Thursday, December 30, 2021

Jeff Valliere's 2021 Year in Review: 34 Trail (and Road) Run Shoes from 17 Brands Tested & Reviewed in Brief!

 Article by Jeff Valliere

Wow, what a great year for trail shoes in 2021!  Having reviewed a wide variety of trail shoes this year, of all different types from many brands (34 shoes total from 17 brands), I have found it very difficult to narrow my selection down to a favorite, or even narrow down a favorite for each category.  Shoe technology has just improved so much that it is really hard to find disappointment in any of them, though some may have their limitations.  I will try my best however to convey what I found to be the most exciting, fun and useful shoes of 2021 and describe how I have used each one (or not) going forward. 

With just a few days to go in 2021, by year end, I will have run just over 1,600 miles (almost all trail except for 2 virtual road races totalling 15 miles and occasionally some approach road miles) and more than 540,000 vertical feet on a wide variety of trails in Colorado, Utah, Arizona and California.  From 14,000 foot peaks, high alpine traverses, steep and rugged off trail exploring/adventuring, technical scrambling, buttery singletrack through Redwoods and Saguaro cactus, snow, ice and mud, I have covered just about all surfaces imaginable.

I tried to narrow down categories, but found it easier to just go through each shoe and describe pros/cons, best use case and rave where appropriate, plus give some thoughts and reflections in hindsight with more long term use under my belt with each shoe.  I rated each with a very simplistic overall scale of 1 - 5. Shoes are covered in alphabetical order by brand.

Reviews of all the shoes mentioned in my article can be found here

5 / 5  Asics Metaspeed Sky- One of two road shoes I have run in this year, I was absolutely blown away by the Metaspeed Sky.  This was my first introduction to a carbon plated, deep cushioned, feathery light super shoe and I’ll admit that my high hopes were in fact exceeded.  I am in no way a fluid or skilled road runner, but was able to PR in the 10k by nearly 2 minutes in them at 50 in with zero road training (well, to be fair, I have never really done any road training).  The Metaspeed Sky is so incredibly responsive, fast and light, you just can’t help but to go fast in them.  Outsole durability could be improved and given that, I will (and would suggest) hiding them in a safe place, only to be revealed for race day (5k, 10k or Marathon, it does not matter).

5 / 5  Brooks Caldera 5 - A favorite of mine that I could classify as a favorite daily trainer, recovery shoe, ultra distance race shoe, moderately technical trail race shoe, door to trail shoe or casual cruiser.  The Caldera 5 has a slightly more secure and refined fit over predecessors, with the super deep and plush BioMoGo DNA midsole that just eats up impact and is very forgiving.  Traction is excellent despite the minimal tread.  This is a fantastic and highly recommended versatile shoe that is at the very top of my pile for 2021.

5 / 5  Brooks Cascadia 16 - I can’t say enough good things to say about the Cascadia 16, this is the Swiss Army multi tool of trail shoes and could very easily be my all around favorite of 2021.  Everything has been retooled from the more modern and versatile, generous, but secure fitting breathable upper, to the DNA Loft v2 midsole with a few extra mm of cushion, to the versatile, sticky, deep lugged outsole with Ballistic Rock Shield for maximal, yet flexible protection.  The Cascadia 16 does everything well, from high alpine excursions, steep off trail, long distances and full day outings, casual cruising on mellow trails, door to trail or just day to day wear.  If I had to recommend one shoe that would do it all, please most people for most types of trail running and last a very long time, look no further.

3 / 5  Brooks Divide 2 - A great pick if you are running on a tight budget, as the Divide 2 is a very well rounded shoe for the $100 price tag.  Best for more casual running and recovery days.

3.5 / 5  Craft CTM Ultra - For some reason, perhaps marketing or the “tready” looking outsole, I mistook the CTM Ultra as a trail shoe at first and was a bit disappointed in it’s trail performance.  Once I wrapped my head around it being a road shoe however, I was wildly impressed with their quick and fluid turnover, light and snappy response, exceptional cushioning and breezy ventilation.  Best for running faster speeds in a straight line, as the upper is a bit insecure for any kind of agile cornering.

4 / 5  Hoka Mafate Speed 3 - Not the lightest shoe out there and too heavy for most to categorize as a racer, but I would not hesitate to pick the Mafate Speed 3 for the Pikes Peak Marathon, an ultra distance race or a PR attempt at the Grand Canyon.  They run much lighter than their weight may suggest and have a fantastically soft forgiving, yet predictably responsive stable midsole with a rockered shape.  Coupled with excellent traction and a secure upper, they are a great pick for running long distances fast over most terrain.

5 / 5 Hoka Zinal - Hoka’s entry into the lower stack, mid to shorter distance racer category, the Zinal is a light and fast rocket on moderate to less technical trails where all out speed is the focus.  Impressively light with amazing fit, responsive midsole, adequate tread and good enough traction for all but the most technical terrain, the Zinal is my number one pick for mid to shorter distance racing or race like efforts.

4 / 5  La Sportiva Cyklon - This to me is the year where BOA  is really starting to make an impact on trail running shoes and the Cyklon is a great example of how effective and easy Boa can be.  I was surprised at how much more agile and runnable the Cyklon is in real life vs. my (mis)perception by looking at the photos, thinking it was a bulky shoe.  The higher ankle collar and booty like construction, coupled with the supremely effective Boa dial system allows the Cyklon to perform exceptionally well on rugged, off trail and above treeline terrain, where foothold, security, stability and protection are paramount.  The midsole, while not particularly inspiring for faster, more spirited running, is adequate and predictable the rougher the terrain becomes and the outsole grip is among the best out there.  One of my top picks for the high mountains and getting into steep, off trail adventures.

4 / 5 La Sportiva Karacal - A La Sportiva with a bit of a more accommodating fit.  The Karacal cruises well on any trail, but is best suited for rocky, rough, technical terrain given the firm midsole, great traction, foothold and protection.

4 / 5  Nike Terra Kiger 7 - The Kiger 7 has morphed from a svelte, fast, shorter distance racer, into a more plush, cushioned, accommodating longer distance racer or daily trainer.  The fit is much more accommodating for those with wider feet or a preference for more wiggle room and the midsole has been bolstered with more stack height, as well as moving the Air Zoom pod from the heel to the forefoot, creating a very uniquely cushioned “airy” feel, unlike any other shoe.  Despite the added weight/bulk, the Kiger 7 can still get up and go when prompted, though is definitely best at more moderate paces on more moderate terrain for longer distances.  A top pick for a quick daily trainer.

4.5 / 5  Nike Pegasus Trail 3 - I passed on the awkward Peg Trail 2 due to the odd heel collar, but the Pegasus Trail 3 had been revised to have a more traditional heel collar and that seemed to make all the difference.  This is a big, maximal shoe, designed for long distances, maximal cushion and maximal comfort.  I would call the Peg Trail 3 the pinnacle of all day cruiser comfort, with a polished look and pleasing style.  I find the Peg Trail 3 ideal for longer, slower days on moderate to easy terrain, as a recovery run shoe, door to trail, all around daily trainer, perhaps ultra distance racer if not looking to be at the front of the pack, day to day casual wear or a great shoe to travel with given its versatility.

2.5 / 5  ON Cloud Ultra - The highest in Swiss quality, the Ultra is better suited to shorter distances, at slower speeds and on rugged technical terrain due to its very firm midsole and protection.

4.5 / 5  Salomon Sense Ride 4 - The Sense Ride 4 is a great all around, versatile trail running shoe at a very reasonable price point, sharing many features with the S/Lab line.  While I very much enjoy running in the SR4, I do not run in them often.  This is more a matter of preservation than any limitations on the shoe, as they are my #1 pick when I need to get out the door quickly for a walk, running errands or just going anywhere, as I can essentially walk into them and then tighten them down the road at my leisure.  If I need to run at any point along the way, then they are more than competent for any terrain or speed and they just look nice (in my opinion).

5 / 5  Salomon Ultraglide - The Ultraglide was long overdue for Salomon.  Despite making shoes with the name “Ultra”, Salomon, in my opinion, has not really made an Ultra worthy shoe for the masses, that is until the Ultraglide.  With a true maximal feel and a radical departure from the typical firm Salomon midsole, the Ultraglide feels soft, plush and adequately cushioned for long distance outings.  Despite such a compliant midsole, Salomon managed to retain excellent stability, predictability and a responsive feel.  The Ultraglide is a favorite of mine for fast running over long distances on just about any type of terrain.


2.5 / 5  Saucony Endorphin Trail - Not one of my favorites this year, as I had higher expectations given the “Endorphin” badging.  I found this shoe to be heavy/bulky, stiff and sluggish.  That said, it is comfortable, has great traction and protection, so a better pick for hiking or perhaps through hiking.

4 / 5  Saucony Peregrine 11 - The Peregrine line has always been a favorite of mine and the 11 does not disappoint.  It is a very competent shoe for negotiating rugged terrain and moving fast through just about anything, but the weight continues to creep up, making it a little less sporty than it’s early predecessors.  That said, it is still one of my top picks for daily training runs on steep mountainous terrain where I need top notch grip, protection, security and comfort.

4 / 5  Saucony Peregrine 11 GTX - All the goodness of the Peregrine 11, though with a Gore Tex invisible fit lining.  The Gore Tex lining makes this shoe quite waterproof, ideal for wet, snowy, sloppy days (though I would recommend pairing with a gaiter).

2.5 / 5  Saucony Peregrine 11 ST - This one is a bit of a mixed bag and ultimately I found that I could not run in them.  The upper is a work of art, consisting of a debris resistant mesh with 3D overlays and straying from the normal Peregrine, has a quicklace system (very similar to Salomon and equally effective).  Fit is very streamlined and precise, the upper feeling more minimal than the others, while equally secure.  The midsole, combined with the even more aggressive outsole, with very hard rubber compound made for a bit of a harsh ride.  While the deeper lugs are good in snow or loose terrain, the hard rubber compound makes this shoe downright scary on anything even resembling ice.  I also found the heel counter/collar to over time be very unforgiving and in warmer temps with a normal sock, I got wicked heel blisters and retired them for good.

4.5 / 5  Saucony Xodus 11 - The Xodus 10 was a favorite for 2020 and the same holds true here with the 11, with the only difference being essentially unnoticeable updates to the upper.  One of my favorites for longer training days on rugged terrain where comfort, protection and traction are the priority.  They even run remarkably well on the road despite their rugged trail look/build, so a great door to trail pick as well.

4.5 / 5  Scarpa Spin Infinity - A true sporty, speedy, well cushioned Ultra distance shoe that feels light (lighter than measured weight), responsive, agile, well protected, well cushioned and secure, without feeling confining.  The Infinity is a true pleasure to run in and I happily seek it out for just about any daily training run, no matter the speed, distance or terrain.

3.5 / 5  Scarpa Spin Ultra - I truly can’t say a bad word about the Spin Ultra, it is an amazing shoe with great comfort, protection, fit, traction and long distance performance.  It does feel a touch heavy for the weight and slightly sluggish.  In comparison, the Spin Infinity weighs a gram more, yet feels lighter, more responsive, more agile and more fun to run in, with equally substantial cushion/protection.  Given the choice, I would for sure pick the Spin Infinity.

4 / 5  Scott Kinabalu RC - Fun and fast with very good cushion, protection, traction and a secure fit.  I think they have enough cushion/protection for the long haul, but some might find the upper to be a bit too precise and race like for very long days.  At the very least, it is a fine shoe for running just about any speed over most terrain.

5 / 5  Scott Supertrac RC 2 - I first reviewed the Supertrac RC back in 2017 and despite many amazing shoes that have come my way since, I still view them as one of the finest options for very fast running on technical terrain due to the very precise race like fit, excellent traction, reasonable weight and cushioned protection.  Version 2 retained everything I appreciated about the first version, but refined the upper a bit, to include a more high tech Scholler fabric that is a little thinner, more flexible and cooler.  Otherwise the midsole is the same and the outsole only minorly reconfigured, but just as effective.  Hands down one of the finest technical running shoes on the market.

4.5 / 5  Skechers Go Run Razor Trail - Perhaps the absolute fastest trail shoe, the Razor Trail has a crazy light, well cushioned and responsive feel due to the Hyperburst midsole.  Best for moderate to less technical (less rocky) trails due to the lower lugs and good but not entirely robust protection underfoot (particularly in the heel).  It is a toss up between the Razor and Zinal for fastest trail shoe, but would likely pick the Razor if longer downhills are involved.

4 / 5 Skechers Go Run Ride 9 - An excellent daily trainer with a great balance of light weight, comfort, cushion, smooth ride and response.

5 / 5  Speedland SL PDX - The Speedland may not be my favorite in any given category, but it scores very very high in all categories and is a jack of all trades sort of shoe.  I appreciate the flexibility to remove or add carbon plates as necessary depending on terrain/preference, traction is excellent, protection and cushion are very good, it runs lighter than its weight, is responsive and agile.  The upper is a work of art, so soft and comfortable, yet very secure and durable simultaneously.  The dual BOA system is amazingly effective and the dual direction tightening/loosening is quite convenient for micro adjustments on the go.  This is perhaps the most innovative shoe I have reviewed/seen and I expect a lot more great things to come from Speedland and those companies who learn from their innovations.

2.5 / 5  Strike Movement Vimana Carbon Runner - One of the 3 carbon plated trail shoes I reviewed this year, I had never heard of the company prior to reviewing but was pleasantly surprised by their quality and comfort.  I would categorize the Vimana as more of a lifestyle shoe that can hike well, though I question why the carbon plate is necessary here, as it makes for quite a stiff shoe and adds a good bit to the price.  How will I use the Vimana Carbon Runner moving forward?  Probably for a date night dinner with my wife that includes a walk.

5 / 5  Topo MTN Racer 2 - This is another absolute favorite this year, sharing most of what I like about the Cascadia 16, Scarpa Spin Ultra, the Speedland, Saucony Xodus, but with the twist of having a wider, foot shaped toe box.  While I do not seek or require such a shape, Topo pulls it off better than any other company and it is best highlighted in the MTN Racer 2, which provides extra wiggle room without being loose and floppy.  In fact, even with my narrow, low volume foot, I can rip the steep and technical without a care in the world.  These are SO good!

3.5 / 5  Topo MT-4 - A great shoe for casual, mildly technical to non technical runs, walks or just a comfortable daily lifestyle sort of shoe.  Excellent fit, comfort, style and build quality, though a bit minimal under foot for technical terrain or long runs.

5 / 5  Topo Rekovr 2 - The ultimate sport recovery shoe and all around house slipper.  Perfect for wearing around the house in the winter, trips to the mailbox or taking out the trash, the Rekovr can handle snowy front porch and walkway conditions with the well treaded and effective Vibram Megagrip Outsole.  They would also be very nice around the office.. if I ever ended up in an office again.

2.5 / 5  The North Face Flight Vectiv - I had high expectations for the very first carbon plate trail shoe, but was admittedly a bit let down.  Fit was very off and the carbon plate too rigid and inflexible for all but the most smooth, straight, buffed out trail running.  The only time I ever felt like the plate was an advantage was when running at high speeds on moderate, straight downgrades.  If TNF can dial in the fit of the upper, drop some weight and make the carbon plate a bit more articulated, like the Speedland’s, I think it could be a great shoe.

3.5 / 5  The North Face Vectiv Enduris - has a much more normal and secure fit than the Flight Vectiv, with a very notable rockered design, same outsole and a TPU plate instead of carbon that provide a little bit of propulsion and great protection.  

4.5 / 5  VJ Spark - A multi purpose shoe for both OCR and loose ground technical trail racing, the Spark is exceptionally light, low, stable, agile, secure and has a remarkably well treaded outsole.  If I am running as fast as I possibly can on the steepest, most loose terrain for 60-90 minutes, this is my pick.  In fact, the VJ Spark helped me to a PR on a very technical route by over two minutes, all of which was on the downhill because of the aforementioned attributes.  The ride is a bit harsh and protection is on the thin side, but can be overlooked for short periods of time when running with a purpose.

4.5 / 5 VJ Ultra - The VJ Ultra is super light, secure, has great cushion and reasonable protection for the weight.  It is exceptionally responsive, fast and agile and I could run in it for many hours (though I still think an actual Ultra might be a stretch).  This shoe was a key part of another big PR for me this year, in wet conditions even where the grip was death defying.  For some time I was convinced that this would be my #1 shoe of the year, however we discovered a durability flaw with the lugs peeling off of the foam midsole which VJ says they will correct in 2022.  If not for this, the VJ Ultra would be my top pick of all this year.

Full Reviews of all the shoes mentioned in my article can be found here

Tested samples were provided at no charge for review purposes. RoadTrail Run has affiliate partnerships and may earn commission on products purchased through affiliate links in this article. These partnerships do not influence our editorial content. The opinions herein are entirely the authors'

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Jeff Valliere said...


Ioannis R. said...

Thank you Jeff for writing this up. This article is really great and informative. I find it way more useful personally then the end of the year lists.

As mostly a trail runner I’ve decided to only run in 5/5 shoes now. Maybe I’ll get a 4.5 one. But my new motto is “Life is too short not to run 5/5 shoes”.

Happy New Year to you and your family.

Nic said...

Hi Jeff, can you please compare your experience of Hoka SG4 vs. Salomon UG vs. Scarpa Spin Infinity? I own a pair of SG4's and checked out the UG's at my local store, but have no way to test out the Scarpas (not available in South Africa). That said, the Scarpas seem to appeal to my preferences in shoes, and I have successfully bought shoes from overseas before without trying them on, based solely on RTR's reviews and sizing recommendations. Lastly, any comment on the long-term durability of the UG's? I've seen some reviews where concerns are raised regarding the LT durability and protection of the midsole.