I’ve been in search of the perfect trail shoe for a number of years now. During my first several years of trail running, I typically ran in road shoes. I simply couldn’t find anything I liked as well as my Asics. In the past two years, I’ve finally developed a respectable quiver of shoes: some for road, some for technical trail, some that can handle either one, and some for snow or wet weather. The trail shoes each have an area where they shine, but they also share a common feature: I haven’t been entirely happy with any of them. Enter the Vasque Aether Tech.
After some major customer service from the kind folks at Wilderness Running, I decided to check out the Vasque line with their award-winning Aether Tech, (winner of Outside's 2008 "Gear of the Year" and Runner’s World’s 2008 “Best Debut” shoe awards).
The AT falls under what Vasque calls its Performance Line: shoes “geared for shorter distances at an aggressive pace.” As an ultra runner, you’d think I would have tended more toward their Endurance Line: shoes “built to handle great distances with ease.” As it turned out, I found the AT’s to handle technical trails at an aggressive pace, as well as great distances with comfort.
As a side note, I also have an appreciation for those who take the time to choose unique and appropriate names for their products, so I wondered about the word “aether.” Not only is it a reference to the Greek god of upper air and light, but in physics it is “a theoretical, universal substance believed during the 19th century to act as the medium for transmission of electromagnetic waves. The aether was assumed to be weightless, transparent, frictionless, undetectable chemically or physically, and literally permeating all matter and space.” So...I’m thinking “light and fast,” right? Turns out to be a perfect description of the Aether Tech.
Vasque as a company places a lot of importance on the perfect fit. Although that’s certainly not unusual for a running shoe company, they did a great job of helping me understand how this works, and actually delivering that perfect fit. Here’s their entertaining, yet educational, video on the ultimate fit:
These are the important features of the Vasque Aether Tech:
The Arc Tempo Last
The AT is built on Vasque’s Arc Tempo last, boasting an athletic fit and promoting quickness and agility over technical ground. The asymmetrical curve is suited for those with high arches, and places the foot in a more powerful position during toe-off. It has a medium volume heel and a tapered toe box.
Here’s another of Vasque’s videos, this one outlining the differences between the Arc Tempo last and their Perpetuum last used in their endurance line:
Women’s Specific Fit
All of Vasque’s women’s shoes are formed on a last that is adjusted to fit women specifically. This means it has a narrower heel pocket, more support in the instep, an adjusted heel-to-ball ratio, and higher arches. (Thank you, Vasque!)
The unique lacing system is probably the first thing you’ll notice about the Aether Techs. I have to admit I was skeptical at first. I tend to shy away from things that seem gimmicky or fad-ish. (Remember the Reebok Pump? They too, thought it was the end of the shoelace era.) Everything I read about the Boa lacing system claimed that it delivered a “glove-like” fit. As much as I hate the cliche, it’s 100% accurate, and I love the fit.
When my husband first saw the shoes he declared, “Oh, they have snowboard laces!” I was immediately more confident about the technology. After all, snowboarders basically revolutionized the ski industry in the 90’s. Why shouldn’t they do the same for other sports?
Boa technology was invented in 1998 by snowboarder Gary Hammerslag, who was tired of yanking all morning on his laces to get his boots tight enough for a float through fresh pow. (If you’ve ever worn old-school snowboard boots, you know exactly the pain and frustration I am talking about.) By 2001, Boa laces hit the snowboarding market, and now they are in use world-wide by athletes in sports such as cycling, running and golf.
In the Aether Tech, I found the lacing system to be brilliant for dialing-in the fit of my shoes. It offers smooth, even tension throughout the foot, and it’s easy to use. With the shoes on, push the knob in, and twist until the shoes feel good. I found that I liked to jog a few yards to let the tension even out, then re-tighten. To loosen, simply pull the knob out and pull up on the tongue. Many folks I talked to seemed concerned that the laces might break, but they are made of aircraft-grade stainless steel and they seem pretty bomber to me. They are also guaranteed for the life of your shoes.
The upper part of the shoe comes in ether a lightweight mesh, or soft shell. Since I live in a dry climate, I chose the mesh. The high-breathability factor helped to keep my feet cool and dry. For wetter climates, the soft shell upper works to keep out the rain, as well as excess debris.
Something else to be aware of: Vasques tend to be on the roomy side, so you may need to drop down a half size.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am in love with my Aether Techs. During the past month I wore them for speed work, hill repeats and tempo runs on technical trails. They performed so well, that I could tell my confidence on technical terrain improved. I ran fast. (I really like running fast!)
I also wore them for several 30 mile trail runs on technical terrain without experiencing tired feet. These shoes may be marketed for “short, technical and fast,” but I would wear them in a 50 mile trail race in a heartbeat.
Here’s another interesting thing I experienced with my shoes. Normally after a run of 20 miles or more, I get blisters on the outsides of the balls of my feet and sides of my big toes. This isn’t because the shoes rub there, because they never do. It’s because of the way my foot strikes the ground. The skin right there wrinkles just a bit with each footfall, and eventually the skin layers rubbing against themselves cause enough friction for a blister. They’re usually not painful, but they do cause a nasty buildup of calluses that I am constantly fighting with my pumice stone. But this month: no blisters at all.
I think I finally found shoes that fit my feet so well that they actually changed the way my feet strike the ground. I couldn’t say exactly how my foot strike changed, but I am certain that it’s for the better. No Blisters. No tired feet. Happy runner.
The Aether Tech typically retails for $115-$125, so they are on the high end of the price spectrum for trail shoes. However, I really think the right shoe is worth its weight in silver belt buckles. I did find them discounted to about $90 at several online retailers, though with very limited size selection. Currently, you can find them at Wilderness Running for $110, and at REI (Men's only) for $125.
So, are the Vasque Aether Tech’s for you? If you have medium to high volume feet, (or, like me, low volume feet and use custom insoles) and want a great-fitting, high-performance shoe for technical trails, then the answer is yes. Even if you’re a high-mileage runner, you’ll appreciate these shoes if you prefer a light shoe that offers technical performance and a good feel for the trail.
My only question now is, what do I do with all those other shoes?