Monday, April 21, 2014

Altra Olympus Review

My shift away from wearing Vibrams on the trails had been so swift I hardly realized it’s been almost a year now since I’ve ran an Ultra in them, I’m sometimes dumbfounded how I managed those early Ultras in the first place running with those foot gloves.  I made the switch from my trusty pair of Vibram Spyridon’s for the more built up Altra Lone Peaks mid-way into the Capt’n Karl Pedernales Falls 60K last year, and haven’t looked back since; the rocks, combined with running in the dark, of the Capt’n Karl races just utterly destroys your feet without good protection, and I had no desire to go through half the race not being able to feel my feet because they’ve been beaten completely numb on a minefield of rocks.  I loved my Vibrams on the trails, and wrote many times in my past race reports about the incredible lightness of being one can feel bouncing up and down through the trails on the balls of your feet, feeling like an agile jungle cat all the while, but they are hardly conducive towards brutally technical trails held in the Texas Hill Country, and with a handful of tough races coming up in that area…if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, goodbye Vibrams.

The Altra Lone Peaks has been my go to shoe for everything now, with a strong Stoneguard, stiff and responsive cushioning, not too high of a stack height off the ground, and Zero-drop heel differentials with no foot “support” built in, it can almost seem like a minimalist shoe at times.  The Lone Peaks has seen me through the gauntlet of 4 Capt’n Karl 60K races, 70 miles at Cactus Rose, Bandera 100K, and Run LOViT 100K, all fairly technical races that they performed well in, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing them in Vibrams, but I was starting to see the limitations of either how far the shoes could carry me further, or a combination of my own lack of foot strength to handle the ever increasing distances (it’s important to note that I’ve only been at this for 2-3 years now, and I’m well aware that more experienced runners can handle these types of technical Ultras just fine in Huarache sandals even).  After repeatedly experiencing numbed and beat up feet after 50 miles or so on these tough technical trails, I knew I needed more support to go further, and had nearly bitten the bullet and gotten a pair of Hoka’s…fortunately though, Altra’s had just released their entry into the maxxed cushioning shoe wars, the Altra Olympus.

The Altra Olympus had been released for several months before I finally purchased a pair, even though I desperately wanted the shoes after reading all the glowing reviews it was receiving, the minimalist dogma which I still adhere to is a strong one, and running on pillowy cushioning seemed like the antithesis of that philosophy.  I learned how and loved to run again in Vibrams over 3 years ago, when traditional built up shoes left me a limping painful mess after only a few miles because I never knew my running form was so detrimentally poor.  Since the day I made the switch to Vibrams, I’ve completed nearly a dozen Ultras in them, including my only 100 miler at Rocky Raccoon, but as the steadily increasing miles (in training, as well as races) piled on, and stepping on sharp rocks never becoming any less painful, my world view started changing with it; you know, perhaps Humans were never meant to frequently run 30-100 miles on difficult terrain, our species would have probably died out tens of thousands of years ago if that’s what it took to run down game…maybe a rockplate and some extra cushioning in your shoes isn’t so bad.

These days the Vibrams are relegated to short weekday training runs to maintain foot strength (and that I still highly enjoy running on grass with them), while the Altra Lone Peaks are taken out on those long weekend training runs on the trails, an arrangement I had been content with for nearly a year…until just recently.  I had already been considering the Altra Olympus for nearly half a year since first hearing about it, but the real pressing need for finally purchasing a pair was my un-ending mulling on running Bryce Canyon 100 Mile in June.  I didn’t believe my feet and legs were capable of not only withstanding a 100 miler in the Mountains, but the long 50-60 mile training weeks leading up to the race as well.  Also, I was still dealing with the ankle sprain I incurred at Run LOViT 100K in late February, and with my next race coming up soon at Possum Kingdom 55K, I felt my ankles needed the extra cushioning and it would be a good opportunity to test out the Altra Olympus during an Ultra.

My first test run of the Altra Olympus came only a week before my race at Possum Kingdom; I had already ran 22 miles at Cedar Ridge Nature Preserve in my Lone Peaks the day before, so my legs were trashed, and with it raining and muddy trails the next day, I couldn’t have asked for worse testing conditions.  At first I didn’t like how the contour footbed pressed against my arches, after years running in Vibrams I can’t stand anything resembling arch support, so I took them out and ran directly on the flat midsole instead.  Taking out the footbed reduces the stack height from a whopping 36 mm to a slightly less whopping 31 mm (a stack height that is still more than what you’ll find in a pair of Hoka’s, I might add), running on the flat midsole felt more stable to me, and made me just that less uneasy running ever so slightly closer to ground while on uneven trail surfaces.  That first and only run before Possum Kingdom lasted only 8 miles at Cedar Ridge before pouring rain forced me to call it quits, but I was sold.  

My feet and legs hardly felt like they just ran 22 tough miles the day before, it was like experiencing a revelation while I was floating over rocky terrain with huge pillows under my feet.  The initial run was not without issue though; first the Olympus has no traction on mud and accumulates it rapidly, making it feel very unstable to run on an already very high stacked shoe.  Second, just because you can stomp on rocks doesn’t mean that you should, I lightly tweaked my left ankle, my good ankle that has never been sprained before, while being careless on the rocks which freaked me out a bit, the reason why I fear high stack heights on the trails in the first place is because of their potential to exacerbate sprains.  Third, running uphills seems to take more effort as you’re trying to dig down through all that cushioning to power you up, but being able to bomb the downhills sorta makes up for that.  Regardless of those initial concerns, and after only 8 miles in the Olympus, I was already having delusions of finally signing up for Bryce Canyon 100 Mile, but first I had a 34.8 Mile training run coming up the next week to more solidly base my decisions on.

At Possum Kingdom, the Altra Olympus looks quite like regular shoes compared to the more clownish HOKA's.

I had ran Possum Kingdom 55K (it’s more closer to a 56K now…) last year with my Vibram Spyridons, with the trails there being some of the more smoother and runnable trails (the fairly dispersed rocks and stones on the trails are avoidable for the most part) that I’ve experienced in Texas, it was tough not to want to break out the pair of Spyridons again for another go at it, at least for one loop, but I needed to see how my feet held up after 30+ miles with the Altra Olympus and left the Vibrams at home.  Before Possum Kingdom, I had been steadily ramping up my mileage after a long break to recover from Run LOViT 100K, and reached a peak of 46 miles (with most of it being on hilly trails) the week before the race; with very little time to taper, I figured the best time to really test out a high cushioned shoe is when your feet and legs are already shot with fatigue going into a race anyway.  Since I had already written a Race Report on Possum Kingdom 55K last year, this will be more of a focus on reviewing the Altra Olympus, so I feel free to just spoil the ending with me managing to finish the race 2 minutes ahead of my last year’s finish time of 7:53hrs; my only goal at the race was to finish ahead of the lead 52 milers...and I just barely edged out the Overall winner, Nicole Studer, by 1 minute!

What I loved most about the Altra Olympus (that I already didn’t list above during my test run at Cedar Ridge) is it’s performance on the flats at Possum Kingdom, with it’s steep rockered forefoot, you can just sorta lean forward, make sure you land on your forefoot, and the shoes will automatically propel you forward; it almost felt like I was cheating while doing this during the second half of the race when the Sun and temps (up into the 90s, I heard) and badly fatigued legs were wearing me down, I could just lean forward and still trot at a respectable pace while the shoes rockered me forward.  I’m use to having to work harder for my gains with the Vibrams or the Altra Lone Peaks, so the feeling was a little bit disconcerting, but I do have to add, don’t count on this making you faster, I still had to push myself to try and keep up with my friend Greg Sisengrath for the first two miles of the race before I fell behind for good (he ended up finishing over an hour and half ahead of me…), for moments when your legs are completely shot and all you can manage is a trot though, that rockered forefoot is a godsend.  Also, the Olympus features a much wider bottom sole for added stability to make up for the high stack height, which makes it act sorta like a snow shoe over the mile or so of loose sandy trails at Possum Kingdom, greatly preventing your feet from sinking into that quicksand portion (that was the most miserable part last year with my Vibrams). 

Wider bottom sole for snow shoeing.
Rockered forefoot compared to the flat forefoot of the Lone Peaks

What frustrated me most about the Olympus is the almost complete lack of grip on the trails, climbing steep hills is already more frustrating having to press down on all that cushioning, but then there’s barely any grip to help you up, I slipped quite a bit trying to powerhike steep climbs on my toes and forefoot.  What makes the lack of grip particularly scary, is when you have to run down hills over stony ground, I slipped a few times over some stones and slightly tweaking my left ankle each time, which just worsened my paranoia of incurring even more sprained ankles with these shoes on.  The lack of grip also makes me have to rely more on braking with my heels going down steep hills, whereas I’ve always felt freer to tackle the downhills on my forefoot with the Lone Peaks and Vibrams (at least all that cushioning helps with the heel braking…).  With the high stack height and lack of grip to consider, I definitely had to be more careful on trickier portions of the trails and even change how I’m accustomed to running.  Changes to my running style that annoyed me the most about the Olympus, was that I wasn’t able to make sharp lateral cuts any more on trails, especially when going down steep switch backs, if you take the turn to hard, either the shoes may slip up, or your ankles will experience a rollover because of the high stack height (like a large SUV would after trying to make a fast and dangerous turn on the freeway); so instead of being able to turn on a dime with my Lone Peaks and Vibrams, I nearly had to come to a complete stop to safely make those downhill switchback turns, which frustratingly breaks the momentum and fun of the downhills. 

The Altra Olympus is no panacea, there are tradeoffs you’ll have to be willing to live with if you want to safely run in these shoes (I would happily tradeoff some cushioning for better grip...), but for a long and grinding Ultra, I would be willing to make those tradeoffs.  As I mentioned before, I came into Possum Kingdom with barely tapered and fatigued legs, and the last 10 miles or so felt like I had already ran 50 miles, but all that huge cushioning helped a lot to absorb the impact of running, leaving my feet, ankles, joints, and knees still feeling relatively good after the race, and that is fucking amazing to me, considering I’m use to them being destroyed after an Ultra while wearing minimalist shoes.  Also, mentioning the rockered forefoot again, that will undoubtedly come in handy when I’m 70-80 miles into a 100 miler, and can count on it propelling me forward on auto-pilot. 

I don’t see myself utilizing the Altra Olympus much for races under 50 miles, where my feet is generally strong enough to hold up just fine (provided that I go through a normal taper process) and I don’t have to be constantly on guard about slipping and worrying about spraining my ankle over that ridiculously high stack height.  For races 50 miles and up, where I would have to go at a slower and more deliberate pace anyway, the Olympus will start coming into play more often.  I also see myself utilizing these shoes during the 2nd half of a back to back weekend, particularly on high mileage peak weeks to save my feet from the pounding.  Bringing up my minimalist dogma again, there’s a real worry that I may become too reliant on all that cushioning, and my feet, Achilles, calves, legs, etc will weaken in the process, or that my running form may suffer, something that I was already worried about with wearing the Lone Peaks all the time; after running so much Ultras in the past few years though, I’m more open to acknowledging my weaknesses and the need to address them (I have also finally seeked out physical therapy for my chronic ITB problems, at Airrosti centers, and was able to run Possum Kingdom successfully with no issue afterwards), rather than so stubbornly stick to old ways of doing things, especially if I expect to have any hope of finishing Bryce Canyon 100 Mile in June…any extra help and advantage I can get would be welcomed.  

And now, for your enjoyment, some additional photo's of the trails of Possum Kingdom Lake:


  1. Great article! Thanks for sharing. I've been debating much about the Olympus after also reading such rave reviews. I ended up getting some Hoka Stinson's but when these wear out will definitely try the Olympus.

  2. Dat, just stumbled across your blog while looking for reviews on the Olympus. I just got a pair myself because I have been having issues with neuromas in my minimalist shows. I have only had one run in them around Town Lake, and think I like them overall so far. I look forward to getting a longer run in them over some rocky terrain. Glad to see you saw a lot of benefit in them. I'm still skeptical about them, but the true test will come when I get them on some Texas Hill Country terrain.

    1. While the Olympus just bulldozes over smaller rocks without even noticing they're even there, just be very mindful on stepping on larger and sharper rocks; it doesn't have a rockplate and you can easily roll your ankle over large and uneven rocks when you're not careful.