For all the buzz that some recent additions to the lightweight trail running shoe category – in particular, New Balance’s MT100 and Vibram’s KSO Trek - have generated, it’s worth noting that one very minimal super-lightweight shoe has been on the market for nearly two years now, quietly amassing a loyal following among trail racers and ultrarunners alike. So I knew it was only a matter of time before I tried the Inov-8 X-Talon 212.
Inov-8 hails from England’s North Pennines, a geographic area known for its high moors, lush valleys, and frequently harsh climate. Northern Britain also happens to be the birthplace of fell running - off-road footraces over steep hills and all manner of challenging terrain – and it’s this type of activity that inspires the entire Inov-8 line of footwear and trail gear.
Billed as the “World’s Lightest XC/Fell Racer”, the 212 is also the lightest in Inov-8’s entire line of off-road shoes. Very conveniently, the numbers of Inov-8’s models correspond to the shoe’s weight in grams – so 212g gives you 7.48oz, which is remarkably light by trail standards. (For points of comparison, Vibram’s KSO Trek is 5.7oz, and New Balance’s MT100 is 7.8oz.) The shoe fits and feels like a cross-country racing flat, but is aggressive and durable enough to conquer any off-road conditions you encounter.
Like a racing flat, the upper of the 212 is low-profile and consists almost entirely of very thin lightweight mesh, with light padding around the ankle for comfort. I’ve found the ankle and Achilles areas to be completely problem-free - a nice improvement from my recent tendon-biting experience with the MT100. The tongue is only slightly thicker than the rest of the upper - part of the overall design strategy of decreasing bulk and weight – but the top region of the shoe stays comfortable with a TPU-supported lacing system that keeps everything snug with even tension throughout.
Inov-8’s performance uppers use quick-drying mesh with high breathability, as well as a Met-Cradle webbing support that cradles the forefoot in its natural position behind the metatarsal heads (balls of your feet) for neutral alignment. This webbing, combined with Inov-8’s narrower performance last, contribute to a somewhat slender fit through the forefoot. This design is good from a performance standpoint, as it prevents excess internal movement when ascending and descending steep, curvy or irregular trails – but it might be problematic for people with wide feet or those who like a lot of space in the toe box.
Further contributing to the race shoe feel is a very flat midsole platform, with only 6mm height difference between heel and toe. Cushioning is minimal by Inov-8’s standards – the specs page indicates “two arrow” cushioning out of a possible four arrows – with a low profile midsole for better ground feel (However, don’t ask me about midsole heights; I hounded the company for this spec, but apparently it’s guarded like a secret recipe. Those Brits can be awfully James Bond-ish sometimes.) The midsole also utilizes Meta-Shank construction, which is slightly contoured around each individual metatarsal for greater flexibility and natural foot motion.
For such a lightweight shoe, the X-Talon has an amazingly aggressive outsole, and this is where Inov-8’s high-performance design technologies truly shine. Obviously, what stands out most prominently are the cleat-like lugs, large and deep enough to power you through any mud pit or keep you stable on the slickest grassy slopes. Underlying the lugs is a longitudinal fascia band that mimics the foot’s natural plantar fascia ligament for increased propulsion efficiency and reduced muscle fatigue.
The entire outsole compound is an exclusive (I didn’t even bother asking for the composition) sticky rubber that was inspired by rock climbing outsoles. Walking on asphalt with these shoes, you appreciate the stickiness – you almost have to think about lifting your foot up to break ground contact with each step. I imagine this is sort of how Spiderman feels when scaling the outside of a building or something. One thing is clear, though: you’d have to try awfully hard to lose your traction in these shoes. In practice, I haven’t had one instance of slippage with them, even on the muddiest, steepest hills that I’ve covered over the past two months.
Sticky rubber clearly optimizes grip in all conditions - especially wet ones – but per Inov-8’s technology page, it tends to wear down quicker than traditional outsole rubber. I have over 100 miles on my 212s so far, and I haven’t noticed any appreciable height difference in the lugs. However, the point does highlight another consideration for these shoes: they are pure trail runners. If you use them as a hybrid and run a lot of miles on asphalt before reaching the trailhead, you’ll probably wear the lugs down much more rapidly.
Given its light weight and relatively minimal cushioning, the official company line on the X-Talon 212 is that it should be used as an off-road racing shoe or for low-mileage training days. However, if you’re coming from a barefoot and/or minimalist background, this would be a perfect shoe to use when you need increased protection and traction over ultra distances or on especially rugged terrain. Its overall construction is durable enough to handle whatever challenges lie ahead, and it’s light and comfortable enough to wear all day - and perhaps even all night, if necessary.
The Inov-8 X-Talon 212 retails for $100 at Endless.com as well as other online vendors.
*Product provided by Inov-8.
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