Sunday, March 14, 2021

The North Face Flight VECTIV Multi Tester Review

 Article by Brian Metzler and Jeff Valliere

The North Face Flight VECTIV ($199)

 

Introduction

Brian: The North Face has had a stake in trail running for more than 20 years, but, perhaps oddly, it has struggled to gain a foothold in the trail running shoe market. And that’s despite sponsoring a wide range of top-tier athletes for years, starting with Topher Gaylord and Dean Karnazes and all the way up to the current crop that includes Dylan Bowman, Hillary Allen, Coree Woltering, Kaytlyn Gerbin, Mike Foote, Rob Krar, Stephanie Howe, Seth Swanson and Zach Miller. The North Face has long been one of the premier outdoor apparel and equipment brands and it’s had success with trail running apparel and accessories over the past decade. But despite having accomplished people on its footwear teams, it’s never hit a home run with any of its trail running shoes. But the launch of the Flight VECTIV and a new line of trail running and hiking shoes looks like it will have the ability to change that. Under the guidance of Global Footwear VP Jean-Marc Dijan, The North Face is innovating to be disruptive. The Flight VECTIV, two years in the making, is the marquee shoe in the new line of off-road models The North Face is unveiling in 2021.

  

Pros:


Brian:

The Flight VECTIV is a well-balanced trail running shoe with a carbon-fiber plate technology similar to what the road running “super shoes” have utilized for marathon runners in recent years.

 

It can put a serious spring in every step, as the carbon-fiber plate provides a noticeable energetic boost on roads, hard-packed dirt paths and even on semi-technical trails as the foot rolls from midstance to toe-off phase of a stride.

 

After running 150 miles in it, it’s obvious how well the rocker geometry of the midsole/outsole chassis blends with the energetic boost from the plate and secure connection of the elastic upper to create a flowy, synergistic ride. While the carbon-fiber plate is interesting and certainly integral to the performance, it’s really the systematic interaction of the entire shoe (outsole, midsole, plate, upper) that make the Flight VECTIV a notable new model.  

 


The Flight VECTIV has a cushioned but stiff demeanor, meaning you only really feel the softness at the initial heel-strike. From there, the foot rolls through the firm plate and the rocker until the toe-off phase. The midsole cushioning is part of that process, but it’s less about foam decompression than it is about an undercarriage of the carbon-fiber plate.


Jeff: A carbon plated shoe!  Comfortable, Protective and well cushioned for long distances, dry traction, response from plate under certain circumstances


Cons:

Brian:

The Flight VECTIV is a go-fast shoe, so naturally it is lean on protective elements and is not as well suited for technical routes or off-piste endeavors. It has a modestly reinforced toe bumper to offset toe bang and abrasion-resistant lower side walls but, runner beware, your pinky toes will be left exposed.

 

There’s a decidedly stiff sensation that contradicts the squishy foam feeling and shock absorption of most shoes. That’s not necessarily a con, but it is decidedly different that the trail running shoes you might be used to.

 

The Matryx section on my wear-test sample creased in an awkward place on the lateral side of both shoes at the point it meets the lower sidewall abrasion guard. It didn’t affect the fit or feel, but some of the synthetic fibers poked out in tiny loops by 1mm or so.


Jeff: Weight, fit, heel lift, heel counter not secure, laces

 


Stats

Weight: 10.05 oz (285g) men's / (US9)  /  8.64 oz (245 g) women's / (US8)

  Samples: 10.95 oz (309.1g) men's / (US10.5).  11oz / 313 grams (US10)

Stack Height: 25mm/19mm, 6mm drop

Available: Available now.


Tester Profiles

Brian Metzler is a longtime running journalist and shoe-tester. He’s the author of “Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes” and has wear-tested more than 1,500 models of running shoes since the mid-1990s. He’s been averaging about 35 miles of running per week this winter (but rarely records his runs on Strava), while also skate skiing and swimming several times each week.

Jeff Valliere  runs mostly on very steep technical terrain above Boulder often challenging well known local FKT's. 

 

First Impressions and Fit


Jeff V:  The Flight Vectiv is the first carbon plated shoe I have run. I was was very interested to see how a carbon plate performs, how a shoe with a full length carbon plate performs on the trails and how the purported energy return translates to added speed/efficiency both on road and off.  

Out of the box, I was surprised at the weight of the shoe, expecting much lighter. A trip to the scale revealed that my sample size 10 weighed in at a solid 11 oz..  

Next, I noted the carbon plate revealing itself in spots between the midsole and upper, which of course prompts one to flex the shoe, as one does when shopping for a pair of skis.  They are STIFF!  

Fit is looong, as they run at least a half size long, if not even a full size.  The space between the tip of my big toe and the front of the shoe is at least as much as a thumb width and the ceiling/overhead is lofty, adding to the feeling of way too much space in the forefoot (though it is not wide by any means).


Update: Jeff has a second pair of the Flight and RTR Editor Sam has his first pair in a W9 in the white so the equivalent of a US7.5 men with his usual size 8.5 men's. Jeff's first pair may have been from early production or a sample.


Jeff: A little over a month after publishing my review for the Flight Vectiv, much to my surprise, I received 2 more pairs of Flight Vectivs, in the newer yellow colorway (another size 10 as I previously reviewed and a size 9).  I wondered if this was in response to my recent review where I was critical of the fit issues revolving around the length, excess material in the toe box and difficulty securing the thin laces.  Upon trying on the new yellow size 10, it was immediately obvious that there was a difference, a marked improvement for the better, though still not perfect.


The length is still the same as the white pair I reviewed previously, however the upper, particularly in the toe box, has been dialed in some, such that the mesh material is no longer bunching up or overlapping.  Additionally, the laces integrate better with the eyelets, offering more resistance, so that when I pull the laces snug, they stay snug as I go onto the next and tie them.  This results in a more easily achieved snug and secure midfoot, which in this case, locks the heel more securely as well.

Despite the remaining similarity of added length, overall, the newer yellow shoe fits better and translates to better performance on the trail.  Having that added security helps me to run faster and with more confidence in moderately technical terrain, or cornering fast through switchbacks.  That said, the Flight Vectiv, with such a stiff carbon plate is better suited for smoother terrain and short bits of moderately technical trail.  For kicks, I tried on the size 9 and found that the length fits me well, though overall seems just ever so slightly snug in the forefoot.  If this were the only pair I was given, I could easily make due with them, but am passing them along to fellow RTR tester John Tribbia.  

Knowing what I know now, I would size down to a 9.5, which I am certain would fit me best and will continue to recommend that one size down at least a half size and think even an entire size down if you have a very thin foot and do not look for extra space in the toe box.

I am not entirely sure whether or not the first white pair I reviewed was a pre production anomaly, or if The North Face modified the shoe before producing a new production run, but we will report back if/when we hear back from them.

Sam: I ran the white W9 not realizing they were a women's model until after my first run. The fit was race snug but still OK although I felt a half size bigger would be correct so a M8 instead of my usual M8.5 in equivalent sizes.  My wife who actually is a women's 9 tried the white women's 9 and saw the same bagginess that Jeff reported. It seems clear that most should size a half size down in the white. 


Brian: Having run in every version of road shoes with carbon-fiber plates in 2019-2020, I was eager to test out the Flight VECTIV to see what it would be like running with that kind of propulsive technology on the trails. I had taken some of the road shoes on hard-packed trails, but none had the traction or protection for much more than smooth dirt trails. When I got the Flight VECTIV shoes in September and pulled them out of the box, they felt about the midweight range I figured they might, not heavy but not light either. As I slid my foot inside, I noticed it took some additional effort to open the elastic heel collar in order to get my foot fully inside. Most of the meshy upper has an elastic tension that creates a sensation similar to an interior bootie that would normally come from a gusseted tongue. There is no gusseted tongue on the Flight VECTIV because the tongue is part of the unique, one-piece upper design.

Once the foot is inside, the entire shoe feels like it’s hugging the foot, so snug, in fact, that it might stay on without tying the laces. But tying the laces just completes the athletic fit and immediately gives a sense of agility. 

The reinforced heel counter and elastic heel collar keep the rearfoot in place, while the upper and laces keep the saddle/arch secure. (There’s a low arch inside the Flight VECTIV that’s supported by the slightly protruding medial midsole.)  

The forefoot has just a little bit of extra room for toes to wiggle and splay, but not much. Overall, the Flight VECTIV produces a locked-down sensation that makes your foot feel at one with the shoe and that converts to a better proprioceptive sensation and agility on the trails.

I have narrow feet and there is a decidedly low-volume and narrow-fitting feel to the Flight VECTIV, though I suspect runners with medium-width feet would feel as if the stretchy upper material would accommodate those too. The shoe fits true to size, but some runners might consider trying on a half size up if warm race conditions could lead to foot swelling.

Upper

Jeff V:  The Matryx rear and mid foot upper, combined with the breathable knit material upfront is comfortable, breathable. I believe it would be effectively secure if not for the fit issues or if one sizes down a half size at least.  

The toe bumper is somewhat thin and flexible, but sufficient enough to offer adequate protection when running on more moderate terrain where the shoe excels.  Midfoot security is good, but I think could be much improved with better lacing, as the laces are particularly thin and as you pull them tight, they go loose the moment you release hand tension, so it is tricky to snug them up just right.  

As mentioned above, they run quite long and because of that added length, it feels a bit loose in the forefoot.  

Further complicating matters, in addition to the length, there is a lot of extra ceiling height and extraneous material.  (See editor's note above for comments on improved fit of Jeff's second pair and Sam's first). Width is fairly narrow, even for my narrow low volume foot and I feel a bit of pressure from the overlays at the widest point of my foot on the lateral side.  

The 3D molded heel counter is very flexible and wavers in any technical terrain. I also get a good bit of heel lift on semi steep to steep ascents, which I think is at least in part due to the long fit.


Security is lacking and I feel hesitant if the terrain is even moderately technical and the hold wavers when when cornering at even moderate speed and especially at higher speeds.

Brian: Honestly, I didn’t initially notice the intricate design of the upper of the Flight VECTIV until after I had run in it for the first time. What I did notice immediately was the locked-down sensation it provided even before I laced it up. The unique, multi-material upper blends a Kevlar-enhanced, abrasion-resistant Matryx panel (integrated with Kevlar and high-tensity Polyamid), a 3D-molded heel counter with the carbon plate actually extending around the lower heel as a stabilizing cup and a stretchy, breathable knit material that encompasses the vamp, toe box, tongue and heel collar. 

It’s not quite a bootie construction (as explained earlier), but it simulates that snug, secure sensation. There’s some extra padding at the back of the heel collar and also in the tongue, but otherwise there’s a comfortable but not extravagant interior feeling. Despite the numerous materials comprising the upper, there aren’t any seams that should ever impact a runner’s foot negatively.

Midsole


Jeff V:  The dual density midsole, while very thick and substantial looking, does not have quite as much soft cush as it would appear.  Cushioning is relatively firm, yet surprisingly forgiving, even when running fast on paved descents or hard dirt.  


Response in my opinion varies wildly depending upon terrain and pace.  I expected that the carbon plate would provide a lot of pop at toe off, especially with the rockered midsole geometry, but I did not find that to be true under most circumstances.  


On uphills, I got the feeling that I was losing some energy simply because of the long and less than secure fit.  


On more level terrain, I still do not feel much advantage when just running casually at slower speeds, but once I start picking up the pace, the subtle, yet advantageous energy of the carbon plate becomes exponentially more significant.  It sort of just creeps up on you. 


At paces around 7:30 min/mile, I start to feel the added efficiency, but I feel it even more in the 6 min/mile range and even more so when bumping up the pace during testing on a subtle downhill at a steady 5:25 pace, which for my aging slow turn over legs is surprisingly fast (I came within a few seconds of my all time PR on this slight downhill, mile long road segment and I was not pushing in the least).


Brian: At first glance, the dual-density midsole of cushy and responsive foam compounds looks thick under the heel and very thin under the forefoot, but the dramatic difference was never really felt due to the rocker shape of the chassis. There is sufficient cushioning for a heel-striking gait, but the rocker helps quickly melt the impact into a rolling sensation. After the soft touchdown at the heel, you don’t really feel the midsole foam in a cushy kind of way because of the rolling sensation from the rocker geometry and the transition into the carbon plate embedded in the midsole construction. 

That shapeliness of the midsole helps reduce downhill impact and ease the effort of uphills. Overall, the feeling is slightly more soft than firm, but it’s definitely different than traditional trail running shoes that are based on midsole foam decompression.


If you've never run in a shoe with a carbon-fiber plate embedded in the midsole, you might be in for a bit of a shock. The forefoot doesn't flex very much and you don't compress the foam midsole nearly as you do in most shoes. Instead, you ride the wave from just after the time the foot hits the ground to the moment it leaves the ground at the toe-off phase. The carbon-fiber plate helps the foot roll and returns some of the downward energy into forward propulsion. (The plate also happens to act just as a trail-specific rock plate would.)

One of the unsung traits of this shoe is its inherent stability. The carbon-fiber VECTIV plate has a 3D design with curled up flanges that cradle the heel and each side of the forefoot for added stability that helps keep all momentum moving in a forward direction. The overall footprint of the shoe is relatively wide (114.3 mm in the forefoot, 91.4mm at the widest part of the heel) and also helps keep lateral motion to a minimum.


One key thing to note: Although the 3D carbon-fiber VECTIV plates are tuned differently for men's and women's shoes (along with the durometers of the midsole foams), the plates are not tuned differently for different sized shoes within genders. That means runners with varying foot sizes and other anatomical details (body weight, foot and lower leg strength, stride length, cadence) will likely result in different experiences in this shoe. Runners will naturally also experience different levels of energy return when fatigued deep into a race if they cannot continue to apply the same amount of energy into their stride.


Outsole

Jeff V:  The Surface Control outsole with low profile, but well designed and well spaced lugs provide good grip and performance on just about any surface, from hard packed dirt, loose dirt, rocky slab, off trail scruff, snow, mud, pavement, and is even OK on non polished low grade ice (with extreme care of course).  Wet traction is moderate.  Durability thus far seems to be average.


Brian: The outsole has a matrix of low-profile, directional 3.5mm lugs that provide excellent traction on a wide variety of surfaces, including roads, snow, dirt and even sloppy mud. On smooth, hard-packed surfaces the outsole allows the Flight VECTIV to feel more like a road shoe, while on varying degrees of dirt and debris it feels more like a durable trail running shoe with good hold and security. The only traction issues I had were running across sheer ice, but that had more to do with the ice than it did with the outsole of the shoe.

 

Ride

Jeff V:  The ride of the Flight Vectiv is smooth, predictable and precise, a bit subdued at slower speeds, but really comes to life in a quiet and understated sort of way once the pace increases.  Cushioning is firm, but adequate for longer distances, with excellent underfoot protection.

Brian: The magic of this shoe is in the ride, which is decidedly energetic but not in a bouncy kind of way. The shoe definitely has a stiff flex profile but unlike some carbon plate road shoes it can be flexed by hand with effort. Still, there’s not much bending and mushing of the midsole on every stride as you get in most trail shoes. Instead, it’s a soft initial encounter with the ground that immediately flows into a technical rolling sensation. 


It doesn’t take long to get in tune with the inherent vibe of the shoe. It accommodates variability in foot-strike patterns due to the changing terrain and trail debris. (Most road shoes with carbon-fiber plates are either super soft and springy or so rigid they require finding the particular rhythm of the shoe. The Flight VECTIV seems to be right in the middle but plenty accommodating for typical trail footwork.) The combination of the outsole foam and the carbon-fiber plate also serve as built-in protection against underfoot “stingers” caused by sharp rocks, jagged roots and other trail debris. 


The ride is especially smooth and consistent on flat, hard-packed dirt trails, but it doesn’t vary much even on semi-technical terrain. However, the energetic boost of energy can definitely be felt more on flatter terrain and faster paces. I ran as fast as 5:30 mile pace on sections of downhill dirt roads and as slow as 10-minute miles slogging up steep ascents. The sweet spot for speed running can definitely be felt in the 8:00-8:30 pace on smooth, flat terrain, but less so at slower paces on more rugged terrain.

 

The North Face has suggested via third-party studies the Flight VECTIV results in a 10 percent reduction of descending impact force, based on VO2max and accelerometer readouts. The footwear developers have said the shoe is able to convert downhill force into forward momentum, thus reducing leg muscle fatigue during ultra-distance running events.


Conclusions and Recommendations


Jeff V:  The North Face is certainly onto something with the Flight Vectiv and despite the issues I had with the long fit and unstable heel, this shoe is a real speedster for running fast paces on non technical terrain, particularly when I opened my stride on long, low to moderate grade downhills.  I would not hesitate to pick this shoe for any non technical race or PR attempt and think it would work for me easily up to 50k.  I would love to see this shoe drop some weight and refine the fit/security of the upper, which would certainly raise it to a whole new level.  If you are looking for a more secure/normal fit, more cushioning and better day to day, all terrain versatility, consider the Vectiv Enduris.

Score:  Jeff V:  7.9 / 10

Ride: 9

Fit: 6 - The added length of a thumbs width or more and loose heel compromise fit and performance. (Score to be potentially updated after testing a 2nd pair with improved fit.)

Value: 7 - At $199, you are paying a premium for the carbon plate, but I find that to be a lot, especially given the fit issues.

Style: 8

Traction: 9

Rock Protection: 9


Brian: I ran more than 150 miles in the Flight VECTIV on all types of surfaces in Colorado, Utah and Oregon. Overall, I was very impressed with it as a speed shoe, but I also liked it for its long-haul comfort and consistency for runs in the 10 to 20-mile range. I liked the fit, agility and athletic vibe so much that I was actually drawn to continue running in the shoe well after I had thoroughly tested it. It combined the best aspects of a road shoe with the necessary aspects of a trail shoe without becoming too heavy, clunky or overbuilt. One of my acid tests of any new shoes debuting on the market is whether or not I would buy the shoe for my own running or racing pursuits, and I would definitely buy the Flight VECTIV for fast training and racing on courses without excessive technical features.

The real proof in the pudding of this shoe will be how well it performs on race day. I ran a few fast-paced time trials on smooth dirt and was impressed with the ability to keep a consistent cadence at paces appropriate for 10K to marathon-length runs. I didn’t get a chance to run them in full race simulation mode — in which swelling feet might have become a factor — and only ran through limited sandy sections of trail.

Brian’s Score: 8.5 out of 10

It’s interesting to note that Kaytlyn Gerbin, of one of The North Face’s top American trail runners, wore a prototype of this shoe en route to setting a new women’s FKT on the Wonderland Trail in Washington last summer. (Another TNF athlete, Dylan Bowman, wore a different model when he set the since-broken men’s FKT a week earlier.)

In addition to the Flight, there are two other VECTIV running styles: the Infinite VECTIV (more protective) $169, Enduris VECTIV (cushioning) $139, using PEBAX or TPU plates, respectively. There will also be a women’s-only version: the Hypnum VECTIV $139, a light hiker.


Running Warehouse (RTR partner) has Infinite and Enduris in stock, Flight for pre-order HERE


Comparisons

Index to all RTR reviews: HERE

 

Brian: There aren't many similar shoes to the Flight VECTIV, but the Hoka One One TenNine (RTR Review) comes to mind with its firm flex pattern and rockered shape. 


If anything, the Flight VECTIV would be similar to a thicker, trail-oriented Saucony Endorphin Pro carbon-fiber road shoe (RTR Review). 


It feels like a fast race-day blade that's not as cushy as the Brooks Hyperion Elite 2 and not as rigid and structured as the Hoka One One Carbon X 2 (RTR Review). 


While I have not run it yet the upcoming Craft CTM Carbon Ultra (RTR Initial Video Review) with more stack height also has a carbon plate and relies on a more aggressive heel to toe drop (at least 10mm) for its propulsion effect.


Jeff V:  

Brooks Catamount (RTR Review)

The Catamount weighs 2.25 oz. less than the Flight Vectiv, has a much better fit, a more cushioned feel and comparable tread.  While the Catamount does not have a carbon plate but does have a plastic rock pla, the DNA Flash midsole is very responsive.  I might give a SLIGHT edge to the Flight Vectiv when really opening up the stride on a fast, straight, non technical downhill, but with the superior fit, drastically reduced weight and all around versatility (also costing $40 less), I generally lean towards the Catamount.


The North Face Vectiv Enduris (RTR Review soon)

The Enduris which I am now also testing has the same outsole and a similar rockered design, but instead of the carbon plate, utilizes a TPU plate instead, which gives good response and at more varied paces than the Flight, whereas the carbon plate of the Flight Vectiv is more noticeable and advantageous at faster speeds.  The Enduris weighs 3/4 of an ounce more, which in the 11 ounce range is negligible.  The fit of the Enduris is much more secure and "normal" and is true to size and much better suited to trail running than the awkward and insecure fit of the Flight Vectiv.  You also save $60.


Photo Credits: Brian Metzler, Jeff Valliere and The North Face


The tested samples were provided at no charge for review purposes. No other compensation was received for the review of the Flight Vectiv. The opinions herein are entirely the authors'.


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