When Eliud Kipchoge ran 26.2 miles in one hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds in October 2019, it was big news. Not since 1954, when Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes for the first time in recorded history, had a seemingly impossible athletic feat been reeled down to human capacity. Some debated whether Kipchoge's feat was as impressive as it seemed — his record is considered unofficial because he ran on a closed course, with pacers — while others speculated about the shoes he wore to do it.
They were a prototype of Nike's since-released Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%, and the culmination of proprietary running shoe tech that's proven to actually do what it says: make runners faster. As debates about gear doping came to a head, World Athletics, the governing body of international track and field events, devised new rules to level the footwear playing field.
It's hard to imagine such a saga taking place in the world of trail running. For whatever reason — its shorter history, its exclusion from the Olympics, its triumphs occurring off-grid, far from the cameras and crowds — trail running hasn't gained the mass appeal that the road and track variant has. And neither has any one trail running shoe.
The North Face is intent on changing that. Its first major launch of 2021 is Vectiv, a new trail footwear system that relies on the same plate-propelled design idea that's swept over the premium road running shoe category. With the shoe dropping this week, here's everything you need to know — including my own test impressions.
What Is Vectiv?
In a press release, The North Face describes Vectiv as "revolutionary soling architecture." That is, the layers of shoe stuff underneath your feet. It's not so much a single thing, like a type of foam or tread, but a few things working together: a plate, a rockered (curved) midsole and an outsole.
If we had to pull just one of these layers out to explain the tech, though, it'd be the plate. Unlike the carbon fiber plates buried in Nike's shoes, TNF's patented 3D Vectiv Plate sits directly underfoot and wraps up around the edges to help lock the foot in as it propels it forward. According to The North Face, this position bolsters shoe longevity — the plate helps dissipate the impact on the layers of foam beneath it.
Michael Thompson, senior product director of footwear at the company, says that some testers have put 500 to 600 miles on a single pair without them breaking down. During a recent Zoom briefing, Dylan Bowman, who's been an athlete for The North Face for seven years, admitted to trash canning shoes after a single long effort wrecked them but said he continued to train in his Vectiv shoes for months after running 93 miles around Mount Rainier last summer.
What does Vectiv do?
Trail running is more concerned with distance than road running. If there's a premier race to match the Boston or Berlin marathons, it's the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, or UTMB, a single-stage, 106-mile circumnavigation of the Mont Blanc massif. It begins and ends in France, crossing through Italy and Switzerland along the way, and it has a total elevation gain of nearly 33,000 feet. For context, Mt. Everest is 29,032 feet tall, though the climb from base camp is somewhere around 11,450 feet.
This kind of challenge is what The North Face made Vectiv for. The propulsion, stability and durability of the system are for really, really, really long trail runs. Noting that roughly 40 percent of UTMB competitors don't finish the race and that the same percentage who do come out with severe leg muscle fatigue, the company spent two years working on a way to mitigate the strain of ultrarunning. The efforts seem to have paid off: results from a third-party lab test of 12 runners and four different shoes revealed that Vectiv reduces downhill tibial impact by 10 percent.
Who Is Vectiv For?
Don't write off Vectiv just because a 100-plus mile run around a mountain range isn't your ideal Saturday. Though you may not need all the tech in the top-end Flight Vectiv shoe, which goes for $199, for your three-mile woods loop, you wouldn't necessarily be hurting yourself by wearing it for shorter runs like that.
But you should also know that The North Face is gluing Vectiv into a full suite of trail footwear. In addition to the previously mentioned Flight Vectiv, there's the Vectiv Infinite and Vectiv Enduris. A significant differentiator is the 3D plate; the Flight's is carbon fiber, the Infinite's is a thermoplastic elastomer called Pebax, while the Enduris has one made of TPU. The uppers also vary in material and features, as does each shoe's weight.
In a show of Vectiv's versatility (and the company's hopes for it), The North Face is also releasing a collection of five hiking shoes, bringing the sole tech to a far wider group of trail goers. As it does within the trail running line, Vectiv changes slightly from model to model. The plate inside the Vectiv Exploris Futurelight, for example, has higher sidewalls for increased support.
The North Face recently sent me a pair of Flight Vectivs to check out for myself. I've put somewhere around 100 kilometers on them, a classic ultra distance, but I certainly didn't do it in a single run. I didn't take them up and over a mountain or to the bottom and up the opposing side of a canyon. (We don't have canyons in Vermont, and the only way up the mountains at this time of year is by snowshoes, skis or chairlift.) No, I accumulated those kilometers slowly over a smattering of runs on the snow and dirt and gravel and salt that covers the rutty, up-and-down roads and trails in my neck of the woods, and that's been enough to get a good feel for them.
It's lightweight and lookin' good.
More than any other trail shoe, the Flight Vectiv's appearance reminds me of a road shoe. It's sleek and minimal, with welded overlays and not a stitch in sight. It's tongueless, and its lace eyelets are woven directly into the upper. Hell, you can see through its Kevlar-polyamide siding.
Like many high-end road shoes, these elements are a function of saving weight. Surviving endless hours of running comes down to efficiency, in the body's internal processes and external motions, and equipment. An extra ounce on each foot might not feel like much over six miles, but over 60, it can turn into a ball of lead. In a men's size 9, the Flight Vectiv weighs 10.05 ounces per shoe, squarely on the low end for a trail running shoe.
The cost, as far as I can tell, isn't much beyond the dollar signs. One feature I miss is a heel loop to help get the shoe on, but not having one is far from a deal-breaker, and it certainly wouldn't be during a race, which, let's remember, is what this shoe is for. The upper also doesn't have any cushioning, except for a molded heel counter. (The Infinite and Enduris models have both of these features and more substantial tongues.)
The plate plus Kevlar make it stable.
Despite the minimalism, The North Face made the Flight Vectiv as supportive as possible. The upper has enough stretch in its tongueless tongue portion to slide into, but the Kevlar-reinforced aft section has little to no give at all. That, combined with the carbon fiber plate's up-curled edges, makes it plenty stable on uneven ground. It contrasts starkly with shoe uppers that lack such reinforcements, which make each footfall feel like having to balance on a squishy platform.
It's speed under control.
Serving as guardrails is an innovative secondary function that The North Face gave to the carbon fiber plate. In road running shoes, this component is a springboard that works in tandem with a rockered (curved) sole to propel runners from one stride to the next. The same one-two combo is at play here, though it's not as obvious a feeling as it is in those types of shoes. The foam is less bouncy, the plate less springy. It allows for the controlled speed necessary for trails, and it begs the question, why hasn't this tech come to trail running before?
All this is to say that the Flight Vectiv is a lot more shoe than it appears to be. It might be too much shoe — or rather, too little — for sub-elite trail runners, but minimalists might find it fits their needs just right. And the rest of the Vectiv line is there to suit the needs of those who want a bit more.
In its Vectiv press release, The North Face makes it explicit that it saw a carbon fiber-shaped gap in trail footwear that's remained vacant even as seemingly every shoe brand adopted the tech for the road. It's also filling a space in its collection — despite massive success in climbing and mountaineering, the company hasn't made much of a name for itself in trail running. Previously, The North Face didn't even require sponsored trail running athletes to wear its footwear. It can probably amend that part of its contracts now. Even without doing so, pro trail runners would likely run on Vectiv anyway.
After all, if records are a measure and forecast of a shoe's success, then the Vectiv line is looking at clear skies. In 2020, The North Face's trail running athletes set the fastest known times on 17 trails around the world, all wearing Vectiv shoes.