Monday, September 26, 2011

Gear Review: New Balance 1190

The current marketing campaign out of the Lawrence, Massachusetts based footwear manufacturer is, "Let's make excellent happen." This phrasing requires two different things to occur, based on semantics: first, New Balance needs to produce an excellent product; second, the runner needs to produce an excellent effort.

It is under these circumstances that I was able to wear test the 1190, another in the "new" New Balance running product line. More on such circumstances later, though, as we must talk about what that "new" New Balance line means.

The Techno Babble
As part of the movement to make excellent happen, New Balance has decided to reform not just the construction of their shoes, but also the naming convention that they have used for decades. This means that an awful lot of people are left scratching their heads, wondering what happened to their beloved shoe. Not to fear, as specialty running retailers that have done their homework will be able to piece the successive story together.

The new naming convention takes the New Balance style numbers, and breaks them into two separate categories. The first digit, or two digits, refers to the respective placement in the New Balance product line. So, that old adage that the higher the number, the better the shoe? Well, it's not quite that, but it's a rough idea. So a shoe starting with an 8 will probably not have the same bells and whistles as a shoe that starts with 12. But that 8 will have more going for it than a shoe starting with a 6.

But it's the last two digits of the shoe that will tell you what type of shoe you're dealing with. Think of the system as a speedometer. The scale starts with 40, and ranges up to 00. So, the lower the number, the more inefficient the foot the shoe is trying to fit. So, the 40s refer to motion control shoes; the 60s are your moderate stability shoes; the 70s are your blend, or light stability shoes; 80s are neutral shoes; 90s are performance trainers; and 00s are competition shoes.

With all of that in mind, then, the 1190 comes in as a top level performance trainer. The shoe features a mild midfoot pronation control device, meaning that it will come in against the Brooks Racer ST5, the Saucony Mirage, the Asics DS-Trainer, and the K-Swiss Kwicky Blade Light. The midsole material is coined N-Ergy, which is New Balance's current blend of ethylene vinyl acetate. The advantage, according to New Balance, is that their material is a fair bit softer and lighter than other manufacturer's blend of EVA.

The upper is mostly light mesh, with a suede insert in the midfoot to help aggressively wrap the arch. There is an interior liner that separates the stitching on the outer upper from the foot. I personally did not choose to test these without socks, but I could foresee somebody having success by choosing that route.

According to New Balance, the shoe weighs an impressively precise 9.01 ounces. Per usual, this is for a size 9 option, so with my 12.5 boats, I need to take this with the entire Morton's salt container. To compare against other published weights, this is .3 ounces heavier than the Saucony Mirage, and .01 ounces heavier than the K-Swiss Kwicky Blade Lights.

So, about those circumstances...
I received an e-mail from the store about a month ago, asking if I wanted to run in the Reach the Beach Relay in New Hampshire. For the uninitiated, Reach the Beach is a 200 mile relay race, ranging from Cannon Mountain in Franconia, down to Hampton Beach. Of course, this was precisely 3 weeks after my meltdown at Timberman. So, why the hell not?

I discovered that the team I would be running on was being put together by our New Balance sales rep, Colin, and would include other members of the New Balance corporate team. Pressure much? Only a little. Especially when considering that I had no New Balance shoes at home, and one van would include the CEO of the company. I think it would be prudent to be wearing their product.

As race date drew closer, I received a 2nd e-mail, asking if I wanted to run the "hero" leg of the race: 22.53 miles total. Sure! Why not? Only later did I find out that this included the hardest leg of the whole event: 9.3 miles in the middle of the night, with a 6 mile long climb in the middle of it. Thanks, Colin!

So under the pressure of running with some industry giants, while running the longest legs of the race, I had to wear a brand new shoe. This was going to either be fantastic, or terrible.

So, how'd they run?
It's a great shoe.

Let's get a bit more detailed here. When you first put this shoe on, much like the K-Swiss reviewed here before, it's an unassuming shoe. You put it on and go, "Huh. Well, it's comfortable. But there's not much going on here." In my opinion, I think that's the point of what New Balance was going for. You aren't looking for this shoe to be uber-plush; you want lightweight, cushioned enough to run in, and an upper that's comfortable. Just the facts, ma'am, and let's get moving!

To that extent, New Balance hit a home run. The shoe is a bit firm, particularly in the heel. But this allows for a level of responsiveness and knowledge of what the foot is doing, that stride correction is very easy to attain. There is an incredible amount of feedback provided to the body during the course of running in these.

The upper is, without a doubt, the best one that I have run in. There's no comparison. It wraps the midfoot well, and then opens up into a very nice, wide toebox. It allows plenty of forefoot splay without feeling sloppy. It doesn't bunch. I ran all of my legs in the race in this shoe, and never blistered. I coupled the shoe with Feetures! Light socks; it was a dream combination for my feet.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how well the shoe ran in a midfoot position. It has a bit more heel-toe offset than the Mirages, and most shoes that have done this as of late have given me Achilles or IT band trouble; none of this came up during the course of running the race. Overall, again, think higher cadence and shorter stride length in this shoe to be happier with it; there's no slowing down a heel strike here.

The drawbacks? For a triathlete, this shoe won't provide any moisture prevention, so soggy shoes will be an issue on the run if you're dumping water or ice on yourself. There's no drainage, or tabs. But to be honest, I don't see this as a problem at all; having run races before, as long as the shoe fits well, you should not expect any issues.

Overall, my impression is that New Balance has truly made excellent happen with the 1190. I am proud to add this shoe to my quiver. It will probably become my daily trainer, and road race arrow, leaving the Kwicky's as my tri shoe, and the Mirage as my tempo shoe.

Price: $114.99
Sizing: True to size
Available: Now

Note on gear reviews: I am never paid to provide an opinion. As a specialty running retailer, I am often given products to wear-test. This is how I come across footwear that is reviewed and detailed here. I will also review products that I have paid for myself. However, as a general rule, assume that I was "seeded" product by a manufacturer unless otherwise written.

Have a product that you wish to get reviewed? Please contact me via the Comments section.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Gear Review: K-Swiss Kwicky Blade Light

I have an admission to make.

I am a shoe geek. (First step to recovery is admitting you have a problem...)

Although plainly obvious to anybody who has been reading the blog for a bit, or to those who come through Maine Running Company whenever I happen to be working, this is an important consideration when it comes down to gear reviews. I would state that I'm the Jeffrey Steingarten of the shoe world.

In other words, I am one tough bastard to please. I'm also incredibly loyal when it comes to my footwear. All season, I spent my time in Saucony's shoes, switching in April from the Kinvara that I had reviewed here, to the Saucony Mirage (same platform, just a mild amount of pronation control from the plastic footbridge). So it was with a great deal of skepticism when I stepped into a pair of K-Swiss Kwicky Blade Lights, and began reviewing them.

The Techno Babble
The Kwicky Blade Light is K-Swiss' entry into the performance trainer market, with a mild amount of pronation control offered by both a mild medial post and a small thermal polyurethane shank. This means it has competitors coming from all sides: the Asics DS-Trainer, the Brooks ST5 Racer, the Saucony Mirage and Fastwitch, the Mizuno Wave Elixir, the Pearl Izumi Iso-Transition, the New Balance 1190, the Zoot Ovwa...this field is crowded.

However, K-Swiss has also positioned this shoe into the triathlon world, as well it should: as the run sponsor for Ironman, and with the Raelert brothers among others under sponsorship, it has a leg up in that market. To that extent, the Kwicky Blade Light also features drainage holes, and a tab in the back end to ease entry into the shoe in T2. They also are a seamless upper, so if you choose to go sockless, you may without worrying about rubbing into some stitching.

But what about water getting into the shoe? Like, say, if you're melting on the run at Timberman and taking sponges and ice left and right to cool off? Say, like, this guy? Well, you're in luck: the Blade Lights feature what the call ion-mask: a water-resistant upper to help prevent some of that moisture getting into the shoe.

According to K-Swiss, the shoe comes in at a very competitive 9.0 ounces. Of course, in my size 12.5, I have to take that with a whole shaker of salt, but at least it gives us a good idea of where it slats in. This is approximately .3 ounces heavier than my Mirages.

Enough babble. How do they run?

In a single word: awesome.

Full disclosure time: I wanted to hate these. After being incredibly disappointed in triathlon specific shoes over the years, I had figured that these would be more of the same. Great marketing, great concept, and lazy execution leading to an un-runnable shoe.

Boy, was I wrong.

The intial try-on feel is a little unassuming. You step into the shoe, and it just kinda feels, well, there. It's not something that lends itself well in a $135 shoe. When you put on a shoe that is anywhere from $25-$35 more expensive than its' competition, you would expect a more luxurious try-on feel. This shoe is not in your face about it's cost when you slip it on.

Instead, feel is more subtle. Think about the things you DON'T notice, and that's where this shoe starts to come alive with try-on. You don't feel pressure points from the upper, because of the seamfree construction. The posting is also relatively subtle; you don't really feel it guiding your foot through a gait cycle so much as it's just doing it.

The one thing you really do notice is how well cushioned it feels for something lightweight. This is the Blade Light part of the name, as you have some vertical compliance available simply from the spaces in the midsole itself. Overall, it gives a cushioning experience more akin to, say, an Asics Gel-Nimbus than it does performance trainers, while giving you that impressive lightweight feel.

Running in the shoe is where that $135 really feels like money well spent. (Well, not that I spent the money on it, but it's where the shoe justifies the cost.) I spent plenty of time in the shoe at various pace levels, ranging from recovery runs all the way down to outright sprints. I found the shoe to be happiest from aerobic threshold pace on down to the sprinting. It's not so much that the shoe does not like to be run at slower speeds; it's simply that the shoe likes good run technique, and it gives you more back the better your form is.

By this, I mean that the shoe likes to be run at a more midfoot point, with a higher cadence. Slower cadence seems to make the shoe a little marshmellowy, and you can hear it bottoming out a little bit. I fear what a larger runner would feel in this shoe if they were happily heel striking their way along. On the other side, running all the way forward on the foot, and the shoe feels too flexible to sustain that form for very long periods of time.

Instead, think more Cait Snow with the gait: short steps, underneath the center of gravity, good posture, and run like hell. Feedback from the ground will tell you the pace you are running; you'll feel the shoe engage a little bit more; it almost tenses up a touch, to say that, "Hey, we're moving here! You stay relaxed. I'll do the work." It's comforting.

I also tested the ion-mask technology with runs occurring on rainy days, as well as with it being stinking hot one day. It is both breathable, and protects the foot. Of course, if you submerge the shoe, your foot will get wet. But it does drain out pretty quickly, and if you are wearing some quick drying socks (my personal favorite match with these are the Feetures! Elite socks), you'll stay blister free.

In sum: this is an excellent addition to the K-Swiss line-up, and I'm happy to say that they are in my shoe arsenal. I'd gladly purchase a second pair. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is just for triathletes because they're K-Swiss, nor because they are as responsive as some other shoes. They want to go fast, and be run in well. A great shoe that earns my highest recommendation.

Bravo, K-Swiss. Bravo.