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“It was tricky to get them on at first” said Laurel DeVore, a sponsored ultra-trail runner and head of Vibram’s pro team.
She was talking about the sizing of these unique, laceless shoes that Naked rolled out last month. They defy conventional shoe norms, sitting higher on the ankle and lacking a tongue or laces, which explains why they are not easy to fit into. Difficult enough that they are sold with a shoe horn.
DeVore could have been referencing the price tag that makes it difficult for trail runners to get into spendy trail shoes like ones offered by brands like Speedland, Norda, Craft, Salomon, Altra, HOKA and The North Face. Paying premium prices for a shoe that’s going to get dirty and take a beating seems counter-intuitive but, yet, it would appear there is a demand for top-quality product outside of road running’s super shoes.
The Naked truth: Are they worth it?
As one might anticipate, the worthiness of the Naked T/r depends on the variables of your foot shape, preference as to feel for the ground under your feet, if you have a large disposable income, and your fashion sense.
As racing footwear, they are light (255 grams) and geared more for performance than comfort and are best suited for distances below 50k, unless one leans toward minimalism. The T/r feature a 5mm offset between heel and forefoot heights and, according to Naked’s co-president and co-founder, Lindsay Dakota, that’s after the brand studied the fastest shoes (past and present) to determine the common denominator was a drop in the 4-6mm range. The 5mm drop was confirmed as the right choice through extensive prototype testing with multiple world class athletes, testers, and reviewers.
The T/r is eye-catching and largely made with cutting edge materials. The brand designates its strategy to new products as “destructive innovation,” in designing from a totally new direction. It seeks to create new categories and used that approach with its belts and vests, eschewing the buckles used by the competition, going with an apparel-like solution instead, choosing instead to use a proprietary exoskeleton mesh for a bounce and chafe-free solution.
The shoe’s stack heights of 21-26mm are relatively low, especially compared to either cushioned, “maximalist” trail shoes or super shoes for the road. That close-to-the-ground construction can be hard on the foot, especially so because the midsole consists of firm EVA foam that allows the foot to feel the Earth. The T/r approaches minimalism in this manner but it also provides the agility and proprioception of the trail racing shoe it is designed to be.
The lace-free element is certainly what sets the Naked T/r apart from other trail racing footwear. To carry out the concept, the shoe enlists several design elements to keep the foot in place while running. First there is the shape of the footwear. The fit features a generous toe box and a narrower rear foot. Dakota describes Naked’s novel shoe as “unlike traditional laced shoes,” according to Dakota. It “gets narrower through the vamp/arch area into the heel. This design is the result of a last modeled on soccer boots. Laceless technology provides for the same, glove-like fit every time, so you can spend less time fidgeting with laces and more time on the move. Instant directional-change stability.”
The second attribute is the insole, enlisting a “Linerloc” non-slip, stitched insole to prevent the foot from sliding in the shoe and reduce hot spots. The third element is the knitted cuff to provide greater ankle support and shield out debris. Fourth, hard plastic bolsters provide additional support and hold the ankle securely.
Despite all that, or possibly because of it, one of our testers experienced ankle rubbing, which could be attributed to the cat-tongue-like material placed inside the ankle-high uppers. Or it might have been the single piece upper plastic (thermoplastic polyurethane, or “TPU”) material with perforations that provide very little breathability and drainability.
Also detracting from the bling factor, the upper is a thin layer of pliable yet durable no-sew, bonded ripstop TPU thick enough to give a rubbery feel and store foot heat and moisture. At slower speeds, the T/s make the sound of Wellingtons or galoshes, from the material folding on itself. Perhaps they could be called “posh galoshes” by trail racers? Fortunately, that sound disappears at a faster pace.
Further, in this age of super midsoles and modern foams, the T/r is made of old school EVA, chosen, according to Dakota for its proven winning record “in mountainous ultras.” That logic doesn’t go far. It wasn’t long when EVA was the only midsole material available. Of course EVA had a winning record.
How it ran
Two separate qualities that stand out about the T/r are its carbon fiber forefoot and its Vibram Megagrip rubber outsole with a Litebase lug pattern for gripping traction on the trail.
While a carbon fiber plate in a trail shoe and its concomitant expense has yet to be justified, this one does serve well as a high-priced bone bruise protection buffer for the toe-end of the foot. Dakota attributes propulsion as coming from the kinetic energy stored and then returned in the mid- and forefoot and concedes “a heel striker would not get the maximum benefit. Keep in mind, though, that these are trail racing shoes (i.e., for going fast) so, the faster the turnover, the more the benefit of carbon.” The carbon plate is a unique asymmetric split design to keep the foot in contact with and optimize rebound on uneven terrain.
Carbon in super shoes serves to stabilize the maximalist super foams that serve to return much of the energy put into a foot strike. But in the Naked T/r energy is largely absorbed by trail surfaces.
DeVore said she noticed a difference in efficiency and turnover from the carbon plate and that it helps the shoe feel “good for hours, even with the low stack.” She has chosen them for races of up to 64 kilometers, the technical part of the Leadville 100 course as well as to train in Rocky Mountain National Park.
The tread is somewhat shallow, so the T/r is recommended for drier trail conditions but handles wet rock well too.
Put to the test
According to DeVore, who has worn the T/r across a variety of weather conditions, “they drain really well so rain/stream crossings are not a problem.” She wore them for the Grand Traverse, which includes six stream crossings and didn’t have any issues with quick draining. “The conditions on the alpine adventures I’ve taken them on are about as rugged as they get with sharp granite, slippery lichen, snow, loose scree, etc. and they have performed very well: nimble, secure, and lightweight.”
DeVore had to be won over by the lace-less design but it became a favorite of hers, “I was skeptical at first, but it is just incredible to not have to stop and adjust your shoes, this is a big advantage during a race, or when moving quickly through rough terrain. The lock-in of this shoe is unmatched, which is amazing given there are no laces.”
She described the T/r’s design and materials are top of the line and hard to match, saying they “are made to go fast over gnarly terrain. Essentially, once you pull them on you feel like you aren’t wearing a shoe; they become a part of your foot and I think everyone should experience that.”
Jackson Brill, a 24-year-old ultrarunner residing in Bend, Oregon recently wore his pair when he set a fastest know time of running for approximately 12 hours in Three Sisters, Oregon. He was impressed with the shoes’ abilities on rocky, technical and steep ground but less so on the buffed, flat sections connecting the peaks he ascended and descended during his effort. He also observed the shoes had some outsole separation from his long day in the mountains.
In sum, if the T/r closely fits your foot and you favor a trail shoe that is low profile for unfiltered ground feedback, it will speak clearly to you and may well be worth the price. Forefoot strikers will enjoy its protection up front and those who hate laces will find the difficulty of getting into them worth the effort. Naked supports its products and in the event a customer buys the shoes only to learn they need a different size after trying them, they can exchange the T/r without costs, so long as the shoes remain in returnable condition.