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July 16, 2009

La Sportiva Wildcat Shoe Review

If I told you that you should buy trail running shoes from a company that specializes in wooden clogs and lumberjack boots, would you be interested? At first glance, probably not.

But if I went on to tell you that the company has a long history of producing durable mountain gear, and that they’ve expanded their original focus to include footwear for rock climbing, alpine hiking and adventure running, you’d be a bit more curious, right?

What if I continued to explain that the company has become one of the biggest supporters of ultrarunning over the past several years, sponsoring multiple race series and a team of elite trail runners? Or that they provide exclusive gear for the most hardcore mountaineers and high-altitude athletes all over the world? Or that the company’s shoes were worn by winners of this year’s Western States and Hardrock 100-Mile races? You’d definitely pay attention then, wouldn’t you?

Readers, meet La Sportiva.

Considering that the company is relatively novel to many trail runners out there, it’s remarkable to learn that La Sportiva has been around for more than 80 years. They originated, and are still headquartered, in a small mountain town at the foot of the Dolomites in northern Italy. (Reflecting their origins, it makes sense that La Sportiva very seldom uses the words “trail running” for their gear – they prefer the phrase “mountain running”.) It has remained a family business that passes expertise down from one generation to the next, while collaborating with its sponsored athletes to push the boundaries of innovation for high performance.

They’re also a very generous company, as reflected in their extensive sponsorships (check that roster for this year's Western States women's champion and the Hardrock men's winner), promotional efforts (they even have two blogs!) and race series awards – especially at a time when many other companies are withdrawing or limiting financial support of amateur athletes. I’ve wanted to establish a relationship with LaSportiva for quite some time, so I was thrilled when I got the opportunity to review two different shoe models from their current line.

Today’s review features the Wildcat, which is billed as a stable, neutral shoe – and the most cushioned shoe in the LaSportiva line.

That description doesn’t mean the shoe is bulky – in fact, the immediate observation I had about both models (the Wildcat and the Crosslite, which will be reviewed next time) is how sleek and light they feel straight out of the box; they’re the shoe version of an Italian sports car. And it’s probably not a coincidence that LaSportiva shoes are endearingly nicknamed “Sporties” by runners who’ve used them. They trigger a primitive reaction of sorts - you put them on your feet, and you instantly feel like running fast.

The Wildcat weighs just 12oz, with a low profile around the ankle, and a slipper-like feel through the forefoot aided by an even-tension lacing system and a thin, breathable sockliner. I felt like I could run a 50K in these shoes right out the door – they were instantly comfortable and responsive without any breaking-in period. Adding to the lightweight feel of the shoes are AirMesh uppers, through which you can literally feel air moving with each stride. The AirMesh provides this cool ventilation while preventing dirt and debris from getting through to your socks.

Fortunately, being lightweight doesn’t sacrifice the shoe’s toughness. There’s a molded piece called a Transkinetic Heel Stabilizer at the back of the shoe to help with stability on rugged surfaces, and some rubber-dipped mesh for extra protection in vulnerable areas like the tip of the forefoot to keep clumsy runners from injuring themselves too often.

LaSportiva prides itself in its outsole traction, and the Wildcat uses their patented FriXion AT rubber which maximizes grip and responsiveness on the most slippery and treacherous terrain. Basically, the rubber is softer and stickier than the outsoles of most other shoes, but die-cut and angled in various directions throughout the sole to enhance braking and minimize slippage while also adding to the cushioned feel of the shoe.

In practice, the traction control of the Wildcat is quite remarkable. I used these shoes during the first 30 miles of the Western States 100, on high country terrain featuring lots of loose rocks and long stretches of trail that were submerged in spring runoff. I didn’t have any missteps, and I felt so confident going through slick, rocky sections of trail that I frequently charged right down the middle of extended water channels that many other runners slowed to tiptoe around.

Overall, I was very impressed with the performance of the Wildcats, with a couple of caveats. The first is that, given my size (6’2”) and pronation tendency, the neutral support and low profile of this shoe takes some getting used to. I transitioned to the Wildcats from a pair of Montrail Hardrocks, and at first it felt like the foot equivalent of climbing out of a Hummer and into a Ferrari – you can definitely move faster, but you’re going to feel like you’re rolling all over the road for a little while. If you’re accustomed to a sturdier shoe, LaSportiva has a model called the Lynx which is built up slightly more than the Wildcat and marketed toward heavier runners.

The other drawback I found was that on the steep downhill sections of the Western States trail, I had a bit of contact on both sides of the toebox. Sporties use a narrower cut through the forefoot than most other brands (especially compared to Montrails), and although that slipper-like fit is generally very comfortable, it might be an issue on steep slopes if you have fat toes like me.

I was confident enough in these shoes to lace them up for Western States, but I was wary that the toebox situation might become a problem, so that was the reason for the shoe change I described in my race report. I had my “old reliable” Montrails waiting for me at Robinson Flat (mile 30) just in case I needed them - and when I arrived there, I didn’t have any blisters or major problems, but the concern was noticeable enough that I didn’t want to risk the next 70 miles and much steeper canyons that awaited. However, I’ve continued to wear the Wildcats since race day without problems – it’s only on those super-long, super-steep days that I might think twice about them.

Pricing for the Wildcat is fairly consistent: they sell for $100 at REI, $100 at ZombieRunner, and even $100 at Amazon, who can seemingly discount just about anything. However, my friends at Wilderness Running Company have put together a pretty sweet deal: the Wildcats are on sale for $90, with their usual free shipping - and if you use coupon code R&R10, you get an additional 10 percent discount, and they'll even throw in a free pair of Drymax socks - my favorite brand, and typically a $12 value - as a bonus. Trust me, this is definitely the best deal you'll find, and it's good until the end of this month.

(On a related note ... have I mentioned how much I'm loving Wilderness Running Company lately? Give them your business, people - they're working hard for it.)

If you’re looking for a very comfortable, durable, all-purpose trail running (oops – I mean mountain running) shoe that makes you feel like a speedster, and interested in supporting a dynamic company that invests time, effort, and money to the world of ultrarunning, the La Sportiva Wildcat will make an excellent addition to your gear closet.

See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.


Mark 7/17/09, 5:32 AM  

I'm envious!Looks like a sweet ride!

RBR 7/18/09, 11:20 AM  

I just got my GoLite Rush pack (Women's fit in Lilac!) from Wilderness Running Company on your recommendation. I will let you know how it works out, but thanks for the 10% off!

Hawaiian Shirt Ray 1/14/11, 11:51 AM  

Thanks for the very detailed review. It was enough for me to seek out a pair of the Wildcats. I am looking for a shoe that will be good for 100 miles and have been limited because of my wide toebox. I hope I can get into a pair of the Wildcats. I'll let you know after today's shopping adventure.

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