Of all the strange and unlikely athletics trends of the 21st century there are none, in my book, nearly as strange or unlikely as shoes with toes. By this I am referring primarily to Vibram and its now immensely successful FiveFingers shoes, a line of thin, dexterous footwear that's marketed to promote "natural running" via a foot-hugging design and articulated toe pockets.
Head to any popular jogging area or major footrace now and there will be people sporting the Vibram "foot gloves," guaranteed. FiveFingers shoes sell like mad at many running shops around the United States.
This year, there is a new entry into the shoes-with-toes niche. Inov-8 Ltd. strives to make an even more minimal "barefoot" footwear with its Evoskin, a silicone shell of a shoe that weighs scant ounces and offers almost zero padding from pebbles and bumps underfoot.
I have run a few times in the Evoskins this spring. The $65 shoes fit like Vibram FiveFingers though even closer -- the silicone material is literally skin tight. Pull an Evoskin on and after the initial curiosity wears off you might forget they are there.
The Evoskin experience is akin to running without shoes on -- which was Inov-8's goal -- though imagine thick, slightly squishy calluses on both feet. That's what it's like. You can feel almost all disturbances through the shoes' thin soles, including each rock, stick, and sidewalk crack. But there is just enough material to keep a careful runner safe.
Step in sand and you sense the grittiness of the grains. I tromped along a wet creek and squished in mud, a dulled sensation accompanying the slime rising between my silicone-ensconced toes.
Indeed, sensitivity is the hallmark of Evoskins. The thin, rubbery shoes offer the experience of running barefoot, though with a modicum more protection from the painful things that might lie along a path.
The Evoskins are made for trails and soft terrain, not pavement. There is no insole and almost zero "padding" afforded by the mold. Anyone not versed in the style and technique of running barefoot will feel utterly exposed in these anti-shoes.
Overall, I had fun running in the Inov-8 "gloves" for a while. But for me the design is too minimal. Further, the silicone pockets squeezing my toes became uncomfortable after about 40 minutes on the run.
But if you're a dedicated "barefooter" looking to skim back even more from Vibram FiveFingers or your current minimalist shoe, the Evoskin might be the five-toed fit for you.
--Stephen Regenold is founder and editor of www.gearjunkie.com.