Even before the Covid-19 pandemic started and outdoor activities became one of the safest ways to exercise, trail running was growing in popularity. In a report published in February 2020, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association recorded an average 8 percent year-over-year increase in trail running participants.
Then, with more and more people hitting the trails during the long months of 2020’s global lockdown, runners started recording new fastest known times. Called an FKT in running parlance, it’s the speed record on any particular trail route with a marked beginning and end. In fact, 2020 was a blowout year for setting FKTs on trails all over the world.
It’s possible that 2021 will prove to be even faster. A technology that’s helped road runners boost their speed is making its way onto the dirt: shoes with carbon-fiber plates embedded underfoot. By utilizing a footbed made of a stabilizing carbon-fiber plate surrounded by exceptionally light foam, these shoes can reduce deviations in a runner’s form over long runs to reduce energy waste. The stiffness of the plate has another advantage too, as many runners say it feels like it provides a kind of propulsive spring.
Today, the North Face is debuting the Flight Vectiv, a trail running shoe with a carbon-fiber plate inside. It was designed with the input of elite ultra runners, and it marries lightweight construction with the ruggedness required of a trail shoe.
Because they give racers a competitive advantage, the use of shoes outfitted with carbon-fiber plates in races is a point of controversy. Just a year ago, runners all over the world were questioning the sanity of the decision to allow such shoes in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Competitive runners everywhere furiously debated whether the shoes should be legal in races or whether they were just a form of “mechanical doping.” In 2017, WIRED discovered that using Nike’s carbon-fiber-equipped Vaporfly shoes in an actual marathon did reduce runners’ times.
The decision to allow carbon-fiber-enhanced shoes into the Olympics sent manufacturers into panic mode as they all raced to develop their own versions in time for the Tokyo games, where their rosters of sponsored athletes would all be competing side by side.
I was excited to watch this all play out, and to engage in heated and circular arguments about what really made you fast—if it was coaching, biology, gear, or the size of the heart in the dog. But that was last year. Since then, the Tokyo Olympics have been delayed, and millions of Americans, desperate for activity and safe entertainment, have taken to the trails.
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To help test and develop the new trail shoe, the North Face worked with elite ultra runners like Kaytlyn Gerbin and Dylan Bowman. The company also gave a prototype pair to Coree Woltering, a Black and gay ultra runner who is one of the notably diverse faces in a not very diverse sport. Woltering set the FKT on the 1,147 miles of Wisconsin’s historic Ice Age Trail at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. (I also watched Woltering on the World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji, as a member of the show’s first all-Black team.) In total, 14 North Face athletes have set FKTs wearing different Vectiv prototypes.
A few weeks before the launch, the North Face sent me a pair to try. I ordered them in a women’s 8.5, sizing up from my street size of 7.5, and they fit well with a pair of Balega crew socks (more on that later). I laced them up trepidatiously, hoping that the stiff carbon fiber and composite plate wouldn’t make me trip and fall as I stepped out of my house and jogged down the sidewalk to the park.
The Flight Vectivs look more like a road running shoe than my current favorite trail runners, the Topo Ultraventure Pros. At 8.64 ounces per shoe, they’re a little bit heavier and have a higher 6-millimeter heel-to-toe drop. That means the heel is about 6 millimeters taller than the toe, which is a bit more than the minimalist 0-4-millimeter drops I prefer.
The shoe has a distinctive rockered sole that screams, “Hey! There’s a carbon-fiber plate in here!” But it has trail-running-specific qualities too. The knit upper has a breathable, abrasion-resistant Matryx panel woven from a blend of Kevlar and polyamide that’s thin enough to see through. The toe is reinforced for extra protection during the inevitable collisions with tree roots.
The upper has been made thin to reduce weight, and it sits flush against your skin to keep out the pebbles and grit you’re bound to collect on a trail run. The design also has a 3D-molded heel cup and a small heel grip inside the shoe. I normally tie my laces in a heel lock to prevent slippage, but the Flight Vectivs were secure enough that I didn’t need to do that.
If you’re accustomed to minimalist trail running shoes, padding around a forest in soft slippers while listening to podcasts and mumbling to yourself, the Flight Vectivs will take a while to get used to. I found the carbon plate to be noticeably stiff, but my worst fears about how it would affect by stride weren’t realized—between the 3D-molded heel cup, the heel grip, the big treads, and the narrow shoe shape, I didn’t slip, slide, or feel unsteady on uneven, muddy single-track.
During long runs, it definitely felt like my foot rolled forward with greater ease. When I checked my split times from my outings over the previous week, I see that I logged a 20- to 60-second improvement per trail mile on runs with the Flight Vectiv. This could be a placebo effect—you probably run faster when you think you’re wearing badass shoes with cutting-edge tech—but it seems pretty significant.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to test the shoes as much as I wanted to before launch because of two setbacks. Switching to a new running shoe, especially one with such a brand-new technology, will change your form. I noticed that after a week, a stabilizer tendon in my foot began to feel a little strained, so I decided to give it a little rest. Also, one morning while dressing for a trail run, I carelessly pulled on a pair of low-cut socks. The shoe’s upper extended past my sock and rubbed bloody holes in my heels. This didn’t feel like a fair criticism, because most trail runners do wear higher socks, but still. Wear crew socks, everyone!
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It’s impossible to ignore here that the word “Flight” in the Vectiv’s name echoes the North Face’s other products containing its latest outdoor technology. More than a year after I first tested it, the North Face’s light, breathable Futurelight Flight jacket remains one of my favorite foul-weather running jackets. The company also sent me an advance pair of Futurelight S21 leggings that, once I pulled them on, also quickly became my favorite pair of stretchy, breathable rainy-day leggings.
Even if you’re not an exceptionally fast runner who pushes themselves to do an ever-faster 100-miler every year (I’m not!), small, if expensive, improvements can make your time outside more comfortable and, dare I say it, faster than ever. The Flight Vectiv retails for $199, which is a pretty competitive price for a pair of carbon-fiber shoes. I’ll see you all out there once my ankles heal.
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