Boar Skin Outsoles, Grounding Yourself, and Dancing in the Dirt: Adventures with Michael Sandler and Soft Star Shoes
One of the coolest things about being a product tester for Soft Star is that every so often, a package shows up unannounced on my doorstep, containing a pair of moccasins with some odd twist or another that I hadn’t really anticipated.
More than any other company I’ve worked with, Soft Star shows an incredible willingness to think outside the box on product design. They constantly seek ways to modify and improve their existing running models, and frequently solicit user feedback for consideration on what elements to include or exclude from their final products. In most cases, the prototypes I receive in the mail aren’t intended for formal review; they simply come with a note explaining that the elves are experimenting with either a new insole, new upper material, new outsole, new laces, etc; my job is to run as many miles as I can in the mocs and report my feedback on the aspect in question.
Even though I know not to be surprised by the unexpected anymore, last month the company caught me completely off guard, with a prototype moccasin that I never would have thought of. As usual, they’re looking for my feedback, but in this case they’d like it opened up to the masses as well – so if you make it to the end of this post (we’ll take a long detour to get there, but I’ll try to keep it interesting), please chime in on what you think of the whole idea.
|Not your run of the mill RunAmocs ...|
The shoes that arrived at my house last month looked like normal RunAmocs from the top: perforated leather uppers, laces around the ankles, and a boar skin insole underfoot. It wasn’t until I turned the shoe over that I figured there must be some kind of mistake.
|They started out perfectly white, just like the insole|
Where a Vibram outsole would normally be, there was now an additional layer of boar skin. At first I honestly thought they had screwed up the manufacturing process and forgot to attach the rubber outsole – but the note inside the package assured me that the construction was intentional.
|Boar skin like a whitewall beneath the upper|
I’ve often described the RunAmoc as something our primitive ancestors might have worn, which occasionally triggers the response that Native Americans didn’t have Vibram outsoles. Animal hides, however, are something they most definitely did have – so once again, Soft Star’s looking toward the future by reaching into the past … and that aspect alone seems pretty sweet.
Here’s where the story goes a bit off-course: when I asked how they got the idea to use boar skin, they told me that Michael Sandler had visited their workshop one day and asked if the elves could make him just such a pair.
That would be Michael Sandler, author of the Barefoot Running book that I reviewed and gave away last month. He was in Oregon on a book tour and stopped in to Soft Star headquarters, and had a discussion about shoe construction and various materials that would optimize ground feel and “conductivity” – more on that in a second.
Upon hearing this, I shot Michael an e-mail, basically asking, Where did you get the idea to use boar skin?, and What made you want to try it?
That same afternoon, my phone rang … and on the other end of the line was Michael Sandler. We embarked on a wide-ranging discussion including topics from barefoot running to connection with the Earth to future directions in shoe manufacturing – and it was one of the most fascinating and enjoyable conversations I’ve had in quite a while.
One point that came through loud and clear is that Michael is a true believer. In my review of his book, I criticized him for being a little far-reaching with the health benefits he claims are alleviated by going barefoot, and for embracing the somewhat obscure science of "grounding”, where the goal is to equalize the electrical potential of our bodies to that of the Earth. However, these are both areas that Michael has studied extensively and supports wholeheartedly – and after listening to him preach for a while, I have to say I’m a little bit intrigued.
In particular, the notion of grounding is of paramount importance to Michael. He referred me to texts such as Earthing: The Most Important Health Discovery Ever? and other studies about the electrical effects of being directly connected to the ground. In order to become grounded, you need to be conductive – but the biggest obstacle to conducting the Earth’s energy is our footwear. Natural materials such as animal hides are inherently conductive, while synthetic materials like rubber outsoles completely block any transfer of energy from the Earth.
However, animal hide outsoles are only a starting point. Michael would ideally like to see outsoles made from plant products, because he’s a vegan who objects to the use of animal products – the boar skin Soft Star uses is sourced as scrap material, so the animal isn’t killed for it, which makes it a bit more vegan-palatable – and because plant materials have even greater conductivity than animal products. When I prompted him with suggestions of hemp or palm or bamboo outsoles, he gave me examples of these very concepts being used in other cultures at various points in history. Whether any of this makes practical sense is somewhat tough to tell, but Michael’s clearly an expert on the topic – and when it comes to footwear, conductivity is one of his highest priorities.
All of which brings us back to the boar skin RunAmocs. Michael got a pair just like mine, and he’s a huge fan. Some of his exact words were, “there’s something magical about how they feel”, or, “they make me hop, skip, and dance on the trails”, and, “I can’t help but feel like a kid again in these.” He says they allow him to fully feel the ground, but provide just enough protection to take the edge off sharp rocks or errant roots. They also improve his form by promoting high steps and light footstrike, two hallmarks of natural running.
|Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee hopping, skipping, and dancing|
With about 100 miles on my pair, my own experience with the boar skin mocs is a little more tempered than Michael’s. There’s no question that the ground feel is outstanding, and they maintain (or even improve) all of the flexibility that my normal moccasins allow. I’ve also been quite impressed with their durability: even though much of my testing was on asphalt, the boar skin hasn’t become ragged or torn apart like I suspected they might. They could seemingly hold up for several hundred miles without wearing thin in high impact areas.
As you may have already predicted, the biggest drawback with a leather outsole is traction. They get slick on wet surfaces like roads after a rain, and they have practically no grip on loose trail surfaces or in sloppy conditions. Granted, the uncertain footing makes you very careful about proper form and gentle landings, but I’d still prefer something with a bit of grip to it when I’m trying to keep my legs under me in the middle of a rainy 50-miler somewhere.
|The round wear marks on the outsole are thanks to small rock plates ... which are the subject of another post entirely.|
Accordingly, my opinion is that the boar skin mocs would have a relatively narrow range of use. They would be awesome on groomed trails or smooth single track in dry conditions with relatively gentle climbs and descents, but I’d avoid them if I anticipated any loose gravel, wet dirt, or steep hills - which eliminates a majority of my regular training runs. The ground feel really is outstanding - possibly the equal of Soft Star’s slipper-like Moc3 – and if you subscribe to the idea of grounding, they’re definitely the next best thing to being completely barefoot.
Incidentally, Michael Sandler happens to agree with me on all this. He acknowledges that the traction of animal hides is far from ideal, and that the boar skin mocs aren’t well-suited for certain conditions. However, both of us also agree that this is a fascinating concept for shoemakers to explore. We’d love to see further experimentation with more natural and conductive materials, and we’re pleased to be involved with Soft Star as they push the envelope in this regard.
Now it’s your turn: what do you think of all this? Do you buy into the idea of connecting to the ground? Is the tradeoff of traction for conduction something you’d be willing to try? Would you be interested in having a pair of mocs like this in your collection if they’re only intended for limited use? Is there anything else you’d like to contribute to the conversation?
Remember, Soft Star is soliciting feedback on this one, so this is your opportunity to let them hear your opinion. Sound off in the comments below, and I’ll wade back into the discussion as needed to answer questions or give replies.
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