As my regular reader will know, I have up until recently been an unashamed Inov-8 fanboy. If you're perceptive, you'll notice the use of 'up until recently'. Things change.
I love the X-Talon 200. Despite some durability issues with my red/neon pair, I got them replaced under warranty and the blue/orange versions have an updated upper which seems much tougher; an impression backed up by Twitter folk. I'm also a big fan of the Trail Talon 250, which appears to be the same last as the X-Talon but with a less aggressive sole for use on trails rather than fells. It was my shoe of choice for Dark Skies and I wore it virtually box-fresh, with just a 10k the morning of the race to check there were no obvious issues. What I was not a fan of at all was the Road Talon, which I foolishly assumed would be the same last as the X- and Trail Talon. Y'know, having the Talon name and all that. Oh no. No no no. It was VERY different, and within 30s of putting it on I hated it. Back it went.
I like a drop in the region of 3-4mm on my shoes. Maybe it's psychological, and I wouldn't actually notice a larger drop (though I definitely felt my heel scuffing when I tried a pair of Asics a few weeks ago), but c'est la vie. Inov-8 didn't have anything else suitable in their limited road range, so I decided now was as good a time as any to explore other options. A quirk of mine is that I get locked into brand loyalty and blinded to other, potentially better, options, so a bit of experimentation would be healthy.
I knew my mate and fellow NFR-er JB ran in X-Talon 200 for fells, and that he had also been a fan of the much-missed Road-X range, so figured he was a good starting point for suggestions. A Twitter DM exchange led to me learning he ran in Adidas Boost for quality sessions and *shock horror* Hoka One One Cliftons for ploddy base mileage. DISMAY! The big marshmallows were the polar opposite to my ultra-minimalist tendencies of the last 7 years or so. Still, he assured me that he had been dubious himself initially, but they were really good. I decided to at least try them, and so off I pootled.
First, a trip to Start Fitness looking for a work-out shoe. JB's Adidas had too much drop for me, so I ran the wall trying everything in my preferred range, eventually settling on the Mizuno Ekiden 11 (after not being able to get them in my size in store, and a disastrous attempt to get an older model online, I did end up buying from Start Fitness. Lesson learned: support your local running store). Then, off to Northern Runner to try the Cliftons. I also tried some Tracers (too narrow) and some Altra (just flat out weird, which disappointed me; they've interested me for some time but whatever it was I tried on I hated and couldn't get off my feet quickly enough). The Cliftons however... I had to admit, running up and down the test corridor, they felt pretty awesome. Swallowing my Tony Krupicka-influenced hipster minimalist pride (and even Tony now runs in not-so minimalist shoes) I paid my money and took my Cliftons home, ready to face the mocking from my wife.
At this point, this becomes a bit of a gear review.
Hoka One One Clifton 3 (288.6km at time of writing)
The Antichrist. Or so I thought. Actually, I really like them, and this surprises me a lot. I had to go up a half size from my Inov-8s, but I'm a whole size up in Nike Frees, so that's not anything to be especially surprised about. They also didn't feel as ludicrously marshmallow-like as I expected. Yes, there's a lot of cushioning - that is after all Hoka's MO - but I didn't feel unstable in the way I expected to, possibly because the sole unit is quite wide, which provides a decent platform. They obviously lack the response of a more minimalist shoe, and I'm not sure I'd want to race in them, though the likes of Sage Canaday have no problem running fast marathons in them. That wasn't my reason for buying them though, and I have to admit that my legs felt remarkably fresh after running my first ever 100 mile week, mostly in the Cliftons.
Things I dislike: mainly, looking like a fucking Spice Girl. Ok, they're not the Bondi (which are ridiculous) but, having gone from low-profile shoes to these, I do feel like I'm in platforms shoes. Actually, the stack isn't quite as high as it appears to be - the looks of the sole are deceiving - but... Yeah. Just call me Hairy Spice. Also, the grip was poor for the first hundred miles or so; I definitely felt some slipping on toe-off just on slightly damp roads. This seems to have lessened as they've got more miles on, so maybe there was just some coating that had to be worn off (I've heard some shoe manufacturers put an anti-microbial coating on the sole for stock purposes). I also got a few blisters initially but these have healed and were probably just teething problems. How long the shoe will last remains to be seen; I ran my Road-X until I could pretty much see daylight through the sole, on the basis that they had no cushioning so there was nothing to compress! If I only get 500 miles out of these then my shoe habit could suddenly become very expensive with my current training.
Mizuno Ekiden 11 (29km at time of writing)
I really like these. Dare I say, they're more minimal than my Road-X... They have a much better grip though. Sizing was tricky; I might have got away with a 9.5, if the upper stretched, but went for a 10 (my usual size) which feels like it may be a wee bit sloppy, especially on my smaller right foot. Probably a 9.75 would have done the trick but, of course, such a thing does not exist. Anyway. First outing for these was a 16km run, middle 12km at marathon pace, and it was like they were begging to go faster the whole time. Took a while to get the lacing and fit sorted but once I got into the meat of the run I pretty much forgot about them, which is what you want from racing flats. I also wore them last night for a workout with the Harriers: 10x2 mins, 1 min off. Again, they were mostly brilliant (see below for the bits that weren't), and even handled a bit of trail getting to and from the stretch of road we were doing the efforts on. I wouldn't take them off-road any more than absolutely necessary but that's because of durability concerns, bearing in mind they're racing flats and not cheap at that.
Things I dislike: I'm not convinced I got the right fit but, seeing as I intend to wear these up to, and including, marathon distance, I erred on the side of room for swelling. Without living with a shoe for a while it's hard to know about fit, and I don't have the cash to buy a pair in each size! The laces are rubbish. After Sunday's run I replaced them with some from an old pair of Inov-8, which seemed to work much better (though they're still too long). I also noticed that the insole seemed to slip a bit during the Harriers efforts. Didn't cause a major issue but I felt the gap with my toes. Again, I've replaced the insoles as of this morning with some from the same old pair of Inov-8; these are more substantial, so hopefully will slip less, and will also slightly reduce the volume in the shoe, which will help with fit. On the whole though, I'm a fan of the Ekiden so far.
So, there you have it. No longer quite the Inov-8 fan boy I used to be. In fairness, Inov-8 started life as a fell-running brand, and it's not surprising they don't put a lot into their road range, though I simply cannot see any reason at all to use a different last for the Talon range (and it's not even marketed as such!). I still think the X- and Trail Talons are brilliant and plan to continue to use them for as long as they remain as brilliant. On the roads though... I'm sorry, Inov-8; I think we should start seeing other people.