By Brian Metzler
When the Swedish apparel company Craft wanted to get into the footwear business a few years ago, it specifically targeted ultra-distance trail running athletes. That’s partially because long-distance trail running is one of the fastest growing segments of the running space, but also because those runners are hardest on their shoes with the most critical requirements. Craft figured if it could create mountain-tested high-performance apparel for running and skiing, it could do the same for trail running shoes.
Now in its third season of producing shoes, Craft has proved its mettle by developing competent road running shoes along with its trail running shoes. Craft is about to unveil a high-performance trail shoe this week at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc festival of trail running races in Chamonix, France, called the Pure Trail. (While that’s still under wraps, I’ll be running in it for the first time on Wednesday.) In the meantime, I’ve spent the past several weeks putting miles on a pair of Craft Nordlite Ultra shoes, a brand new energetic, max-cushion trail training shoe.
What’s New: The Nordlite Ultra is a brand new shoe from Craft, but it takes cues and uses materials from several of its recent models. It’s built with a highly cushioned midsole made of Craft's supercritical Cr Foam, which allows the shoe to serve up a soft, bouncy but inherently stable ride. That’s a unique mix that’s made possible by a carbon midfoot shank embedded in the middle of the midsole. It has an extremely light and breathable perforated upper that creates a well-ventilated feeling of airiness but also conforms to a variety of foot sizes and shapes to help provide a locked-down fit. It has a low-profile, multi-lugged tread pattern on the three-piece rubber outsole that helps it adhere to most wet and dry surfaces without inhibiting the natural flex and movement of your feet.
Fit/Feel/Ride: The Nordlite Ultra has a medium-volume interior but it fits a bit snug, length-wise. However, I found that sizing up by a half size seemed to reduce any issues for my narrow, size 10.5 feet. The step-in feeling is soft and comfortable but not luxurious or excessively padded. That’s just fine because the pliable and highly breathable one-piece upper helps keep the securely attached to the footbed when it’s laced up. The ride is bouncy and extremely energetic, reminiscent of a road running “supershoe” that you might choose for running a fast marathon. In a word, the Nordlite Ultra is versatile, ideal for running on a wide variety of trail surfaces, gravel roads and even pavement on concrete bike paths in a pinch.
Why It’s Great: It’s great because it’s so lively. The Cr Foam midsole material is soft but not mushy, lively but not tippy. It’s one of the most responsive midsole foams in the trail running shoe world, but it’s great because it’s not marshmallow soft. I love the resilient feeling of forward propulsion I felt in every stride in smoother terrain, but I also appreciated the stability from the wide footprint and semi-firm compression detail of the foam. I would consider this shoe an ideal trail training shoe, but it’s also great for longer races or adventure runs. I wouldn’t necessarily race anything short and technical in it, if only because it’s not as light and agile as some other shoes in my quiver.
Why You’ll Love It: I love it because it’s versatile for just about any surface, almost any pace and almost any distance. Although it’s not built for extremely rugged, technical rocky trails – and let’s face it only a few shoes are – the semi-firm feeling of the midsole foam gives it the stability necessary to run on semi-technical terrain. A lot of my runs in Boulder, Colorado, start from my house, so I’m running on paved roads for a mile until I get to a trailhead. The Nordlite Ultra is one of those shoes that feels good (or good enough) running on hard surfaces without any awkward sensations from the outsole lugs. From there, I’ve typically encountered a wide variety of trail terrain ranging from hard-packed dirt to moderately rocky terrain. The thickness and relatively firm but longitudinally flexible midsole moderates foot movements without being tippy and keeps underfoot protuberances at bay. I was able to feel the trail pretty well for such a high-stack shoe, while also benefiting from considerable cushion and protection.
Weights: 9.1oz. (women’s size 8), 11.0 oz. (men’s size 9) Heel-Toe Offset: 6mm (38mm in the heel, 32mm in the forefoot for women; 42mm in the heel, 36mm in the forefoot for men)
Pro: The flexible and unstructured heel counter provides just enough support to keep your foot secure and moving in a forward direction without wobbling. While many shoes have heel counters that are rigid and fill up the entire heel of the shoe, this one is pretty minimal but still very effective. That’s important in a trail shoe because you don’t want to have too much rigid structure around your foot while running on uneven surfaces because that kind of gait control can lead to instability or at least awkward rolling.
Con: The Nordline Ultra is a really good trail shoe, but if there is a knock against it, it’s that it’s about a half-ounce heavier than I’d like it to be. It’s not overwhelmingly heavy or bulky because it’s very well balanced, but let’s just say I think it would have a better running sensation if it was slightly lighter. It’s great for training, but I’d like it a lot more for ultra-distance racing if it was a tad lighter.