Written by Neil Bryant - www.ultrarunninglife.com
My experience with Salomon footwear so far hasn’t been the finest considering just how apparently well thought out and the incredible popularity among trail and ultra runners. My first pair of shoes I owned for the trails was a pair of the XA Pro 3D ultras, which served me very well till they started to rub. They weighed a tonne too. After running in many pairs of shoes over the following years, I was after a pair of waterproof shoes for the really cold and snowy days. Very specific, but I seemed to have a shoe for every other occasion! I decided to see what all the fuss was about with the Speedcross 3 with the Climashield waterproof layer. Their tread is exceptional, legendary in fact. But I am not so sure about the fit around my midfoot. It just feels too tight for me. I can wear them ok, and I still do but I would prefer it to be a little looser. I also really miss the underfoot protection that is now paramount in my demands from a 100 mile shoe.
Enter the hype, which I am a sucker for, of the no-holds-barred Sense. They sounded amazing, and they had a rockplate! I had to try these. There were a few promotional competitions to win a limited edition pair, which I somehow managed to win. The problem was that they were the same size as Kilian Jornets (who they were designed for). Kilian has smaller feet than me. I could get into them, but the process resembled an overweight middle-aged man trying on his old suit that used to fit so well. Once my foot was in, I temporarily ignored the extreme discomfort that the tight fit was in and marvelled at my luck that I had somehow managed to win a pair of shoes that actually fitted. Then reality hit. I will never be able to run in these shoes. I still have them. I later got hold of a pair half a size bigger but this again was the wrong size, though I ran in these (once) before realising they also were too small. Imbecile! I still have these!
Then news came out that the sense line was going to expand. First there would be the Sense Ultra which would be very similar to the original Sense though with a few improvements/modification. And also they would release the Sense Mantra. The Mantra would be the ‘training’ version, the workhorse. Designed for long days, with a longer lasting tread, slightly more room for the foot and a little cheaper! It even still has the rockplate! It sounded like my ideal shoe! Would it deliver for my fussy feet?
These shoes are a little heavier than the Sense, but certainly still come within the ‘lightweight’ bracket.
The tongue is the Salomon Endofit variety. This is a neoprene (?) type of material that is not connected at the base of the laces as a traditional tongue, but wraps internally all the way from the top of the midsole from the lateral aspect, over the top of your foot to the top of the midsole on the medial aspect. The stretch of the material really adds comfort and a great fit. The Quicklace system is smooth and slick and is kept tidy with the pocket on the Endofit tongue.
The heel is fairly robust . It is far from the stiffest of heels I’ve felt but it certainly gives a more supportive feel. The upper is a close weave material that feels strong and close enough that it would prevent debris working its way in and wrecking you feet. The toebox, again, is fairly stiff, but is no steel toe cap. It was adequate to wear kahtoola microspikes with. As with my general experience with Salomon, the build quality of the Mantra looks pretty tidy. They don’t look like they’ll be falling apart.
I don’t feel there is too much I can observe about the midsole here. It is a fairly standard among minimalist shoes at the moment having a 6mm differential between the heel and the forefoot. Other than that it has a pretty unremarkable looking midsole. No support posts or anything and barely any arch support on the inside. This is a neutral shoe.
The sole on first inspection is not exactly aggressive. It is made up mostly of many small triangles. My first impression was that these shoes would only be good in the dry, but my experience has proven to me that a well thought out tread needn’t be super gnarly to be effective. The pattern and the tread material are all important. I will judge once I had got some hours into them!
So how do these shoes feel? Well I’ve put over two hundred km into them now and that has mostly been off road. I would guess that the proportion of the time I have used them on the road is probably around 16 km. I am trying to banish road from my running!
I find that some shoes seem to rub the outer edge of my large toe, I have no idea why this happens, but it can ruin an otherwise perfectly good shoe for me. The Mantra thankfully does not have this effect. The shoe comes with the now Salomon standard Quicklace system which for those of you who don’t know is a Kevlar lacing system that has a locking system saving you the pain and hardship of tying a lace. This is actually a pretty slick system that is quick and the neoprene like tongue has a small pocket to tuck the excess into to keep it tidy and prevent any tripping mishaps. Initially I found it easy to over tighten them and cause discomfort over the top of the foot, but I soon got used to the system and this never happens anymore.
The Endofit Wraparound tongue that closely fits around the entire midfoot is a great feature. I think the traditional tongue on shoes has truly been outdated by the range of wraparound, gusseted tongues that the various companies are using now on Running shoes. The Salomon Endofit is one of the better systems, getting the tightness for the foot just about right for me. It’s like a harness within the shoe for your midfoot adding extra comfort and making the shoe feel like it was custom made for you.
The only comment I have for the heel is that I have had not the slightest irritation which is therefore just excellent for my feet. This is even after a 15.5 hour run over the Brecon Beacons, often not on trail and on tufts of grass which throw your feet all over the place within the shoe. During this run my feet were soaked after just a few hours and remained so for the remainder. My feet were a little sore towards the end but were fine considering the beating they had taken. No rubbing!
The toe box is certainly a little roomier than the original sense and this for me is a good thing. I don’t feel I have particularly wide feet, but I am certainly siding with the philosophy that toes need room to do what they want. They shouldn’t be penned up like caged animals.
So, I am more than happy with the upper. How about the bit that comes between us and the trail? I will get the road feel out of the way first. I don’t feel that I have used these shoes on the road enough to give a really decent opinion, but for the time that I have used them, they have been great. Possibly one of the better trail shoes I’ve tried on the road. These are surely one of the best ‘door-to-trail’ shoes out there!
So with a relatively minimal tread on them, how do they fare on different terrain? I have thrown quite a bit at these over the last couple of months. They seem happiest in dry conditions and really feel solid and reliable in super technical, rocky terrain, with the light weight adding to the accurate, nimble and confident foot placement. The tread is better than I thought it would be considering just how un-gnarly it is. It does have its limits though like any shoe. As soon as it gets wet and muddy then things get a little sketchy. My confidence level drops a little and with it my speed on the descents, but I am just trying to give an honest and full account of this shoe here. Overall this drop in performance during wetter times is not as much as I expected it to be and it hasn’t stopped me wearing them, no matter what the conditions. I do believe that there is no shoe that can really perform excellently in all conditions, so you just have to find the shoe that matches the running you do and your running style the closest. At the moment the Mantra seem seems to be my match.
A feature I don’t need to go into in any depth here, but is an essential for me is the forefoot to heel differential. I almost exclusively run in sub 8mm drops now and these being at 6mm are right in my sweetspot so this is another box ticked. I recently ran for the first time in a while in some 13mm drop shoes and it felt awful! I was surprised just how awkward it did feel. I feel that this is a true sign that I have fully adapted to the lower heel drop.
Another factor that is essential for me is the underfoot protection. I generally can run with no rockplate for anything up to a couple hours, but for anything longer (i.e. my eternal search for the perfect 100 mile shoe), I really benefit from some protection from the sharp stones. I have finished too many long runs/races with my feet in absolute agony because the shoe either has no rockplate or the rockplate it has is inadequate for my demanding feet. The rockplate in the Mantras sole seems to be pretty good, giving a good balance of protection and flexibility. I will feel sharp rocks through them but it has certainly neutralised them enough to make things comfortable. I’m pretty fussy as you can tell, as I don’t just want a bullet proof plate that you can’t feel anything through. I want to feel what is going on under my feet. Salomon has certainly got the balance pretty good as far as I’m concerned.
The durability of the Mantra is the final test. How do they hold up? Well, as I say, I have thrown quite a bit at them from road to sharp rocks to slime to iced up foot deep snow (that I would break through) and other than the mud that is always on them (as it’s the only shoe I’m wearing at the moment!) they look brand new! Durability has become more important to me over the last few years as a shoe failure when far from civilisation high up in the mountains could be very dangerous. I want dependable shoes and these seem to be pretty hardy (the photos were taken after I cleaned them today if you think they look a bit tatty).
So, on my shoe tick list, these shoes certainly hit the mark, and now I have put some miles into them I am happy to report that they really are the business! My running has been lots of fun lately and a small part of that is the fact that my feet are happy. I can forget about them. I feel lighter on my feet too which adds to the fun. All in all a great shoe that I fully endorse. I will certainly be getting through more than one pair of these! I will be shortly moving out to the French Alps and I get the feeling that these will remain my favourite shoe.
Please comment with any questions or your own experiences with Salomon Sense Mantra.