by Chris Mclung
There are two ways that I know a shoe is good.
One of those I documented in this previous review of the Adios Boost. To save you from having to re-read that one, I will summarize: basically, my dog helps me.
The second is based on what comes to mind when someone asks me after a run: “So, how was the shoe?” If in that moment, my mind goes blank, then I know we’re on the cusp of shoe nirvana.
Enter: the Cloudracer from On Running.
On is a relatively new and unknown brand in the US, although it’s been going nuts in Europe for at least 2 years. It all started when Olivier Bernhard, a three-time World Duathlon and multiple Ironman Champion, retired from professional competition. As someone who struggled chronically with Achilles issues, he teamed up with a Swiss engineer to make a shoe that would give him enough relief to continue running for fun as a retired pro.
They experimented with all sorts of designs, but the most effective was a make-shift shoe where the traditional foam was augmented on the bottom by cut up loops of old garden hose. These garden hose loops would eventually transform into On’s Cloudtec technology, the little rubber circles that appear on bottom of their shoes.
The company claims that these little clouds provide the magical combination of a more responsive ride with better horizontal and vertical force dissipation (i.e. cushioning) than conventional shoes. The video at the bottom of this page shows the comparison in action: [Note: That video is pretty compelling until you realize that the comp shoe is a Nike Structure Triax without the swoosh on it, a shoe bound to make anyone land with a thud.]
My first reaction when I saw them? Gimmick. Let’s be honest, that’s what you are thinking too. Much like with the lugs on a Newton shoe, the first thing you think of when you see something silly protruding from a running shoe is “that’s a gimmick, where’s my tried-and-true Brooks or Saucony or Mizuno?”
But I will try anything once, so I took a pair of On’s for a spin about 18 months ago. I was seeded a pair of the original Cloudracer, their lightweight trainer (in the orange and silver color you may have seen). We will call it Cloudracer 1.0 for the purpose of this blog. Upon returning from the first run, Subtle Chuck screamed, “How was it?” My honest answer at the time: “Awful.” I felt the little clouds protruding into my feet with every step. It wasn’t painful by any stretch, but it was annoying, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the shoes.
At that point, the decision was easy. We wouldn’t be carrying On shoes anytime soon. Fast forward 15 months, and I was given another pair of Cloudracers to try, this time in green and silver. I was promised by the On rep that I would love this updated version (we’ll call it Cloudracer 1.5). I accepted the shoes politely because I don’t usually turn down free shoes, but I quietly thought that it would be a cold day in hell before they made their way onto my feet on a regular basis.
Other than the color change, the shoes looked exactly the same as version 1.0. I had plenty reason to be skeptical, until I accidentally ran in them one day. They were the only pair of shoes I could find one morning (thank you, Jasmine) while getting ready to coach, and therefore, the only shoes I had when I went for my usual post-coaching easy run on Wednesday.
After that run, I didn’t think about them again, until Subtle Chuck asked me in his soft, muted voice: “Have you run in those new On shoes yet? What did you think?” The mind went blank. Let me think. Had I run in them yet? Yes, I did accidentally that one day after coaching. How did they feel? Wait, I don’t remember. I don’t remember thinking about the shoe at all that day. That can’t be right.
So, I started to play it back in my mind. I remember the run being slow (as usual on my easy days) but also smooth and free. The clouds didn’t bother my feet. I thought about a lot of things that morning, as I would during any solo run, but not the shoes, not once. The shoe disappeared on the run that day, like it should. That’s shoe nirvana.
The difference from version 1.0 to version 1.5 is the all new “speedboard”, a rigid, plastic piece (similar to the Adidas torsion system) that is integrated into the midsole foam to make the ride more responsive and give the On shoe a more uniform feel. What a difference it makes. With that change, the clouds could do their magical thing and your feet don’t know the difference.
Now, the Cloudracer has a permanent place in my rotation as my Wednesday/Friday shoe (for easy days). It’s light (at 8.5 ounces for men and 7.5 ounces for women) and responsive (thanks to the speedboard) like any racer should be, but has enough cushioning to be used as training shoe for most. The offset is just 5mm (heel to toe), so there’s no extra bulk in the heel to get in the way of smooth, efficient running. In addition, the upper is probably the most breathable on our wall, perfect for hot, humid summer runs.
So, I was wrong. On is definitively not a gimmick. The shoes are the kind that make your mind go blank when you run… that free your mind to think about solving all of the world’s problems instead, taking you one stage of enlightenment closer to shoe nirvana.