Friday, June 28, 2019

Altra Vanish XC Review: Tough Mudder

Altra Vanish XC ($80): Tough Mudder

Editor's Update: The Vanish XC was worn to set the new world record for the fastest 100 miles ever run on trails. Congrats to Zach Bitter and Altra for the achievement! Such a feat should assuage any doubts as to the competency of the Vanish XC as a competitive racer! See our complete review (below) for our non-record-breaking opinions!


Racing flats are evolving. The next generation of carbon-laden rockets, including Hoka One One Carbon X, Nike Vaporfly NEXT%, and Skechers Go Run Speed Elite Hyper, are all on the market or due in the coming months, and should propel racers across the roads and tracks for seasons to come. But what about for nature’s purest sport? What of the runners dueling across golf courses, horse tracks, abandoned soccer fields and closed-off parks? Are they to trust a $250 carbon-propelled flat to get them over hay bales, stream crossings, steep inclines and leg-bending turns? Of course not. Enter the Altra Vanish XC: the purest form of cross-country racer on the market today. No carbon, no spikes - hell, there’s hardly an upper at all. 

Pros and Cons
  • Pros: Fun, breathable (and drainable), dynamic lacing means you’ll never have to worry about finding the perfect fit - and sharp-looking to boot. 
Cons: Limited use case for those of us out of high-school and collegiate XC; would be nice to have a spiked option for those on technical terrain or on the track.Tester Profile
Michael is his 20’s and is a 1:07 half marathoner. He runs 50-60 miles per week, generally in lightweight trainers or racing flats at around 6:00-6:30 minutes/mile.  He is a former collegiate XC runner at Washington University.

  • Official Weight 5.5 oz. / 155 g men's
  • Sample US M8.5: 5.5 oz. 
  • Stack Height: 15mm, 0 drop
  • Available Now for $79.99
First Impressions and Fit
A precursor to the Vanish XC, no doubt
It’s been a while since I’ve slipped on a shoe like Vanish XC. It’s upper is distinctly reminiscent of the old Nike Lanang steeple spike - especially in the old Ronald McDonald colorway. That racer, too, had a nearly porous upper, punctuated by hole-punch-sized holes allowing for ready drainage of water and mud. Of course, the Lanang was built for the track - with a spiked plate designed especially for steeple. The Vanish XC, as the name suggests, is targeting cross-country specifically. It’s not for everyone - it’s not even for everyone who races - but damn if it doesn’t feel good to slip on. You’re ready to go fast from the first lacing.

Certainly the most unique part of the Vanish XC is its upper. While the toebox is surrounded by an inner webbing to keep your foot in place, the rear third is open to allow for breathable miles. More interesting, the upper is designed so that any part of the upper is an eyelet. Want to run laces further down to create a wider midfoot? Even them up to create a more narrow lace-box towards your ankle? The choice is yours. Now, in the interest of disclosure - I tried this, and ended up preferring the out-of-the-box lacing scheme the best, as my foot had no lateral slippage, even on some tight turns. But for those with narrow or wide feet, the option to modify the lacing seems a significant benefit.

The Vanish XC also comes in several colors, which should help high-school and collegiate athletes find a color-matching option.



Being a true cross-country racer, there isn’t a whole lot of midsole to speak of (this is, in fact, a rare instance where the outsole design is far more interesting than the midsole!). Even so, Altra has packed in their Max-LT technology for what they describe as “incredible cushion-to-weight ratio.” At 5.5 ounces, there are lighter racers out there (Nike Zoom Victory, on the spiked end, and Reebok Floatride Run Fast Pro, on the flat end), but few are quite as dynamic as the Vanish. Those running on rougher terrain - trails, mud, and slick grass - will find much more comfort here than with the aforementioned options, and the midsole goes a long way in providing a responsive ride. It’s not the softest or most forgiving shoe - nor need it be.

Altra has designed the outsole specifically for cross-country races. It has small rubber “nubs” on the forefoot (and to some extent, the heel) to emulate a spike plate. I was confused, at first, why the design continued onto the heel, considering a distance track or XC spike has the spike plate only under the forefoot. I can’t imagine Altra is expecting much heel-striking to occur in a shoe this minimal - perhaps on steep downhills in a race, but hardly enough to warrant a fundamental redesign of the spike! 

In practice, I think what Altra has called “spikes” are gentle enough that it’s a non-factor. Yes, they provide good traction on technical terrain, including on moderately hilly and rocky paths, and (especially) on tight turns in wet conditions. But these underfoot nubs aren’t sharp, by any means, and they don’t give off the aggressive feel of a spike plate. They’re practical - useful, even - but they wouldn’t translate well to those looking for a track spike. 
That said, I think this shoe would function reasonably well as a short-distance (1600-5000m) road racing option, for those who want to go minimal, rather than carbon. The plastic nubs should not considerably limit its on-road ability.

What you see if functionally what you get here: the Vanish XC is a responsive, if harsh, ride that suggests running fast and little else. Disappointingly (though not unsurprisingly), there is no “spring” or “bounce” sensation that you get on the next-generation flats I mentioned in the introduction - NEXT%, this is not. But anyone who has run in a track spike or old-school racing flat knows what they’re in for, here, and the Vanish XC does not disappoint or materially change those expectations.  

Conclusions and Recommendations
The Vanish XC is a terrifically fun shoe, from its adaptable upper to its no-frills midsole, to its nubbed outsole. The Vanish XC is not the future of road racing (or even track racing), and Altra does not intend it to be. While that’s fine by me - a single purpose racer is something I can support - it does limit its market. High school or collegiate runners, or those lucky enough to have a competitive adult cross-country scene in their region - should take note of the Vanish. In some states, high-schoolers are disallowed from wearing spikes, and I imagine the Vanish XC will fill that gap expertly. 

But for the rest of us - those confined to primarily racing on the roads - the Vanish is frustratingly off-limits. Sure, it has been a blast lacing them up and doing strikes or repeats on grass in a nearby park. But I don’t have any upcoming cross-country races on the schedule, and even trail racers I talked to were hesitant to drop to a shoe quite so minimal. The Vanish XC is a little like having a convertible in Minnesota: it can be insanely great, for a few days - but is it really the most practical option?

Michael's Score: 8.5/10
  • -1.5 for general functionality (a smoother outsole would make it a more readily accessible hybrid, while preserving cross-country potential).
Comparisons (click links for RTR Reviews)
  • Reebok Floatride Run Fast Pro
    • As with most of these comparisons, the biggest determinant will simply be your use case. Are you primarily racing on the roads or track? The Run Fast Pro is an absolute RTR staff favorite. Going off-road? The Vanish XC is likely a better choice. There is an additional consideration here, which is that you could buy 3 pair of Vanishes before you could buy one pair of the Run Fast Pro, so for those needing a budget option, the Altra is the easier choice.
  • Nike Zoom Streak 6
    • Nike's Streak line has long been a favorite of cross-country racers; the Streak XC, when it existed, was a sublime racing flat for cross-country courses of all sorts. The shoe has become more road-specific, over time, but is still a competently-platformed shoe for cross-country (by that I mean one with a grippy and durable outsole). Nike has cross-country and track-specific spikes, of course (I'm slightly out of touch with the lines now, though you can hardly go wrong with a Victory or Matumbo), but the Vanish holds it own against the Streak when the conditions are challenging.
  • Hoka One One Evo Rehi
    • The Evo Rehi is one of my favorite, bare-bones flats - it doesn't have the carbon plate or Boost-like cushioning, but instead has a stripped-back upper, lightweight and drainable midsole, and general go-gettum' attitude. The Rehi is, for my money, the most direct competitor to the Vanish from Hoka, and while the Rehi couldn't cut it on the most technical of race courses, those who are primarily looking for a hybrid road-trail racer or else racing on golf-course should give the Rehi a serious look.
Read reviewers' full run bios here
The product reviewed was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are the authors'.
Comments and Questions Welcome Below!
Please let us know mileage, paces, race distances, and current preferred shoes

RoadTrailRun receives a commission on purchases at the stores below.
Your purchases help support RoadTrailRun. Thanks!

USA  Men's & Women's HERE
FREE 2 Day Shipping EASY No Sweat Returns

Please Like and Follow RoadTrailRun
Facebook:  Instagram: @roadtrailrun
Twitter: @RoadTrailRun You Tube: @RoadTrailRun


 Fausto said...

for the nike comparison, i was thinking in the streak lt 4

Luke said...

How does this compare to Altra's other XC shoe, the Golden Spike?

Michael said...

@Fausto - it is probably more similar than the Streak LT4, good call. The upper here is a lot better, though. While the LT4 is pretty breathable (and drainable), it's a lot scratchier and sharp than here on the Vanish XC. But, the LT4 is probably a better shoe for longer (10K-HM) road races.

@Luke - never worn the Golden Spike, unfortunately. Obviously the GS has a physical spike plate, whereas this only has the nubs.

J Marie said...

I'm using them for racewalking, and they are great for speed work and competition. If, as you suggest, the running market is mainly HS XC racers, Altra should consider marketing to the racewalking community. It's also a niche market, but racewalkers are always looking for shoes appropriate for the sport.

Anonymous said...

I just bought a pair of these for my son. Last season he ran XC in the Vanish-R and I assumed these would be the same fit/size. Nope! I was shocked at how much bigger these are! I'm going to have to go down at least 1/2 size, if not a full size. They sure do look cool though!

Coenraad said...

You say the plastic nubs should not considerably limit its on-road ability, would they endure it though? So this could be a shoe to run to the forest on asphalt, and still keep up with the trail runners? Not just the middle ground country.