Sunday, January 28, 2018

Altra King MT 1.5 Trail Shoe Review: Can it Conquer Anything?

Article by Dominick Layfield with Jeff Valliere

The King MT is a relatively new arrival in Altra’s trail line-up.  Previous Altra trail shoes had focused on dry, rocky conditions typical of Utah’s Rocky mountains and the American West.  There was definitely a gap for a shoe that would perform well in the wet grass of damper climates.  Add to that the exploding world of Obstacle Course Racing (a.k.a. running with distractions) which frequently involves wading through water and tons of mud.

The King MT first arrived to fill this niche in February 2017.  It was a strange-looking, toothy, aggressive beast, low to the ground, with a heavily-lugged outsole and unusual velcro strap across the forefoot.  A year later, with the 1.5 revision, Altra have made some minor adjustments to the upper construction, strap position, but kept the shoe largely the same.

King MT 1.5 Stats:
Approx. Weight: US M9 10.6 oz/301 g
Measured weight: US M10  319 g / 11.3 oz
Stack Height: 19mm heel/19 forefoot, ZeroDrop
Price: $140. Available now from Altra here

First Impressions and Fit

Dom: I was slightly disappointed that Altra didn’t take the opportunity to make the King MT 1.5 less garish than its predecessor.  To be fair, the graphics have been slightly toned down: gone is the the mountain image (though strangely this has been relocated onto the tongue), but it has been replaced with an abstract color transition that is only slightly less ugly.
Editor's Note: Sam will be testing this somewhat louder color way..
I was also initially struck that the shoe wasn’t as light as I expected (or, more notably, as Altra states).  At 319 g (11.3 oz) per shoe (size US M10), this is not a light shoe.

When I started running in them, however, I was delighted.  Padding around the house, they felt a little stiff, but as soon as I hit the dirt, the shoe came alive.  Grip was -- as expected -- superlative.  Trail feel: outstanding.   Cushioning: good enough.  This shoe will push you to a more forefoot strike.

The shape and feel of the shoe reminded me of the Merrell Trail Glove, that I tried long ago in its earliest incarnation.  Those shoes conformed wonderfully to my foot, but had zero cushioning and so little rock protection that I could only wear them for short runs on the very smoothest trails.  Regardless, I kept them around as casual shoes since they felt so singularly nice to wear.

In some ways, the King MT 1.5 is like a Trail Glove on steroids.  There’s still not a lot of cushioning, but the King does provide a whole lot of rock protection, stellar trail feel, and tremendous grip, while remaining low to the ground for stability.

Jeff: I agree with Dominick on the somewhat garish looks of the King MT 1.5.  I have the yellow/teal color which screams a little bit, where I most often prefer toned down colors and don't really seek out splash patterns.  A plain, muted earth tone option would be nice.  Weight feels a touch heavy for what appears to be a slimmed down shoe and the scale confirms at over 11 oz..

Altra fit has always been a bit off in the best case scenario (Paradigm 1.5, Superior, Escalante for example) to WAY off (Lone Peak any version, Timp and Olympus).  I have really only had first hand experience on the trail with the Lone Peak and Superior, where no matter the version (though have not tried the LP 4.0), I find myself struggling to achieve proper foothold with no success.  The King MT 1.5 is much better, but I still find myself sliding some in technical terrain.


Dom: As I remarked above, I wasn’t wowed by the strange print on the upper fabric, and wish that Altra had just kept it plain.  However, everything else is excellent in design, execution, and functionality.
The primary fabric of the new upper is a dense ripstop mesh that feels strong and durable, and strikes a good compromise between keeping dirt and grit out and allowing for ventilation and rapid drainage.  The welded TPU overlays seem functional and unobtrusive.
In addition to the toe-bumper overlay, there’s also stitched overlay on the instep that seems slightly incongruous.  This has grown significantly from version 1.0 of the King MT.  Perhaps this area sees high abrasion?  (From rope climbing in OCR events?)
The velcro FootLock™ mid-foot strap was a polarizing feature of the previous King MT. Its placement is improved in the 1.5 according to Altra.
It wraps over the top of the foot and down the sides internally to the midsole on both sides and I found myself not really understanding its purpose.   This may be because I didn’t get to test the shoe under the conditions when it would really matter.  Most of my runs were on steep sandy, rocky trails; a couple were in snow; but none were in deep shoe-sucking mud.  I did get the shoes good and wet with several stream crossings, but I didn’t hop out and immediately try to carry heavy objects.

In my experiments with the strap, I found that there was a definite point where it became too tight and was abruptly uncomfortable.  Because the strap (and the internal structure it connects to) is not stretchy, the sweet spot for tension is small.  The difference between having no discernible effect and being uncomfortably tight was only maybe a ¼ inch.

Others have pointed out that the strap provides a way to tuck the laces away and prevent them from hooking on obstacles etc.  However, it seems that there are easier and better ways to achieve the same effect.

There are some nice little touches in the King MT construction.  The heel, for example, is lined with a “sharkskin” like fabric that is grippier in the downward direction than the up and particularly down low where there is less padding, helping to hold the foot in the shoe.  Without trying on shoes with and without this feature, I can’t really say whether it actually works, but it’s certainly neat, and it shows the attention to detail coming out of Altra.
We also find Altra's GaiterTrap with a velcro tab at the rear and a ring sewn just in front of the front most lace.

Jeff: The upper is high quality and durable with excellent foothold in the midfoot and heel.  As is the trademark for Altra, the toebox is wide, especially for a low volume, somewhat slim foot such as mine, but seemingly not as wide as other trail models.  The toe bumper is flexible and minimal and provides only slight protection.  Though I have only tested in 50-60 degree temperatures, the breathability of the upper seems good.  Heel hold is generally good, aided by the sharkskin type material, but I find it to be a touch wide and the lack of structure/heel counter allows for some additional movement when running hard on steep terrain.

The trademark velcro strap on the 1.5 is a nice feature despite my initial reservations.  I adds a bit of security to the midfoot fit, but I have to be careful to not overtighten, which causes a bit of a sharp pressure point (which I am prone to do, always seeking a snugger fit for technical terrain).

Dom: Given the 19 mm official stack height, 6mm Vibram MegaGrip lugs on the outsole, 6mm mm of insole thickness,  ~2 mm of outsole thickness behind the lugs, the faux carbon rock "Guard" in the midfoot, and the topsheet of gray foam (~1 mm?) lining the bottom of the shoe, there’s not much room for a lot of midsole material.
Altra proudly advertises their EGO brand of midsole material on the white band of exposed midsole on outside of the shoe. But mostly this thicker area appears to be confined to the perimeter.  Underfoot, there can’t be much more than 5 mm thickness of EGO.

Regardless, it’s enough, and it’s great.  I ran over every kind of surface I could find, including plenty of sharp rocks, and found the cushioning to be firm but comfortable.  I was worried that the prominent lugs might be felt through the sole, and create localized hotspots underfoot.  At least on the short runs that I completed (longest were around two hours), this wasn’t an issue at all.

To be clear, this is not a shoe that I would pick for long races.  For conventional ultra distance events, I’d opt for more cushioning.  But for races up to a few hours (or maybe longer in an extended OCR event) in slippery, muddy conditions, the low stack height translates into superior stability and ground feel.

Jeff: I find the midsole to be a bit thin for my preferences and for the rocky terrain that I frequent, though protection is surprisingly good.  On runs up to 2-3 hours on mellow to moderate terrain, I think it would be sufficient for most, but anything longer or adding in a lot of rocks or hardpack, it could feel a bit harsh.

Dom: The Vibram-branded outsole is really fantastic.  About the only downside I can think of is that it may be a little heavy, and the grip overkill for most conditions.

I found the traction to be outstanding on every surface I tested (mostly sandy dirt, rock, snow, and a little mud).  The lugs couldn’t be felt through the underfoot stack, and didn’t create pressure points.   Although far from being a road shoe, the King MT 1.5 felt flexible and smooth on hard surfaces.

Jeff: This is the highlight for this shoe for me, as the lugs are toothy, sharp and massive, working extremely well in mud, snow and loose junk.  The Vibram MegaGrip rubber compound is sticky on most surfaces wet or dry and seems very durable.  My only limitation here however with the outsole is directly related to the lack of foothold of the upper, meaning that I can't fully take advantage of all the outsole has to offer and push the limits of the shoe in really rough terrain.


Dom: I really enjoyed running in the King MT 1.5.   The shoe felt like it molded perfectly to my foot.  Top marks across the board for traction, ground-feel, stability, agility.
Despite my “meh” feelings about the midfoot strap (“FootLock™”) it didn’t seem to get in the way.  However, I did find that grit accumulated in the space between the shoe’s outer fabric and the separate web that connects the strap to the sole.

My only real criticism of the ride is that I found the heel to be a little sloppy.  One notable aspect of the King MT’s construction is that there is no heel counter at all -- no discernable stiffening or reinforcing elements at all around the rear and sides of the heel.  I think this is a mistake.  I’ve used (and liked) trail shoes without a heel counter before: the first generation Nike Terra Kiger comes to mind.  But for that to work, the heel needs to fit like a glove and grip tight.  I have narrow heels and the King MT 1.5 felt loose around my heel.  Most of the time, this didn’t matter, and I didn’t really notice.  But occasionally, on steep off-camber terrain, I found my heel slide off unexpectedly.  I think a low and soft heel counter would improve the shoe without noticeably changing its character.

Another useful side effect of adding a heel counter or some external stiffening overlay would be to provide lateral attachment points for Altra’s 4-point gaiters.  The King MT already has an eyelet in front of the laces, and a super-sized velcro tab at the rear.  Adding extra receptacles would further improve the shoe’s prowess in extra filthy conditions.

Jeff: I think for the right foot, the King MT 1.5 would be much more pleasing.  It is a very comfortable shoe and runs lighter than its weight implies, is reasonably responsive and has a nice blend of protection, agility and ground feel.  For my slim/low volume foot however, like most (all) other Altras, I can do well with the fit on easier terrain and do appreciate the comfort and room of the wider forefoot, but on rocky, technical terrain, particularly steep technical rocky downhills, with sidehilling and rock hopping (most of what I do), my foot slops around no matter how much I crank down the laces and velcro strap.  The King MT 1.5 is certainly more secure for me than the Lone Peak, but still has enough movement for me to tread cautiously.  Not a knock on Altra or the King MT 1.5, but just a reflection on how my slimmer foot interacts with the shoe.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Dom: The original King MT was a specialized tool and the 1.5 update, although improving the shoe, doesn’t change things.  This is a low slung, super grippy shoe that excels inn muddy and slippery conditions.  That said, I found the shoe surprisingly versatile and really enjoyed running with this shoe on every trail condition I threw at it.
There’s not a whole lot of cushioning, but the rock protection is great, and the grip is tremendous.  I particularly enjoyed the shape of the forefoot, the excellent trail feel, the agility of the shoe, and the “I can conquer anything” feeling they gave me.

Jeff: Being an Altra shoe, this is certainly a shoe for the Altra aficionado/core user, one looking for maximal grip in a wide variety of conditions such as mud, soft ground, snow and OCR racing.  I appreciate all that Altra does as a company and with each new model, I really hope that there is a model out there that will work for me, but I have not seen that yet.

Dominick's Score:  9/10   
Excellent, with a couple of small caveats.
0.5 for quirky midfoot strap.  Maybe a must-have for OCR racers wallowing in deep mud?  Seems superfluous for most trail use.  Either way, execution could be improved.  I’d like to see more elasticity, and also integration of webbing that connects to the sole into the upper to avoid debris collecting in-between.
0.5 for complete lack of a heel counter.   The heel felt like it needed some sort of lateral reinforcement.

Jeff's Score: 9.2/10
- .1 for thin toe bumper
- .3 for unstructured heel counter
- .2 for weight
- .2 for cushion


Brooks Mazama 2 (RTR review)
A lot of similarity between these two: both are low to the ground with excellent traction.  The King toebox is much wider and (for my feet) more comfortable.  Mazama has a tighter, more typical race fit.  Mazama forefoot is stiffer.  Mazama construction is more traditional -- no funky midfoot straps.  Mazama has significant heel-to-toe drop, and (as a consequence) a lot more heel cushioning, which may make it more friendly to heel strikers.  While neither shoe is startlingly light, the Mazama has the edge in weight, lighter by about an ounce per shoe.

Reviewer Bio

Dom Layfield is an accomplished trail runner with a background and PhD in bio mechanical engineering from MIT.  His 2017 achievements include first place in the dead of winter 2017 108-mile Spine Challenger race in the UK, breaking the course record by an hour, a victory at the Quicksilver 100K in California, and 14th at the Western States Endurance Run.

The King MT was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are entirely the author'S.

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rms said...

I have 60M so far on the KMT1.5, all on steep rocky trails, and my thoughts mirror those in the review, namely that of a 'retrofitted' shoe with extra parts bolted on to an earlier design, like the mid-foot strap and the arch plate.

It works fairly well for mid-length runs, but I have a suggestion that for me would greatly increase comfort on rocky descents: Extend the fiberglass arch plate farther forward (and maybe thin it out) -- this would reduce the abrupt transition that is felt when landing fore/aft of the leading edge of this plate, and greatly increase comfort on longer runs, as forefoot flexibility is enough to cause foot pummelling.

It is instructive to compare this shoe side-to-side to the Salomon Sense 6. The heavy (13+ oz in 12.5), kludgy, home-brew KMT1.5 on the one hand, and the sleek, monolithic Sense 6 on the other: No quirky, fiddly upper, no stride-affecting transition points in the midsole in the latter.

Sam Winebaum said...

Thanks for the very instructive comments. Much appreciated. Will communicate plate thoughts to Altra.
Wouldn't you think some of the extra weight compared to Sense 6 comes from the outsole? The lugs on the Altra are very substantial.
Sam, Editor

rms said...

Oh, the weight doesn't bother me here, as it is dense material that has a purpose and the center of gravity is very low. I've caught myself repeatedly weighing it side-by-side with shoes like the Timp, and still remarking on how utterly different they feel at the same weight.

Unknown said...

Nice review. Is it true to size?

Unknown said...

Thanks for the review guys, been looking at the king mt 1.5 for some time now but couldn't get myself to purchase, this review was helpful - I will not.
Still looking for a shoe that is grippy in all conditions and has enough cushioning..the zero drop and wide toe box is very tempting and I enjoy both of those but the king mt is not that shoe. But then again I'm left to wonder, which shoe is that? Any tips? Vibrant outsole, well cushioned, zero drop and wide toe box...

Sam Winebaum said...

Not zero drop but 5mm and not quite as wide a toe box but Hoka Torrent fits the bill. Non vibram but its grip is outstanding. At zero drop and wide toe box also take a look at Topo Runventure 2. Reviews of both at link below.
Sam, Editor
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Unknown said...

Thanks so much for your feedback, Sam! I do like the torrent, but my love for Altras is making me be extra cautios when buying not altra shoes..weird stuff! I am so sad to hear about the LP 4, being upgraded on the outsole but the midsole flattening out prematurely..I was hoping those would be the shoes...My ideal (and many others, i think) is a king mt 1.5 with 5mm extra ego, or a LP 4 with vibram outsole. Do not get that altra does not see that gap :( Anyway, thanks again roadtrailrun! :)

Sam Winebaum said...

HI Kadar, Where are you seeing LP4 is flattening out in the midsole? So far we are not seeing this. If the runner is heavy I could see some compression occurring as it is a soft midsole. The LP4 also has a new outsole which while not Vibram is proving very good. See our review here: Another to consider and we are just beginning testing is the Topo Athletic Ultraventure. A softer well cushioned midsole similar to LP but tri density, especially a touch firmer on medial side with a Vibram Trek XS outsole. Really smooth running and roomy with 5mm drop. Review soon but preview is here:
Sam, Editor

Unknown said...

Hey Sam!
I heard it from Ethan, the ginger runner and loads of people say the same about the LP4s in the comments unfortunately. The Ultraventure looks really promising, maybe a tad too high, curious what you guys say in the review, little scared of big stack hight and technical trails! :D Thanks for the LP4 review link and for all the info and quick replies, you guys are awesome! :)