I haven’t made a secret what I’m looking for in a HOKA One One: Continuity of the elements that made this the most dynamic tech running footwear brand in the 40 years I’ve been a runner (and, yes, I’m including Nike, Asics, Brooks in this).
The Bondi 5 is a shoe I reviewed a couple of weeks ago and, while the shoe has value, it isn’t in my mind the Bondi B, which is to this day the best lightweight trainer I’ve ever run in. In fact, I’m still looking for the Bondi B. Where, oh where, is the Bondi B? Is it the shoe I’m reviewing today, the HOKA One One Elevon?
HOKA introduced its Fly Collection last Autumn, consisting of the Elevon, the Mach and the Cavu. What is the common thread to these shoes? Lightweight, neutral, knit uppers, and apparently a play for a wider audience interested in fashion: “Bold designs you’ll want to wear everywhere.”
Let me state that the Elevon, for now, has been elevated to my go-to run shoe. It ticks enough of the boxes. (Not all, but enough, as we’ll get to.) I do think HOKA has an interesting messaging problem with this shoe, but I think HOKA’s always had a messaging problem, calling its shoes neutral when they somehow, uniquely, managed to be both neutral and supportive. And with that…
I went on a couple of weeks ago about outsole width, and my thesis that too much width levers the foot. In fact, here’s a shot of Ben Kanute in his win at Texas 70.3 last week. He’s running in HOKA Tracers. I don’t know if he looks like this all the time; if this is his normal footfall. Just, if he were wearing the Bondi 5 or, even worse, the U.S.S. Stinson, the outsole of which you could land a small plane atop were the shoe turned upside down, imagine the torque on the foot when that wide outsole contacts the ground at this angle.
Accordingly the Bondi 5 – as I wrote – does not feel as nimble as the original Bondi B because, at least in part, of that wider outsole. If there is any virtue in a “neutral” shoe – if neutral means natural – then that wide outsole defeats the purpose. It adds stability. But it subtracts subtlety.
As the Bondi has grown wider wider from the waist down HOKA has thankfully given us the Vanquish. This shoe kept the Bondi’s narrower profile. The Vanquish 2 became my Bondi replacement because its knit upper was comfortable, the fit was good, the cushion was good, and its outsole dimensions were similar to the original Bondi.
After three iterations the Vanquish has given way to the Elevon. Above at left is the original Bondi B. In the middle is the Vanquish 2. At right is the new Elevon and what all 3 of these shoes share is a narrow, but not too narrow (the original HOKA Conquest), outsole pattern that hits the sweet spot where stability and freedom-of-motion meet.
HOKA, from the beginning, had spotty results as regards shoe comfort. Seams. The tongue. Growing pains for a new shoe maker. HOKA has gotten much better at this. The Elevon is a really comfy shoe. It’s gotten pretty good at not sabotaging the comfort of an already good shoe as it moves through the progressions of the original to versions 2, 3, 4 and onward.
The knit upper is very comfortable, just, knit uppers don’t have the strapping as a stability feature and I can feel it in this shoe. The foot has the freedom to move around in this shoe, and that’s good comfort-wise, but if you like your foot straight-jacketed in a papoose (which I don’t mind, for stability’s sake on trails) then knit uppers give a little up. This is one reason I can’t run in Nikes. From the very beginning, in 1972, when Nike debuted its marathon, which was a copy of the Tiger Marathon, that shoe was a failure because Nike didn’t understand that the Tiger “logo” served as a stability device, just as did Adidas’ 3 stripes. Nike has to this day never made a shoe that I could successfully run in for more than a 10k race. But HOKA has a workaround, which I’ll get to.
Here are the same three shoes from the top. The Bondi B had a stitched upper. The Vanquish and now the Elevon have knit uppers. They don’t give you the bear hug, which is mostly good. Just, see that strapping on the original Bondi at left, that goes from the eyestay down to the midsole? That's a feature. Yes, that feature is out of style now. Just sayin'.
One strange element to the Elevon: It’s kind of long. "I went up half a size and have plenty of toe room,” said one reviewer on HOKA’s website, about this shoe. "Seems though like the shoe is a tad long,” said another. I noticed this myself, before I read the reviews. Not a big deal. Not a deal breaker. But I did measure this. The shoe is 5mm longer inside than other HOKA’s I have in the same size, and that all seems to be in the front of the shoe, from the sole forward.
HOKA has never been just about cushion. It’s also a very stable shoe, without the need for any gimmicks like plastic heel counters, medial blocks, or stiff foam densities on the medial side. HOKA does not need to buttress the shoe using these devices because it’s always sunk the shoe inside of a midsole cradle. In HOKA’s formative years I and (renowned runner and footwear retailer) Johnny Halberstadt would sit in HOKA’s think tank meetings and say, “But it’s not just cushion! There’s more! The midsole organically wraps the foot!”
To its credit, somewhere along the line the HOKA folks decided to identify and name this. HOKA calls this, "The Active Foot Frame,” which, "beds the heel and foot deeply into the midsole, as opposed to sitting on top. This means that every Hoka shoe offers guidance without the need for posts or other constricting elements. The Active Foot Frame functions like a bucket seat in a race car by cradling and supporting your foot.”
Yes! Exactly! And, while other footwear companies obstinately refuse to deploy this feature, HOKA enjoys open field running, so to speak, because this is every bit as important as HOKA’s signature cushion. The problem with the Active Foot Frame is that it makes the shoe look more cushioned even than it is. It is unappealing to many, cosmetically. It makes the shoe look like a platform shoe. A clown shoe, as it was so often called when I ran in it back in 2011. Nevertheless, this feature is gold if you’re a performance runner.
HOKA hit it exactly right in this shoe’s forefoot cushion. Where HOKA is getting some grief is in the rearfoot. Here are excerpts from the first 4 reviews (as of this writing) of the Elevon on HOKA’s website:
"Certainly not plush."
"Slick looking kicks, but responsive like being barefoot on concrete. What happened to the infamous plush Hoka feel? Feels like you are running on a piece of plastic."
"It is simply not as plush as the Clifton 3. In fact, it's hard for me to imagine anyone describing this shoe as ‘plush.' It's a solid shoe - comfortable, pretty fast, but the landing is not as soft as the Clifton 3."
"I would agree with other comments that the definition of plush has changed.”
Why is this?
If you look at the shoe, from the back in particular, you’ll see two things: First, as the shoe has migrated from the Bondi B, to the Vanquish 2, and now to the Elevon, the Active Foot Frame has diminished in size and mass. Second, the job of foot management has been given over to a piece of hard plastic, seen in the Elevon as that shiny yellow (with speckles) device, and it spans the entire rearfoot. Why? Beats me. Just, this seems to me to short circuit the attempt to make this shoe plush in the rearfoot.
I asked HOKA, through its PR agency, how this is considered a neutral shoe with that rigid plastic piece cradling the heel.
"The plastic piece provides structural integrity so the heel doesn’t deform as much on impact as much as say, a Clifton or Bondi, would,” it was explained to me. "This is one of the elements that helps differentiates the ride experience of the Elevon from those shoes. Results in a more stable overall feel.”
Yes. I agree. Just, why is it then considered neutral?
"That said, characteristics that make a shoe more inherently stable (heel cup, wider base, active foot frame) do not disqualify it as a neutral shoe. The Elevon doesn’t have a j-frame, medial post or any other prescriptive measure that would preclude a neutral runner from using it. That some runners who pronate to a degree can also wear it is, we think, a point of strength for our product.”
Fair enough. Just, if it isn’t disqualified from being a neutral shoe, why is it disqualified from being a stable shoe? Or, at least somewhere in between?
The shoe works! It’s a good shoe. But this causes me to wonder whether HOKA considers a neutral shoe neutral because of features, or whether it’s neutral because of how it actually functions. This has always been one of HOKA’s key strengths: It functions both as a neutral shoe, while offering stability runners much of what they need.
Indeed, this shoe has a relatively narrow waist. If you look at the Bondi B from the bottom (the image further above), the narrowest part of this outsole in my size measures 9.5cm. In the Elevon it’s 8.0cm. This, plus liberal flex grooves, make this shoe quite active, not at all restrictive.
Does the paring down of the size of the Active Foot Frame (which is what I maintain has happened) mitigated by the addition of that plastic heel stabilizer, give the shoe that neutral feel while keeping it stable enough to support an overpronater (and his orthotic, if you're me)? Maybe so. But if so, it’s at the expense of heel cushion.
Is the Elevon a triumph? I'd stop short of superlatives. Is it a solid shoe? Yes. I’d have some trouble with it, perhaps, if it was my road shoe. But it’s my offroad shoe, and this speaks to the stability of this shoe. Its flex grooves pick up pebbles. So what? Easy to dispose of after the run. But were I a road runner, I would either like or dislike this shoe based on whether I wanted the trademark plush ride or whether I wanted the ride a little more firm in the rearfoot (many users actually don’t like the overplush feel of HOKAs, and they may fall in love with the Elevon).
I’d love to see what this shoe would be like if the plastic heel counter was omitted, replaced by the original HOKA Bondi midsole wrap, i.e., the original Active Foot Frame.
I’m bullish on HOKA. But the HOKA One One team is now almost entirely turned over: Parent company Deckers has a different president than it did when it purchased and built the brand. HOKA has a different president, and senior management and product managers have almost entirely turned over. This is the third generation managing HOKA (if the first generation was its founders, prior its sale to Deckers).
Seventy percent of wealthy families lose their wealth by the second generation, 90 percent by the third. Is today’s management preserving and husbanding the wealth it was given? That wealth is the starkly disruptive features and performance that made HOKA the brand it is.
I like what HOKA’s doing, but in the Elevon I see a shoe that looks more “normal”. I don’t want a shoe, or a shoe company, that worries it’s too much an outlier. I sense in some of its newer shoes the gravitational pull of the rest of the footwear industry. The more “normal” a shoe looks and, consequently, the more normal it runs, the less reason I have to continue my attachment to a brand that won me over in 2011. I don’t want HOKA to become mainstream.
[The image of Ben Kanute courtesy of Talbot Cox.]