Since the natural or minimalist running movement came about, there’s been a somewhat tenuous relationship between the desire for a shoe with natural ground feel yet enough protection to not expose your feet to rocks that would make a hobbit cry for mommy. Finding a happy medium with these elements in mind is something that is seemingly right up the alley of former Vibram CEO, Tony Post and his relatively new shoe company, Topo Athletic.
Late last year we took a look at the RR from Topo. With it’s Boa lacing system and it’s split toe design, that shoe was a lightweight, speedy departure from traditional shoe design and one that may give some people pause before picking up a pair. While I gave that shoe a great review with it’s solid construction and huge nod to biomechanical function, many people were still a bit thrown by the split toe (unnecessarily so, in my opinion). With that in mind and wanting to take their natural running concepts off road, Topo bypassed the complete split toe, used multi-density EVA on a level platform and the off-road beauty, the Topo MT was born.
According to Topo, the MT, “offers the ultimate hybrid experience by pairing the best features of a trail and road shoe”. Having like the ground feel of the RR, I was curious how a shoe with a lot more material underfoot would back up that claim. First, the lugs of the MT are not cleat-like at all. They’re quite flat though the do have a decent amount of depth giving them plenty of grip. On the road, the flatness of the lugs makes for a very full-foot feel and quiet ride (more on this in the ride section below).
My testing of this shoe has been on dry trail, muddy trail, snow and ice. The outsole sports multiple flex grooves that allow the foot to bend and move as it needs to. This is something that, for me, makes the traction that much greater especially on dry trails. As with all non-studded shoes, there’s not much in the way of grip on non-chunky ice. On the powdery snow that we get here in Colorado though, I found the ground feel and lugs did a good job of keeping me upright and moving forward. On muddy trails, I did find my shoes getting quite caked over though they did clear out easily with several kicks to a dry rock.
The blown rubber of the outsole does extend fully along the underside of the shoe. it’s flex grooves are well designed and don’t catch additional debris or cause instability. With somewhat of a nod to its split toe pedigree, there is an extra deep sagittal flex groove where the split tow would be in other models. While it certainly doesn’t have the freedom of movement as its tabi-esque predecessors, this groove does give a bit more movement to the big toe.
Ever since their first shoes came out, even if you weren’t a fan of the split toe, you couldn’t deny Topo one thing: quality. The midsole of the MT is one place where the quality materials of the upper and outsole meet and in some other shoes, is simply passed over. In this shoe, the midsole is what makes it. Made of a triple density EVA the MT does not have a rock plate. It gets away with this because the different layers of EVA act as a multi-stage impact protection. This means that and sharp rocks or objects on a trail aren’t simply butting up against a stiff rock plate that is likely deadening the ground feel of the shoe. What’s happening is that these baddies are being slowed down (in quick order, mind you) before they get to your foot. For me, this meant that I was definitely aware of objects underfoot but rather than being super sharp of uncomfortable, I felt them well enough to adapt my body to move around them smoothly. Add to that their 2mm drop and you’ve got something pretty slick.
While I don’t have the miles on them (about 60 as of now) to be able to truly comment on the lifespan of the EVA, I would venture to say that not only is the 3-layer setup of these shoes protecting the feet but it’s likely that its also minimizing the breakdown of the individual layers of EVA, thus extending the wear of the shoe. Again, this is purely hypothesis but it would would seem that would be the case to a degree.
As with their other models, the upper is probably the biggest showcase of the quality of the Topo MT. For starters, the strapping on the upper is something I’d not seen before. While it may appear heat welded/bonded to the shoe, it’s actually 3-D printed on! This saves in weight and allows the interior to be that much smoother and comfortable. This printing makes up the support structure and it also gives the toe of the shoe protection as it extends the bumper. Between that and the fact that there are virtually no stitches on the upper, there’s a nice weight saving.
The gusseted tongue of the shoe doesn’t just have the typical singular lace guide about halfway up, but it has another above that that does a fantastic job of keeping the tongue in place, even when you’re on technical terrain. On the interior, the MT rocks an extremely comfortable, seamless liner. Now, this is something that I should share that’s kind of a quirk of mine. More often than not shoes have either too much or too little foam in the collar and tongue for me. I find myself wishing there was just a tiny bit less or a tiny bit more in some place. In this shoe the amount of foam on the collar and tongue is perfect to me. There’s just enough padding around the collar at just the right density to feel comfortable against my foot without being bulky. The trade-off for this wonderful fabric/foam combo is that it tends to hold a bit more water than one might like. Combine that with the fact that the top layer of EVA is a bit higher than the actual footbed and things may get and stay a bit damp.
The sizing of the MT is spot-on and for its durability and construction this shoe is nice and light! My size 11’s came in at a pleasant 8.6 ounces and I’d like to remind you that this is a trail shoe. Through the midfoot there is ample room for snugging down on a more narrow foot as well as allowing room for those with wider feet. The heel of the shoe doesn’t have much of a heel counter but with its nicely shaped cup, has a very stable feel. The toebox of the MT is exactly what I like to see in a shoe. There’s plenty of room for the small toe to move around and the vertical and horizontal space for the other toes is just right without being sloppy. The 3-D printed support structure also gives the upper shape adding to the spacious feel.
On roads the MT really does feel like a comfortable road shoe. The combination of the flat lugs and the flex grooved outsole give this tremendous ground feel for its stack height (19mm heel, 17mm forefoot). On light trail it really does a nice job and I must say that I’m liking the 3-D printed on support of the upper. On more technical (loose dirt/gravel hills and mud) it behaves as you’d expect. Since there are no real cleat-like lugs the traction isn’t going to be as great but it still holds its own.
The ride of the MT has a great full foot feel. Since basically the entire outsole touches the ground, that translates into wonderful communication with whatever surface you’re on. To me a large portion of having a good trail run is being able to know what’s going on underfoot and I feel that this shoe does a nice job of that.
Here’s the thing about the MT that truly threw me. With its quality construction, triple density EVA, durability and relative new-ness in the market, I fully expected these shoes to top $150. However (and I kind of feel like Billy Mays (R.I.P.) here) the MT is only $100! Seriously. Even though I know this is the price I can’t believe it. I mean, wow.
I think the Topo MT is a great trail shoe for pretty much anyone. Add to that the fact that even Topo itself refers to this as a kind of “hybrid” and it’s going to be something that you won’t feel bad about taking for a spin on the road. Not that Topo has completely ditched the split toe, and not that they should, but this is certainly a shoe that will be much more approachable to those who might have balked at earlier models. With their innovation and dedication to good biomechanics, I’m excited to see what Topo rolls out the door next!