Have you ever had one of those experiences where you feel like you get to know somebody from a distance – either through e-mails, a webpage, watching them on TV, and so on – before finally meeting them in person, and realizing that they actually look quite different than you had pictured in your head? This spring, some shoe reviewers had just such an experience upon meeting GoLite Footwear's Tara Lite running shoe. And yes, I was one of them.
When the shoes were first announced back in the fall, press releases described them as taking the best aspects of classic huarache sandals, and adding some protection and traction while still allowing the foot to function naturally. And the name of the shoe is a short for Tarahumara – as in the Tarahumara Indians, whom legions of Born to Run fans now recognize as the patron saints of minimalist running.
GoLite also did a well-received advertising campaign in the buildup to the shoe’s release, placing ads in Trail Runner and other magazines with the slogan “Run Natural. Run Wild”. So a certain type of image began forming in people’s minds: huarache, Tarahumara, natural running ... and the easy conclusion was that the Tara Lite would be a cool new minimalist shoe.
Well, we were half-right, because the Tara is a fairly cool shoe - but with specs of 11oz and a 24mm midsole, it’s anything but minimalist. And my initial impression of, “Wow – that looks a lot different than I expected” was shared by others, with some prompt backlash from a few testers who had hoped it was going to be something altogether different.
Truthfully, we probably should have just paid closer attention, because one word that GoLite never used throughout its marketing (trust me, I went back and checked) was "minimal". Rather, the Tara is part of the company’s BareTech series, which aims to achieve a balance between minimalist footwear and traditional trail running shoes. It is designed for runners who want to adjust their biomechanics but aren’t ready to make a complete shift to minimal shoes, and delivers what the company describes as a “natural ride with full protection”.
Understanding all that, and setting aside my disappointment that this wasn’t a minimalist offering, the Tara was still an interesting shoe to review. It has several design innovations, some of which work, and some of which seem more clever than truly practical. And it has one element that’s perhaps the best of any shoe I’ve tested – but for that, you have to keep reading.
Many of the innovations are noticeable right off the bat, in that the Tara looks nothing like your traditional running shoe – instead, it looks like a hybrid of a moccasin and a sandal. The upper isn’t a mesh fabric, but a stretchy synthetic “second skin” that feels comfortable and is excellent at keeping grit out, but also runs a little warmer than traditional ventilated uppers. Crossing on top of the upper is an adjustable fit strap system that takes the place of standard laces, and works something like the strap system on Vibram KSOs. This is a creative design, but I wouldn’t call it a home run; when I tighten the straps, I notice an improved fit across the top of the foot, but not always down the length of the midfoot like you do with laces.
The front of the strap passes through the little hole in the top of the upper and is anchored into the midsole as a thong post like you have in a pair of flip-flops or with traditional huaraches. The performance advantage of having this post is that it serves as a forward motion block on steep downhills to prevent your toes from sliding to the front of the toebox. However, it causes one significant practical adjustment: you can’t wear standard socks with the Tara Lite, unless you want to scrunch the material between your 1st and 2nd toes down enough to wrap around the post.
To accommodate for this, GoLite provides one free pair of notched socks that are perfect for use in the Tara, although I suspect that most people will just use Injinji socks. If you don’t happen to have several pairs of Injinjis stockpiled, you might have a hard time making the Tara your everyday shoe. Some folks will probably go sockless, and the second skin upper feels fairly comfortable against bare skin, but I usually prefer to wear socks (regardless of what shoes I’m using) when I’m logging high mileage on the trail.
A similar strap mechanism is located behind the heel to adjust the fit of the ankle opening. Between the ankle strap and the forefoot system, there are a lot of possibilities for customizing your fit, so I’d be surprised to hear if anyone has a hard time making the shoe feel secure around his foot. However, this degree of adjustment and customization takes a bit of trial and error to find the various tensions that work the best.
There’s also some degree of customization with the insole system that GoLite uses for its running shoes: the insoles can be thickened, thinned out, left neutral, or removed completely, resulting in various degrees of toebox height and width. The toebox is naturally roomy even with the standard insole; in fact, I’d suggest that the shoes run slightly large, as my regular size 11 felt noticeably more roomy than the same size in other brands.
Last fall, GoLite was a groundbreaker in introducing zero-drop midsoles in its Amp Lite men’s shoe and Micro Lite women’s shoe. A similar midsole is used for the Tara, which is 24mm thick at both heel and forefoot, and it uses the same Soft Against the Ground (SATG) technology employed in those other two models. SATG quite literally turns conventional shoe construction upside down, with the softest material closest to the ground, and a firmer platform under your foot. GoLite claims that this technology decreases ground impact and reduces rear foot movement by up to 33%; the impact claim is a hard one for me to qualify, since any shoe with a midsole is going to feel excessively spongy, but I can attest that the rear foot area is quite stable.
There’s also one major drawback of the thick EVA midsole that’s best explained by demonstration …
You know how I usually include pictures of a rolled-up shoe when I’m reviewing minimalist footwear? Well, this is as close as I could get with the Tara. In the above picture, I’m pushing down as hard as I can – and the midsole is barely budging. So if you’re looking for flexibility, this obviously isn’t the shoe for you.
Finally, here’s the overwhelming strength of the Tara Lite: its sticky gecko outsole that is perhaps the most grippy, stable, and versatile outsole I’ve ever tested on a trail shoe. Yes, it’s that good. It’s inspired by the setae (that’s a frequent spelling bee word, by the way) on a gecko’s feet, and is composed of over 350 lugs of various sizes, effectively creating an enormous amount of surface area for the rubber to grab the trail.
I found the outsole to perform exceptionally well in all sorts of conditions, from rocks and loose gravel to rain and mud and river crossings to snow (yes, really) and slush. However, when I was testing the outsole in wet conditions, another quirk of the Tara came to light: water seeps in through the thong post hole on top of the upper, but doesn’t evaporate very efficiently through the second skin material. Therefore, even though the outsole is designed for the most demanding conditions, you may have some discomfort in other parts of the shoe to make you think twice about taking them on.
Clearly, the Tara is something of a mixed bag, with some very cool innovations alongside some features that sort of miss the mark from a performance standpoint. It’s far too high and too heavy to be an everyday shoe for me, but there’s definitely a lot of potential for future development.
Throughout the time I was testing them, I couldn’t help but ponder what my ideal GoLite shoe would be: a thin, breathable mesh upper with a strap fastening system that doesn’t use a thong post, affixed directly on top of the gecko outsole, resulting in a low, lightweight, flexible minimalist shoe that can handle any trail challenges imaginable. Perhaps a shoe like that is coming one day; in the meantime, the Tara presents an interesting option for runners who like classic shoe structure but want to incorporate some elements of natural biomechanics when taking on the trail. Zero drop shoes are becoming fairly well-established, and for a certain cross-section of runners, that may be as close to natural biomechanics as they ever want to get.
GoLite's Tara Lite retails for $115 from Amazon.com as well as other online vendors.
*Product provided by GoLite Footwear
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