Before we begin, let it be known that I am a greenhorn in the world of minimalist bipedal propulsion. As in 3-weeks old green. Smirk and scoff all you want, minimalist fans, but I’m here to stay, baby. In fact, during my research of the barefoot/minimalist footwear movement, I realized one of the main reasons why I’ve always had such a hard time jogging or even going on fast walks: my body had become so used to running and training barefoot during my 16+ years of Tae Kwon Do, and as a competitive swimmer (which involved a lot barefoot sprints and exercises around the pool).
In short, out in the “real” world my feet couldn’t get used to the unnatural heel-striking (among other things), which normal shoes forced me to do. Great pain, cramping and discomfort ensued. While I am familiar with minimalist options like Vibram Five Fingers and Merrell Trail Gloves, and half-baked offerings by larger shoe manufacturers; none of them really appeal to me.
I wanted a shoe that neither made me look like a less-naked gorilla with debate-ably better looks (Five Fingers, here’s looking at you), nor gave me more shoe than the philosophy edicts (Adidas, Nike, Saucony – minimalist means flat-bottomed and super-thin soles, minimal to no arch support, large toe box, etc – not one or the other).
That said, I can’t believe it took me this long to discover Terra Plana and their subdivision Vivobarefoot. My attention and wallet were immediately drawn to the recently-launched Achilles running sandal. It purportedly had the makings of a close-to-barefoot experience, while offering utility, versatility and comfort. Well, always a sucker for well-rounded objects of newness, I bit the bullet and purchased a pair from Planetshoes.com. I have worn these sandals for almost two weeks, and these are my rudimentary findings… you know, as greenhorned reviews go.
Design & Packaging – 4½
The sandals and accompanying printed matter are presented in a clear zip-lock tote with loop strap. My only wish is that the tote was a little bit more spacious that would allow me to reuse it for items thicker than, say, a pair of Achilles sandals. I can fit my iPad in there, but that’s about it. I applaud Vivobarefoot just for the tote idea itself.
But wait, the sandal is the focus here. Simply put, I love the simplistic, yet modern iteration of a huarache (no, not the Mexican food offering of the same name, though they’re both delicious in their own special way). The Achilles is by no means equal to these pre-Columbian sandals, and that’s not a bad thing – I’m glad VBF brought it up to speed for our times. I bought the dark gray/orange version, and it goes well with my perpetually tanned Asian skin.
The split toe design is rather interesting. I will discuss what I liked and dislike about its functionality later. You have been forewarned: don’t expect anything less than giggles or weird looks from friends/strangers when you try describing the split toe shape as a…ahem…camel toe. I mistakenly went that route and the sandal (however great it might’ve been at that time) lost all credibility in the eyes of my lunch table audience. But I digress, I think the toe boxes (technically there are two) compliment the way the rest of the sandal looks. The black heel strap with the visually front-heaviness of the toe boxes come together to give a well-balanced look to the sandal. The fact that the straps can be removed to transform the Achilles into a slip-on also pushes all the right buttons.
However, if you are an attention-getter, these sandals are probably not your cup of tea; you’d want the Vibrams for that.
Comfort – 5
There is comfy and there is plush.
The Achilles is neither. I say that because the Achilles is not your generic orthopedic-approved Scholls. Mind you, I am of the opinion that minimalist shoes should be the new orthopedic-approved line of footwear for the common populace, but comfy (my 6-year old college t-shirt is comfy) and plush (my down pillow is plush) is not why you wear this sandal. Make no mistake, these sandals, objectively and practically, are supremely comfortable due their seamless and molded structure. The lightness of it (6.50 oz) around your feet also add to the impression of comfort.
The nylon heel strap wraps around the dorsal and proximal area of the foot. It doesn’t look substantial, but it does a swell job at grounding and holding your heel and mid-foot to the shell. Thanks to this, my toes are free to splay as nature intended without overtly squishing against the front of the toe boxes, especially when descending gradients or stairs.
Even though I’ve only had the Achilles for a mere two weeks, no sore spots or chaffing have been noticed against my feet. Ditto when I went on a short 2-mile hike with our son. Note that I was pushing a stroller, thus was walking with a heel-heavy stride. I thought I would be uncomfortable over a distance, but the thin sole held its own.
A couple of times I ran in short bursts and was surprised how secure and stable the sandals felt. With only 3mm between the business end of my foot and the ground, the added feel of the terrain, as well as the flexibility of the TPU, were a boon because I could constantly gauge how I was running in real time. If you suck, it’ll let you know immediately – such is the nature of minimalist shoes. It also doesn’t hurt (get it?) to have puncture-resistant soles. Confidence over harsher or sharp terrain exponentially increases. Make no mistake that this is a speed trail/walking shoe first, light-duty runner second. It’s pretty darned good in either roles, especially in the summer, but just don’t expect to win races or do 50-mi XC courses in a single bound. The Achilles isn’t built for that, got it? Good.
[UPDATE 6/22/11 – I was on Vivobarefoot.com recently and noticed this oddness on the Achilles product page: Why does the strap assembly have an additional dorsal pad? Is this a prototype or a foreign market version?]
Wearability – 4
Right now, it’s pure speculation, but I see these sandals lasting a year/year and a half in my hands, or rather, feet. Ha-ha.
I purposefully got the bottoms wet by walking through big puddles, and then walked on the smooth floors at a grocery store. Safe to say, traction was good; I felt no slippage or heard any squeaking. On the rough stuff, the grippy, but thankfully thin, lugs held on to surfaces with aplomb. Having a sole that easily conforms to the surface contour doesn’t hurt grip either.
Another part of my consideration is foot odor buildup. Anti-bacterial infusion is good and all, but they don’t last forever, even under moderate use. With the Achilles, there is no such coating, but I’m not worried. It’s thin, it’s washable – just scrub, air-dry it and you’re done!
The only concern I have is the strap. As of this writing, there is very minor hint of fraying along the edges, but maybe it’s just a sign of wearing-in. I will keep you updated on any positive or negative developments in this area.
[UPDATE 8/5/11 – Not enough can be said about how well these sandals have handled the abuse I’ve put them through. Look closely at the second photo below and you’ll notice that the surface texturing on the lugs have begun to wear down a little, but mind you, this shoe is my daily beater. Outside of work, this is my go-to footwear. So far, I’ve worn the Achilles with nary an issue, discomfort or pain on rock trails, mud (by accident), waded through salt and freshwater, and navigated the urban jungle gym. All of which equates to a distance of approximately 30 miles since I started using them in June. Snow is the only surface I haven’t tried it on, but you know what, winter is just around the corner!
I’ve also removed the straps a few times and used it as a dedicated thong/flip-flop for working in the back yard or detailing my car.]
[UPDATE 9/10/11 – Took this on a camping trip with our son at, ahem, Del Valle Regional Park. It was his first time, so I wanted to keep it simple just in case we needed to bail. Anyway, enough of being defensive – the sandals worked like a charm and never gave me problems in terms of comfort, ease of use, and especially durability. Most of the walking involved carrying our son in my arms, be it on dirt, rocks, gravel, or rocks and gravel IN WATER. The latter was the only time I wished for more water fast shoes only because loose gravel/stones kept getting caught under my foot. The grip was phenomenal, though. The lugs have barely worn down from my previous update, so things are looking up, folks.]
Value – 4
To someone transitioning to the genre, the VBF Achilles may seem expensive due to its seeming lack of common features and technology found in more conventional sandals. If you are that person, consider then, for a moment, the R&D and the tech used to develop the highly flexible yet insanely thin, puncture-resistant yet durable, well-contoured yet snazzy-lookin’ structure of the Achilles. It’s a rare case of form AND function in equal doses. For $60 MSRP, it really ain’t half bad, and definitely is the cheapest ticket into the Vivabarefoot club.