|Ah! Gotta love that new shoe smell! They won't stay looking that clean for long...|
Salomon are the Apple of ultrarunning. Their stuff looks sexy, it's highly functional, everybody wants it, but my word is it expensive! Generally speaking my choice of running gear is primarily based on price, but I have found the Salomon S-Lab Skin hydration pack to be so amazing that I now own 3 despite the high price tag (a 5L, a 12L, and another 5L as I have burnt through the first one now with overuse). I have also used the Salomon Speedcross shoe since my first 100 miler in 2011, although these are actually very well priced (particularly if you look around online). So I have found myself accidentally becoming a bit of a Salomon fanboy without really meaning to. But when the kit works so well, what can you do?
When the Salomon Sense came out last year, I wanted them. I wanted them bad! I'm pretty sure that they automatically make you run like Killian Jornet. Well I would hope so at least, given the 150 quid price tag! I've never really had a problem with my Speedcross and am of the opinion that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", but the Sense appeared to be the Speedcross but with a lower heel-to-toe drop that would be more suitable for my more forefoot/midfoot running style. They looked like they would be worth a shot, but I just couldn't bring myself to break my bank account for them. Instead, I went for an even more minimalist (and much cheaper) shoe in the New Balance MT110.
Jump forward to 2013, when Salomon released their updated versions of the Sense; the Sense Ultra and the Sense Mantra. The Sense Ultra is very similar to the original Sense (with a few minor tweaks), whilst the Sense Mantra is more of a gateway shoe with slightly more padding in the sole. "Lovely", I thought, "but still outside of my price range". But thanks to Craig Meredith at Fit2Function, I was able to get hold of a pair of Sense Mantras at the very reasonable price of £85. Well alright then, if you insist!
|"Llllllliiiiiike a glove!"|
So these shoes have about a year and a half of drooling lust to live up to. So how have they done? From the outset, I will say that I haven't had a chance to test these shoes as much as I would like, but a few people have already asked me what I think of them. Over the past month they have coped with some pretty muddy and wet terrain, as well as plenty of ice and snow, but generally the testing has been conducted over relatively flat single track and fields. I will be taking them out to Transvulcania with me in May, but until then I have not had a chance to get away anywhere more technical with them what with the impending arrival of our first baby - 4 days overdue and counting! I've only put about 100-150 miles on them so far, with the longest run being about 30 miles, so there's still plenty more testing to be done! But here are my initial thoughts.
The Sense Mantra is somewhat of a step between the low drop of the original Sense (4mm) and that of a normal shoe (around 10-12mm). With 21mm of cushioning in the heel and 15mm in the forefoot (6mm drop), there is plenty of protection for long ultras while still promoting a natural forefoot strike. The shoe is a lot more robust than the original Sense, and this is reflected in the weight. At about 9.6 oz it is a lightweight shoe (about an ounce lighter than the Speedcross), but compared to the 7 oz weight of the original Sense (lighter even than the NB MT110s!) they are practically heavy weights. The extra weight comes thanks to the inclusion of a layer of 'LT Muscle' EVA in the midsole, along with a stronger rockplate to protect the foot from impact on stony terrain.
Come on. Look at these pictures and tell me that these shoes aren't the sexiest thing you have ever seen. Whether white is a sensible colour for a shoe that will inevitably get utterly caked in mud is a different question... But I love the look of these shoes. They are sleek and clean, and the beauty of the synthetic mesh on the upper is that it cleans very easily!
|The lightweight upper including Salomon quicklace system|
The upper is made of a synthetic open mesh designed to be breathable and quick drying. It's got an almost suedey feel to it, but works brilliantly at draining water out as you run. I have personally found breathability and the ability to dry quickly to be much more beneficial than the shoe being waterproof; water will inevitably get in anyway, so if it can't get back out again (or if your foot is left stewing in your own sweat) then you might run into problems. When running knee-deep through some pretty bad flooding around a nearby river, I found my feet were almost completely dry when I got home again. This also makes the shoes easy to clean, which given the amount of mud we have had recently is a real bonus!
Similarly to the NB MT110s, the upper is designed with a single continuous and seamless construction which allows you to wear them with no socks. Personally I found some hotspots occurring when I tried running sockless, although I have the same issue with all shoes so suspect that it is more a problem with my strange feet. I had a little rubbing on the outside of my little toe (similar to what I saw with the NB MT110s), and also a blister came up on the outside of my right heel where the top of the shoe was rubbing. When running with socks however (DryMax trail mini crews), I saw no hotspots or blisters at all.
The 'Endofit' system provides support to the midfoot, holding the foot comfortably in place while allowing some give. The shoes use the same quicklace system as the Speedcross, which works well at keeping the upper comfortably in place. The laces are made of Kevlar fibres so should be pretty resistant to breaking, although I know that the laces were the first thing to go on Marcus Warner's (from Ultra168) original Sense shoes (albeit after a lot of miles). I have found previously that it is easy to over-tighten the shoe using this system which can lead to pain later in the run, so I typically don't do mine up particularly tight. The excess tucks away into a pouch on the tongue which is nice and neat.
|They are designed to be worn with no socks, although I found a couple of hotspots on the outside of my small toe and outside of my heel where the top of the shoe rubs. There were no problems when wearing socks though.|
The fit of the shoe is very similar to that of the Speedcross (pretty much true to size), although they are perhaps a little larger in the front. I bought the same size in the Sense Mantras as I normally wear in the Speedcross (UK 9.5) and they fit very comfortably. They are snug in the mid foot due to the Endofit system supporting the foot and preventing any movement as you run. The toe box is slightly larger than in the Speedcross, in both width and length, so it may be that you may prefer to buy a half size down. Time will tell whether the increased size prevents problems with toes rubbing while running by providing more room to allow splaying of the toes, or if the toe box room causes the toes to bash around when running downhills. My feeling is that I wouldn't personally want to go down in size as the mid foot feels so comfy, and I haven't had any issues whatsoever with my toes so far.
|Lug distribution throughout the outsole|
The midsole is less flexible than that of the NB MT110, but more flexible than the Speedcross. It doesn't have that same "slipper"-like feel, but definitely gives increased feeling of the terrain while also protecting you ('Propriotection' - ho ho ho). The cushioning is relatively firm providing protection over longer distances that you might not get in the Sense Ultras. The 'ProFeet Film' layer (which you can just make out in the two small windows in the above picture) acts as a rockplate to protect the foot from stones and spiky things while maintaining feel for the trail.
The outsole is very different from that of the Speedcross, with a larger number of smaller lugs. The 'Contragrip' system is still in place, with lugs organised to provide maximum traction in all conditions. They were surprisingly grippy when running on ice and I managed to avoid ever having to use my microspikes. Similarly running on snow was no problem. Running on very sloppy mud was pretty slippy, but frankly this is true of any shoe. One thing that I noticed is that I didn't have any problems with mud clogging up the bottom of the shoe like I often get on my Speedcross, which could be due to the more widely distributed lug pattern.
Let's be honest, there's no getting around the fact that these shoes are chuffin' expensive. The Sense Mantras typically sell for about £110 whilst the Sense Ultras go for about £130. When I can get a pair of Speedcross that give me absolutely no issues for half the price, or a pair of NB MT110s for a quarter of the price, it's just not going to happen. However, if you shop around you can find good deals on the shoes, and I managed to find some for £85 from Fit2Function. But for that price they had better be bloody good!
So are they bloody good? Well I really enjoy running in them. They are a great midpoint between the Salomon Speedcross (which have plenty of cushioning and hold together really well over 100 milers) and the NB MT110s (which are light, fast and nimble, but less robust for long distances). I need to run a long (50+ miles) and technical route on them to really judge if they are a suitable replacement to the Speedcross, as it is no good if they slow me down over the long run or cause more injuries. But they definitely feel nimble and nippy, and allow me to run with good form whilst providing cushioning if (when?!) things go wrong. In May I will be running the extremely technical Transvulcania course, and will be taking the Sense Mantras with me. Hopefully they will hold up, and if so I will be very happy!
Should you go for the Sense Mantra or the Sense Ultra? I'll be honest - I wanted the Ultras. But I couldn't bring myself to pay the extra money for them. As I understand it, the Ultras are a more lightweight shoe and may be much faster for racing - if you don't fall apart due to the lack of cushioning of course. If you need something a little more robust then the Mantra are a good compromise, as you get the benefits of increased proprioception and a forefoot strike-promoting shoe, with the added bonus of protection should things go wrong (something which I have already come a cropper on in the NB MT110s).
I'll report back with how I get on in the volcanic island of La Palma at Transvulcania.