By Austin Bonds
Last January, I pushed my body through a brutal trail race. And by brutal I mean rocks. Many, many rocks. Though I managed to stay upright and finish the treacherous five-mile course without falling, others were not as fortunate – as evidenced by the bloody arms and knees huddled around the finish line. During the race, I felt a competitor closing the gap as the two of us traversed the jagged terrain. I thought he would go by as his presence drew closer, but I heard an audible grunt as his ankle rolled on a smirking rock. I knew it without looking over my shoulder. He recovered, thankfully, but rolled it again shortly thereafter.
I met up with this brave soul after the race and discovered that he was charging up and down those nasty hills in the Hoka Challenger ATR (version 2 I believe). Now well-known for their hefty midsoles, I wondered if the high stack height would prove to be a disruptive presence to ankles on the trails. I figured that I had my answer in the Challenger, so I decided to steer clear of Hoka trail shoes until 2016 and the rollout of the Speed Instinct. I like the Speed Instinct, but I love the Speed Instinct 2.
My love for the Speed Instinct 2 starts with the lower stack height. 25 millimeters in the heel and 22 in the forefoot (the Challenger ATR 3 is 31 and 26, respectively). And while it’s possible to injure the ankle on a trail in any trail shoe, I do believe that models with a lower stack height lower the likelihood to some extent as the feet are closer to the earth. Like the first Speed Instinct, version two utilizes the dual density PRO2Lite midsole, which translates into “a soft heel density and a firm forefoot for added responsiveness.”
Unlike many trail shoes today that incorporates a rock plate of some kind to lower the risk of stone bruising, the Instinct 2 lacks this addition. During my training runs, I intentionally stepped on rocks to gauge the protection factor. The shoes held up well for me, though runners who hit the trails that skew heavy on the rock count may wish to tread more lightly than boldly charging through them. Finally, no rock plate means less weight and some fantastic road runs (my size 12 weighed 11.3 ounces).
The Instinct 2 ride is smooth and responsive, though I’d like a little more spring at toe off. Revisions to the upper, which are the focal point of version two, are solid. The first Instinct employed a complex web of overlays that covered most of the shoe, and while this intricate pattern kept the feet secure, ventilation was sorely lacking. Accordingly, the Hoka engineers addressed this gripe in version two courtesy of a more breathable mesh that also enhances the width ever so slightly.
While the Speed Instinct 2 has a slightly larger toe box than its predecessor, I do think that running in Altra models as of late (e.g. the Torin, Escalante, and King MT) have spoiled me – for the time being at least – with a sensitivity for how much room my toes have to fully splay. I’ve also been contending with some metatarsal pain under my first toe, so this too has increased my awareness of width in the forefoot. Suffice it to say that this is more of an observation than a critique of the toe box, though runners with wide feet are likely to pass on the Instinct 2 from a comfort standpoint as the fit may feel constricting.
Hoka Speed Instinct 2 Conclusion
With the absence of a rock plate, I believe the Speed Instinct 2 is undoubtedly a winner for smoother trails. That said, a colleague of mine completed a rocky 50K in Blue Ridge, Georgia, in the original Speed Instinct last September (I opted for the now deceased Pearl Izumi Trail N2 – rest in peace). In summary, the lower stack height, semi-responsive PRO2Lite midsole, snug fit, and multi-directional lugs along the outsole make for a model capable of tackling both forgiving and unforgiving terrains. But who doesn’t like lots of rocks though? Check out the Speed Instinct 2 at Running Warehouse.