I received my first pair of Hokas in August 2013, but I couldn’t bring myself to run in them because of how goofy I thought they looked. Those two shoes sat sadly next to my front door for months before I took them out for a few runs. The jokes my friends made about my choice were merciless, though, so I quickly caved and gave them away. At that time in my life—freshly married, just north of 30, with a sweet new columnist gig at Outside—looking like a career outdoorsman was really important to me. Now as I sit here hammering a few paragraphs of gear copy from the couch while my daughter naps, I can’t believe how much energy and time younger Joe spent caring about how my shoes looked when I ran. Because now comfort is king.
Hoka has been my running shoe of choice since Pearl Izumi stopped making running shoes in 2016. I ended up giving the brand a real shot after a search for other trail runners left me with sore knees and shin splints. Within a week of adopting a pair of its shoes, both went away. In the four years since, I have logged thousands of miles in five different models and am currently on my second pair of Challenger ATR 5’s.
Over those miles, I discovered that Hokas are easier on my body than any other shoes I’ve run in. I put in anywhere from 20 to 50 miles a week (depending on whether I’m training for an event), and I honestly don’t know how I could do that without the extreme cushion they deliver. I recognize that they may not be doing my gait any favors and that I might be weakening the bottoms of my feet—something I try to counteract by using minimalist shoes during sprint and gym workouts—but the fact that I can put more miles in comfortably far outweighs those potential negatives.
Due to the time I’ve dedicated, running is the only sport that I’ve become better at as a father. Thanks to how easy it is to push our favorite running stroller, and my daughter’s chill demeanor while riding in it, I’ve averaged 15 to 25 miles a week with her since last summer. The stroller runs and the world-class trail system just two miles from my house mean I can run consistently while still keeping up with childcare and work duties. Hammering those mentally therapeutic miles and not complaining about aching knees afterward make the ATR 5’s some of my most cherished gear.
On top of protecting my ragged knees, they run really nicely. Those mondo soles are remarkably light, and they’re rockered, which livens up my stride. The deep heel cup locks in my foot when I tighten the laces, and the shoe actually feels quite nimble when on trails, despite the chunky sole. The ATR 5 has a wider toe box than any other Hoka I’ve used, and I haven’t lost a toenail over dozens of double-digit-mile runs and a trail marathon.
That beefy sole feels like a monster truck on unstable downhills or rocky terrain. The wider footprint, the accompanying grip, and the feel of the sole sinking into off-kilter ground—like a slightly deflated mountain-bike tire—inspire a great deal of confidence as I pilot my aging body down steep singletrack.
Besides my own personal changes, a lot has shifted in how these shoes are perceived in the world. In 2016 and 2017, there was a noticable shift in fashion, with designer and streetwear brands adopting a chunkier silhouette in sneakers, and we saw brands like Yeezy and Balenciaga making decidedly fat-soled shoes. Hoka was already there. While I personally don’t know how to accessorize a streetwear shoe, I have none of that goofy feeling that kept me from wearing Hoka years ago. Whether that’s the result of society learning to love gargantuan soles or me leaving my ego behind on trail runs is beside the point. I know my Hokas help with discomfort on long efforts, which helps keep me mentally healthy in the long term. That’s all that matters.
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