Sunday, August 11, 2019

New Balance FuelCell 5280 Review: Exotic Road Mile Rocket Ship!

Article by Michael Ellenberger

New Balance FuelCell 5280 ($200)

We get a lot of shoes in for review at the "RTR Labs" - trainers built for long longs, racers crafted for speed, trail shoes for rocky terrain and even the occasional snow-focused footwear. But in for the first time is a shoe designed explicitly for the mile - so explicitly, it's named for the event (5280 feet for a mile; why NB didn't opt for metric is a bit of a mystery). The New Balance FuelCell 5280 is a next-generation racer, honing NB's FuelCell cushioning technology, a carbon fiber propulsive plate, and a spike-like outsole for a racing flat that can be used on the roads (and was, at the famous 5th Avenue Mile in New York City), but is just as competent on the track. Just don't go lacing these up for your next Boston Qualifier - New Balance has (admirably) pulled no punches here, and really designed a shoe that is extremely limited in purpose. If you're a fan of short road or track races - 5000m and down, with highly efficient   runners maybe sneaking in a 10K on the track - the FuelCell 5280 is a tremendous option. For the rest of us - it represents what running could be, if those paces weren't so darn fast...

Pros: Springy, spike-like (in the best way), comfortable, and damn fun.
Cons: How often do you really race the mile?

Tester Profile
Michael Ellenberger is a 2019 graduate of Northwestern University Law School in Chicago, with an interest in patent and intellectual property law. Prior to law school, he competed collegiately at Washington University in St. Louis (10,000m PR of 30:21). He recently finished 2nd at the Chicago Half-Marathon in a PR of 67:43, and was the top Illinois finisher in the 2017 Boston Marathon (2:33:03, 82nd overall). He recently secured a 2:31 marathon PR at the Austin Marathon. Michael is a gadget and running nerd, and has pipe dreams of running the Olympics Trials marathon standard. His pre-race breakfast is, and will always be, Pop-Tarts.

From Running Warehouse  where the 5280 is available now here:
"The FuelCell 5280 is a racing flat optimized for the mile race. Samples come in at 5.3 oz for a men's size 9.5. It will be available September 2019.

Extremely lightweight Hypoknit upper
Engineered zonal properties that allow stretch, flexibility, and support to be optimized in target areas
Multidirectional carbon plate
Designed to flex at initial contact and then stiffen for propulsion at toe-off
Highest rebound FuelCell compound
Midsole shape optimized for a quick and smooth transition from initial contact to toe-off
Tacky EVA injected with Dynaride rubber
Lug configuration optimized to create the best traction at toe-off"

First Impressions & Fit
Slipping on the FuelCell 5280 is like pulling on really snug pair of socks... that also have a carbon plate. It's a strange sensation; I like racing flats to fit snug (New Balance sent me a test pair in size 8, rather than my usual 8.5, so these undoubtedly did), but there's something bizarre about such a low-profile shoe having so much happening. We've described how the next wave of racing flats (namely the Nike Vaporfly 4% Flyknit or Next%) are prioritizing cushioning and propulsion plates over explicit weight saving, so many 2019-era flats feel almost like everyday trainers (until you take that first step, of course). Not so with the 5280; while they aren't nearly as light as something like the Reebok Floatride Run Fast Pro, they are undoubtedly a racing flat, and feel strikingly odd just wearing around.
New Balance has tailored a new mesh upper on the 5280. It feels reminiscent of Nike's Flyknit technology - it's a really close knit, springy material - but (against, especially in my size 8) it is tight. The laces are relatively short (and extremely sparkly) and I honestly think the knit material itself could sufficiently hold my foot in the shoe - even at faster paces.

The downside of this is that putting the shoe on requires a good deal of yanking at the upper, which is always a slightly terrifying process. The first time I wore them, I carried the 5280 on my warmup and tried to change into them trackside for my workout, but, it being an extremely muggy morning, it was a challenge to really pull them on in quick fashion. Likely,  the material will slightly open up over time, but at first wear, it's almost like a compression-sock.

Difficult to capture in photos, too, is just how bright and sparkly this upper is. You'll be noticed wearing the all-white version of the 5280; the New Balance mark has a treatment to it that really shimmers in the sunlight.

If 2019 wasn't the year of the carbon fiber plate before, it sure feels like it now. With Nike (and Nike), Hoka (and Hoka), and even Skechers Performance lacing their racers with carbon, New Balance has jumped into the game with the 5280. And the result? The 5280 springs forward, perhaps unlike any previous flat I've worn. Now, that effect isn't all good - while the layout of the shoe underfoot undoubtedly facilitates a fast and forefoot-centered strike, it also comes at the cost of keeping you towards your toes more than comparable options - again, more like a spike, and less like a road flat. Resultantly, the 5280 is great for, say, 5280 feet, but less great for 69168 feet (a half-marathon, for those too lazy to pull out their calculators). New Balance isn't targeting that event, of course - but neither necessarily was Reebok with the Run Fast Pro, and many of us still found it a suitable half-marathon racer.

Of course, every carbon plate needs a midsole, so New Balance has also provided some lively FuelCell cushioning technology to the 5280. If you've ever handled the foam, you know it has a distinct consistency - similar to Nike's Zoom X when you're pushing and prodding it, but less spongey when running on it. It almost feels to the touch like a hybrid between Nike's Zoom X and Saucony's EVERUN technologies, but whatever the makeup, it works well here. Underfoot, it's extremely bouncy and almost spring-like when coupled with the carbon plate. While the 5280 is certainly not the lightest racing shoe available - Reebok's Run Fast Pro is a shade under 4 ounces in a size 9, and the Nike Zoom Victory Elite 2 is 4.4 ounces - the midsole doesn't feel heavy, or, frankly, like anything other than a racer.

The 5280 has undoubtedly distinct outsole, pattered by raised triangles that vary in size and dimension from the midfoot up to the toe box (better represented by the photo, above). Visually, it's a really funky visual pattern, and actually looks pretty sharp aesthetically. New Balance says the outsole triangles are designed to optimize traction at toe-off, and I'm sure that's true - it truly feels like a slightly softer spike plate when running at a faster clip.

The back half is an exposed material, ostensibly the same FuelCell material carried over from the midsole (unless there is some composition change that is not represented visibly). I have slight concerns about the durability here - on the track, I don't think the 5280 will take significant wear, but those taking these onto the roads may need to be cautious. I've only logged a handful of miles on these - about half on the roads and half on the track - and haven't seen any visual wear, but the nature of the exposed material does suggest it may break down faster than a rubber-covered counterpart.

What more can be said about a carbon-plated racing flat that hasn't already be said? In the case of the FC5280, there may be something, actually. The minimalist platform of the shoe and the intensely locked-down upper truly makes this the most spring-like sensation I've encountered, more so even than Nike or Hoka's offerings. Of course, this comes at a price - the 5280 keeps you on your toes more than any other "road" racing flats (again, more spike-like than road-flat-like), while will inevitably lead to earlier calve fatigue and generally requires a more efficient foot strike. But for those who can stomach, er, foot it - and most runners can, over a mile distance - the 5280 is an enjoyable experience. Just don't expect 26.2 miles (that's 138,336 feet, for those wondering) of comfort.

Here's the thing - I love the New Balance FuelCell 5280. It's fun to run in, and takes me back to the days of racing laps around the track, spiking up for workouts, or traipsing through muddy parks for cross-country repeats. But for me - and for most readers of RoadTrailRun, I imagine - those days are in the past. Sure, there are some all-comers cross-country races (as I found out from the feedback to my review of the Altra Vanish XC), and we can all hop onto our local track from time-to-time for a quick workout. But generally speaking, most of us get better value - and many more opportunities - from a marathon racer than a mile flat. So, especially at $200, the 5280 is a tough pill to swallow. If your primary road race is 3.1 rather than 26.2, or if you're lucky enough to still get under the track lights and pound out the laps - more power to you, this New Balance is for you. For the rest of us, it's more of a luxury purchase than a no-brainer - a convertible for a Canadian, we might say. If you spring for the FC5280, you'll absolutely not be disappointed; it's undoubtedly one of the most fun shoes of the year. Just know that I'll be jealous of you and all your opportunities to wear them.

Michael's Score: 9.5/10
-0.2 for usability (simply too aggressive for the majority of races)
-0.2 for durability concerns - especially in the exposed heel
-0.1 for laces that are far too short

Comparisons & Recommendations

Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% and Next% (RTR Review)
The Vaporfly 4% (and its successor, the Next%) are optimized specifically for marathon racing, and marketed as such - but even so, runners at all levels have taken the VF out for track and shorter-distance road races. Many of us here at RTR are fans of the 4% and Next% for a myriad of workouts and races - it's proven to be an exceptionally versatile shoe. However, for the mile and 5K, I think many would prefer the aggressiveness of the 5280 - especially on the track, but even on the roads! Though the New Balance doesn't quite have the range of the Nike, it's speciality is perhaps its strongest trait, and the 5280 should help many runners PR in the "shorter" events.

Nike Zoom Streak 6 (RTR Review)
No carbon plate on the Streak 6 (nor the more recent Streak 7), but the Streak remains a perennial contender in the racing flat discussion - and for good reason. The only real overlap here is the 5K - anything shorter should tip 5280, anything longer for S6 - and it's a tough call! More efficient or faster runners should strongly consider the New Balance, whereas those who may end up heel-striking should learn towards the Nike.

Hoka One One Carbon X (RTR Review)
As with the Vaporfly, the Carbon X is a marathon (and longer!) racer that we've seen creep onto the track. And, as before, the calculus is pretty straightforward - those racing the 5K and down should almost entirely side with the New Balance, unless they need the additional cushion that the Carbon X provides. For 10K and up, the Hoka is a surefire choice (though collegiate and competitive racers used to wearing spikes on the track for 10,000 could give consideration to the 5280).

Altra Vanish XC (RTR Review)
I lamented in my Vanish XC review about the dearth of opportunities to wear a shoe I enjoyed. Here, with the 5280, the problem is magnified - I like the shoe more and I think there are even fewer opportunities to wear it. Trail racers should still give consideration to the Altra , but anyone looking for a track or well-groomed (i.e. golf course) cross-country racer will likely be benefitted by the New Balance.

Reebok Floatride Run Fast Pro (RTR Review)
The Run Fast Pro was my favorite flat... well, maybe ever. It's incredibly, incredibly light (sub 4 ounces in a size 9), but feels ample enough to handle distances races (I ran a big PR in the half-marathon in it). The only race I wouldn't touch in it is the marathon (though Reebok makes a non-Pro "Floatride Run Fast" that I understand to be a competent marathon racer). In a lot of ways, the Run Fast Pro and the 5280 are similar, then, though for 10K and HM, the Reebok is a better option. On the track, or for mile or 5K road races, it's really a tough call - the carbon plate of the New Balance may give it an edge, but the sheer versatility of the Reebok is undoubtedly a strong point. The Reebok certainly feels more gentle and trainer-like, whilst the New Balance feels like a track spike.Try both and see which fits your foot better!

Available October 2019. Pre-Order Below

The product reviewed was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are the authors'.
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Anonymous said...

Hey there, love the content this page puts out.

How does the plate and midsole design work on the during the turns on the track? Looking to use them on the track if they can offer a bit more protection from the pounding that comes with spikes.

Anonymous said...

It's no mystery why NB chose the 5280 instead of the metric: Jenny Simpson wins the NEW BALANCE 5th avenue MILE every year.

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