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March 30, 2010

Soft Star Run-A-Moc Running Shoe Preview

By now, I’ve grown accustomed to sharing unsolicited opinions on all manner of running-related products; it’s when someone actively seeks my advice that I’m occasionally caught off guard. So I was honestly surprised when the folks at Soft Star asked me if I’d like to be involved in the development of their forthcoming minimal running moccasin.

My assignment was relatively simple: Go running. A lot. Use the mocs they sent me as much as possible – as many miles as I could manage, on all kinds of terrain – then provide some feedback about how they perform. Wait for the next shipment of mocs to arrive, and do it all over again. In other words, pretty much the exact thing I do all the time anyway. Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly reaching out of my comfort zone, so there was really no reason for me to pass up the opportunity. Combine that with the fact that I’ve really come to admire the Soft Star company – a true Mom and Pop business that has cultivated a loyal following over the past two decades – and it was a no-brainer from my standpoint.

Soft Star’s hand-made moccasins are ultra-comfortable and promote natural foot movement (see my Roo review), so it wasn’t too surprising to learn that they had embraced the whole barefoot running movement. However, the idea that they’d actually request my help was something of a shocker. (And perhaps even a bit risky – as my wife can attest, my fashion tastes aren’t really what you’d call mainstream. Obviously, I didn’t tell them that part.)

Nevertheless, we struck a deal - and with that, the Moccasin Project was underway. As the following photos will demonstrate, it’s been a long journey from initial prototype to something that you can actually charge money for – but I think they’re getting awfully close.

The first pair I received was basically a modified version of Soft Star’s standard Rambler moccasin, with 3-panel suede upper construction, elastic ankle closure, and Vibram outsole. Mesh ventilation holes were added to the upper, sheepskin was removed from the insole, and the outsole was changed to a more durable 2mm Vibram Sheet.

The main drawback to this one was that the elastic ankle closure, while perfect for lounging around the house or walking in the neighborhood, wasn’t nearly snug enough to keep the uppers on my heels during a hilly 6-mile road run. I ended up only putting about 20 total miles on these, mainly because they kept falling off my feet.

My first shipment also included this variation with a more trail-friendly Vibram Cherry outsole, and lace closures to tie the ankle opening snug. I put about 60 dirt miles on this pair, and was really pleased with the ground feel through the 4mm Cherry. Unfortunately, the cotton laces were nearly impossible to unfasten when they were wet, which caused something of a problem whenever I exited a stream crossing with a handful of pebbles that snuck into the upper.

Another feature of this version was the outer seam construction, which looks cool, but gave me two problems: 1) their sharp edges scraped against the insides of my legs far too often, and 2) whenever I stepped in shallow mud, the rim outside the seam caused the moc to stick behind as my heel pulled out of the muck.

Additionally, both of these models were cut excessively big, both lengthwise and in width through the heel. We discovered that the same size sole results in a much different overall fit in sheepskin mocs and running shoes – something to do with how the soft sheepskin causes the ends of regular mocs to roll up a bit after construction. So the next pairs I received were cut smaller …

… but not necessarily correctly. The sizing of this was something of an overcorrection, with the heel area being way too narrow. However, this model used Vibram’s golf outsole, 6mm thick with lots of small nubs for gripping in dirt and mud. Right off the bat, I knew this was my favorite outsole thus far. This moc also sports new laces that aren’t as stubborn as the original cotton ones, but still fairly challenging to undo easily.

This model was an encouraging sign that tangible changes were taking place: the cut was perfect through the toebox (nice and wide) and heel, the outer seam was replaced with an inner one, and a lace-lock device allowed for easy tightening and loosening, like the speed laces used by triathletes. Now the issue was how to keep the laces from flapping around after tightening them; as far as I know, this wasn’t fully resolved.

Also, the sheet outsole returned on this model, providing outstanding ground feel, but reduced traction on wet or rough surfaces. I still use this model for road running, but generally not on trails. For the dirt, I use …

… what is far and away my favorite current model, which now has the working name of Run-A-Moc (I’ve mentioned how much I love the name, right?). It has the thicker Golf outsole, and laces that stay secure when tied and unfasten easily when wet. It also has an upper that is radically different than the previous prototypes.

Throughout the testing process, one of my biggest complaints about the suede uppers was that once they got wet, they stayed that way. Like, for 2 or 3 days afterward. And it wasn’t just after stream crossings: with a bit of light rain, or when running along a trail of tall grass in the early morning fog, the mocs held onto water like crazy. So in response, Soft Star made the whole upper out of the mesh material, to allow for quicker air drying. This is still an experiment in progress …

… for example, my pair is asymmetric: one has the mesh material all the way around, and the other uses suede in the rearfoot. My preference is for all-mesh, but I’m not sure how the final version will look.

To be sure, I’ve given this particular pair a beating. I’ve put close to 100 miles on them, including the most challenging trail conditions you can think of: waist-deep water, ankle-deep mud, slippery roots, unstable rocks, and so on. I wore them for last week’s 21-miler in Berkeley (full report coming soon), and they performed as well as I could hope from both a traction and comfort standpoint. Honestly, I’m so happy with how they worked, I feel like I could do at least a 50K in them right now, with no further revision. In fact, I've finally put a few 50-mile races on the calendar for this year (more on that later, too); don’t be surprised if I show up on the start line of at least one of them wearing a pair of moccasins.

There will most likely be a few more tweaks and changes before the Run-A-Moc – that’s what I’ll be calling it, regardless of what the official name ends up being – is officially released to the public later this spring or summer, and I’ll be sure to keep you updated on revisions and target release dates. In the meantime, if you have any questions, suggestions, or comments about the development of this product, let me know after the post, and I’ll pass them along to Soft Star.


Ray 3/31/10, 7:03 AM  

Great coverage of the moc's evolution! It sounds fun to tryout all thse different types.

Well done Soft Star for beng so resposive. These look very cool!

How do they compare to VFF's?

shel 3/31/10, 7:21 AM  

i love it! can't wait to get my feet in a pair!

Nathan Seibt 3/31/10, 7:23 AM  

Does the 6mm sole seem to thick? Maybe they'll offer two different soling options - it just seems like 6mm would significantly reduce ground feel.

How do they clean up? Does mud get stuck in the mesh holes and run onto the insole inside the shoe?

For Soft Star: The suede does hold water... but smooth leather doesn't. I've been really impressed with the leather on my Vileys - why not use this leather with some mesh vents?

Thanks for the review - looking forward to getting a pair of these.

stronger 3/31/10, 8:59 AM  

Interesting- they sure are lucky to have you testing!

Michael Shane Helton 3/31/10, 11:17 AM  

I like the fact that they are cut wide, instead of being built for a 3 year old. This one picture of the soles shows the indentation of your feet beautifully.

Donald 3/31/10, 11:26 AM  

Ray - the mocs feel much "looser" than VFFs, mainly because they don't wrap around your heel and arch. However, I find they stay inplace pretty well with the single lace fastener.

Nathan - outsole is the big question right now. 6mm definitely feels thicker than 4mm, but oveall gorundfeel is still very similar to VFF Treks (with 4mm outsole and 4mm midsole). No word yet if soling will be an option or if it will be "one style fits all"

As far as mud entering the mesh, it's far less than I anticipated. There's also the potential for mud to enter where the upper panels overlap, but once we got the proper sizing figured out, that was much less of an issue. You'll certainly feel dust and grit on your toes if you're sockless in the mocs, but with a pair of socks you'll barely notice it.

Justin_P 3/31/10, 12:58 PM  

Cool post! Thanks for sharing this process.

Gretchen 4/5/10, 12:52 PM  

Dude, this looks like such a fun process to be a part of! Very interesting stuff. You must have had a blast with all this.
Will they come in some of those cool, funky colors? Hope so.

Barefoot AngieB 4/12/10, 9:45 PM  

really excited to see how these turn out! How fun to run them through the ringer like that!

PegHead 8/21/10, 8:59 AM  

I love SoftStar more and more every time I read something about them! Thank you for showing the design process. based on looks, I want those green ones!!

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