I’m sitting on a padded bench at a hotel in the town of Agerola, 2,000 feet above the Mediterranean Sea on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. My feet and lower legs are in an air-compressing, boot-like contraption that’s making me feel as if I’m about to step out from Apollo 11 and onto the surface of the moon.
The setup is Tecnica’s Custom Adaptive Shape machine, which is thermomolding a footbed and a plastic support piece around my narrow size-ten feet with weak arch muscles. It’s early June, and I’m here with a group of other journalists, and the fitting is part of Tecnica’s launch of a running shoe called the Origin, which will be the first customized trail-running shoe on U.S. soil when it hits some stores this summer and becomes more widely available next spring. The fitting process happens in-store and takes about 20 minutes. (Tecnica, a company known for its ski boots, launched a customized hiking boot, the Forge, in 2018, and hiking shoe, the Plasma, this spring.)
Tecnica isn’t alone in debuting a custom running shoe in the U.S., though it will be the first. In spring 2020, Salomon plans to bring its Mesh technology across the pond with the Cross/Pro model, which is currently available at eight European retailers. And Brooks has a customization project in the works, though the launch date is still TBD. The Origin, uniquely, will allow consumers to walk out of a shop with their custom shoes after going through the 20-minute process, whereas the others build their custom shoes off-site after gathering your data in-store.
The promise of a truly individualized trail-running shoe is potentially game-changing, and as the air deflates out of the foot-hugging device and my Origins are assembled specifically for me and me alone, I’m anxious to test how they’ll feel on the rugged nine-mile trail I’m about to run.
The first step in getting my custom kicks is a question: Male or female? Consumers will answer this and others, detailing things like their weight, stride type, and distances run, on a store computer before fitting. The answer puts me into the line of Origin models that have women-specific lasts (not all that unique among shoe companies), plus softer midsoles and thinner TPU supports than the men’s version.
Next, my weight and answers to five survey questions, including stride type and monthly running distance, mean I get an XT model, built for women over 123 pounds (the LT model is for runners weighing less). Men will get one version or the other depending on what side of 165 pounds they fall. If a customer is right on the edge of those weight limits, how they answer the other survey questions will determine the model they get.
The XT is built with more structure than the LT. While the LT has two nylon webbing strips supporting the midfoot, the XT has three, plus a plastic strip around the heel collar that anchors the third nylon strip and adds support around the back of the foot. Both versions have plastic wrapping around the forefoot for support, but the LT’s don’t cover as much as the XT’s. (Interestingly, Tecnica says the added materials still only make the XT less than an ounce heavier than the LT.)
Underfoot, the midsole of the XT is three millimeters thicker and 5 percent denser, with the thought that larger runners need more protection from the ground. “It’s physics,” says Tecnica’s business-unit manager, Federico Sbrissa. “In today’s market, if you weigh 99 pounds or 209 pounds, you’re forced into the same shoe. Clearly, it will be too stiff and supportive for one or too soft and flexible for the other,” he says.
Then comes the thermomolding. I sit on the orange bench, with my feet resting on a machine-warmed footbed in what looks like a no-show sock for three minutes. I then slip my feet—footbeds in socks still on—into the compression boots containing a perforated plastic shell (that will go in the upper and wrap from the outer heel to just before the forefoot on the medial side) for a three-minute squeeze of pressurized air. This process molds both the footbed and the shell for the individualized heel hold and fit.
I sit sipping espresso for a couple of minutes (I’m in Italy, after all) while the Tecnica rep adds the finished footbeds and shells to my shoes. Upon first stepping in, they feel good, if not quite glove-like as I was anticipating.
The Test Run
As I take my first strides down the hard cobblestone path of Sentiero delgi Dei, or “Path of the Gods,” before it turns to dirt, I don’t feel a ton of cushioning like I’ve gotten with some other trail-running models. But the landing is soft enough—my spine isn’t jarring, perhaps because the shoe has a nine-millimeter drop and I’m heel-striking on 22 millimeters of foam. And the shoes still feel agile and nimble.
When I transition to a flat portion of the path that cuts across the Monti Lattari range, I notice a smooth turnover that I chalk up to the rock plate being only under the forefoot and not the full length of the shoe, allowing for flexibility. And the five-millimeter lugs, though aggressive and keeping me mostly sure-footed both uphill and down, have flat tops that seem to minimize clunk—I don’t notice them on hardpack. I do slip on a slick, flat rock while climbing but catch myself before cracking open a knee.
Once I hit a steep ascent toward a massive limestone face, I appreciate the shoe’s lightness (mine weigh roughly 9.4 ounces each) and, again, its flexibility. And after starting the run with a cranky IT band, I’m thrilled that my body is cooperating with the pace. But it’s too soon to tell if that’s due to the customized fit offering a secure heel hold and support in the arch, just the midsole density tuned for my weight and running style, or any other number of reasons. I notice, in comparing my pair to another’s, that the heel cup on mine is visibly more tapered around my narrow heel, though I do feel it could wrap more securely around my arch and buckle less across the top of my foot. I also wish the length of the shoes were customizable, as my left foot is shorter than my right.
At one point, I realize the shoes have become loose, so I have to stop and retie the laces. Even then it seems like the initial snugness of the customization might have given way a bit. But as I quickly negotiate hundreds of downhill stairs, the shoes keep my toes from jamming into the inside of the toe box, and I finish without a blister or hot spot.
This was only one run. But I’ll be logging more miles in the Origin over the next several months for a more comprehensive test. It uniquely addresses a runner’s weight, with different options of cushioning and support in the upper, and combined with the customized fit, it eliminates excess ounces. All this customization could maximize comfort and, ultimately, performance, at a cost of $170—more affordable than some top trail runners albeit pricier than a good percentage of others. If that proves to be the case, and you’re the kind of runner who likes the idea of just enough shoe specifically tailored for you (and nothing more), springing for the Origin could be worth it.