Admin note: Remember how I said this review was going to be awesome? Well, by now you’ve figured out from the title of this post what I was referring to. Yes, there’s a giveaway, and I wouldn’t be nearly as stoked about it if I wasn’t so impressed with the shoe … but for details on that, you’ll have to read on.
In my review for New Balance’s forthcoming Minimus Road shoe last week, I expressed my disappointment that the shoe wasn’t more minimal; rather, it’s intended as a transitional shoe, targeting folks who want to leave standard footwear behind but aren’t quite ready to commit to completely minimal footwear. Since I run almost exclusively in true minimalist footwear, its utility was sort of lost on me.
See, if I were designing a transitional shoe, I’d do something more dramatic. I’d strip the overall weight of the shoe down as much as possible and make the uppers feel like there’s barely anything there. I’d make the midsole low to the ground, with a very marginal slope from heel to toe to promote flat foot strike, but leaving just enough protection in the heel area to accommodate the occasional inadvertent heel strike. I’d make it amazingly comfortable but durable enough to be worn for endless miles in any imaginable conditions.
In other words, I’d make the New Balance Minimus trail shoe.
I suspect that the classification of this shoe will differ between longtime minimalist runners and traditional footwear users. New Balance promotes this as their true minimalist model, and if you’re trying the Minimus in comparison to standard running shoes, the barefoot sensation will be quite remarkable. Pure barefoot runners, on the other hand, will find some of the structural elements unfavorable, and will think of this (as I do) mainly as a transitional shoe. Fortunately, the Minimus is so thoughtfully designed and so well-constructed that it has something tangible to offer both of these groups.
Here are the vital specs for the Minimus Trail: overall weight is 7.1 oz, with a midsole height of 15mm in the heel and 11mm in the forefoot, resulting in a 4mm slope from heel to toe. Considering that most minimalist footwear is completely flat and less than 8mm thick, you can appreciate how barefooters would be apprehensive. Furthermore, the specs aren’t dramatically different than New Balance’s own MT101, which checks in at 7.8 oz and 18mm/8mm heel to toe. So the forefoot of the Minimus is actually higher off the ground than on the 101, but with a much flatter slope.
Accordingly, I consider the Minimus not quite minimal, but it’s the last stop before reaching that destination. And after logging a couple hundred miles on mine, I’ve come to believe that this will be one of the most attractive trail shoes on the market in 2011. It complements my minimalist running quite nicely without feeling like I’m returning to traditional footwear, and has several innovative design features that make it one of the best high-performance trail runners of any variety currently on the market. So let’s take a look at those from the top down.
Two types of mesh comprise the Minimus upper: a wide-open ventilated top layer, with a very thin, finely woven base layer underneath to keep grit away from your toes. Like the road version, the Minimus Trail is made to be worn without socks, and the comfort of the interior lining against bare skin is super comfortable. Its tongue is similar to the MT101, consisting of little more than a thin fabric layer. The fabric of the tongue and top of the toe box is different than the majority of the upper, but is still very light and has minimal structure to it. Standard shoelaces provide nice even tension across the top of the foot.
Construction of the entire upper is so lightweight and comfortable that your foot feels like it’s inside a soft slipper. It lets water in relatively easily, but also dries very rapidly, making it ideal for stream crossings. There is plenty of room in the toe box for foot splay, and the contour of the last and upper fit my foot like a hand sliding into a glove. (Or maybe a mitten. You get the point.) Fit around the heel is secure without feeling tight, and the ankle collar is cut low to allow full range of motion, with a modest lining on top for improved comfort without added bulk.
Perhaps the most noticeable innovation on the upper are two strips of synthetic leather: one across the top of the foot at the base of the toes, and one that wraps around the heel. The heel strap is similar in appearance to the back of a pair of Vibram FiveFingers, and maintains stability of the lightweight upper around the heelcup. The forefoot strap is anchored by a raised shark fin-shaped portion of the outsole on each side.
When you first put the shoe on, this forefoot strip feels a bit constricting, but as soon as you start running you can appreciate its purpose. On irregular terrain, it prevents excess lateral movement inside the upper, and when you’re running downhill, the strap prevents your toes from sliding forward into the toebox. If the shoe is sized appropriately (for me, they run true to size), even the steepest hills won’t mash the tips of your toes; this innovation alone deserves some kind of special recognition from veteran trail runners.
The midsole of the Minimus is where New Balance will probably draw the most contention from the barefoot crowd. No, it’s not a zero drop shoe, and yes, 15mm in the heel is fairly substantial. However, I also think this design element will attract one particular group of runners who have thus far been reluctant to try minimalist running: those looking to hammer the pace, especially on hilly trail courses. In fact, one of the first thoughts I had when running in the Minimus was that this shoe is the perfect marriage of minimalism and speed.
Here’s what I mean: despite all the barefoot miles I’ve logged over the past couple of years, and despite being able to tolerate ultra distances in minimalist shoes, there’s one aspect of trail running that remains a huge challenge for me: running fast on steep descents. When I’m really pushing for downhill speed, especially on tricky terrain, it’s extremely difficult to maintain a forefoot strike and prevent my heel from contacting the ground with impact. With the Minimus, you can blast the downhills, and the bolstered heel gives you a small margin of protection before resuming your smooth forefoot stride when the trail levels out.
Thickness of the midsole is greater than typical minimalist footwear, but the Minimus maintains pretty decent ground feel, especially through the forefoot area which is only 11mm thick. The entire midsole is flexible in all directions, allowing your foot to contour around trail irregularities just as it would in Vibrams or moccasins. I’ve found the added thickness to be ideal for providing solid, reliable protection from roots and rocks without having to sight the trail as actively as you do in minimalist footwear – which is another feature that’s valuable to hardcore racers.
More innovations are apparent in the Minimus outsole, which was developed by Vibram. It features grippy circular lugs with deep grooves in between for minimal weight and maximal flexibility. The outsole is slightly contoured in the arch area, similar to a pair of FiveFingers but not quite as snug.
Traction of the outsole is truly outstanding, and the Minimus has become my first choice when trail conditions are sloppy. They hold firmly in slippery mud, steady on wet rocks and stream crossings, and securely on loose gravel. Best of all, since the lugs are more circular than knobby, the ride remains fairly smooth even on asphalt – always a nice feature when you have to run a mile or two to reach the trailhead.
Across all conditions, the Minimus trail outsole is a dramatic improvement over any minimalist shoes I’ve tested – including Vibram’s KSO Trek and Trek Sport, which I had ranked highest to this point – and are nearly comparable with the most rugged trail outsoles like La Sportiva’s Crosslite and Salomon’s SpeedCross 2. I’d love to see Vibram incorporate this design on a FiveFingers model someday, since the outsole’s flexibility is perfectly comparable to the best minimalist shoes on the market.
In case it isn’t already obvious, I’m extremely impressed by the Minimus trail shoe, and I think it will turn out to be one of the most groundbreaking products of 2011. New Balance doesn’t call it a transitional shoe, and barefooters won’t call it a minimalist shoe, but its exceptional comfort and extensive high-performance features are likely to win fans from both of those camps.
And here’s the part that I’m most excited about of all: in conjunction with this review, New Balance has generously offered one pair of Minimus trail shoes as a contest prize for one of my readers. To enter, leave a comment below this post, and I’ll award extra entries for either a blog link or sharing this page via Facebook – so when you comment below, let me know how many entries you’ve earned (and I reserve the right to verify). Also, if your profile doesn’t have an address attached to it, leave me your e-mail so I have some way to reach you if you win.
I’m leaving the window of opportunity on this contest open for an extended period of time for two reasons: 1) To give as many people as possible a chance to win, and 2) Because the Minimus becomes available for purchase on March 1st, so if you don’t win the contest you can still grab one pretty quickly afterward. The winner will be announced on Saturday, March 5th, so good luck to everybody, and very special thanks to New Balance for sponsoring this contest.
*** UPDATED: The contest is OVER as of 3/5/11! You can purchase the NB Minimus Trail here from TravelCountry.com, or here for the women's version.
*Product provided by New Balance
**See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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