When it comes to things people buy and own, certain things are considered necessities, while certain things are curiosities. It goes without saying that we absolutely need the former, but the latter purchases, on the other hand, tend to end up sitting on a shelf somewhere or in the garage collecting dust, destined to be sold a few years later at a garage sale for spare change, or worse – Goodwill.
The Vivobarefoot Ultra straddles both worlds. Yes, it is a shoe. Yet it’s designed almost unlike anything else on the market, thus standing out as the oddball amongst the numerous offerings out there. Does it actually work as well as it looks? Mainstream runners don’t understand it, especially those who’re not familiar with minimalist shoes in the first place. Minimalist/VB runners either say it’s not a true running shoe like the Neo or Evo (true, but more on this later too), or it’s not minimalist enough. In fact, I think the sole supporters (the puns just keep on comin’, don’t they?) of this shoe may be footwear fashionistas, seeing it as chic, relevant and contemporary.
Let me get it out now: I don’t like the Ultra for what it’s been perceived to be, but I do love it for what it was purposed to be by its makers. Rather than deeming the Ultra as a passing curiosity, I prefer to call it visionary, and hopefully a sign of things to come.
Design & Packaging – 5
I am a fan of eco-friendly, recyclable, and reusable materials and packaging. This is one of VB’s selling points, and I’m happy to report that the Ultra is no exception. Not unlike the Achilles, every shoe is made of vegan materials and uses sustainable techniques, and comes in its own unique packaging. Heck, even the usual silica gel pack found in box packages is replaced with a non-toxic mold sticker made with natural plant essences.
The manufacturer suggests that the box be turned inside out (see photos), revealing a printed design – depicting a little sprout-ling bursting through a rocky surface – to be reused however you see fit. I wonder why the print wasn’t on the outside in the first place, but I guess by encouraging you to flip it inside-out yourself, subconsciously it makes you an active participant in the recycling/reusing process… At least that’s what I think their product psychologists were thinking anyway.
The shoe is a wonder of design and manufacturing. I tend to sway towards products that are balanced in terms of form versus function. Like an Audi S5, for example, the Ultra may not be an exceptional running shoe, or may never win a Red Dot, but these two products are downright lookers as well as solid performers.
Quite a few reviewers have likened the Ultra to a pair of Crocs. No harm in that. I have mine in white, so with black socks or the included sock liner, it looks more like a super-svelte pair of racing flats. The 6mm sole has shallow lugs, and together with the upper shell, is molded from one single lump of EVA; it’s really one bloody thin and light (3.5 oz) shoe. In fact, as of this writing, it’s the second lightest running shoe ever produced. Fastening is accomplished with a lock-lacing system with an elastic cord. The pièce de résistance, however, is the sock liner. This thing can be:
a. Installed in the shoe for increased protection and insulation. The puncture-resistant layer is on the sole of the liner, and NOT the sole of the outer shell. It stays put in the shell by means of tab-locks in the heel and central metatarsal positions.
b. Worn by itself as a workout/gym, martial arts or house shoe. In turn, the outer shell can be worn by itself as well, as an even lighter-weight running shoe.
Also included in the package are two removable tongues, which are meant to be used when you are wearing just the shell. They stay in place thanks again to the tab-locks.
Comfort (Liner – 5; Outer Shell – 5; Shell+Liner – 3½)
Let me start with the liner. It’s thin, breathable and ultra-light. It’s a minimalist shoe in its own right. It’s like wearing grip socks, but with the added bonus of DuraTex puncture-resistant soles. I haven’t had the chance to test it on a bed of nails, but it is comfortable indoors and outdoors, though I wouldn’t recommend taking these on a trail. I hope for some rain-soaked roads in the near future just so I can test its grip on wet terrain.
My feet are happy when they’re in the outer shell. Very happy. I seriously can’t believe how light and airy this piece is. Still, the comparison to Crocs becomes inevitable – the similarity in ventilation and softness is uncanny. Other reviewers have knocked on the Crocs-like squishiness of the sole. I agree with the squishiness, as it detracts from ground feel and reaction. However, this is where I return to my argument about form and function. VB did not design this as a pure running shoe. The Ultra is deemed as, quote: “…a light-weight barefoot amphipious [sic] running shoe. Suitable for: light trail cross training, water sports, long runs or general beachside and urban barefoot exploration.” In others words, a Jack of all trades, master of none. Therefore, I can run a 20-mile race, stand in line at an Apple product launch, then go white-water rafting after trekking through a South American rain forest, all in the same day. Presumably.
Walking and running in the outer shell is very comfortable, more so than with the liner installed, in fact. I ran with and without the tongue, and found that my feet were more secure with it, but not by much. The lock-lacing system is effective, allowing for quick release or tightening. VB didn’t leave inner sole traction out of the equation either. As you can see from the photo, there are little nubs that provide a nice level of grip for your feet even when they’re drenched with sweat. Can you see how this feature can also be suitably applicable in the water?
The downer I had with the shoe was, unfortunately, with the liner installed in the shell. Being as snug as the liner is, it totally goes against the minimalist ethos, which it’s supposed to allow the toes to splay as naturally as possible. General mobility is fine, but frustratingly when I run in it, my liner-encased left foot begins to hurt. It’s just made too small whatever the shoe size. If only they made the liners a size or two bigger all around; there’s plenty of space in the outer shell after all. Weather permitting, I will try to wear it in this configuration a few more times to determine if there is a wear-in period for the liners. Maybe they will stretch out some. What a pity, because the liner/shell combo is actually quite well-executed. There is virtually no slip/shift due to the combined effectiveness of the lock-tabs and inner sole nubs.
Wearability – TBD
I have only worn these shoes for a week, so the word is out on longevity. My Achilles are looking like they will live up to my guestimation, so we’ll see how well the Ultras do. Most reviewers seem to directly blame or question the durability of the outer sole due to its lack of a DuraTex layer. I must disagree with this observation, at least until corrected, because based on the little informational booklet that came packaged with the shoe, the puncture-resistant layer is actually above the outer sole. Yes, I realize the diagram shown is not indigenous to the Ultra, but it’s proof that the durability of VB shoes is down to the material used for the sole. On the Ultra, I would probably pay closer scrutiny to the softer EVA construction; only time will tell.
[UPDATE 7/22/11 – Admitted I’ve only put on another 10-miles on this pair of shoes. Of course, I did not factor in trampolining and urban usage into that distance. As you can see from the snapshots below, my toe lift-off is almost non-existent, which accounts for heavier than normal wear around the mid-sole and ball area. Remember folks, this is not a serious, dedicated running shoe. So if you’re surprised as how quickly the lugs and fine grippy things are disappearing, then you probably need to look higher up the VB totem pole.
In two weeks, I will be subjecting the Ultra to additional abuse – family is coming in and we’ll be hiking, boat-riding and performing some urban adventuring. Stay tuned!]
Value – 5
I bought mine for under $65 shipped and with discounts from Shoes.com. Not bad for a pretty all-rounded shoe that might one day earn its place in the Smithsonian. Though the Vivobarefoot Ultra is a game changer, it still has a couple of kinks to work out. Mind you, they don’t deter me from using it on a very frequent basis. I do hope Version 2, or sooner yet, a mid-life upgrade, rectifies the tightness of the sock liners. Re-purposing the DuraTex layer from the sock liner to the outer sole would also be a welcomed gesture. Better yet, why not have the layer on both? Make sure you send me a pair of those shoes, Vivobarefoot, because I really want to love ’em.