Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Inov-8 TrailTalon 250: Excellent Shorter Distance Trail Racer but No Western States Soup for You!

Article by Dominick Layfield

Inov-8 TrailTalon 250
Manufacturer specifications:
23.5 mm heel, 19.5 mm forefoot, 4mm drop (insole included)
7.9 oz/224 grams US Men's Size 9 (per Running Warehouse)
$110. Available now.
Light, lean, functional.  Ready to race.

After years of trying to get an entry, I finally got into Western States this year, and I've been searching for the perfect shoe to race in.  Looking at the Inov-8 catalog of trail running shoes, the obvious choice appeared to be the TrailTalon 250.  Inov-8 tout this shoe for "Racing" and "Hard-packed trails" and "Ultra Marathons".  Sounds like Western States perfection, right?
Trail Talon 250 pictured with insole removed.
Everything about the shoe screams "fast" and "light".  These look and feel like a stripped-down racing machine. The upper is a lightweight mesh that is open enough that you can see daylight through it.
Upper fabric is so light that you can easily see daylight through it!
There are some minimal weld-on overlay reinforcements around the lace eyelets, and connecting the lacing to the sole and a sewn-on heel sling made of more substantial fabric.  (The heel sling also provides attachment point for Inov-8's Race Ultra gaiter, which will be reviewed on RTR separately.)
Minimal, purely structural overlays to reinforce lightweight upper fabric.
The tongue is conventional, and lightly padded, and with elasticated gussets.
Tongue construction is conventional, with unobtrusive elasticated gussets.
My initial impression, when I first put the shoe on, was that it felt on the narrow side.  That was a little surprising, as this shoe has Inov-8's "standard" fit, which is supposedly wider than their "precision" fit.  However, within a few minutes of running, I found that there is enough stretch in the upper that they felt snug and secure without being constricting.  They still felt a little narrow for my taste (I like, for example, Altra's wide toe box).  But I suspect for most people, they'll hit the sweet spot.

How does the shoe run?  I have yet to test them in mud and the wet, but on all dry surfaces grip was excellent. Even on the loosest, steepest trails, breakaway was progressive and predictable.  The shoes felt light, nimble, secure.  Because the stack height is low, and your foot is low to the ground, I never felt the slightest hint of instability on off-camber trails or during fast cornering.

The shoe is generally soft and flexible: beyond the heel sling and counter, there are no discernible stiffening elements in the upper or sole.  This is neutral shoe -- closer in character to a track racing flat than your typical overbuilt ultramarathoning workhorse.
Outsole has wide, shallow (3 mm) lugs.  Grip and ground feel was outstanding on dry terrain.
Another huge plus is that the heel is narrow and soft.  Regrettably, nearly all trail shoes get this aspect completely wrong: a wide heel may be useful on road and smooth trails, but as soon as terrain gets rough and rocky, narrow is better.  Here's an example: if you put your heel down and one side happens to catch a rock, you don't want that rock to tip your foot over sideways.  Ideally, you want the sole just to conform around it, and allow your forefoot to land normally.  The wider the heel, the more likely it is to catch some sort of irregularity, and the more leverage the irregularity will apply to tip your foot over and roll an ankle.  Similarly, the stiffer the perimeter of the heel, the more force it will apply to tip your foot.  Trail shoes should have narrow, soft and/or rounded heels!
The TrailTalon 250 has a excellent, narrow, soft heel with no heel flare or stiffening wings.  This makes the shoe much more stable on irregular ground.  See text for discussion of why trail shoes should have a narrow heel.
The weight of these shoes came in exactly as promised.  All Inov-8 shoe names end with a number that indicates the approximate weight of the shoe in grams.  In this case, "Trail Talon 250" means that a single shoe should weigh 250 g (8.8 oz).  My pair of US size 10 measured 496 g on my scale.

At 496 g measured weight for pair of US size 10, the Trail Talons 250 come in just under their promised weight.  Hooray!  (That's 17.5 oz for old-schoolers.)
Heel-to-toe drop is low (4 mm according to Inov-8's specs).  How much drop is right for you is a personal choice, but this amount feels very comfortable to me.

Surprisingly, a significant amount of the cushioning is provided through the unusually thick insole.  This is 6 mm thick, and made of (what appears to be) the same blue foam as Ortholite brand insoles.  In my experience this material stands up well over time, retaining its shape.
Trail Talon 250's come with an unusually thick (6 mm) insole, made of same blue foam used in Ortholite insoles.

My only gripe (and it's a big one) is that there's really very little cushioning in the forefoot.  According to the Inov-8, the outsole lugs are 4 mm deep, though I measured around 3 mm.  The insole/footbed is notably thick, at 6 mm.  There's about 2mm of outsole thickness under the lugs.  There's also a thin sheet of white fabric glued and stitched onto the topside of the midsole.  In-between those layers, there's very little midsole material.  Based on my crude measurements with calipers, I estimate about 9-10 mm of soft foam.  Inov-8's own data state "13.5 mm midsole stack": I'm not sure exactly what this is includes, but it doesn't seem accurate.
Stack thickness measured at toe crease with insole removed.  The ~12 mm measured thickness includes outsole layer without lugs (about 2 mm) and upper fabric (about 0.5 mm).  That leaves about 9.5 mm of midsole.
By my estimate stack height = 5 mm of outsole (3 mm lugs + 2 mm base) + 6 mm insole + 9.5 mm "midsole" in between = 20.5 mm total.  Generally, I've found 20-25 mm range to be the Goldilocks zone for trail shoes.  Less than this and there's not enough cushioning; more than this and the foot is too high off the ground and the shoe feels 'tippy' and unstable.  The Trail Talon 250 feels lower than the numbers would suggest, which makes it super-stable and agile, but lacking in forefoot protection.  This may be due to the fact that a significant proportion of the stack height comes from the insole, which is thick but soft, so compresses easily.

Durability might be a concern with the Trail Talon 250.  I don't yet have enough miles on them (currently 30-ish) to get much idea.  There is no damage or wear visible at this point, but the upper is extremely lightweight, and doesn't look like it would withstand a lot of abrasion on rocks.  I'll revisit this issue in a few weeks.

Inov-8 list these shoes as suitable for "ultra marathons", but I feel that they need some clarification in that regard.  I would wear these for shorter and middle-distance ultra races, but they are really not a shoe for those of us who are likely to be chasing race cut-off times.  The Trail Talon 250 has absolutely no stiffeners or stability elements, minimal structure to the upper, minimal cushioning throughout.  That much should be obvious, but is probably worth emphasizing.

Most everything I have to say about the TrailTalon 250 has been good.  In use, however, particularly on dry, gravelly trails, there was simply not enough forefoot cushioning for my taste: I could feel every little tiny pebble underfoot.  That's fine for short runs of an hour or two, but I would hesitate to select these for anything longer, except on the most benign trails.  After many hours, those little pebbles would likely feel excruciatingly uncomfortable.  A good ultra shoe needs to be able to handle pretty much anything, and regrettably, the Trail Talon 250 does not pass that test.

Conclusion
Overall, I liked almost everything about the TrailTalon 250.  The upper is light, breathable, snug, and does exactly what it is supposed to do: it holds your foot firmly in place.  The low (4 mm) drop suits me perfectly.  The outsole grip is outstanding on dry surfaces.  The ride is agile, super stable, and confidence-inspiring.

The only real downside to this shoe is unfortunately a biggie: There's just not enough cushioning under the forefoot.  Any sharp little rock tends to jab the bottom of your foot.  That's acceptable on short runs where cushioning and rock protection can take a back seat in favor of superior ground feel, but for ultramarathon use (except on the softest trails), my opinion is that more cushion is needed.

This is an excellent shoe for those wanting a lightweight trail shoe to race short distances (say, up to marathon/50k depending on terrain).

That said, the aspect I keep coming back to is weight: at 250 g (8.8 oz), these shoes are definitely lightweight.  But they are just not that light compared to other shoes on the market.  For example, a favorite shoe of mine is the Montrail FluidFlex II mentioned above.  These come in at 230 g (8.1 oz).  This shoe has more cushioning than the TrailTalon 250, and is lighter.  And that's a four-year-old model.  Current Hoka models like the Speed Instinct and Clayton 2 (latter not officially a trail shoe, RTR review here) are lighter and more cushioned.  Even Inov-8 themselves -- a company that made its name making lightweight trail shoes -- make much lighter shoes like the X-Talon 200.  I have to believe that Inov-8 could make a similar shoe at a lighter weight, or a more cushioned shoe at a similar weight to this one.
The competition in lightweight trail shoes: Montrail FluidFlex II weigh 38g less per pair and provide more cushioning than the Inov-8 Trail Talon 250.

A good shoe is a matter of taste.  Personally, I like my shoes with a decent amount of squish, enough cushioning that I can run really long distances without excessive foot fatigue or discomfort.  To my mind, the Trail Talon is imbalanced.  I think I would utterly love this shoe if it had an extra 5 mm or so of mid-sole material throughout, to provide more cushioning.   I tested my hypothesis by adding an extra insole into the shoe, underneath the Inov-8 one.  I felt that the shoe was markedly improved by this modification, but it made an already snug forefoot uncomfortably tight.  Another option would be to slide in a removable rock-guard (e.g. StoneGuard from Altra Superior).

Everything else about the shoe was so excellent that it makes this single imperfection more upsetting.  This shoe is a near miss for me.

Score
The upper is great (albeit a little on the narrow side for my taste, but probably right on the money for most people).  The grip is great.  Appearance is great.  Weight is great.  Durability TBD.  Performance is outstanding with the one exception that the forefoot needs more rock protection.

Accordingly, I'd score the TrailTalon 250 a 9/10.  Really nothing at all to complain about except that I'm deducting a whole point for lack of protection from sharp rocks.

Comparisons

I don't have many similar shoes to compare the Inov-8 TrailTalon 250's to, so I apologize if none of these are very useful to the reader.

Inov-8 TrailTalon 250 vs Montrail FluidFlex II.  This might seem a strange comparison, given that the FluidFlex II is long discontinued.  However, the FluidFlex II is the lightest shoe I own.  The FFII is lighter (230 g per shoe vs 248 g for TT250) and provides a little more cushioning.  Uppers are surprisingly similar in that they are both unstructured and very stripped down, although the TT250 has a better shape and manufacturing quality.  FFII feels a little sloppy.  TT250 probably has slightly better grip.  Both shoes dry out very quickly after getting wet, but I'd give the nod to the Trail Talon.

Inov-8 TrailTalon 250 vs Topo MT-2.   The Topo MT-2 (RTR review here) is another lightweight trail shoe, but with less of a race-specific feel to it.   MT-2 weighs 264 g vs 248 g for TT250.  Otherwise these shoes are similar in character: no stability/motion-control features, low drop, narrow heel.  The MT-2 has more room in the toe box, and a little more rock protection, but doesn't feel quite as fast as the TT250.

Inov-8 TrailTalon 250 vs Nike Terra Kiger 3 (RTR review here).  The TK3 is my default shoe for races shorter than 100 miles.  TK3 (sized up 1/2 size) has a roomier toe box and secures midfoot better.  I have zero complaints about the way the TK3 rides.  Major differences are that TK3 has a lot more rock protection than TT250, and that TT250 is significantly lighter: 248 g per shoe vs 282 g for TK3.

Inov-8 TrailTalon 250 vs Altra Lone Peak 3.0 (RTR review here).  The LP3 is my go-to shoe for hundred mile races.  At this point, the shoes are so different that the comparison is a stretch.  The LP3 has far more foot protection: with these I could run over rubble all day long and not care.  But the LP3 is a lot heavier (~300 g per shoe vs 248 g per shoe for TT250), feels much hotter and stiffer, and sits higher off the ground, making it more unstable on rough terrain.  TT250 is lighter, cooler, more stable, more agile.  TT250 will also suit narrower feet better.  TT250 also runs better on road than LP3, which can feel clunky on pavement.  The LP3 takes a lot longer to dry out after a water crossing.

The TrailTalon 250 has a big brother...
I should note that Inov-8 does make a slightly heavier version of this shoe, the TrailTalon 275.  According to Inov-8's specs this has a 17.5 mm forefoot stack vs 13.5 in the 250.  However, it also has a slightly more substantial upper, and an 8 mm drop (vs 4 mm in 250).  The extra 25 g (0.9 oz) might not sound like much, but takes the shoe into a weight range where it has a lot more competition.  For example, my pair of size 10.5 Nike Zoom Terra Kiger 3 weigh 282 g per shoe.  The difference between these and the TrailTalon 275 (assuming the latter come in around the promised 275 g per shoe) is negligible, particularly given that I typically size up 1/2 size in the Nike TK3.
Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger 3 (size 10.5 US pictured) weighs about the same as the TrailTalon 250's big brother, the TrailTalon 275. 
Reviewer Bio
Dominick Layfield lives in Southern California after several years in Park City, UT.  He is an avid trail runner who likes to race.  He holds a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT, and has worked as a researcher in orthopedic biomechanics. So he knows the difference between a ligament and tendon :-).
In 2016, he raced, among others, the Angeles Crest 100 (2nd place), Scout Mountain 80K (1st place), and Georgia Death Race 68 miler (3rd place).  His latest achievement was first place in the dead of winter 2017 108-mile Spine  Challenger race in the UK, breaking the course record by an hour. He will be running both the Western States 100 and UTMB in 2017.

Comments, questions welcome below!

The Trail Talon was provided at no charge. The opinions herein are entirely the author's.
Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield

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