Going “barefoot” is the most recent shoe craze sweeping the nation. You've probably already heard about this phenomenon (or, according to some, already made the return to our true running roots).
I admit, I've been quite curious about it myself. So when offered the chance to test out a pair of Merrell Women's Barefoot Pace Glove trail running shoes (MSRP $100; the men's version is the Barefoot Trail Glove, MSRP $110), I jumped at it. After all, according to the Merrell website, wearing a pair of their Barefoot shoes provides these benefits: realigns for better posture and balance; stimulates to connect you to the terrain; and strengthens your feet and leg muscles.
Sounded great to me, but could the shoe live up to the hype? When I got my Barefoot pair from them (color: Chili Pepper), I immediately tore off the packaging to pull them on and test out the company's assertions.
First off, I have to say that these are very cute shoes. Very light and flexible, you wear them without socks. Since I generally live in a pair of rugged sandals during the warmer months, this didn't pose an issue. Besides which, I needed to check out every aspect of the manufacturer's claims.
Sockless, I tugged them on. I have fairly high arches, so these shoes do not easily slip on for me. So far, it's been a struggle each time. But as soon as I get them in place, it is indeed as if a glove is snugging each foot in a soft yet surprisingly durable-feeling embrace. And after weeks of wearing them almost daily, the sockless aspect poses no major problems: there is no chafing, rubbing, or hot spots, even after all-day treks.
Since I live in a desert area, fine particles of sand do squirm their way through the fine mesh, ensuring dusty feet each time and the need to remove and shake out both shoes at least once during whatever excursion I find myself wearing them. Frankly, that's a small price to pay for these sweet trail runners.
One quibble should be noted, though—although Merrell advertises that a “Non-removable microfiber footbed treated with Aegis® antimicrobial solution resists odor” in the Pace Glove, I beg to differ. My feet stink to high heaven each and every time I wear the shoes. And I do mean stink. I've taken to spritzing both my cute shoes and my feet with a foot deodorant, which seems to help—for a few minutes. Oh, well. Again, that's a relatively small price.
Everyone out there, from Merrell to the average Joe and Jane who jumped on the barefoot train, says to start nice and slow. Despite millennia of human history during which our ancestors most certainly ran around shoeless with apparently no great harm, we are not those people. We've been wearing shoes with such cushioning and “support” that we often can barely feel the ground strikes when we lope off.
Going from that to barefoot style is a shock to our underdeveloped calves and foot muscles. I'm here to attest that this is all true. Take it slow! My calves burned (lightly, but I still felt it) and my feet demanded stretching both during and after wearing the Pace Gloves on lengthy hikes over both challenging and flatter terrain. So yes, they're comfy to wear and I enjoy them, but also yes, I need to stretch before and after, and not go too hard. The 8-mile slot canyon hike I just did in my Merrells went well, but my muscles definitely spoke sharply to me during the last two miles out.
Actually wearing them while being active outside is totally fine. The soles are grippy, the give is excellent, and the protection against various hazards (rocks, sticks, my own clumsiness) felt adequate, although not absolute.
A few times my heel came down hard against a rock, and that hurt. Then again, when I first started wearing my rugged outdoor sandals (Chacos, to be exact), I got stabbed by cactus multiple times before I finally toughened up and dealt with it. Methinks I'll manage to soldier on through some hard heel strikes now and then as well.
The intended use for the Pace Glove is trail running. Trail running is something I usually love to do, and I have run several miles on separate occasions in these close-fitting shoes. Yet both current weather patterns (at the moment, quite hot) and my own concerns about not pushing too far, too soon, have kept me mostly walking, hiking, and scrambling rather than running.
Even the slow one-mile jog I attempted ended with sore muscles that didn't fully recover for a few days. Take the Merrell suggestions (see their website tips) seriously and break yourself into running very, very slowly. I can feel my leg muscles strengthening steadily, and it's enough to keep me happily wearing these shoes while gently building up to longer trail runs.
Overall, I'm thrilled with these shoes. Despite Merrell's claims, I'm not sure if they really will hold up for a long time, since they do seem flimsier than the traditional running shoe. Time will tell, and I'll check back in here and let you know what happens. But in the meantime, I plan to wear the heck out of them.
I loved going actually barefoot as a kid, and the Pace Glove is definitely a fantastic grown-up way to relive some of those childhood freedoms again.