Review: Saucony Kinvara

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a shoe review. This is primarily because I’ve found a few models that I’ve been happy enough to stick with over the past 18 months or so: the Pearl Izumi Streak and the Saucony Fastwitch 3. They are covered on the reviews page (the Streak being pretty much identical to the Peak XC reviewed there). I used to use these for just racing or faster running, relying on another Saucony shoe, the Grid Tangent 3, as my daily training workhorse.

I was never totally thrilled with the Grid Tangent. This isn’t obvious, since I’m on my eighth pair. I kept buying it because it didn’t cause problems, and that is reason enough to buy a shoe. But I’ve been phasing those out as I’ve moved to doing my daily training in what I used to consider “speed” shoes (the Streak and the Fastwitch), and racing in even lighter shoes, such as the Asics HyperSpeed or the Adidas Adizero Ace, the former of which is a true racing flat. To give you a sense of how often I run in what, I’m on my sixth pair each of the Streak and the Fastwitch. The Adidas shoes (I also sometimes run in the Adizero Tempo) are slightly too narrow, so I won’t buy those models again.

This isn't even all of them.

Anyway, the net of all this is that I have been a runner in transition, and my shoe choices reflect it. I have not jumped on the minimalist bandwagon (and you should probably put some space between me and barefoot running enthusiasts at parties). I’ve merely found that I’ve gotten more comfortable in lighter and lighter shoes. At this point, even the Grid Tangent, at 7.9 oz. each, feels too heavy. Add to this that I’ve discovered that, despite my feet falling into the “slight overpronator” category, I’ve found that neutral shoes are more comfortable to run in. The lighter shoes typically fall into the neutral category, so this has been a happy discovery.

Here I am today, doing most of my training runs in the Streak or Fastwitch. The Streak’s problem is that it’s just slightly too big (but if I half size down it’s slightly too small). So unless I wear thick socks, it can feel a little floppy. I wear very thin socks in the summer, so it gathers dust for 3-4 months a year. And the problem with the Fastwitch is that it’s a shoe designed for the slight overpronator. Which means it’s a little stiff around the arch. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great shoe — at 6.6 oz. each, very light and fast, and it held up under the demands of a full marathon. But I am aware of the shoe while I am running in it. I don’t like to be aware of my shoes.

Sorry for the long preamble. There is a point to all of this. Saucony recently came out with a new model, the Kinvara. They have billed it as a “minimalist trainer.” It’s got a low heel-to-toe drop (meaning the heel is only 4mm higher than the toe). But this is not a racing flat. If anything, the sole is on the thicker side, and it’s flared out a bit, so there’s lots of lateral coverage. This design does not equal “heavy,” however. The Kinvara is only slightly heavier (meaning a few tenths of an oz. each) than is the Fastwitch.

It’s a great shoe. I think it may be the best trainer I’ve tried, and I’ve tried many. It’s light, but solid. You can feel the road, but it’s not “feel every pebble” thin like a flat. And it’s flexible and even feels a bit springy. I am months away from doing 20 milers, so I can’t say how it holds up over distance. But on 10-12 milers it’s been fine. Even though Saucony doesn’t bill it as a racer, I suspect it would perform very well at at the marathon distance.

One quibble: the colors. Do women really want pastel-colored running shoes? I don’t. The available colors are straight out of one of Estelle Getty’s polyester leisure suits from The Golden Girls. I am actually tempted to size down the men’s model (although I’m worried that the heel won’t be narrow enough for me) so I don’t have to wear Easter colors on my feel. They also conveniently don’t go with any of my other running clothes.

Here’s Saucony’s video about the Kinvara.

I’ll still experiment with doing speedwork and racing in lighter and lighter flats. But in the Kinvara I’ve found my new daily trainer for all of those other miles.

Review: Pearl Izumi Peak XC

A few months back, on a lark, I sent a note to Pearl Izumi and told them how much I loved the Streak, their road racing shoe. In the process, I asked if they’d be willing to send me any other shoes to try, with the promise that I’d do a review on this blog. To my delight, they responded with an offer to send me the Peak XC, which is basically their trail running version of the Streak.

I did a few long runs in the Peak XC, but didn’t feel comfortable doing a review until I’d put it through its paces in a wider range of running environments. My recent trip to South Africa provided the perfect opportunity to evaluate this shoe.

I only wanted to bring two pairs of running shoes (I know — this is one pair more than most people would pack!): the Saucony Fastwitch 3 for racing a half and something else for everyday training. Where I was going, the only paved roads were the major highways. Everything else consisted of dirt, clay (or mud on some days) or gravel. Perfect conditions for a trail running shoe.

From what I can tell, the Peak XC is nearly identical to the Streak in construction and fit, with a few differences. While it weighs the same as the Streak (very light, at just over 7 oz. in women’s size 7), the midsole seems slightly thicker, the better to protect your soles from rocks, roots and other potentially painful foes. The outsole is also slightly more robust, with more pronounced treads for better traction; I’d swear that the outsole also feels “grippier” on slick pavement, but that may just be my imagination, as I don’t know how they’d do that. By comparison, the Streak has nearly no tread — it’s literally a “flat” in that regard.

I did a lot of running in rough conditions: roads that consisted of packed mud, very gravelly roads and in extreme heat. The shoes were perfect for all three. On mud, they were reasonably stable despite some very slippery spots. On gravel, they made my feet impervious to the surface, even when running hard. I could run on 1-2″ rocks and not really feel them. And in the heat, my feet stayed cool thanks to the perforated upper throughout. I should also add that they performed like champs on hills. I had enough traction to climb, and the shoes were roomy enough in the toebox to save my toenails on the downhills.

Speaking of the upper, this is the aspect of the Streak that made me fall in love with the shoe. Pearl Izumi touts its “seamless upper” on the Streak and Peak shoes. These shoes fit like a glove with no seams to rub anywhere. They are sold as a neutral shoe, although I’m neutral with some slight pronation and they are suitable for me. They feel responsive when running at all speeds: good ground contact, lots of flexibility, bouncy toe off. They are also durable. I’m on my fourth pair of Streaks and all have lasted 300 miles before feeling dull. That’s pretty good for such a lightweight shoe. I typically need to retire shoes in the sub-8 oz. range around the 250 mile mark.

I should note that I’ve done 22 mile runs in these on pavement and I did an 18 miler on dirt/gravel. In both cases, they held up well and didn’t cause the kind of fatigue you might risk experiencing by doing a long training run in what’s billed as a racing shoe.

One important tip on the Streaks and the Peaks: These run exceptionally small. I normally wear a size 8 in running shoes, with some exceptions (Saucony Grid Tangent 3 and Adidas Adizero Ace) in which I have to size down to my regular 7.5 shoe size. In the Pearl Izumis I need an 8.5.

Finally, I’ll add that these shoes are versatile. I went on a 9 mile hike in them over rocky/sandy trail. True, they can’t replace hiking boots for seriously “technical” hiking due to the lack of ankle protection, but the same can be said of my “dayhike” shoes. Those are waterproof, so I’d still use them for rainy day hikes. But for sunny days I’ll wear the Peak XCs. They’re lightweight, sturdy, have adequate toe protection and as such are perfect for mixing walking with running on the trail.

Since I’m mentioning Pearl Izumi, I’ll also put in a good word for a model of shorts they make, the 42K short. [Edited: Tracy has astutely pointed out that the 42K shorts are made by Sugoi, not Pearl Izumi. Either way, they’re damned good shorts.] These are split shorts for racing, but they are so comfortable that I’ve started running in them exclusively. Although they’re splits they have enough material to be reasonably modest. The exception is when it’s very windy, in which case I may as well be wearing bun huggers, as the leg material blows up a la Marilyn Monroe and nothing is left to the imagination. They have a low waist with a drawstring that’s long enough not to get lost.

The best aspect of these shorts are the velcro-tabbed side pockets, which can hold gels. I modified my pockets by sewing up the bottom part of the pocket, just below the velcro tab. I found that gels could fall out otherwise. Now I can carry four gels easily, which is usually what I use in a full marathon.

As always happens, Pearl Izumi Sugoi has discontinued the 42k short. So I’m now hoarding them.

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