To run a winter 25K huaraches or not …

When I signed up for my first marathon in March, I stupidly did not consider that such timing meant I’d be doing all of my training in the winter. Mercifully, the southeastern United States has had a rather mild winter. I’ve had no problem running in my preferred footwear, huaraches, well into the season. Even when I signed up for the 25k portion of a race called the Frosty 50, I still didn’t believe it would actually live up to its name. But on the week before the race temperatures began to plummet. And I began to worry. Not the least of which because I had nothing to wear. This would be my first winter as a full-time minimalist runner. I have some FiveFingers, but don’t prefer them for distances much longer than five miles. They’re not exactly warm, either — and wearing socks or getting the bigger versions with more insulation doesn’t seem worth the trade off for such greater stiffness. Then I have some relatively thin, smooth-bottomed road running shoes, but the race trail I’d be on was just a smidge too rocky. But it also wasn’t quite rocky enough nor were conditions difficult enough to reasonably test out the built-up severe weather trail shoes that I still need to review. All I had left were huaraches. Which I would’ve been happy to wear if not for the weather report predicting temperatures in the low 20s. I know some of you out there in barefoot/minimalist land are all about eventually turning yourself into tauntauns that can run naked on Hoth with no worries, but I’m nowhere near there yet. Many barefoot and minimalist runners can handle cold feet better than me. They tell what sound to me like mythical tales of running with numb feet for miles before starting to get adequate feeling. No, thanks. I’m six and a half feet tall; the circulation in my feet is terrible under the best of conditions. Plus, I’m a wuss — so there’s that. But as I poked at my mountain of shoes I kept returning to my huaraches. I don’t mind subbing in other shoes based on weather or terrain, but for everyday running they’re just my favorite. How was I supposed to go a whole season without them? Fortunately, the team at Luna Sandals came up with an answer for me. Split-toe Tabi socks. That’s right, socks with sandals. Stay with me here, it’s worth it. Big thank you to Luna for providing a pair of their tall compression tabi socks for testing along with a fresh pair of Leadvilles to test the socks with. Much appreciated! There was a bit of a mix-up with my receiving the socks, so I hadn’t been considering them as an option for the 25k I was about to run — until I managed to get them the very day before the race. I knew better, I did. No runner should ever try something new on race day. I knew that. But I have a history of bad decisions and yet am still happy and standing, so I decided to give the socks their first test during the race. That’s how badly I wanted to keep running in huaraches. I ran the 25k in these brand-new tabi socks and my beat-up pair of Leadville Pacers. (Even I’m not stupid enough to run in entirely new shoes on race day. You should always test-run your huaraches a few times to make sure they’re adjusted just right to fit your foot.) So I’ll tell you about the socks first. Then I’ll sing you a little song about the Leadvilles.

The Socks

From Luna’s site:
Luna’s Split-Toe Tabi Socks are great for cold and wintry weather. Besides keeping your feet warm and being easier to take on and off than individual toe socks, the Split-Toe Tabi Socks sport micro-rubber dots on the bottom that act almost like Velcro when combined with our MGT footbed.

Those rubber dots

The dots are amazing. The sticky MGT footbed is already incredibly grippy on its own, but combined with the rubber dots on the bottom of these socks takes the grip to a whole new level. 15+ miles and I had zero friction. I’d been running primarily in a pair of classic Lunas with the suede top for several months. The suede top is comfortable, but unless you have your straps adjusted just so, you run the risk of blisters from friction. And even if you do have everything adjusted right, you do get a tiny bit of the feeling of slipping around when you wear them. One step better in this department is the MGT footbed, which I have on my Luna Leadville Pacers. I use these on wet days (the suede top doesn’t handle moisture well), as well as on long trail runs. The MGT footbed on its own is excellently tacky, keeping my feet from slipping even in wet conditions or sharp inclines. But still better is the MGT footbed with those rubber dots. It made the socks feel like they were part of the sandals and I can honestly say that most full-wrap sneakers don’t make my feet feel this secure and friction-free. I wasn’t the slightest bit worried about any tilt or incline in the trail and the race hadn’t even started.

Price and style

The new tabi socks come in ankle length as well as a tall, full calf compression length. The short socks are $35 while the full calf compression are $42. People who’ve never worn compression socks before might balk at the price. Don’t. Compression socks are always pricey, often going as high as $60/pair. I have such a pair and the Luna tabi socks have a noticeably sturdier structure while also being nearly $20 cheaper. The feeling I get from the improved circulation is also great. My legs don’t get tired as quickly and they recover better after races. Originally I’d only taken a passing glance at the socks via their newsletter and thought that they only had an ankle height version. When I received the package and saw that they were tall compression socks I was quite excited. I’m a fan of compression socks generally, but most of the shoe styles I run in don’t work with the traditional compression socks I had from my regular-sneaker running days. It was nice to put a pair on again, especially with my preferred running shoe. Like other compression socks, you have to turn them inside out and put them on slowly, carefully, and somewhat tediously. There’s just no way around it. If you want compression, you have to endure that. But it’s worth it. Once they were on, the socks provided a warm and comforting snugness that really made me feel like I was properly gearing up for a long run. They look as sharp and well-designed as they felt. Paired with the MGT footbed of my Luna sandals, my feet felt as secure as they could be…

Warmth

…then I stepped outside. It was around 20 degrees as I walked to the car, and I could feel the cold air seeping in through the thin socks. I immediately began questioning the wisdom of trying these for the first time on race day. True, I could tell that even just the thin socks was a vast improvement over totally exposed skin — but was it so cold that it would cut down even that small advantage? Thankfully I had a whole hour and a half drive to worry about that more.
When I knew the camera was on I acted like the ninja that the tabi socks wanted me to be. (Left) But when I thought the camera was off, the literal cold of the morning and the figurative cold of my many past bad decisions possessed me. (Right)
Coming up to the start I kept my anxiety in check by hopping around and cracking wise like nothing could bother me. Then we were off. This would be the longest I’ve ever run, so I made sure to pace myself carefully. It helped that the course at Salem Lake was so beautiful, the trail so broad and inviting, and the people so friendly. It was easy to not get caught up in the singularly-focused racing mentality. And even if I hadn’t been paying careful attention to how my feet were feeling on my own, several people asked about the whole getup and so helped me stay even more attuned. I’d tell you how well the socks did at each step through the race, but I can honestly tell you that I forgot to worry about it almost right away. Typically if I try to run in the cold with any kind of huaraches on I start to notice the cold within ten or fifteen minutes. But with the socks I can say that any worries I had actually faded completely by that far into the race. In hindsight, this surprised me greatly. As I mentioned, I tend to get cold hands and feet fairly fast. The fact that I didn’t notice any chill to my toes the entire time was remarkable. Doubly so for the fact that I could barely feel my hands at the end of the race, despite $35 Mizuno gloves that supposedly generate heat with “Breath Thermo” technology. The socks bested those gloves easily, despite the socks being significantly thinner. A couple of weeks later I’d find myself jogging in them through day-old snow, ice, and mud. I had ice crystals all over the toes of the socks. And I still felt warm enough.

Overall

The 25k was over quicker than I’d expected. I crossed the finish line without a single complaint. I’d beaten my previous half marathon time and then kept running to finish this longest distance I’d yet run. I really felt great. Sure, a fair amount of it was my training — but the high performing gear deserves ample credit, too. The greatest compliment I can offer to the socks is this: they did their job and otherwise stayed completely out of my way. Everything stayed in place. No friction, hot spots, odd seams, uncomfortable squeezes, drafty edges, or shifting material. To my mind, that’s the high bar that all running gear should aspire to: to get completely out of the way of the runner. I’ll admit that even as a fan of Luna I questioned the utility of these socks when they were first announced. But I leave with my trust renewed. I didn’t think any of this at the time; I was too eager to get back to the car so that I could defrost my poor fingers.

Care

For the socks, I’ve got nothing really to recommend. They’re incredible. But if I was really reaching, I’d say that the care instructions that were on the package are a little silly. Somehow I doubt that there are many out there who will take the time to hand wash these socks. Most will probably be like me and just toss them in the machine on the gentle cycle in cold water, then hang dry them. And also like me, they’ll find that this works out just fine. I didn’t notice any shrinkage or damage from doing this. Up to you to decide whether it’s worth the risk. I decided it was because, you know, I live on the edge like that.

The Luna Leadville

I really try to be as objective as possible. But it’s hard with the Luna Leadville. This is a shoe I fell in love with before I even started blogging here at Birthday Shoes. I got my first pair at the beginning of Summer 2012 and they became my go-to warm weather shoe almost immediately. I wore them all over the beaches and hiking trails of Costa Rica. I’ve already put more miles on them in less than a year than most of my old running shoes ever saw, and still they’ve held up nicely.
These are my old, well-worn Luna Leadvilles. Heavily abused. Even hacked the edges with a paper cutter to trim them back and make the fit closer.
Since then I’ve acquired a pair of classic Lunas that have taken over as my primary running shoe, and a newer pair of Leadville Pacers that sub in as my primary trail shoe, but my original pair of Leadvilles hold a special place in my heart and remain as my primary casual, travel, and vacation running warm-weather shoe. It’s basically my Swiss Army Knife shoe. Now I have a fresh pair of Luna Leadvilles that are all clean and pretty, ready for some abuse.

What you get

  • 10mm neoprene rubber sole, with an additional 1mm added with the MGT footbed
  • 5.0 oz (men’s size 9)
  • MGT (Monkey Grip Technology) slip-resistant footbed
  • Nylon ATS (All Terrain Strapping) laces
  • Adjustable buckle with an MGT strip to prevent strap slippage
The newer, significantly cleaner, much snazzier Luna Leadville.
My original pair from Summer 2012 had some differences. First, the MGT footbed wasn’t available yet, so my old pair had the “naked top.” There was also no “strip of MGT” around the buckle area to keep it from slipping up and down on the strap. These details are incremental improvements that Luna has been making, which tells me that they listen to feedback and like to tweak things along the way. Constant improvement.

What works

Part of me decries these changes. I’m a fan of simplicity and find myself becoming ever more so the more I run. But really, the MGT footbed is pretty great. The old naked top had better grip than the suede top, but the MGT footbed is light years better than anything I’ve ever seen on a sandal in terms of grip. And the only complaint — if only fleeting — I ever had about my older Leadvilles was that the strap would slip a little bit. So the changes in the newer models get the thumbs up. Because of these two different MGT portions — the footbed and the strap strip — the Leadville (and presumably all other models with those two features) stay put. But as is the case with pretty much any sandal that you plan on using for active purposes, you’re going to have to tinker with the adjustment of the straps for the first few times out. There’s more up-front time to getting the fit just right than there would be with a regular shoe, but once you find the sweet spot then you can slip them on quickly and easily from then on out with only occasional readjustments. If you have good form and have the straps adjusted well you’ll never end a run with any blisters or hot spots. Also, you’ll never find a shoe that allows this much toe splay and free movement. Short of running totally barefoot, huaraches are simply the best you can do in that department. The tread on the Leadville can handle a lot of punishment and reduce slippage both without taking much away from the flexibility or ground feel that minimalist runners want. It really is a well-balanced sole in that way. Just a little bit bigger would be too much for me, while a little less would likely not be ideal for tougher trails. Last but not least, I recently put the straps — especially the heel strap — to the test. A couple of weeks after the 25k I ran a 10-mile single-track trail race in the Leadvilles + tabi socks. We’d recently had our thus-far-only snow here in the Carolinas, following a couple of weeks of enough rain to keep things pretty muddy everywhere. And thus The Little River Trail Run became something more. It became a technical mud run. There were sections so deep and sticky that they could suck your shoe right off if you weren’t careful, and I heard tales of as much afterward. But despite my clumsy, lanky, and generally uncoordinated feet managing to find pretty much every one of the deeper mud pits in those ten miles, my Lunas stayed tight. My feet were soaked and caked in mud, but never once did I feel like the sandals were at risk of being pulled from my foot. I wish I’d remembered to take a picture of the aftermath. Apologies for neglecting to do so — I was too focused on going to get breakfast to care about much else.

What doesn’t

I really try to make myself come up with at least something negative for all of my reviews. Not even something negative necessarily — just maybe a small suggestion at very least. But honestly that’s a tall order here. Both the tabi socks and the Leadvilles have performed well above par. And I was really looking. I really wanted to find something. The best I can come up with feels a bit forced, but here goes. With the addition of the MGT strip on the sandals to keep the top strap from sliding, you may feel a bit of pressure due to the thicker nature of the strap in that area. Most likely you’ll only notice this if you’re used to an older pair of the Lunas that lacked this feature. It’s minor and not painful, even if you keep your Luna straps relatively tight like I do. I also can’t think of any way to change it without losing the benefits of the non-slip nature of the strap. So I’m fine with it. I adapted to the slight difference in feeling in just a couple of weeks.

Final thoughts on both

The tabi socks with Luna sandals are my new favorite combination for winter running. It allows me to maintain my preference for running in huaraches in cold weather. They take the edge off the cold without overdoing it. The compression is just right. The grip on the sole of the socks is fantastic, especially combined with the MGT footbed. I’m just sad that I can’t afford a pair for every day of the week — they’re $35 off Luna’s website. Really this whole review has been a rave from beginning to end, so I won’t rehash it all. I’ll just say that if you’re a fan of running in huaraches and need a little something for the cold, the Luna tabi socks are where it’s at.