Monday, December 10, 2012

Luna Sandals Leadville ATS Review

After the success of Born to Run, it would have been natural to assume that there would be a surge of interest in running in huaraches. However, in contrast to the dramatic (and, to those of us who endured the phrase "gorilla feet" in 2009, surprising) rise in popularity of FiveFingers, huaraches have never become mainstream. Three years later, you see people wearing VFFs to the grocery store but huaraches are still mostly confined to purist (or maybe extremist) minimalist runners. I think this is largely due to what has always been the inherently do-it-yourself nature of the huarache. Kind of like flyfishing or playing bassoon, a sandal newbie had to essentially learn a new craft just to get to the point where he could try the activity. Even if you don't make the sole yourself, with traditional laces you're still in a way making your shoes from scratch every time you lace them. That, and the periodic need to retie the knot on the bottom, gives a traditional huarache a fluid, organic quality which I love but which is a huge barrier to the beginner. You can't just pull a pair out of a box and try them out.

Until now, that is. Huarache companies have finally reached the point where they are selling sandals that are ready out of the box, no assembly or special training required. And the monkeys at Luna Sandals, as they have always done, are leading the way once again. Their latest generation of sandals is now at a point where they are ready for the mainstream. And, I might add, they are fantastic to run in.

Ted learning how to make huaraches from the Tarahumara runner Manuel Luna.
(Note the banana.)
The Basics
Luna Sandals is a Seattle-based company founded by Barefoot Ted McDonald (of Born to Run fame) and Bookis and Scott Smuin. Luna currently offers two models: the Original Luna and the Leadville. The Leadville is Luna’s trail model and is the thickest sandal they make. The sole is made out of 10mm Vibram rubber and has a shallow tread pattern on the bottom. One of Luna’s newest innovations is the MGT footbed, which is a thin layer of sticky material glued to the top of the sole. MGT stands for Monkey Grip Technology and is designed to keep your foot from sliding across the surface of the sole, especially when wet.

Luna offers a variety of lacing options; the one I tried is the ATS (All Terrain Strapping) which is Luna’s latest slip-on style. It is made out of soft nylon webbing except for an elastic section behind the heel and a thinner piece of webbing between the toes. This piece of webbing connects to the sole by a countersunk plug so there's no knot under the foot. The strap adjusts via an easy to use plastic buckle. 

To help you figure out which size you need Luna helpfully provides outlines of each size that you can print and stand on. This is a pretty foolproof way of doing it and it worked well in my case. Just remember that it is normal for the side holes to be somewhat under your foot--this had me worried until I went back and checked my other sandals and discovered that they were the same. If you want a pair custom-made to the exact shape of your foot you can make a tracing, send it in, and the Luna monkeys will make a pair to fit your feet. The Leadville costs $95 with the ATS laces. The custom option is an extra $15.

Happy feet
These are very comfortable sandals, both when running and when used for casual wear. The ATS laces feel soft against the skin, the ribbon between the toes is barely noticeable, and the elastic heel section stretches as you move so it doesn't pull or rub against your heel. My feet were always happy when running even at the end of a 50k. In fact, after my last 50k I ended up keeping my Leadvilles on for several hours and wasn't dying to get into something else. Somehow I don’t think the same was true for all those people wearing Hokas.

I really like the look of the ATS laces. They don’t call attention to themselves (which wallflowers like me will appreciate) but they have a finished, well-made appearance.

Testing out my pair at the McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50k
(I look suspicious because as a blogger I am constantly hounded by paparazzi)
To date I have somewhere over a hundred miles of road and trail running on my pair (including one trail 50k) and overall I have been very happy with the way they have performed. The 10mm sole (around 11mm with the footbed) is more than enough protection, even during my 50k which was on a trail full of sharp, pointy rocks. I’m planning to attempt my first 50 miler next month on similar trails and this is the sandal I’ll be wearing.

Wet terrain testing location
Traction is very good on both dry and wet surfaces. I did a very damp seven mile run in Oregon over the Thanksgiving weekend on a trail which went around and behind several waterfalls and the Vibram rubber gripped surprisingly well on wet trail and rock. The real problem with huaraches, though, is traction (or lack thereof) between your foot and the footbed. The MGT footbed is a huge improvement over the naked top but is still very slick when soaking wet. However, when dry or even damp, it grips the foot pretty well. So what happened when my feet got drenched was that for about 30 seconds afterward my feet were sliding all over the place, but once the excess water came off and the sandal became merely damp the footbed started gripping and my feet felt secure again.

Fortunately, "Merely damp" is the Oregon state motto
Overall the ATS laces perform very well. In dry environments they are sufficiently secure unless you are going to be doing a lot of climbing or scrambling. The weakness of the ATS system is that in the heel section the strong nylon webbing is replaced with elastic. This elastic is comfortable and keeps the strap from falling down in the back (one of my pet peeves) but makes the laces less secure. When running or (especially) walking up steep hills, the elastic can allow the foot to slide off the back of the sole. This was never a real problem for me, except when the sandals were soaking wet. The times when the sandals were soaking wet and I was attempting to walk up a steep hill, the sandals became almost unuseable and I had to walk up sideways just to stay on my feet. For someone like me who lives in a pretty dry environment, it’s a minor problem, but if you are going to be spending a lot of your time with wet feet I would strongly recommend getting traditional laces. 

My dream all-weather sandal would be the Leadville with the MGT footbed but with traditional 3/8" leather (or maybe nylon) laces with the countersunk ribbon from the ATS laces. You can currently get this exact setup except with hemp laces, so maybe I'll get my wish sometime soon. 

Another perk of the MGT footbed is that to some degree it seems to prevent blisters. Since my foot remains glued to the sole instead of sliding around there isn't as much friction. At least, that's the way it seems to me. I very well might be crazy, but after 31 miles of running at McDowell Mountain I didn't have a single blister or hot spot. So there. 

When it came to huaraches there were traditionally a number of things that people (including yours truly) often complained about. They included:
  • Huaraches are hard to tie
  • They make you look like a gladiator
  • Can be uncomfortable between the toes
  • They take specialized knowledge and/or skill to make/tie/maintain
  • You can't buy them pre-made
  • The knot under the toes is irritating
  • The knot under the toes tends to break
  • You feet tend to slip, especially when wet
  • You have to retie/adjust them each time you put them on
  • The heel strap falls down, especially on downhills
With their latest generation of sandals, Luna has addressed every one of these issues. The current Leadville ATS is a sandal that is straightforward enough for the novice, rugged enough for the ultrarunner, and comfortable enough for the beach bum. I have no plans to stop wearing my pair anytime soon. You can buy a pair for yourself here

Sandal provided by the manufacturer


Order my children's book about barefoot running: What Should I Put on My Feet to Go Run?


  1. Great review! I liked the MGT as well, and one race was in a full on creek headed upstream. When I stepped out, it was slippery for about 30 sec as well before enough water shed for the MGT to get tacky again... not bad really. Way better than the folks who stopped to empty mud/sand/rocks from their shoes!

    1. Thanks Jeff. Shoes are way more trouble than they're worth a lot of the time, and the dirtier the run the more that seems to be true.

  2. Awesome review John! Wait til you try the newest ATS lace design. It's still in testing but it fixes the elastic over-stretching and heel sliding back on steep terrain issue. Hopefully launching early 2013.
    Congrats on the 50k and I hope we get to run together some day! Cheers!

    1. Thanks! Will this replace the previous ATS design or be a new option?

      You should come out to AZ sometime. Are you running Paatuwaqatsi next year?

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    3. Spot on with the heel slipping out in uphills thing, I've had this problem a lot even though I've never seen many complaints about it. I have mostly been using them in wet climates though.
      Great to hear Luna is working on a fix.
      Will the new lace system address the the "buckle not staying in place and sliding all the way down to your toes" problem as well?
      I know some people including me had this problem.
      I tried all sorts of adjustments but in the end I had to stitch them down. After the mod they have been working as intended though.

    4. The current version has a strip of MGT footbed where the buckle attaches to keep the buckle from sliding down. I've never had the problem you describe. It sounds like you have an older version of the ATS lace.