Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: Altra Olympus vs Hoka

Introduction:  why I chose to switch to a high-cushion shoe:

I was originally introduced to the Hoka Mafate (the original Hoka shoe) in January of 2011, when I was going through an IT band tendonitis injury.  The increased cushion of the shoe absolutely helped me to recover from my injury more quickly and allowed me to participate in active recovery without furthering my injury.  As 2011 went on, I continued to train in the Hoka shoe and realized that I had much less leg fatigue after longer runs than I had ever experienced with other shoes in the past.  The high stack height of the mid-sole allowed for this.  In September of 2011 I completed my first 100-mile race, the Wasatch 100, and owed much of my success to the shoes which allowed me to heal effectively from previous injury, train with less leg fatigue, and recover more quickly after long runs.

Subsequently, I finished my second and third 100s, the Bear 100 in 2012 and the Bighorn 100 in 2013, as well as the Trans Rockies Run stage race in 2012 (120 miles over 6 days).  In the Fall of 2012 I had heard good things about a new, local company called "Altra" and decided to give their shoes a try.  The shoes were much more minimal than I was used to running in, but the Hokas that I liked (the original Mafate and the original Stinson) were wearing out and the newer versions had changed quite a bit as far as the upper was concerned.  The new Hokas just weren't as comfortable as my previous Hokas and I was no longer in love with the brand.  The Hoka uppers seemed over-built and stiff, and many people (myself included) were having trouble with the low-profile toe box.

In January of 2013 I tried on the Altra Torin, a road shoe with a larger stack height than the trail series shoes, the Lone Peak and the Superior, and I was in love.  The comfort of the Altra upper along with the wider toe box and the cushion of the midsole quickly made this the favorite shoe in my quiver.  Running more than 30 miles in the Lone Peaks, I was experiencing foot fatigue and ankle pain, and knew that I needed a shoe with a thicker midsole:  more cushion and a higher stack height, to get me through my next 100 mile race.  The Torins were a good alternative as far as cushion was concerned, but didn't have the tread that I needed while running on the trails.
Hoka Mafate II (left) vs Altra Olympus (right)

Enter the Altra Olympus, March 2014.  The women's shoe release was a bit behind the men's shoe, and I had already heard good things about the men's version from several friends of mine who were running in it.  I've personally only done about 50 miles in the shoes, but from what I have experienced so far, I will tell you that I plan in running in them a lot (almost exclusively) this coming season.


I can tell you that for the following reasons, I prefer the Altra Olympus over the Hoka.

1) Upper/toebox:  the problems that I experienced with the newer versions of the Hoka are nonexistent with the Altra Olympus:  the Altra upper is of a lighter-weight, more breathable material, but plenty durable.  The Hokas seem to have become "over-built" and tended to cause a lot of rubbing and restriction of the toes.  The toe box in the Hokas is absolutely too restrictive.  Altra has gotten things right:  a wider toe box means absolutely no blisters experienced.  No rubbing, no chafing.  Each time I put the Olympuses (or any of the Altra shoe line) on my feet, I marvel at the comfort that is imparted on my feet and toes.

2) Midsole:  the Altra Olympus's midsole is similar to the Hoka, but with a little less "flair" making it a bit less wide and cumbersome.  The amount of cushion is comparable, however, and the Altra midsole seems to be a bit more energetic and "springy".  I feel like less energy is lost with each step.  This translates into less effort being put into each step and my pace (per min-mi) is faster in the Altra.  (Specifications:  Hoka Mafate 3:  Stack height 29 (toe) to 33mm (heel), and the Altra Olympus is 36mm, zero-drop.)

3) Outsole/tread:  another win for the Altra Olympus.  The more aggressive tread of the Olympus (although not knobby) simply grips better on all surfaces.  I feel more confident, especially on the downhills, and feel less likely to "slip out" than with the Hokas.

4) Toe rocker:  when standing on a hard, flat surface in the Altra Olympuses, the toe rocker is very noticeable and feels a bit odd underfoot.  I can tell you that once you get out on the trail, this sensation is nearly imperceptible.  The Hoka has a rocker as well, and is less noticeable when standing on a hard, flat surface.  The Altra Olympus might dominate a little bit as far as function, giving the runner the feeling that he or she is pushing off with a bit more ease.

5) Zero-drop factor:  Altras are a Zero-drop shoe, meaning that there is no difference between the height of the heel and the height of the toe when measured from the ground.  Transitioning from a 4-5mm shoe like the Hoka to the zero drop of the Altra took me all of 3 months to do.  Transitioning from a higher drop (like 7mm or 9mm as some shoes are) might take a little bit longer, in an effort to avoid Achilles tendon stretch and over-use of the lower leg muscles.  However, as I have learned from Altra representatives, the more cushion there is in the zero-drop shoe that you transition to, the more forgiving that shoe will be.  You will likely experience an easier transition to the Olympus than, say, to the Superior which has a very minimal stack height of 14mm. Another thing that I love about the Zero-drop factor, is that my running stance is much improved.  My running partner has told me that over the past year of running in Altras, I have gone from a "slumped" stance, with my butt down and plodding along (in the Hokas) to a more active, taller, "forward lean" stance.  I have definitely noticed that my alignment (shoulders, hips, knees, feet) seems better and my running requires less effort than before.  I'm running faster on the whole with my new, more efficient running posture.

Considerations when buying a high-cushion shoe:  

The handling or "cornering" ability of my Altra Olympuses is definitely not as good as the Lone Peak or the Superior (more minimal trail shoes in the Altra line), but I feel that this is not a fault of the shoe, rather something that must be considered when buying a high-cushion shoe.  Hokas have the same flaw.  You just don't feel that "connection" with the ground that you do on lower-profile shoes.  I'm willing to give up a little handling-ability in the name of saving my quads over the course of a 100-mile run as I previously mentioned in the introduction.  As time goes on running in a high-profile shoe, the midsole actually compacts some and your foot "settles" into the midsole a bit more.  More miles on this type of shoe means that they will actually get better with time (no matter if they are Hoka, Altra, or some other brand of high-profile shoe).

I also feel that adding some cosmetic application to the mid-foot of the upper (a strapping-type system, first pioneered by Adidas with the "three stripes" logo) might help to anchor the foot better into the Altra Olympus.  This could be something to consider for future, updated models.  This system is in place in the Superior 1.0s and functions very well.

"Ankle-roll" factor is something that many people consider when buying a high cushion shoe.  I personally have never had a problem with it.  I roll my ankles every once in a while no matter what kind of shoe I am in.  I think if you roll your ankle in any high-cushion shoe, you are going to notice it more.  If you are a typical ankle roller, this type of shoe may not be for you.  For me, I'm willing to risk it, given the many positives that a high-cushion shoe imparts.


When buying a high-cushion shoe, there are many factors to consider.  Transitioning to any new type of shoe will take some time.  I have been very pleased with my performance in high-cushion shoes, and feel that with the recent addition of the Altra Olympus to the high-cushion shoe options, my running will continue to improve.  The shoes will allow me to attain the goals of high-mileage running with less leg fatigue, faster recovery times, and fewer foot chafing issues than any shoe prior to it.

Here's how a few of the Altra shoes compare:

1) Altra Lone Peak 1.5, stack height 22mm
    vs. Altra Olympus, stack height 36mm

2) Altra Torin 1.5 (road shoe), stack height 27mm
    vs. Altra Olympus, stack height 36mm

3)  Altra Superior, stack height 14mm
     vs. Altra Olympus, stack height 36mm

Full specifications can be found at:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


It's the third week in March, and it's time for me to get down to business.  Meaning:  time to get some serious running training started.  I've been "maintaining" fitness all winter with minimal running miles (about 20 per week) mostly on flat terrain.  I counted up my ski days:  14 days ski touring, 10 days skate skiing, and 5 days skiing in resorts.  Spring is here to stay, I'm afraid, and it looks like although winter still hangs on some days with a dusting of snow and some cooler temperatures (40s... not really "cold"), most days are 55-60.

So, getting down to business means:  an interval run once a week (6-10 times 1-2 minute intervals at 7:30min-mi pace, which is pretty fast for me), more trail running, higher weekly mileage, a weekly "long" run, and more elevation gain.  I looked back through my running log, and the last time I did an interval run was over 3 months ago:  Yikes!  So, last Thursday in the Park, I hit the intervals, and man did my hamstrings feel it for the next couple of days.  I did a longish run on Sunday (13 miles) and felt kind of/sort of worked by the end of it, but at least I'm feeling stronger.

Talk about getting stronger, even with the fair amount of skiing I did this winter, I am feeling my quads today after a 6-ish mile trail run and about 2,000 ft of elevation gain up to Mt Van Cott above the University.  I didn't push it:  just ran easy 11 min-mi pace average (with 20-25min-mi pace on the climb) and my legs are aching today!  I took the dogs for a walk in the Park this evening just to loosen things up before I hit a hill-interval/repeat session tomorrow.  Ouch!

So why all the focus on intervals and self-inflicted pain?  Well I have a bit of a schedule planned for the summer.  First race is coming up just a couple of short weeks away:  the Zion 50k (about 31 miles for those of you measuring in statute units).  I'm guessing that after my experience yesterday with the achy quads, my "race" in a couple of weeks will be more like a training run for what I have planned over the summer.

The other part of my plan is to start throwing down consistent 40+ mile weeks, working my way up to high 50s or low 60s by mid-summer (July).  I'll do one 50k race in early August and then start tapering for a big event.  Here's the line-up:

April 5th:  Zion 50k
May: 3 days in a row of 20 miles each day or a 40+ miler (self-supported)
June 7th:  sweep 20 or so miles at Scout Mountain 100k (formerly Pocatello 50)
June 14th:  Yellowstone Half-marathon (with my sis-in-law, this will be her first half-marathon)
June 20th:  Bighorn 100
July:  5 days in a row of 20 miles each day
August 5th:  El Vaquero Loco 50k, Afton, Wyoming
September 4th:  Wasatch 100

Honestly, I don't know how it happened that I signed up for all of these races!  (Or as I like to call them, "events".)  I guess I signed up for the Zion 50k because I needed a longer training run before Bighorn, and I wanted a cool hoody sweatshirt.  I'm helping friends out in Pocatello, and that's a dang tough race, so I'm happy to only be running 20 miles of it instead of being committed to the whole thing.  Yellowstone Half is self explanatory, because I want to support my sis-in-law, and it will be a good last longish run before Bighorn.  At Bighorn, I have a score to settle (not really, but I'd like to improve on my time from last year).  The July deal (100 miles in 5 days) I did in 2013 and felt super strong afterwards, so I want to do it again.  It was really fun to run local trails and have a daily routine where all I had to think about was:  wake up, run, eat, sleep, repeat.  It's the 10th anniversary of El Vaquero Loco, and the race director says he has big plans, so I can't miss out on that!  And, I will get another cool hoody, so that's an added bonus.  Wasatch 100:  yeah, what was I thinking?  I always sign up for that lottery and don't expect much and then I get in...  go figure!  A great race supported by an amazing, local trail running community.  Hard not to pass up the opportunity.

So, I have a lot to look forward to the next few months.  Big plans means getting down to business.  Wish me luck!  And happy trails...
Happy to be hitting the trails
on a chilly Spring day ~
Frank & Artie on Mt Van Cott

Monday, March 10, 2014

Heavy Heart

It was with a heavy heart that I walked into St Ambrose Catholic church today, for the funeral of a good friend's mother.  My friend's mom was the definition of the word "moxie".  She was tough, opinionated, strong, talented, athletic, loving, welcoming, and loved by many.  After the loss of my own mother (and father) years ago, I could empathize with my friend and her family of 8 other siblings in the loss of their mother, just a couple of years after the loss of their father.

The service was lovely.  A Catholic mass that went on past the hour mark, with eulogies telling countless memories of this wonderful woman.  It was so entertaining to hear the stories of how innovative she was in the face of so few resources and so many (9!) energetic children, who are so smart and talented in their own rites.

I've been blessed over the years to have shared Thanksgiving dinners, babysitting duties, time camping, and afternoon picnics with such a beautiful, loving family.  A family that accepted me into their circle more than once because, I guess, if there's 30 people at the table, it doesn't make much sense not to include one more.

Some of the members of this family I hadn't seen in a few years.  It was really great to see them again and share some stories and some hugs.  I'll always remember the kindness that they have shown me.

“Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.” -- Dr. Seuss