By Brian Metzler
This weekend in Chamonix, France, more than 12,500 runners are participating in the 2023 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) World Series Final, the de facto world championships of ultra-distance trail running. While I realized only a tiny portion of the running population – and a small segment of this newsletter’s readership base – are interested in ultrarunning, it’s a vibrantly growing part of the running world and it’s where a lot of running shoe innovations are happening. Plus, a lot of what applies to ultrarunning also applies to the much-faster growing segment of general trail running.
What is ultrarunning? It’s a term that refers to any race distance longer than a marathon. Generally speaking, it starts at about 50km (31 miles) and includes the popular distances of 50 miles, 100km, 100 miles and 200 miles, but many ultra races don’t fall into precise distance. The UTMB festival of events includes eight trail races, but the most popular are the original UTMB race that starts in Chamonix, sends runners on a 170km (or 106-mile) journey through parts of Italy and Switzerland on a course that circumnavigates 15,777-foot Mont Blanc and before returning to Chamonix.
From a trail running shoe perspective, Hoka ties a lot of its origin story to the UTMB race weekend. Although the brand’s founders Jean-Luc Diard, Nico Mermoud and Christophe Aubonnet were based in Annecy, France, they found some of their inspiration for their new maximally cushioned shoes while participating in the races on the steep rugged trails of Chamonix. At the peak of the minimalist shoe boom, they realized that a lot of runners preferred more cushion in the midsoles of their shoes, not less, while running over steep, rocky trails. (They modeled their max-cushioning concept after wide powder skis, oversized tennis rackets and gargantuan “fat bike” tires that offered a greater “sweet spot” for conquering the challenging crux of each of those sport disciplines.) Turns out they were right – more midsole foam was indeed better – but not only for trail running, for road running, too. Now, some 12 years since Hoka shoes hit running stores for the first time, most of the runners' at this weekend’s UTMB races are wearing maximally cushioned shoes.
What’s New: The Hoka Stinson 7 has been updated with a new compression-molded EVA midsole that’s quite a bit softer and thicker than the previous edition. It’s built into a new structure called the H-Frame, a firm foam skeleton embedded in the midsole that provides stability, and a new low-profile outsole with 4mm lugs that has increased the shoe’s traction on smooth rock surfaces and loose gravel.
Fit/Feel/Ride: The Hoka Stinson 7 fits true to size with a medium interior volume and plenty of wiggle room in the toe box. My narrow feet feel locked down and secure from the padded, partially gusseted tongue and reinforced jacquard engineered mesh upper and robust heel cup. The step-in feeling is moderately soft, but with a sparse amount of interior padding it’s not overly cozy. It’s the ride of the Stinson 7 that makes this shoe remarkable. Although it initially feels firm and a bit stiff from a lack of forefoot flex, I found it to be soft and accommodating on tame dirt trails and smooth, stable and secure on more technical trails with varying terrain. However, unlike some of its more dynamically agile cousins in the trail shoe space, it’s not at all nimble or agile. Instead, it’s more like a bulldozer that just plows right over rocks, roots, gravel and other obstacles found on the trail.
Why It’s Great: It’s great because it’s extremely stable and sturdy. The wide footprint and supportive structure, combined with the semi-firm foam package and excellent traction give the Stinson 7 great inherent lateral stability. Unlike some trail running shoes that have a tendency to roll to one side or the other, the Stinson 7 won’t wobble or tip, even on rugged terrain.
Why You’ll Love It: In some ways, the Stinson 7 is like a piece of hard candy with a soft, gooey chocolate on the inside. Although the shoe is minimally flexible and seemingly hard to bend, the increased midsole stack height and softer foams of the Stinson 7 engage the moment your foot hits the ground. That soft interior structure provides shock-absorbing cushioning and a responsive boost of energy that, combined with the shoe’s slightly concave “rocker” geometry, serves up a rolling sensation that guides your foot to the toe-off phase of a stride. All of that somehow combines for a surprisingly efficient gait pattern while running on flat, smooth trails and an effective mechanism for maneuvering over trails cluttered with rocky debris too.
Weights: 10.6 oz. (women’s size 8), 12.1 oz. (men’s size 9) Heel-Toe Offset: 5mm (43.5mm in the heel, 38.5mm in the forefoot)
Pro: If you like high-off-the-ground maximally cushioned shoes, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the Hoka Stinson 7. While it’s an adept trail running shoe, it’s also great for hiking and casual walking on trails, too.
Con: As much as the Stinson 7 is one of the more cushioned trail shoes available, it’s definitely not one of the lightest. It doesn’t seem quite as heavy as the spec weights (10.6 oz. for women, 12.1 oz. for men) would suggest, but it’s definitely not light. When I was trying to run at a faster pace on smooth dirt trails it felt like a bit too much shoe at times. It was still efficient, but I had a hard time running faster paces in it.