Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: Umara Z-Trail by Xero Shoes

The day I went for my first run since September last year I got an email from Steven Sashen. You may remember him from such memorable posts as “Almost Nearly Barefoot” and “Review: Invisible Shoes (aka Commercially Made Hippy Shoes).”

What? More hippy shoes?
You might also remember Sashen from his 2013 appearance on the reality TV show “Shark Tank” where he turned down a $400,000 investment offer for his company Xero Shoes and has since seen sales climb to an expected $3 million this year, according to a March 5 article by Forbes. That’s a far cry from the rubber and string huaraches I reviewed four and half years ago.

Sashen’s email was offering me a free pair of his latest sports sandal, the trail-friendly Umara Z-Trail. It was early February, and I had literally just come back from my first run in months. I was feeling that wonderful optimism you get when make a plan and actually stick to it.

I had pledged to start running again. I was going to start slow. Just once a week. Every Sunday. I can do that. (Spoiler alert: I haven’t done that.) I was feeling positive in that moment, but still I waited a day to respond. Did I really have it in me to follow through on a product review? Did I really want to reboot the blog? Then I saw Barefoot Josh showing off his Z-Trails on Facebook, and I figured sometimes you just have to say what the fuck. The next day I fired off a reply to Sashen with my shoe size and waited for my package to arrive.

My first encounter with the company that became Xero Shoes goes back almost exactly six years when I made those homemade hippy shoes using some industrial rubber sheeting and instructions from Sashen’s website. About a year and a half later he contacted me to review the commercially made version of his huaraches.

Both of my prior experiences were good, but the resulting footwear turned out to be nothing more than novelties in my running life. I wore them a few times, but put them away in a drawer. These Z-Trails are different.

Unlike its rubber and string predecessors, these sandals have traditional straps like you would find on brands like Teva or Chaco. I had a pair of Tevas a decade ago that were the most comfortable sandals I ever owned, but I never replaced them after the plastic clasp broke.

Working hard for the money: Z-Trails at home.
The Z-Trails are far more comfortable than those Tevas, and there’s no plastic clasp to break. Furthermore, and Sashen has a video demonstrating this, the Z-Trails are three times lighter than a pair of those popular brands. This is good for running but also for just hanging around the house with your feet up. The sandals never feel like they’re dragging your feet down. From the moment I slipped them on, they felt good.

As you might expect from a running sandal, sizing is very important. Xero Shoes has traditional sizes, but the company encourages you to actually measure the length of your foot to get the best possible fit. If you’re between sizes, they recommend you go up a size and then trim the soles if needed. An adjustable crisscross strap holds the shoe to your foot, and a Velcro strap goes across your heal. The fit is secure and customizable.

My first real test of the Z-Trails was just hanging around the house and taking my son for a walk (and sometimes run) around the neighborhood. Just normal, everyday stuff.

Gravel? What gravel. Plenty of protection here.
While out for a walk, I ran around some. Obviously nothing extensive, but enough to get a sense of how they felt. The biggest thing I noticed was no flop. My past experiences running in sandals have been plagued by the incessant clack-clack-clack-clack of the soles flopping against the ground. Not so with the Z-Trails. Major plus.

Back in the house, I also ran up and down my staircase to get the sensation of running uphill or over obstacles. If you’ve ever caught your toe on a log, you understand how happy I was when I didn’t trip running on stairs. This was a serious problem with the Invisible Shoes and my homemade hippy shoes. The toe area stayed flat when I lifted my toes to step over something and had a tendency to catch on whatever I was trying to avoid. With the Z-Trails, the strap ensures the rubber sole flexes with your foot and lifts along with your toes as you run.

The Actual Run
It's been a mild winter in Northeast Ohio, so I wasn't really thinking about snow when I said yes to reviewing a pair of running sandals. After replying to Sashen's email, I flew to Houston and ran in seventy-degree sunshine. Of course, when I got back it was the coldest day of winter and my car was covered in snow. The Z-Trails arrived March 1. Snow still blanketed the ground. A test run would have to wait.

Finally, my chance came last week with temperatures in the sixties and sun. The ground is bit soggy as things are starting to thaw.

My route started at the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Big Bend trailhead, but I split off onto the Valley Link and Schumacher trails to test the Z-Trails on more technical terrain. Throughout the run, I encountered asphalt, crushed limestone and dirt surfaces and plenty of steep hills, roots and rocks to not trip over.

Trudging up the Schumacher trail at the pace of a snail.
This is how out of shape I am. I ran less than two miles in about twenty-six minutes and felt BEAT. Everywhere but my feet. Right before the trail rises two hundred feet in a quarter mile where my pace would plummet from a blistering sub-nine-minute mile to a snail-like sixteen-minute-mile, I even tried make a video to be like those hip young bloggers. Mrs. Viper said my heavy breathing sounded too creepy to post. Even though I was a wreck, the Z-Trails performed great.

The sandals were comfortable. I didn't trip despite my running toward roots, rocks and other rubble. The only time I heard a flop was at the bottom of steep hill when I was trying to slow down.

My only concern was the left sandal was a bit tight over my little toe. I was worried I'd have a blister the next day, but nary a skin abrasion was found. Even so it's easy to adjust the tightness to avoid this problem next time.

The verdict is the Z-Trails are the best running sandals I've ever worn. They make me want to run trails again. If I can't manage to get off my ass and run more this year, I will definitely wear them around during Ohio’s all too brief sandal season.

So here are your takeaways:
  1. Very comfortable everyday sandal 
  2. No flop when running 
  3. No toe catch when running up hills or stairs or other obstacles
Umara Z-Trails are available online at for $79.99. The sandals feature a 10-millimeter thick sole with three choices of strap color: black, mocha (I don't know) and red. Also available in women's sizes.

[Caveat emptor: As mentioned above, Steven Sashen provided a free pair of Umara Z-Trails in exchange for this review, but the opinions are my own. I swear. OK now back to semi-retirement. Thanks for reading.]

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