The best companion I have had since I started running full time has been the VJ Sport IROCK. As shoes go, this one is near on perfect for mountain running – especially in the wet, which is where having a good shoe makes all the difference.
But why ‘near on perfect’? It is true the IROCK has the best lug configuration and rubber compound of any shoe I have tested, but it is let down in one area alone: protection. The IROCK has a soft and flexible outsole; this results in a great connection to the ground and therefore a great running feeling, but also less protection against rocky terrain. An hour or two has never been a problem, but once you get to 5 hours+ on rocky terrain my feet can hurt and more protection is needed.
But would it be possible to create a shoe with more protection, which has equal grip and connection to the ground? This was the main discussion point when I visited VJ last December. Talking through outsoles, lug configurations, rock plates and midsoles, I started to feel that the task was in good hands. VJ don’t make many shoes, but this is because they put 100% effort into nailing the ones they do make. Both the AMAS and the IROCK are truly special shoes, but would VJ be able to match or outdo themselves? It wasn’t long before I was finding out.
The first prototype arrived in February. Practically custom made to fit me, I was excited to throw it on. As soon as I slipped my foot in and laced them up a smile spread across my face. The fit was like the original IROCK, which was more of an extension of my foot than a shoe (the newer IROCK never felt quite the same). The outsole definitely had the same amazing rubber compound, because I could feel my foot peeling away from the floor as I walked around the apartment.
But how would they be to run in? I was mostly skiing at the time, but had started doing three quality running sessions a week to prepare for the Trail World Championship. On my next session, I donned the prototypes with pride, hoping they ran as good as they felt.
To add protection, VJ used a combination of four different methods. A slightly thicker midsole for more cushioning, a slightly harder midsole to add stiffness, a rock plate to diffuse points of impact and a new outsole. Within minutes of running on trails with many small sharp rocks I could tell the changes were working. Unlike when wearing the IROCKs, when I would wince from time to time if a sharp rock hit certain points under the shoes, wearing the prototypes I had a smile of my face the entire time. This was pleasing, but what was truly amazing was how the running feeling had actually improved! The new outsole has slightly shorter but bigger lugs; this reduces grip very slightly in extremely muddy conditions, but improves the ride immensely. I never noticed before but when hammering downhill, the slight bending of the long IROCK lugs is actually off putting. In the new shoes when your foot hits the ground you have an instant and solid connection. My downhill running was immediately faster, safer and more enjoyable. Another added benefit of the new outsole is that with the larger lugs, more rubber comes into contact with the ground, resulting in superior grip on smooth surfaces such as large rock or slabs.
Testing done – the only thing I was disappointed with was that I couldn’t find anything to change. I wanted to write pages and pages of detailed feedback, but there wasn’t much to report except for to congratulate them. Over the next months, I tested a few different prototypes but nothing really changed. Altering the hardness of the wedge was the only thing we tried in order to see how the stiffness changed with use.
My first race came along in May; 90km on hard rocky Spanish trails in the trail world championships. If this didn’t test the shoes I didn’t know what would. I came fourth and couldn’t fault the shoes in the slightest. They had amazing grip and even though by the end my feet started to hurt a little, I knew that it was nothing compared to what using the IROCKs would have been like for 9 hours in such terrain. 90km was pushing the shoe to its maximum but they performed remarkably. If I was to run over 100km in this terrain, I would like to have even more cushioning but of course that would reduce the running feeling. I was convinced VJ had made quite possibly the greatest trail shoe to date. Further testing in wetter conditions confirmed the grip was over 95% of the IROCK (which is the grippiest shoe ever) and the improved running feeling was doing wonders for my descending.
VJ put the shoe into production in June and by July, Sport 1 (where I work) and Drevelin, in Bergen, received the first batch. Seven months after our initial meeting and it was ready to be sold. To be honest though, I was nervous. Would everyone like it as much as I did? Would the quick turnaround result in a production flaw and a bunch of returns? Would everyone still prefer the IROCK? Thus far I haven’t heard any complaints except from my boss who said we should have ordered more…
The VJ XTRM; I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Other VJ shoes:
AMAS – Road gravel paths and hard packed dry trails.
IROCK – Extremely muddy or wet soft conditions.
XTRM – All mountain, all weather conditions