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Northern Exposure: How Canada Became Home to Trail Running's Next Big Thing

Many upstart brands claim to have dreamt up the latest breakthrough. Thanks to one transformative ingredient, Montreal's Norda may have actually done it.

trail running shoes

When we think of The North — be it Canada, Scandinavia or elsewhere — we’re struck with visions of cold, harsh conditions. Mist, snow, rain, dark winters and craggy terrain come to mind, along with maybe a scene or two from Game of Thrones. Sure, it’s not actually that foreboding everywhere, but thriving takes a measure of grit — so we grant its denizens considerable respect.

In the sporting world, the best analogue may be trail running, a sport that requires athletes to persevere with strong calves and even stronger mindsets. It’s not simply “one foot in front of the other” when you’re negotiating a twisty trail festooned with rocks, roots and fallen branches, not to mention gravel, dirt and mud. To succeed, you also need gear that can blast through tough conditions, especially on your feet. That’s where Montreal’s Norda comes in.

Named after the Latin word for north, Norda was founded by Nick and Willa Martire, endurance athletes and shoe designers who wanted more from their trail running shoes.

“We live on a farm and we step out our door basically onto trails and dirt,” Nick says. “So 99.5 percent of the time, Willa and I run trails and dirt roads, to grass, to whatever, so we wanted to create products that were suited to our needs. Every time we would go running, [we were] dissatisfied with the products that we ran in and, as lifelong shoemakers and athletes, we thought we had to know how to do it. So we did.”

With over 20 years of experience designing shoes for the likes of Steve Madden and Aldo, the Martires had the background to break into the business. In 2021, after two years of testing and development, they quietly released their flagship trail running shoe, the Norda 001.

man trail running
The Norda 001 is crafted with a keen eye for design and style. From upper to outsole, the shoes boast trail-ready bona fides, but they have also been picked up by a number of top fashion e-retailers, including Ssense and Mr Porter.
Norda

Innovation in Silence

As a small brand, Norda didn’t want to spend big on marketing, which is why this might be the first you’ve heard of it. When you give the 001s a runout, you quickly realize the bulk of resources went into the product itself.

What stands out? Rather than simply beef up an existing road running shoe, as some bigger brands are wont to do, the Martires built the 001 from the ground up with trail running in mind. There is no road running version.

"As lifelong shoemakers and athletes, we thought we had to know how to do it. So we did.”

Getting more granular, the feeling underfoot impresses. A grippy Vibram outsole provides plenty of traction, while the midsole is plush but not squishy. The fit is ultra secure thanks to a gusseted lock system that doesn’t waver on uneven ground. Where the shoes truly differentiate themselves, though, is the upper, which is made from one of the most technologically advanced materials in outdoor gear, and maybe the world: Dyneema. (Norda opted for new bio-based Dyneema, which reduces the carbon footprint by 90 percent.)

trail running shoe sole
The lugged Vibram outsole features dozens of sipes in the rubber, similar to the traction you’d find on a winter tire.
Norda

Reimagining an Outdoor Icon

Fifteen times stronger than steel, yet half the weight of it, Dyneema is something of a miracle fiber. Made exclusively by a Dutch company called DSM, the fabric was first used in the outdoor world to make climbing rope before showing up in bags, tents and even down jackets. If you’ve ever glimpsed one of the many streamlined, black-and-white products made by Hyperlite Mountain Gear, you’ve seen Dyneema.

Probably the biggest thing limiting its prevalence is that the material can be difficult to work with: it's a bit stiff, which is why you don’t see it in a lot of footwear. When the Martires discovered its advantages, however, they became determined to make it the foundation of the 001.

It took globe-spanning Zoom calls and multiple iterations to nail down the upper, but after consulting with experts and top factories, they settled on a new type of Dyneema. While the material usually has the feel and look of a tarp, Norda used a bit of secret alchemy to weave it. Don’t ask them how they did it, though. When I do, Nick and Willa break into wry smiles.

“I can't give you all the secrets,” Willa says. “But we said, try and raise it to this temperature now, or lower to this temperature. It's about finding a way to make it. What's the word I'm looking for? There's like a little recipe.”

Whatever magic was involved, it works. Play around with a pair, tug as hard as you can at the upper — hell, let your dog have a go at it — and you’ll see it’s virtually indestructible. That makes the shoe ideal for everyone from ultrarunners to the weekend warrior that pounds their shoes hard and puts them away wet. The do-it-all performance comes at a premium: over $280 USD. But adherents say it’s worth it.

man tying his running shoe
The virtually unbreakable laces are made from recycled polyester and bio-based Dyneema.
Norda

Performance Is the Best Press

One of the first pros to don the shoe was Serbian ultrarunner Jovica Spajić. He took a new pair of Norda 001s straight from the box and ran Utah’s gnarly Moab 240 last fall. He placed second, beat his previous best time by nearly 6 minutes and is still hooked.

“From the first moment I was thrilled by the design and aesthetics, the selection of sophisticated materials, innovation and details,” Jovica says on Norda’s blog. “The comfort, features and the way the shoes behaved on various surfaces, including the technically most demanding mountain terrains, resilience, and the fact that the shoes didn’t lose any of their potential even after 1,000 kilometers [620 miles].”

The 001 has since been adopted by a handful of pros and is gaining steam organically, via word of mouth, positive buzz on hardcore running blogs and the like. That’s how the Martires prefer it, rather than Instagram ads and sponsorships.

Heck, they’ve been too busy developing the second shoe in the line, the 001 G+ Spike, a $330 iteration waterproofed with a membrane made of Graphene — the lightest, strongest, most conductive natural material on Earth.

Considering the quality of the product after less than a year of operation, it is apparent that a colossal marketing budget won’t be necessary.

First Tracks

We don’t all have dirt trails right outside our doors, but here are early impressions of the Norda 001 from the streets of Brooklyn.

My very first run in the 001 was on slushy city sidewalks after a snowstorm. Not a trail, per se, but going out in my regular road shoes would have been unfathomable. I was shocked to find my traction super steady, even on patches of ice. Dyneema may not sound like the comfiest material, owing to its comparisons to steel, but it actually makes for one of the best uppers I’ve ever run in. The seamless construction cradles your feet and the footprint is just wide enough to be a comfortable platform without feeling like a shoe an astronaut would wear. —WP

Courtesy
Norda 001 - M
nordarun.com
$285.00
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