Golden Harper ran his first marathon at 10 years old, about the same age he started helping out around his family’s running store in Orem, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City. A decade — and countless running medals — later, the BYU-Hawaii exercise science major identified a hole in the running shoe market for zero-drop sneakers, which cushion the toe and the heel at the same level to mimic the biomechanics of walking barefoot.
But how did the co-founder of Altra get from that mid-2000s epiphany to today, leading an innovative company with more than 200 employees and revenues topping $50 million? That tale involves a healthy dose of curiosity, the dream of helping people run pain-free and, yes, a toaster.
Here he shares the brand’s early history… and simultaneously pulls back the curtain on an industry with some (improperly soled) skeletons in its closet.
1. Lose Your Illusion
I started at the running store when I was nine, and by the time I went to college, I felt like everything we provided to people wasn’t necessarily working as well as it could. And so I wanted to research foot problems and running injuries and all that stuff. And by the time I got done with college, I was like, I've been lying to people my whole life. All the things I've been telling people about shoes that have been told to me by the shoe companies are scientific lies.
For example, there was a huge focus on pronation and there still is to a degree, but there's no connection between that and injuries, so why are we focusing on it? Because it's a way to create more different types of shoes to sell. And it's the same thing with cushioning, where everybody thinks cushioning is gonna help their joints and scientifically speaking it's just the opposite: the more cushioning you use, the harder it is on your joints.
2. Hawaiian Hunch
In Hawaii, I'm surrounded by like 400-pound dudes who don't wear shoes, or wear slippers all day, and none of them have foot problems. I go back home and everybody has foot problems, even though they're a third of the weight and wearing the “really good shoes” that I was selling them. That’s when the wheels really started to turn.
And then we got slow-motion video and started doing running technique filming at the store. And we found people run really great without shoes on, as far as moderating impact and being efficient. And then we put the shoes on people that we’re selling them, and it gets bad. I remember my dad saying: “We teach everyone a lesson on how to protect their body, and then we sell them a pair of shoes that undoes everything we teach them.” Which is a great quote, and it was so true.
It was really easy to see. But it wasn't practical to run around on hard, flat, marred surfaces barefoot or even in Vibram Five Fingers. I was training for rocky 50-mile races in mountains, so protection and cushioning are necessary things. To me it was just like, how do we marry the joint-saving efficient technique that you get from going barefoot with the cushion and comfort of traditional shoes?
From the film, I could see that when people's foot got out in front of their body, if they didn't have a shoe on, the foot stayed parallel to the ground. And if they had a shoe their toes popped up and their heel dropped down because the back half of the shoe is a lot heavier than the front half. That was the light bulb moment of, well, what if we made the cushioning the same thickness front to back, instead of having it be heel heavy?
3. Hot to Trot
I went home and threw a pair of shoes in the toaster oven: 275 degrees, wait for the glue to bubble, get a pair of pliers, rip the rubber tips out of the foam, glue in some weight-balanced, flat pieces of foam, glue the rubber back on and go for a run.
My dad has been tinkering with shoes since probably before I was born, so it was fairly normal. His winning shoes from the 1984 Saint George Marathon, he actually had drilled holes in the back half of the shoe to make it lighter weight and not as thick. Not only is a lighter shoe faster, but your Achilles can load more which means you get more explosion [and less pain].
We were always hacking shoes. So when I told my dad what I wanted to do, he was the one that looked at me, kind of smiled and was like, “Don't tell Mom. Let's go use the toaster oven downstairs in the basement.”
Then I wore them around, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was wearing a cushy, supportive pair of training shoes, but I didn't feel like they were fighting my technique or my form. That was huge.
And then we tested them with our employees and looked at the video, and it checked out; it ran like barefoot, it ran much lower impact. That's when I knew we had something, and then it just got out of control. Somehow a modified shoe found its way onto a customer, and we sold about a thousand pairs in the first year.
4. Mod Squad
We had a shoemaker a mile down the street, and we would take a brand-new pair of shoes, stretch out the toe box and skip the laces in the bottom half of the shoe. And then he'd go in by hand and sand out the excessive cushion to the back half of the shoe, or just cut the whole midsole off and put in slabs of cushioning so that we could balance the front and back.
The toe box modifications actually came first, like ten years earlier. Because we found that anybody that had any sort of foot condition, we would just sell the shoes like a full size, size and a half bigger, and then we'd stretch out the toe box and completely unlace the front half of the shoe, which is necessary because feet are more or less shaped like squares and shoes are more or less shaped like torpedoes.
It was super popular at our store. Probably 75 percent of the shoes that got sold were laced this way — and we just had enormous success, specifically with plantar fascia issues, neuromas and bunions and any other kind of common walking or running foot pain.
We started selling hand-modified shoes in 2008, and [my cousin and co-founder] Jeremy Howlett and I decided to go after doing Altra in 2009. It took until March of 2011 to get on the market. That's just how long the process takes... even today, the shoes you see, we started working on two years ago.
5. Name Game
We went through all these names and eventually found this word Altera, which in Latin means to mend or fix that which is broken. We had collected data on a thousand people that bought the [modified] shoes that first year, and we had like a 97 percent success rate on injury or pain reduction in the five major running injury areas: plantar fascia, shin splints, runner's knee, IT band and low back.
So we took the data to running shoe companies and were like, “Hey, if you just balance the cushioning out front to back and then make the shoe actually shaped like a foot instead of a torpedo, all these good things happen and these injuries go away.”
I totally understand it better now, but to have these shoe companies be like, uh, yeah buzz off, don't care… I was like, I thought that's why we build shoes, to help people not be injured. And I didn't realize there's like earnings and profits and stocks, and these people already have built-in shareholders and customers that are used to their product the way it is.
But at the time I was like, the industry is broken. These people don't give a crap about whether people are getting injured in their shoes or not, which is still kind of true. So I felt like we were both trying to fix injured humans, runners and walkers, but we're trying to fix a broken industry as well.
And then Altera the software company threatened to sue us. So we came up with Altra. It’s just a riff on Altera, but the way we actually arrived at it is like, I was altering shoes in a toaster oven. And we saw ourselves as an alternative to traditional shoes, and then we were running ultra marathons — Brian [Beckstead, another co-founder] and I specifically, because Brian was in the picture by this point.
So we basically took alter and ultra and mashed them up into Altra. Which at the end of the day was just Altera minus an E.