It has been a bit difficult to post reviews lately since I've been so busy, but here I am on a Sunday morning... no plan to run (trying to relax a bit before I tackle the next week), only a little bit of studying to do, and hopefully a lot of relaxation. Time to write a review!
I received the The North Face Ultra Smooth Road Shoe quite a while ago, but I had other items to review before I could review these. Since I got these shoes back in late-February or early-March, I've put about 100 miles on them. For those of you who are not familiar with TNF's move to making road shoes, you should not be shocked that they are pumping out quality gear. This is the second pair of TNF shoes I've had the opportunity to review, and they do not disappoint.
Like all shoes that we review here on Vagabond Running blog, we try to highlight the strengths of the shoe given the purposes for which they were created. That is, don't expect a shoe designed as a high mileage trainer to be your go-to shoe for track day. It's really just common sense.
What I Liked
This shoe is oddly reminiscent of the Saucony Kinvara 4. So, what is the TNF Ultra Smooth designed for? Here's what TNF says:
Dash across pavement or hard-packed trails wearing a featherweight trainer that's designed with CRADLE™ technology to encourage a natural, continuous stride across smooth terrain. The Ultra Protection Series provides critical impact and element protection while eliminating excess weight for unrivaled performance on any terrain. Constructed with a Pebax® plate and EVA midsole for a springy feel with cushioned impact protection underfoot.
As you can see from the description, this is a shoe that's really meant to be a daily trainer. Think about it this way: easy runs, mid-to-long runs at LSD pace, city-trail (from the road to hard-packed trails), etc. And this is what it excels at!
I've taken this shoe out for runs up to about 13-14 miles, but mostly at an easy pace. I did do one 8 miler in about 56 minutes during an ice-y March morning, and it seemed to perform well (as well as any shoe can perform in ice-y conditions).
Since this shoe has quite a bit of cushion, an 8mm heel-to-toe drop, and weighs in at 9.3 oz, I tend to use this shoe primarily for easy paced runs and runs when my legs feel very sore from the previous days track workout. It feels like I'm running on pillows, but it's still pretty stiff under foot.
This is also a great shoe for road-to-the-trail, too. And by trail I mean compact trails, jeep trails, gravel trails. Given the sole of the TNF Ultra Smooth, you won't pick up rocks or twigs, which is a huge plus from perspective!
Other things I liked about this shoe: the classic FlashDry technology of TNF really does work. This shoe doesn't stay wet for that long, and it will dry fairly quickly on-the-go. It's super breathable, and I have yet to develop an hotspots or blisters running in this shoe. It sports a "track-like" tongue, which is kind of nice because the tongue of the shoe feels almost non-existent and I like that.. it's just more comfortable when you don't notice the tongue.
What Didn't Thrill Me
I tried a few tempo runs in these shoes (as mentioned above), and they performed OK, but they didn't have the pop I was looking for. AGAIN, they weren't made for this, so it's kind of hard to judge it based on this perspective.
I didn't really notice the Cradle Technology, which is aimed to help with a more natural gait. I have a pretty natural gait as it is, so maybe that's why I didn't notice it. I also didn't really notice the Pebax Plate, which is supposed to provide a springy feel. Again, these shoes don't have that "pop" when running quickly. Not a complaint, but just an observation.
The one thing I did notice, however, is that after about 9-10 miles of running, my arches start to ache a bit and then a shooting pain would develop around miles 11-12. If I took a short walk break or sat on a bench for a few minutes, the pain would go away and I could keep on running as usual. I'm wondering if the combination of the Cradle Technology and Pebax Plate makes the shoe a bit less flexible and much more stiff compared to what I'm used to? CAVEAT: I do a lot of my runs in zero drop, super flexible shoes, so this could explain why my arches respond somewhat negatively to a firm, less responsive ride.
Here's the deal: this is a great easy paced, LSD run shoe. TNF elite athletes have been rocking these in ultra marathons across the globe at distances way longer than I could ever run and at paces I could not even fathom. The North Face is putting out quality running shoes for the road now, too, and the Ultra Smooth is a step in the right direction for which they can base future models. If you're used to running in a 4-8mm drop, firm shoe, I suggest trying out the Ultra Smooth. If you're used to running in a traditional trainer and you want to make your way to a lighter, more minimal shoe, the Ultra Smooth is a good transition shoe for that purpose. I look forward to seeing what TNF comes up with next!