Test Run: Altra Lone Peak 2.0 with Polartec NeoShell

Last week, I travelled to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France, to witness the start of Europe’s most grueling trail race, the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), an epic 160km trek around Mont Blanc with approximately 10,000m of vertical gain that takes competitors anywhere between 20–46 hours to complete—that is, the more or less 40 percent of starters who actually finish the race. The purpose of my visit was partly to attend a press conference held by my personal favorite running shoe brand, Altra, which was in town to introduce its latest creation, the Lone Peak 2.0 with Polartec NeoShell, to the European market. (The global unveiling took place last month at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, Utah.) Neatly tying these two objectives together was Brian Beckstead, Altra’s co-founder, who himself was set to compete in the UTMB. My goal going into the trip was to make it to the media event, get my hands on a pair of the new Lone Peaks for a test run, and then interview Beckstead before he set out for the UTMB. I arrived in Chamonix, attended the press conference, secured a pair of Lone Peaks, and then set out on a 45-minute test run through the Alpine terrain with a few of the Altra elites. Everything was going according to plan.

Until I got lost.

The run started out great. From the moment I tied on my pair of Lone Peaks, I knew I was in for a fun day. With Altra’s proprietary Zero Drop platform and FootShape toe box, which eliminate heel elevation and allow your toes to splay as they would barefoot, respectively, the shoes felt like natural extensions of my body. Those are two of Altra’s core features that you’ll find in any of the brand’s shoes—road or trail. This also wasn’t my first time in Lone Peaks; last summer I took the original 2.0s out on the trail in Sun Valley, Idaho, and absolutely loved them. What I was extra excited about this time around was the defining feature of this new iteration—the Polartec NeoShell upper, which makes the shoe completely waterproof. Altra is literally the only running shoe manufacturer in the world that has this game-changing new fabric in their line. Other “waterproof” trail shoes on the market use a waterproof liner or “booty”; simply put, the inside of the shoe is waterproof, but the exterior isn’t. So, while your foot might stay dry, the shoe’s upper gets wet and heavy. Not ideal. The new Lone Peaks, meanwhile, are waterproof on the outside. Water just beads right off them. Better yet, unlike the widely used waterproof fabric Gore-Tex, which only becomes breathable in a vapor state (i.e. when your feet are sweating bullets), NeoShell’s unique construction makes it air permeable from the start. With a challenging trail ahead of us, I felt confident and fully prepared.

Water trails off the Lone Peak's Polartec NeoShell upper.
Water trails off the Lone Peak’s Polartec NeoShell upper.

Five minutes into the run, I was already putting the shoes to the test. The trail was steeper than I had envisioned, and the Lone Peaks gripped the ground like claws as I explosively cut and banked my way over rocks, roots, and whatever else got in my way, including one equally steep section that was more stream than trail. (I genuinely thought we had gone off the trail and turned up a small river.) I charged up it anyway. It was like that scene in Indiana Jones where Indy has to cross the invisible bridge with only the faith that his next step won’t send him plummeting to his doom. With the new Lone Peaks, I may as well have been running on freshly cut grass. In addition to racing up that stream without even the slightest slippage, when I got to the top my shoes were completely dry and not a gram heavier than they were when I put them on (337g).

Then things got interesting. While I tried my best to pace the leader of the group, it wasn’t long before I started to settle toward the back of the pack. Before I knew it, there was no one behind me, and a steadily widening gap between myself and the runner in front of me, who soon enough began to momentarily disappear from my line of sight after each turn up the densely treed trail.

When I arrived at a fork in the road, another runner was not to be seen or heard. To the left, on the mountain side, was a trail steeper than the one we had been running on; to the right, one that leveled out slightly. Figuring that my seemingly superhuman group could have easily managed the tougher trail, I went that way, somewhat reluctantly. About five minutes later, an identical fork. Again, I opted for the more challenging terrain, expecting to eventually find my group camped out on the side of the trail, halfway through a game of Monopoly.

No dice.

Halfway through the run, the trail quickly got steeper, rockier, and more challenging.
Halfway through the run, the trail quickly got steeper, rockier, and more challenging.

One hour and just over 500m of vertical gain after setting out, it was clear that I was on my own.

I’ll chalk my subsequent thought process up to the thin air that was robbing my brain of its usual supply of oxygen. I couldn’t just turn on my heel and head back down the mountain, I thought. What will I have accomplished? Getting lost? Failing to keep up with an entire group of runners? No chance. I’m a runner, I told myself. I can do this. I can find a way to make this run count. I decided to keep going.

Another hour passed. By this stage, the terrain had transformed entirely—the soft, rooty forest floor now rocky and bone dry. With no tree cover to speak of, the sun beat down with no respite. I continued running, maintaining a slow but steady pace as I made my way up the switchback trail toward a summit I only hoped would show itself soon. I had literally no idea how far the trail went, or even what mountain this was, for that matter. Another decision I had made in this deoxygenated state was that my chance of running into some sort of sustenance—at least water—before dehydrating would be better if I continued to the top of the mountain, where there was bound to be something, someone, than if I turned around and headed down to the bottom, which would probably take me at least an hour. (Of course, the top could have been three hours away for all I knew. Again, #deoxygenated.)

Besides, the view was—well, take a look for yourself.

Whatever, treadmill.
Whatever, treadmill.

Eventually I saw something further up the mountain. Something red. An umbrella, maybe. It was far away, about another vertical 500m or so. Gradually, a mountaintop outpost of some sort came into view—three or four red umbrellas, which suggested tables and chairs, which had to mean food or at least water. Not that I had a cent on me, but I’d figure something out, I thought. Not that I was dying for nutrition or even water at this stage, but when you get totally lost while running in a foreign place (which I tend to do a lot, and plan to continue doing, because it’s fun as hell), there’s always a certain point—for me, around the two-hour mark—when a small part of your brain begins to kick into survival mode.

Three hours after setting out for my 45-minute group run, I arrived at the top. Thankfully, my oasis—a tiny restaurant apparently run by two French teenagers—did not vanish into the thin air. They gave me a pint of water for free, which I slammed like a tequila shot. I took a seat at a wooden bench under one of the umbrellas and took in the view.

Altra2
That town down there—that’s Chamonix, where my run began.

It was breathtaking. And I would have never seen it had I not decided to press on up this beast of a trail. In the face of perceived failure, I had both quickly set and (not-so-quickly) achieved an even more satisfying goal. After a moment, realizing I was technically only halfway through this unexpectedly epic run that I was so not prepared for—other than the shoes on my feet—I decided to head back down, victorious. And then it hit me.

The shoes!

Part of my decision to press on up the mountain was that it would allow me a chance to assess the shoes in new and unpredictable surroundings, possibly for a review. And now I’d gone all this way without so much as looking at them for two consecutive seconds. I could have punched myself in the face. And that’s when I realized that for that exact reason, these new Lone Peaks are the best shoes I’ve ever run in—not just on a trail but in general.

I never slipped. My laces stayed tied the whole way. I closed my eyes and tried hard to pinpoint an area on either of my feet that was causing me pain. Nothing. I took the shoes off. Not a blister. Not even one. And when I was running on rocks as sharp as Messermeister chef’s knives, my feet didn’t know the difference. (Unlike other trail shoes’ rock plates that are located underneath or just above the outsole, Altra’s StoneGuard rock plate is sandwiched between two layers of midsole. So, rather than see-sawing on pointy terrain, potentially resulting in a rolled ankle, the shoe partly absorbs the rocky surface area, just like your bare foot would naturally, and cushions the impact from both sides of the protective plate.)

With my adrenaline still flowing, endorphins coursing through my dehydrated veins, and my newfound satisfaction of feeling like I was wearing the greatest trail running shoes in existence, I stood up and turned to face down the mountain. I exhaled quickly, drew a long breath in, and then exploded from imaginary starting blocks and began running back down the trail irresponsibly fast with a permanent smile on my face.

IMG_6154
I had way too much fun on this descent.

I got to the bottom of the mountain that had taken me three hours to ascend in just under 55 minutes, stopping just once to drink from a stream that I only slightly suspected might kill me. It might have been the most fun I’ve ever had while running.

So, here I am, at the end of an unnecessarily long review that barely talks about the shoe it’s supposed to be reviewing. And that, in my opinion, is the best review I could ever give a trail running shoe. Because, while we might plan our routes (or not, apparently), we don’t run trails to get from A to B. We run trails because we love running trails, and we love running far. Sometimes further than we thought we would. And if we didn’t ever have to stop, we never would. We unnecessarily and willingly put ourselves in danger, and sometimes people call us crazy—but we don’t care. Because we know that a view merely seen is nothing compared with a view earned. And when you’re surrounded by nature, soaked in sunlight, and brimming with bliss, the last thing you care about is your shoes. And with the new Lone Peaks, you’ll never have to.

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