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'Clown Shoes' Are No Joke

The French-designed Hokas, which elevate your feet with a thick layer of cushioning, are beginning to make a splash in the U.S.

If you decide to take a pair of Hokas running shoes for a jog, be prepared for some curious stares.

After all, the Hokas are known among some runners as "the clown shoes" or "moon boots." And they do look a tad silly. While most standard running shoes have a sole about 24 millimeters (less than an inch) high in the heel and 12 millimeters in the toe, the Hoka puts a full 40 millimeters (more than 1.5 inches) of cushioning between your foot and the ground.

Yet as funny as they look, Hokas are also developing a strong and ever-growing following. The French-designed shoes hit U.S. shelves just last year, and already a number of top athletes have had success in them. Elite distance runner Karl Meltzer, who is now sponsored by Hoka, went through seven pairs to run the 2,064-mile Pony Express Trail in 40 days last year. Another top runner, Dave Mackey, won the Miwok 100K trail race this May while wearing Hokas.

As a distance runner, I couldn’t help being intrigued by Hokas. I raced the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run last July in New Balance WT100s (the 100s are discontinued; here are the 101s), a lightweight shoe with little sole separating the foot from the trail, and loved them. The ample cushioning of the Hokas seemed the exact opposite. I knew I needed to give them a whirl firsthand.

I enlisted Eric Sach as my Hoka guide. Sach owns The Balanced Athlete, a running store in Renton, and is the only retailer in the Pacific Northwest to carry the Hokas. Since first trying the innovative footwear last summer, Sach had become, unofficially, the local Hoka guru. On a misty Tuesday morning, Sach and I met at the Red Town Trailhead at Cougar Mountain. He loaned me a sample pair of men's size 9 Hokas. (Being able to fit into a standard sample size, I’ve learned, can be quite the advantage when trying out running shoes.) For the next hour, Sach and I ran.

As we traversed up and down the trails of Cougar, Sach told me about his introduction to the Hokas. A self-professed gear geek and longtime runner, Sach takes pleasure in reading about the running industry's latest science, studies and trends. He grew up running around the neighborhoods and trails of Orange County, CA, and completed his first marathon when he was just 12. At an age when most of us complained when the soccer coach made us do extra laps, Sach was running more than 100 miles each week.

After college at the University of Oregon, Sach moved to Seattle and took a job at the Seattle Running Company on Capitol Hill. (It is now a Fleet Feet Sports store.) There, he learned that he loved the challenge of matching runners with the shoes and gear that fit them best.

"Each person is a new puzzle and challenge for me," Sach said.

In 2006, Sach decided to break out on his own. He opened The Balanced Athlete in Kent, and it wasn’t long before the store began to grow out of that retail space. Last year, Sach moved the store to Renton.

Since Sach prides himself on staying on top of the latest running trends and research, he took a keen interest in learning about Hokas. Last August, a Hoka representative brought the shoes by his store. At first, Sach thought they looked a bit silly, but as he learned more about the shoes' features, he became intrigued. Sach decided to take the Hokas to the mountains.

Since Sach and The Balanced Athlete staff help run an aid station during the annual Cascade Crest 100 Mile Race, Sach figured he’d use the opportunity give the shoes a test run. While waiting for racers, he took them for a jaunt five miles out and back from the aid station. Immediately, Sach loved the way he moved in Hokas.

"These felt different than any running shoe I’d tried," Sach said. "I thought, 'These are revolutionary shoes.' They’re like shaped skis or suspension brakes. They felt so cool."

Though Sach knew at once that he liked Hokas, it took him a little longer to process why. He has since determined that in Hokas, he doesn’t have to stare down at his feet to avoid tripping on the trail. While most running shoes have a bottom sole shape that curves in at the arch, Hokas look like a long oval, giving runners 30 percent more surface area to grip terrain. And since the ample cushioning protects feet from roots and rocks, Sach found he could fly downhill without worrying about dodging obstacles.

During this week’s outing at Cougar Mountain, I was curious to learn if I’d share Sach’s love for the Hokas. As we started jogging up the trail from the parking lot, the first thing I noticed was how light the shoes were. While Hokas look large, clunky, and awkward (hence the nickname "clown shoes"), they feel just the opposite. The French designers utilized a super-lightweight material in the sole, meaning the Hokas weigh in at just 9 ounces–less than most traditional running shoes.

I found Sach’s observations on the ease of running in Hokas also rang true. The wide surface area and padding made it easy to run on technical terrain. Since the heel is the same height as the toe, the Hoka encourages running with the entire foot. On uphill slopes, that means that runners are less likely to get up on their forefoot, and the resulting flatter foot strike can help protect some from common plantar fascia irritation.

Sach warned me that like any new footwear, Hokas aren’t for everybody and require an adjustment period. A new Hoka user shouldn’t go out and run a marathon in them, as the shape and design means runners will likely use slightly different muscles in them. The super soft sole means the foot muscles must work harder, Sach said. Indeed, my feet felt a bit sore the evening of our 60-minute run.
Sach also doesn’t advocate running exclusively in Hokas. He uses his pair regularly–and even raced the Chuckanut 50K in them–but he still uses more traditional running shoes.

"The Hokas are simply another shoe in the arsenal of shoe options runners have," Sach said.

Right now, The Balanced Athlete is the only store in Washington to carry Hokas. They don’t come cheap, at $170 a pair. (Sach said the company claims the shoes last 700 miles, as compared to 300 to 400 for most running shoes, making the higher price tag more palatable.) Many running stores are reluctant to carry such a pricey and still untested item.

"Hokas are still relatively unknown," Sach agreed.

Even so, Sach said he can’t keep enough Hokas in stock, as he sells out as soon as he receives a new shipment. And when runners show up at The Balanced Athlete and take Hokas for a test run, they usually come back with a smile on their face, Sach said.

"They just feel good," Sach said.

And my personal verdict on the Hokas? Though I didn’t expect to say this before running with Sach, I now plan to visit The Balanced Athlete and buy a pair. I finished our jog pleasantly surprised by how good the Hokas felt. Like Sach, I don’t think I’d ever run exclusively in Hokas, but they’d be a great addition to my running shoe rotation. I’m betting the Hokas would work my foot and leg muscles in slightly different ways, changing around the physical stresses that come with running.

Of course, I’m basing my analysis on a single hourlong run. The true test will come, I’m sure, after I log more miles in the Hokas. If I’m like Sach, though, I’ll continue to embrace the clown shoes–no matter how silly they may look.

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