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April 23, 2012

Luna Leadville Sandal Review

Among all of the minimalist shoe companies out there, perhaps none has a more impressive pedigree than Luna Sandals.

The company is the brainchild of Barefoot Ted McDonald, one of the most experienced and accomplished barefoot runners in the word, who the vast majority of minimalist fans first met via Christopher McDougall's landmark Born to Run.  McDonald helped fuel Vibram's meteoric rise to success, introducing FiveFingers to the road running world at the 2006 Boston Marathon, and to the ultrarunning community a few years later (with KSO Treks this time) at the Leadville 100.

Barefoot Ted and Manuel Luna; photo by Luis Escobar, taken from Luna website

One interesting side note to the now-legendary pilgrimage described in Born to Run is that while in the Copper Canyons, Barefoot Ted spent a great deal of time with a Tarahumara elder named Manuel Luna, who taught him the art of making huarache sandals.  Upon his return to the United States, McDonald experimented combining Luna's old world design and craftsmanship with modern day materials - and the result was his own brand of footwear, named after his Tarahumara mentor.

I was initially somewhat hesitant to review a Luna product, because I've never really preferred running in huaraches over more conventionally styled minimalist footwear.  However, all it took to change my mind was one single word: Leadville.

Luna Leadville sandals

Leadville, as in the place where the Tarahumara showed up and provided the inspiration for the modern-day minimalist renaissance.  Leadville, as in the race where Barefoot Ted debuted his first pair of Luna sandals in 2010, and where no fewer than five members of the Luna team - who refer to themselves as "Luna Monkeys" - wore their huaraches during the event in 2011.  Leadville ... as in the 100-miler I'm going to attempt later this summer.  (I still get shivers whenever I type that, in case you're wondering.)

So when I learned that one of Luna's 2012 models was called the Leadville, and that the website describes it as a "rugged sandal designed for hardcore trails," I figured I pretty much had to give them a test run.  At the very least, I was running out of rational reasons to avoid them.

A short description of the Luna Leadville is that it's a modern-day huarache with just enough protection underfoot to use in rough trail conditions.  With a 10mm Vibram neoprene rubber platform, it actually has a higher stack height than FiveFingers, as well as the Soft StarRunAmocs I typically use for ultras.  There's more than enough thickness to take the sting out of sharp rocks, but enough flexibility to maintain outstanding ground feel.  You can also order an optional suede layer (as pictured on mine) that adds approximately 1 extra millimeter of height along with a significant amount of comfort.

The outsole features one of the most aggressive tread patterns I've seen on minimalist footwear (I wish my RunAmocs used this), and holds my foot in position quite well on most types of terrain.  This is a particularly critical point with huaraches, because ...

... for obvious reasons, there's not much structure on top to keep your foot from moving around.  I'd suspect that most huarache users will tell you the biggest challenge with any pair is getting the fit just right: making them tight enough to hold your foot in place, but not so constricting that they are uncomfortable.  There's a lot of customization in adjusting the tension over the top of the foot or the back of the heel, and it takes a lot of trial and error that can often times become frustrating.  

To help address this, Luna sandals can be ordered with three different lace styles: traditional leather straps like the Tarahumara use, elasticized laces that are easy to slip on and off after you get the right positions dialed in, or the company's new ATS (all terrain strapping) lacing system, which is a hybrid of elastic and nylon. 

My Leadville sandals came with the ATS system, and I initially had a lot of difficulty getting the heel tension just right; the strap kept sliding down off my heel, and when I tightened it enough to stay in place, my toes were pushed too far forward on the footbed.  One of the Luna Monkeys gave me some tips to try, and I eventually figured out a setting where the straps are comfortable and stay in place well - but if you'll notice on the picture above, I had to move the elasticized portions of the heel strap pretty far out of their standard neutral alignment to find the right balance.

I have my lace system dialed in well enough that there's very little separation of the footbed from the underside of my foot while running.  One of my pet peeves about running in sandals is when small pebbles get between your foot and the footbed, but once I figured out the best lacing system, this wasn't a big issue for me with my Leadvilles.  They also give me much better lateral stability than I've experienced with other huaraches, so that was a nice surprise. 

Toes creeping over the front edge
The fit issue did come into play again when running on downhills, where my toes slide forward on the footbed, at times to the point of contacting the ground.  I suspect this might be an inherent issue with any huaraches, but I'm still tinkering with mine a bit to see if I can improve the situation.  I'm also told that the footbed contours to your foot after extended use, but I haven't logged enough miles in my pair to attest to that.

One other point on the fit is that Luna sandals can be selected from "off the shelf" last sizes (although each pair is still hand-cut), or custom ordered based on your specific foot measurements.  I tried a standard last that is closest to my US shoe size, and it's a pretty accurate fit - I don't think I could have done any better by custom ordering.  However, since fit is such a crucial issue with huaraches, if you have any sort of size irregularities, you're probably better off doing a custom order. 

While I'm not entirely converted to using huaraches for my long-distance training, I have to say that I'm very impressed with the Luna Leadville.  They are more comfortable and protective than I anticipated, and they inspire a similar kind of primal feel that I love so much about my moccasins.  They would be a great option for someone like me who is considering building up to more frequent huarache use, as well as for experienced users seeking to push the limits of distance and terrain.

Luna's Leadville sandals retail for $85 from the company website.

*Product provided by Luna
**If you have a product you'd like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com.

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Alejandro 10 4/24/12, 6:08 AM  

Oh, I love my Lunas! I'm not sure how much the Leadville will contour to one's foot, but the suede sure helps the Original contour. I have a hard time wearing anything else now. Luckily it is rather cool today, so my Soft Star Ramblers are getting a little attention. :-)

CJ 4/24/12, 7:59 AM  

Good timing! I just got a pair of the Original Lunas with the ATS and while I love them, your comments about adjusting the fit are spot on. I'm having the same heel/toe issue. Any chance you want to post the tips the Monkeys gave?

Unknown 4/24/12, 12:30 PM  

Some tips straight from the monkeys at Luna:

- Much like the straps on a backpack, the edge of the buckle can be lifted to loosen your laces while the loose end of the lace can be pulled to tighten.

- The buckle can also be slid up and down the strap coming through the toe hole for extra comfort.
If the heel strap is not secure, remove slack from the heel by pulling extra lace through the the ankle holes. Tighten the buckle to remove the extra slack created by tightening the heel strap.

- If your toes are being forced too far forward in the sandals, add extra slack to the heel strap by pulling extra lace from the front of the sandal back through the ankle holes.

Ted,  4/25/12, 7:13 AM  

Can you compare the sole thickness/protection to the RunAmocs? I have a pair of Leadville sandals and find that the sole is perfect for the rocky trails that we have here, but I am concerned that the RunAmocs are a bit thinner. I know that they have a 5mm sole, but they do have an insole which would add thickness, but I am not sure how much. If possible I would love actual measurements, but really I am looking for a seat-of-the-pants type feel of how they compare in feel and protection from rocks and such. Thanks.

Donald 4/25/12, 7:32 AM  

@CJ: one of the Luna Monkeys beat me to it, apparently. The best heel position for me resulted in the elastic portion being significantly off-center, but at least it stays in place now.

@Ted: RunAmocs with trail outsoles are thinner. The boar skin insole is only 1-2mm thick, so total standing height is only around 7mm. The Leadvilles do offer more protection from below, but obviously less everywhere else.

Juls 4/25/12, 9:17 PM  

Nice review. You caught my interest. Thanks!

CJ 4/26/12, 6:37 AM  

Thanks both. I look forward to tweaking the fit of mine.

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