We’re living in a golden age of running, when there are so many great running shoes that not only help you run faster but can make the miles more enjoyable. And while you may be tempted to just grab a single pair of trail running shoes and stick with it, I argue that you’re better off employing the right shoe for specific uses.
Shoes are a tool, after all. Just like you wouldn’t use scissors to cut your lawn, you shouldn’t wear a on singletrack trails. And don’t use just any old pair of trail kicks when you’re climbing almost vertically up a black diamond ski slope in the summer.
I witnessed this firsthand when participating in the Whiteface Mountain Races in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The event consisted of two unique challenges: A vertical kilometer, which went straight up the ski slopes of the mountain that hosted the 1980 and 1932 Winter Olympics, plus a 6.9-mile race that took runners up to the summit and back down to the base lodge—with nearly 4,000 feet of climbing and descending.
The problem: What kind of shoe can claw into such steep terrain while still having enough underfoot comfort for such a punishing descent.
The options: As a gear tester here at Runner’s World, I have access to lots of running shoes. I’ve run in 86 different models so far in 2022, as of when this article was published. So I dug through my shoe closet to find the trail shoes that I was enjoying most and the pairs that might work for the unique terrain.
I quickly narrowed down my pile to just three pairs: the ZoomX Ultrafly Trail (not yet publicly available), , and .
Looking at that list, you see a trend emerge—thick and soft. I needed something that could bite into the ground when going up the slippery slopes, but a shoe that might also save my aging legs on the way back down. It may come as a surprise to learn that running down a hill that’s 20 percent steep is harder than going up—or, at least, it leaves you far more sore the following few days.
The solution: There’s no better way to pick a shoe than to test it on comparable terrain. So, that’s what I did. I don’t have an Olympic ski hill near my home in Easton, Pennsylvania, but I do have a local incline known . I have no idea why it’s called that, but here are the stats:
Distance: 0.34 miles
Elevation Gain: 425 feet
Average Grade: 23.4%
Surface: Double-track road, grass, scree
Rat Jaw follows a power line, which has just about as much in common as a ski resort, if you think about it. Both are constructed on inhospitable terrain that nobody really wants to use for any other reasonable purpose. And, the landowners don’t really care what the ground looks like. In the case of a ski resort, it’s usually covered by many feet of snow. Power lines are nearly impassable and require little upkeep, though you’ll often find a small two-track road following them.
This steep running segment gives me a mix of everything. The dirt is loose on the climb, requiring fairly toothy lugs. And then there are grassy sections that are slippery unless you can fully plant the sole of your shoe flat on the ground. On the way down, you unleash baseball-size rocks that careen downhill faster than you. It’s just not as long as Whiteface, which worked okay for me, so I could do several repeats while changing shoes on subsequent trips up and down.
Let’s take a look at how each shoe performed.
Nike ZoomX Ultrafly Trail
This shoe is outmatched on this kind of terrain, if you look at the specs on paper. It’s designed, like most of what Nike builds, for what I lovingly refer to as “western technical.” Here on the East Coast, those are basically dirt roads or rail trails. The Ultrafly is built to zip along on trails that are buffed out, heavily traveled, and don’t really feature a ton of rocks or technical obstacles. It has the same bouncy ZoomX foam found in the Vaporfly, but it’s wrapped in fabric to help boost durability and to contain it so you don’t get such a squishy, uncontrollable sensation underfoot. The lugs are just a little too short and uniform to really excel on such steep and loose ground.
So, why the heck would I even consider this shoe?
Well, it was new. The Ultrafly just arrived and I was having a ton of fun with it on some other local trails that are somewhat technical. I found the shoe to be nimble and lets me dance over rocks and roots at fast paces. The ZoomX midsole feels great—almost as comfortable as a road shoe.
How did it fare? Not so great, to be honest, but better than I expected. On the downhill, I felt like I had good cushioning and perhaps the best runnability of the three shoes here, but the lugs, as I suspected, weren’t long enough for the ascent or descent. On the loose stuff, I had to fully plant my foot to get any kind of grip, rather than just clawing with forefoot lugs like I hoped to do. On the descent, I skidded a few times early and that completely shook my confidence in being able to stay upright.
If the race course was only half as steep, this shoe would have been my frontrunner.
Who remembers this ridiculous shoe? Was it a gimmick? Would I get laughed off the start line if I rocked up wearing that? Given Whiteface was a USATF Championship race, could I even legally wear it (even if I’m no threat for medaling).
When snagging this shoe out of storage, now 30 months old, I had high hopes that it would crush the descent, which is truthfully my weakest skill when racing mountains. After all, that’s what this shoe was built for. Just look at that booty. That massive heel is built to make early contact with the ground and let you effortlessly roll onto your heel. Plus, it puts an insane amount of sole in contact with the ground to boost stability at high speeds.
After I laced it up, I wished for more grip on the climbs in the loose section. Rocks were coming unglued beneath my feet. It fared better than the Nike, but I knew I’d be suffering as the mountain race course joined up with the VK path at the top of Whiteface—the steepest, slowest section of the course. That giant heel was never a bother on the climb and, even though the TenNine is among the top five heaviest shoes I’ve ever worn, the shoe didn’t feel beefy at all.
The descent nearly earned this shoe a trip Upstate, though. I threw caution to the wind, unlike wearing the Nike, because the first few strides were almost like being suction-cupped to the hill. When I hit loose rocks and gravel, I skidded down the hillside, but those big-ass skis under me didn’t wobble or veer. I felt controlled and stayed upright until I could get my other foot under me. These shoes really do let you run recklessly.
But before picking my date for race day, I had to try one more.
Hoka Mafate Speed 4
This is another new trail shoe that had just arrived for testing and I was really curious how it would perform. I’d used the earlier EVO versions and was really eager to see how this completely overhauled model stacked up. In fact, I had put the EVO 2 to the test just after trying the TenNine in March 2020, right before the world went into lockdown for COVID-19. Here’s what I wrote in my training log after that first run:
I laced up the current Mafate to see how it compared on the same stretch of trail as the TenNine from a couple days ago. The climb was great, but the descent wasn’t so hot. They’re definitely less stable and I twisted my ankle a couple times on the more technical sections. That said, I was moving pretty good on the downhill. I wasn’t specifically pushing for a time, but turns out I was only 5 seconds off my own Strava KOM for the descent from the power line to the parking lot.
Whether it’s the EVO Mafate or the Mafate Speed, the shoes are built to deliver max cushioning and max grip in challenging terrain. Sounds like just what I needed, but what about that ankle twisting I’d felt before?
It’s important to note that the Mafate Speed 4 is a new beast. The midsole and outsole have been completely overhauled from the Speed 3, with far more rubber extending into the midfoot, which I feel gives even more security on technical terrain. Comparatively, the EVO and Speed 3 had much more foam exposed through the midfoot, though it was a rubberized EVA for improved durability.
Give me grip, I say.
And grip is where this shoe shines. The lugs are tiered, with three levels and lots of little edges. Made from Vibram Megagrip, the Litebase rubber is grippy on soft ground while the lugs are soft enough to stick to hard ground and rocks.
The two-layer midsole is Hoka’s ProFly+ setup, which puts a softer foam closest to your foot for comfort, and a dense, responsive foam at the ground to give you a lively ride. As I took the shoe to the trail, I knew I was going to love the protection. On the climb, it didn’t feel mushy—I wasn’t wasting energy with each step going uphill. On the descents, it didn’t have quite the same stable footplant as the TenNine, but the Mafate was far more nimble. I never felt like I was out of control or reckless, even when I sent a hailstorm of rocks down toward our photographer Trevor Raab. (Sorry, Trevor!)
The Winner, and How They Performed
Based on my testing, I took a pair of the Mafate Speed 4 to Whiteface. Our video producer Pat Heine ran the Vertical K and he, too, opted for the same shoe.
My route to the summit was a bit different than his, but linked up with the VK climb to the summit. Then we took a slightly less steep route back to the base lodge, though that route was still pretty treacherous.
Somewhere around 30 minutes into the race, I figured it didn’t matter what shoes I wore because the day was going to be a sufferfest on the mountain. I was barely making any forward progress. (Pat told me after his race that his Garmin displayed ZERO for “current pace.”) Even so, I was pouring buckets of sweat and my HR was hovering around 10K effort for much of the climb.
On the descent, I wiped out only once, but I can’t lay fault on the shoe. The first pitch down from the summit was extremely runnable, even though it was littered with blow down from the off-season and had turned into a small stream from the run-off of the previous night’s rain. I was pushing the pace pretty good (for me), and I got a little bit cocky. One mountain access road took a big sweeping left-hand, downhill turn and I went into it too hot. The shoe did its business, holding onto whatever I pressed it against. The problem is that I planted it into a loose pile of dirt and rocks that just blew out from under me like dandelions on a gusty spring day. Buh bye. I somersaulted, got my orange CPTC-Tracksmith all sorts of filthy, and somehow managed to plant the rubber right-side down on the next stride, continuing my downhill pursuit in one fluid motion. Sure, I lost a little skin on my hip and knee, but all-in-all it wasn’t too bad. I just wish there was a video to see if I was actually as graceful as I’m imagining. (Please don’t ruin my fantasy.)
Somewhere late in the race, my left hip flared up from the long downhill pounding and I resorted to kind of dragging my leg along in a slow jog. As the ground flattened out a bit, I couldn’t really take advantage of the shoes as I wanted, instead just trying to get my butt off the mountain.
Two days later, I toed the line for a downhill road mile in Ticonderoga, NY. The race drops 150 feet from start to finish. I was sure I’d be in for a world of hurt. But, perhaps thanks as much to the shoes as to a set of Normatec 3 leg sleeves I lived in for the 48 hours between races, I felt kind of okay. I was tired and my leg turnover was pathetically slow, but in years past, I would have been in more pain than I experienced. So, if I’m faced with another steep up-and-down trail race, I’m reaching for the Mafate Speed 4.
Runner-in-Chief Jeff is Runner-in-Chief for Runner’s World, guiding the brand’s shoes and gear coverage.
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