Even before The Covid-19 pandemic has started and outdoor activities have become one of the safest ways to exercise, trail running is gaining popularity. In a report published in February 2020, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association saw an average 8 percent year-over-year increase in the number of trail running participants.
Then, with more and more people on the trails during the long months of the 2020 global lockdown, runners began recording new fastest known times. Called FKT in common parlance, it is the speed record on any particular trail route with a marked start and end. In fact, 2020 was a dazzling year to set FKTs on trails around the world.
It is possible that 2021 will be even faster. One technology that has helped road runners increase their speed is making its way on the dirt: shoes with carbon fiber plates embedded under the foot. By using an insole made of a carbon fiber stabilizer plate surrounded by exceptionally light foam, these shoes can narrow the gaps in a runner’s shape over long distances to reduce energy waste. The stiffness of the plate has another advantage as well, as many riders say it feels like it provides some kind of propelling spring.
Today, the North Face is launching the Flight Vectiv, a trail running shoe with a carbon fiber plate inside. It was designed with input from ultra elite runners, and it marries lightweight construction with the ruggedness required of a trail shoe.
Because they give runners a competitive advantage, the use of shoes equipped with carbon fiber plates in racing is a point of controversy. Just over a year ago, runners around the world were questioning the rationale behind the decision to allow such shoes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Competitive runners everywhere furiously debated whether the shoes should be legal in racing or if they were just a form of “mechanical doping. In 2017, WIRED discovered that using Nike’s carbon fiber Vaporfly shoes in a real marathon reduce runners’ time.
The decision to allow the improved carbon fiber footwear at the Olympics put manufacturers in panic mode as they all ran to develop their own the versions in time for the Tokyo Games, where their lists of sponsored athletes would all compete side by side.
I was delighted to see all of this unfold and to engage in passionate and circular discussions on this really Made you fast – whether it was coaching, biology, gear, or dog heart size. But that was last year. Since then, the Tokyo Olympics have been delayed and millions of Americans, desperate for activity and safe entertainment, have taken to the trails.
Rock and roll
To test and develop the new trail shoe, the North Face worked with ultra elite runners like Kaytlyn gerbin and Dylan bowman. The company also gave a pair of prototypes to Coree Woltering, a black and gay ultra runner who is one of the particularly diverse faces in an undiversified sport. Woltering placed the FKT on the 1,147 miles of Wisconsin Ice Age Historic Trail at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. (I also watched Woltering on the World’s toughest race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, as a member of the show’s first all-black team.) A total of 14 North Face athletes installed FKTs wearing various Vectiv prototypes.
A few weeks before launch, the North Face sent me a pair to try on. I ordered them in a ladies’ 8.5, starting at my street size 7.5, and they go well with a pair of Balega Crew Socks (more on that later). I laced them up with trepidation, hoping the stiff carbon fiber and composite plate wouldn’t trip and fall as I walked out of my house and hurtled down the sidewalk to the park.