If you can withstand the unrelenting torment that this shoe wreaks upon the human frame, you must be a glutton for pain, or you are not human.
These trail runners were not made for walking, but that's just what I tried to do with Altra's Lone Peak 3.0, 3.5, Lone Peak Mid's, Lone Peak Neoshell's, and brand-new-for-2017 Timps. This is my story of foot pain, ankle misery, and shin splint torment on the Pacific Crest Trail. If you can withstand the unrelenting torment that this shoe wreaks upon the human frame, you must be a glutton for pain, or you are not human.
I did it to myself. I had convinced myself that Altra's were the shoe for me, but I wasn't alone. It started by reading blogs, watching reviews on YouTube, and finally riding the Hype Train until the wheels, literally, fell off. It nearly took me off the trail. Each time I bought another pair of Altra's, I was convinced this time it was going to be different, that the new pair was going to be the pair that resolved my pain and agony, never considering that maybe, just maybe, these shoes were the source of it.
My first pair of Altra's were the Olympus 2.0. I purchased them from a local shoe shop, intending to use them for trail hiking — you know, because the Internet says so. I absolutely loved the cushioning — it was like walking on clouds. The foot-shaped toe box was clown-shoe-esque, but I didn't care. These were Altra's. The shoes used by thru-hikers 'round the world. Sort of. I had missed the mark and it took a few overnight hikes in Michigan to sort that out. The Olympus stack height, with all that cushioning, was super high. All that height on uneven ground acted like a lever on my ankles, which just weren't strong enough to resist the moment arm that occured when the shoe tipped side-to-side. Basically, I was in great danger of turning or spraining my weak, baby ankles. And thus began the Altra Trail of Denial. Surely, a different pair of Altra's would save me!
Now that I knew my size in Altra's, I placed an order online for Altra Lone Peak 3.0's in a size 12. These were comfortable right out of the box. Perfectly cushioned and spacious in the forefoot, you know, for Toe-Splay®. I knew these were the shoes for me. I wore them while hiking in Wyoming's Wind River Range, just to run them through the ringer before taking them on my upcoming PCT thru-hike the following year. The grip was outstanding on the bare granite rock. It even found purchase on the fine, dusty trail. After spending five days in the wilderness I developed some foot pain in my heels, but it had to be from walking every day. Had to be. It had to be, right?
Going uphill was even worse. But it was just from walking the trail every day, right? Had to be.
Fast forward eight months and I was on a plane to San Diego, committed to thru-hiking the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail. There was no turning back. I had read a little more about Altra Zero-drop design philosophy, and how you were supposed to ease into them. By the time I left for the PCT, I had been wearing Altra's on and off for about 18 months. I was sure I had aclimated to them. Had to be. Right? Anyway, I set out on the PCT in early April and hiked for about 2000 miles on nothing but Altra's — with every new pair ushering in a new, or more severe, type of pain.
In the desert, I used a pair of Lone Peak 3.0's. They were breathable, lightweight, cushioned, had a built-in rock plate, and were a size 13 this time (my feet were expanding by the mile). I was relatively happy with my shoes. Sure, they let in dirt and dust, but I could deal with dirty feet. What I didn't know what do with was the growing heel pain. Everytime I took a break, I would dread putting my shoes back on and walking again. The first 15 minutes of walking, even after a short break, was excrutiatingly painful. Going uphill was even worse. But it was just from walking the trail every day, right? Had to be.
Later, when reentering the Sierra at Lone Pine, CA, I switched to the Lone Peak Mid's, because they had a water resistent shell (yes, I know nothing is ever waterproof), but mostly because they were compatible with my Kahtoola crampons. One of my hiking partners, Peanut, also switched to the Lone Peak Mid's, even though she had experienced unrelenting heel pain with Altra's before. Apparently, the Altra Trail of Denial is contagious. Before we reached Bishop, CA, we were both experiencing enough pain that we ditched the Lone Peak Mid's and purchased new shoes. I asked the shoe shop if they'd destroy them for me so that there was no chance anyone else would accidently wear them and suffer what I had just went through.
I purchased Brooks Cascadia's in Bishop. They chewed holes into both my heels.
So, the devil you know, right? I went back to Altra's. At least they didn't bite out chunks of flesh from my feet. This time it was the Lone Peak NeoShell's. It was the only thing available at the time, and even though the NeoShell is sealed up and not so breathable, at least my feet would be clean at the end of the day.
And... cue heel pain. And oh, this is new! Forefoot pain too!
Apparently the rock plate is only good for about 40 miles, at which point it begins to flex with the rest of the outsole. I felt every single pointed rock under my feet for hundreds of miles. Every. Single. One.
But, the devil you know, right? I wore that pair of NeoShell's right out. Next up, Timps!
By this time, Peanut's boyfriend, Tim, kept telling me over and over to ditch the Altra's. "Just get some Hoka's" he'd say. But I knew better. Yet another different pair of Altra's would save me, right? I mean, Altra's are the "go to" shoe for thru-hikers... and Altra had just released the ultimate shoe: The Timp. It was a shoe that sat directly between the maximum cushioning of the Olympus and the ride of the Lone Peak. OMG. The Perfect Shoe™. I ordered a pair from Running Warehouse and told everyone I met about the joy of Altra and the Messiah shoe that will save your sole: The Timp.
I must have sounded like a lunatic. I can see Tim nodding his head and calmly saying "Yes, Matthew. You are a lunatic."
He would be right.
What was so bad about the Altra's?
I walked on those for about 150 miles, destroying them along the way. By the time I reached Skykomish, I had finally admitted that I was wrong. What I needed in my life wasn't Altra, it was Hoka One One.
Geez. That last phrase still makes me sound like a lunatic.
So, "What was so bad about the Altra's?", you say. To be honest, its hard to pin it down, but after reading more about the possible side-effects of Zero-drop — heel pain, ankle pain, shin splints — I'm pretty sure it was the shoes. While wearing any sort of Altra, the pain and number of painful areas in my lower extremities was just going up and up. After ditching the Timp's and going with a pair of Hoka One One Stinson ATR 4's in a size 14 (yes, 14!), the heel pain was gone immediately, the ankle pain dissolved over a few days, and the shin pain left after a few weeks. The Hoka's had an offset stack height of 5mm. That 5mm made all the difference.
The Hoka's were glorious. Miles of cushion, in fact, so much that even though the shoes didn't have a rock plate, my feet weren't the bruised victims they used to be after a day of skittering over rock laden trail. Not one of the Altra shoes I wore could ever make that claim.
I also slid around in the Altra's. Yes, the Foot-Shape concept is a great idea — one that other brands should seriously look into — but it's not my foot shape. I never had any confidence in any of the Altra's on any sort of lateral slope because my forefoot would slide around in the shoe, nearly rolling it over on several occasions.
In terms of durability, the Altra's were pretty average. I usually got about 500 miles out of them, same with the Hoka's. The uppers will give way and blow out gaping holes in the fabric after about 400 miles. The grip gets pretty smooth, but the upper will probably be the first part of the shoe to go.
But honestly, it's not the build quality or the durability that's the problem here. These are trail runners and they will likely never last as long as a leather fricken boot. The problem is that these shoes are being sold as The Answer™. A shoe that helps you walk the way you were supposed to walk. It's not and it doesn't. It might if you wore them from birth and your feet were naturally aclimated to a Zero-drop shoe, but I was born in 1980 when offset stack height was all the rage. Ok, that's probably not true, but offset stack height shoes were common and I'm pretty sure most shoes people wear — then and now — were offset.
I wish Altra were honest with people about Zero-drop.
Zero-drop is probably a bad idea for most people. Altra themselves, as well as many runners and hikers alike, will all admit that you can't just dive right into Zero-drop. You have to ease into it. I tried to ease into it and these shoes still nearly killed my thru-hike.
Now, there are some people who love their Altra's and sing their praises everyday, converting multitudes along the way. Converting and brainwashing stupid people like me. If Stockholm Syndrome could ever include a shoe as the captor, this would be the textbook example. Again, there are people for whom Altra shoes just work. But given that most people have been wearing offset stack height shoes their entire lives, moving to a Zero-Drop shoe is just not a good idea. I wish Altra were honest with people about Zero-drop, but they tuck this warning away behind all of their marketing and instead invite people to get aboard the Hype Train.
Well, I'm not riding the Hype Train any longer. I'm just going to walk instead.
In my Hoka's.