Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tanner Sandals The Solution Review

The Solution with natural footbed and nylon laces
One of the great things about being a minimalist runner in 2012 compared with being one back in the early days of 2009 (or in the dark ages of 2006) is that the selection of footwear is rapidly expanding. While a few years ago there were just a couple of huaraches on the market, now there are a whole crop of new start-ups making really great sandals. One of these start-ups that I only found out about a couple of months ago (thanks to Barefoot Inclined) is Tanner Sandals, a great little company making fantastic sandals.

Tanner Sandals based in New Hampshire and run by the three Tanner brothers. They've only been in business now for about 8 months, which explains why I hadn't heard of them until recently. Tanner currently offers three models of huaraches for adults, plus one for kids. The three adult models are the Answer, the Solution, and the Timeless. All three feature Vibram rubber soles and attractive leather footbeds. The Answer is the basic model and uses either a 5 or 8mm neoprene rubber sole. The Timeless is the same sandal but with a variation of traditional Tarahumara-style leather laces.

The Timeless with black leather footbed

The Solution, which is the model I decided to try, is a little different. It uses a 4mm dense rubber sole (which seems to be the same material Luna uses for its Leadville sandal) and a smooth leather footbed, with a 3mm "cloud" midsole sandwiched in the middle. The midsole is designed to mold to your foot over time. You have your choice of black or "natural" footbed, and nylon or leather laces.  I chose a natural footbed and nylon laces.

The Solution with natural footbed and leather laces
The Solution sells for $80. (The Answer and Timeless both sell for $70.) You can order the sandal in half sizes or you can email the Tanners a tracing of your foot and they will custom make a pair to fit your feet at no extra charge (several other huarache companies charge for this). Given the quality of the materials and the cost of other sandals on the market, the price is reasonable.

I don't know the weight of the Solution but when I pick them up they feel a bit heavier than most huaraches, probably due to the leather. However, once on my feet they don't feel heavy.

These are really beautifully made sandals. It's obvious that a lot of thought and effort goes into designing and making them. Overall, they have a very polished appearance--they look like something you bought in a store rather than something you made in your garage (which is what a lot of huaraches look like, to be honest).

One unique feature is that the the knot is buried between the layers of the sole so that the bottom of the sole is completely smooth. If you're one of those people who doesn't like having a knot under your toes, these are the sandals for you.

Another interesting detail for sandal nerds huarache aficionados is that the sandal is laced "backwards"--the lace is threaded through the inside ankle hole first and then through the outside hole, instead of the other way around as it usually is. I think it's a clever idea, since this way the buckle tightens to the outside. What this means to you is that the buckle and tail end of the lace will be on the outside of your foot instead of on the inside where they can hit your other ankle.

The one problem I had with my pair is that after 45 miles (mostly rocky trail) the front of the sole is beginning to separate from the midsole.  (I should probably mention that I did kick a rock pretty hard at one point, so that might have contributed.)

I wrote Luke Tanner about it and he said that I'm the first person to have a pair do this in the seven months they've been selling the Solution. Luke also said he's run several hundred miles on his pair without a problem. The company policy if this did happen to someone else would be to repair or replace the pair for free, including paying for shipping both ways. (Luke offered to fix my pair but since I got them for free and the problem is really just cosmetic at this point I declined.) Given this policy and what I've already noted about the overall quality of the construction, I don't think long term durability should be a concern.

Overall, the Solution is pretty comfortable. The leather footbed feels great and molds to your foot as it ages. The soft ribbon between the toes doesn't cause irritation or blisters for me the way many laces do. The nylon laces are also comfortable and don't tend to rub. The only thing I had a problem with was the part of the lace behind the heel which is covered with a firm rubber or plastic sheath. I'm not a huge fan of the sheath. It's not painful or anything like that but I don't find it particularly comfortable either. Part of the problem is that I had a problem with the strap falling down in the back (more on that later) and I had to wear them tighter than I would have liked to get them to stay up. I guess it wouldn't bother me so much if they weren't so comfortable in every other way--it's the one glaring imperfection in something otherwise great (like Jimmy Fallon).

So far, I've run about 45 miles on my pair so far, including a rocky trail 50k (Cave Creek Thriller). I've also worn them around a bit casually. Overall they work really well but I want to start with the negative first.

The one thing I really didn't like about the Solution was the heel strap--specifically, the fact that I had a terrible time getting it to stay up. This was a mild problem when walking (mostly fixed by tightening the laces, though as I mentioned that makes them less comfortable), a moderate problem when running on flat terrain, and a huge problem when trail running down steep hills. In fact, the first time I wore the sandals was on a long run on a hilly trail and I ended up stopping after 9 miles to change into another pair of sandals because the heel strap on the Solution was driving me nuts. It would stay up for a while (sometimes a short time, sometimes a mile or two), then slowly work its way down until I had to stop and pull it up again.

In fairness, it may be me, at least partly. I've had this problem with some other lacing systems (though not with all). I suspect that I may run with a slight twist in the movement of my feet (based on blister patterns and some other things), which may play a part. Luke says that he's found that people with lower insteps tend to have a harder time keeping laces up; that may be a factor as well. Whatever the reason, the heel strap just wasn't working for me.

Fortunately, I found a solution (ha! pun!). I taped some pieces of makeup sponge to the heel strap with medical tape and voila!--problem solved. I no longer had any problems keeping the strap up and the comfort level improved markedly. Best of all, I finally got to really put the sandal through its paces at the Cave Creek Thriller 50k, and I have to say it was a lot of fun to run in. In fact, with my minor tweak to the heel strap, the Solution went from being borderline unusable for me to being one of my all time favorite trail running shoes.

My low-tech Solution solution
The Vibram sole is one that I'm familiar with and really like. Traction is good, at least on dry surfaces. I didn't run in the rain or in mud, but I did run on dirt and rocks--along with the frequently treacherous rocks covered in dirt--and it handled those surfaces extremely well. One thing I was worried about when I first got the Solution was whether the smoother leather footbed would be slick, but this wasn't the case. My feet always felt very secure on the footbed no matter what the terrain. With my modification to the heel strap, the laces are also very secure and keep my foot and the sandal moving as one unit. They also don't rub, which is great if you're blister-prone like I am.

Rock protection is very good. My 50k was full of pointy rocks but my feet never felt bruised. The stack height is only 8 or 9mm (7mm plus the leather footbed) but the leather seems to function like a rock plate. Groundfeel is pretty good considering the level of protection but obviously isn't as good as a road-only sandal like the Xero Shoes Connect.

The Solution isn't very flexible, although I don't consider this a negative. Stiffness is a necessary quality in a sandal and excessive flexibility can actually hurt performance--you want something that moves with your foot, not flops around like a fish strapped to your feet.

Fish flops
What you do want is a sole that will mold to the shape of your foot, and the Solution does that well.

What all this adds up is a sandal that eats trails. The 50k I ran was a loop course and I had brought several other pairs of footwear to change into, but the Solution worked so well I never felt like taking them off. The course was rocky and pretty steep in places but I was happy as a clam in my sandals chugging along next to all the people in Hokas. For the heck of it, I even tried keeping up with some of the 10k runners on the downhills when they passed me. The Solution was as safe and effective while bombing rocky downhills as nearly any footwear I've tried.

The Solution is a competent road sandal as well. It's a bit more shoe than you really need for the road and is heavier than some other options, but it works fine. If you want to get one sandal for roads, trails and casual wear, the Solution is a good option.

The Solution is a beautifully made, extremely capable running sandal that is maddeningly close to being flawless. As you've picked up by now, the heel strap was an issue for me but it probably wouldn't be a big deal for most people (it wasn't for Jeff at Barefoot Inclined) and even if it were, it's a simple thing to fix. I'm really impressed by the quality of sandals the Tanners are producing in their first year of business. They're already making some of the best huaraches on the market, and they're just getting started.

Tanner Sandals are available on their website.

Sandal provided by the manufacturer

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