huge surface area allows you to float over soft sand with amazing ease. Think hovercraft. If trail runners were cars, the Hokas would be Hummers. Big, brash, go anywhere over anything with the rider totally cocooned from the road beneath. These shoes are perfectly suited to ultras. The longer the better. And I imagine the road version would be similarly impressive on the bitumen.
The tongue is held secure by a series of loops that the laces pass through. But it is fairly thin so not a lot of padding to protect against tight lace pressure. Double knot the laces as they shake loose over time, especially once wet.
Speaking of wet: the Hokas drained fairly well after creek crossings but the deeply recessed foot-bed meant that water was retained within the shoe until it wicked out. However as a bonus, the same high freeboard that creates this recessed effect also means that water won’t get in during shallow creek crossings.
With every great discovery comes a hitch: for me it was the fit. For an ultra shoe the toe-box is way too narrow. Even at shorter distances I had problems on both my big and little toes from sidewall pressure. Despite the expansive width of the outsole, the inner last is particularly narrow through the midfoot and I suffered significant pressure in both of my arches. I circumvented that largely by putting some old hard orthotics in there to protect the soft belly of my arches. But I also suffered a nasty pressure point from the rather stiff, hard collar of the shoe, just on the inside under my anklebone. A softer or more plush cuff would solve this and a wider toe-box and midfoot for those older runners who’s feet have spread over the years. If they made a wider fitting with a big toebox I would be in heaven.
One of the most common questions is that of stability given the raised centre of gravity. I did come close to flipping them a couple of times. But I was pushing them hard. They definitely take a bit of getting used to. You have a lot more girth to negotiate on technical track. Steep camber can cause rolling. And the wide sole can slam against sharp edges or large rocks and cause nasty jamming of the collar against your ankle. The more I wore them, the more I avoided this and the recessed footbed gave more stability than I expected. But if you have weak ankles or are prone to turning your ankles the Hokas might not be for you. Rock hopping I was less confident than usual simply because of a higher centre of gravity and a sense that the shoe wanted to bounce off the rock rather than grip onto it.
But if you want cred just check out who uses them: Karl Meltzer has won more 100 mile trail races than anyone else on the planet and he wears them at Hardrock, one of the toughest trail races on the planet. Diana Finkel wore them at Hardrock 2010 and led the field to 80miles before finishing second place outright. Diana is a slight little gazelle who can’t weigh more than 50 kilos yet she chose these monsters and they didn’t let her down. They are becoming hugely popular in the States with those who either can’t run minimalist or just love the cushioned ride.
Despite the fitting issues and some ankle jamming on really rough tracks I still found myself wanting to pull them off the shelf and go for a run. They revived that pure joy of running for running’s sake that I feared I had lost. There was no concentrating on form or foot-strike or cadence. I can hear the barefoot brigade shouting in horror but I just ran and boy did I love it and love the Hoka One Ones for giving me that pure sensation. Any shoe that can make me laugh out loud through sheer joy gets my vote. I reckon everyone needs to experience a dirty big downhill in Hokas at least once before they die. They are seriously that much fun.
Great for: Best on open firetrail and would be great for long ultras but simply they are made for running downhill.
Not so great for: Technical or narrow singletrack or for runners with wide or high volume feet.
Test conditions: Mix of trail including loose sand and dirt, hard compacted firetrail, loose gravel and stones, hard rock (wet and dry), creeks, technical singletrack. Total mileage limited by fit incompatibility to about 50km but pretty much every surface except muddy clay tested.
Tester: Ultrarunner with 15 x 100 milers including 3 x Hardrock, 1 x Western States, 5 x Great North Walk and 5 x Glasshouse. Race Director for Great Ocean Walk100s and Bogong to Hotham.
Tester mechanics: Mild over pronator with fairly wide forefoot and low arches. Major arthritis in big toe joints of both feet so appreciate protection.
Supplier: Big thanks to Reflex Sports for providing the Hoka One Ones for testing www.reflexsports.com.au
Find them here: www.hokaoneone.com.au
I took the Mafates out for a run the other day and decided the fit issues were going to stop me from really enjoying these shoes so I sent them to a mate to try out. He has been suffering for ages with plantar fasciitis and several other niggles to the extent he has almost given up running. The unsolicited text I received from him after his first run in them is worth sharing: "Fuck off! These shoes are amazing. I am running my 13km trail and actually running :)" Followed up a short while later with: "I realised that on the drive home I was smiling. Fuck it was nice to run again."
I can't remember enjoying giving something away as much as these runners. I am now looking forward to trying on a pair of the Bondi Bs or Combos which I have heard don't have the same fit problems I had with the Mafates.