There are people you meet in this world who are born athletes and I realize this is hard to accept. As most of us get older, we think “if I only trained harder” or “if I only started earlier”, but in reality there are people who have athletic prowess engrained in their DNA. Such begins my interview with Altra Running’s founder Golden Harper.
Golden is incredibly humble about his past and when asked he rattles it off likes it’s a grocery list, but each one leaves you picking your jaw off the floor. As an example, he ran a 3:08 marathon at age 10 and still maintains the National and World best marathon times for 11 (2:57) and 12 year olds (2:45:34). He was an NCAA All-American and then after deciding to run ultras, won his debut appearance in the Alpine to Slickrock 50 miler. He knows a little about running and as it turns out, he knows a ton about running shoes.
In fact, his whole family knows running and holds over 20 state titles. His father, who owns a running store, has run over 70 marathons and has a PR of 2:22, all done bone on bone as he has no cartilage in his knee from a football injury. His mother held the Utah state marathon record for 20 years straight. His three sisters, all state champions in cross-country and have competed in the UAT&F National Championships. So here our story begins; at home, with his mother.
You have been running since you were very young and I would love to hear from you directly what really got you into the sport.
Basically, I ran before I walked. My parents read several collegiate studies that showed that kids who waited to walk until they were much older would be more intelligent, so they always pushed me down whenever I stood up. Then one day, my parents got me out of the car and I saw some kids playing nearby and apparently just took off running. In addition to owning a running store, my parents were race directors and let me race at a young age. I saw my parents run the marathon each year, and at age 9 I really wanted to run, but they wouldn’t let me. That year, the youngest runner at the marathon, a 12 year old, got a huge 5 foot tall trophy and I was so mad at my parents. They conceded to let me run the next year if I trained properly and the rest is kind of history.
Being a younger runner, when did the switch go on where you realized there might be a different way of designing a running shoe?
I have been working in my family’s store since I was 9, so I was constantly around running and shoes and then I spent my college years studying running injuries and exercise science. I found that the marketing doesn’t line up with the research. My father put a treadmill in the store and we started doing the now typical filming people running from behind, and we tracked them. The stability shoes sales went up, but then injuries went up, and returns went up. It made not only me, but also my family start questioning what shoe design was and if we were really helping our customers. We were selling people these shoes that ended up hurting them, which was super frustrating. Coincidentally, new research shows that only about 15% of people should be wearing a shoe with any type of stability.
With that said, it really started initially with my dad doing this thing where he would make people buy their shoes ridiculously big and skip the bottom couple of lace holes so their feet had tons of room to spread out. Everyone thought it was strange at first, but it did wonders on cutting down injuries like plantar fasciitis, neuromas, shin splints, etc. 10 years of success with this was kind of the proof in the pudding for the foot-shaped toe box idea. We knew without a doubt it worked.
This obviously led to the infamous moment where you are cutting up various shoes to build the “perfect” shoe, can you talk about what led to this, were you guys just playing around or did you have a real focus already on what would become Zero Drop?
I had just returned home from living in Hawaii for a couple of years where I ran barefoot quite a bit, but I was training for a rocky mountain fifty miler and thought “protection is good!” so I wanted to marry that world of barefoot biomechanics with having enough protection for the circumstances.
At the same time, we started filming our customers with slow-motion video to analyze their form, but we found something disconcerting. While their form looked pretty good while wearing spikes, Five Fingers, or barefoot, those same people had inefficient, high impact form when we filmed them in the shoes we were selling them. It was a hard moment of truth. My dad was like “I teach virtually everyone that comes in here to run with better technique, and then I sell them shoes that apparently teach them just the opposite.” It was really frustrating.
From the video, we could see the heel drop towards the ground when the foot swings out in front of the body, and then contact the ground earlier and higher impact because of the excess height. We realized that in traditional running shoes, the heel of the midsole is twice as heavy and twice as high as the forefoot, and this causes the heel to contact the ground first in a more high impact fashion. I put it all that together and then went to work.
I had a theory that the weight and height of the heel was causing the high impact landings, so I went home and threw a pair of shoes in the toaster oven, waited until the glue started to bubble, and then pulled them apart. I added a thick slab of perfectly flat Spenco foam, and made sure the shoes were weight balanced. I glued it back together and then tested it with the staff at the running store. We put it on the video to confirm that it worked and it was easy to see.
How did you test the modified shoes to know if they worked or not?
We started using the modified shoes on injured customers who had already tried everything else. We basically gave them a pair of these modified shoes to try and explained that they would let their feet spread out more naturally and help them to run with better technique, and that it may or may not help. We really weren’t sure, we just wanted to help people. We sent them out the door with a page long survey to return in 6-8 weeks that would let us know if it helped and what kind of transition they might have experienced. Well, friends of these people came back before the surveys did, with tales of how their friend was not in pain and was running better. They wanted “the hacked up” shoes too!
Needless to say, it got out of hand pretty quick. As a running store we figured out we would get sued selling other brands’ shoes modified directly, so we worked with a local shoemaker who would do the modifications after market. Over the next year, we ended up selling around a thousand pair of these shoes!
Can you touch directly on the term Zero Drop? I think most people don’t necessarily understand what it truly means.
Zero Drop was coined as a way to describe how the cushioning in the shoe no longer dropped from the heel down to the forefoot. Very early on, when I was with the local shoemaker doing some modifications, and he was measuring the cushioning in a pair of shoes. I always talked about how the cushioning dropped from the back of the shoe to the front, so he said something along the lines of “alright, these look like they’re at 0mm of drop” and I thought, “that’s it, zero drop! We don’t have to call them modified shoes anymore!”
How did modifying shoes at the store turn in to making shoes?
My cousin Jeremy Howlett was down on my birthday and ran in a pair for the first time after having chronic knee problems for the past five years and was able to run again. He wanted “a real pair made by a real shoe company” and I had to explain that no one made them and that the big companies had blown me off when I showed them the data on how these shoes were making people run better and helping with their injuries. Jeremy was able to find a guy who knew the right people. These ex-Nike and Adidas development VPs called up and said they knew what we were doing was right and that they had been wanting to make shoes like we were making, but that they didn’t have a marketing story. We didn’t really know how to make shoes, so we got together a couple weeks later and the rest is history!
The first thing I noticed when switching to an Altra, aside from the size of the body and sole itself, was the larger toe box and increased toe splay. It seriously threw me and the other folks I have shown them to as well. What was the conscious thought behind this?
We had a massive debate internally about whether we should do this at all as it’s so different looking and really difficult to pull off. I knew it would look different to people, and that it could kill the brand. However, I also knew that we were trying to build the world’s best shoes for reducing injuries and that shaping the shoe like a foot so the foot could actually work right was critical. The bottom line is that when you put square shaped feet in triangle shaped shoes, bad things eventually happen. If you want to keep people injury free, then the toe box needs to be shaped like a healthy shaped foot. The reality is that the 1 billion people on earth that don’t wear closed-toe shoes, have a 3% incidence of foot problems. In America, where we have the “best shoes in the world”, it’s 73%. Our raised heels and tapered toe boxes are literally wreaking havoc with our feet and our bodies!
So is the whole under pronate, over pronate, strike position model of buying traditional running shoes just about marketing?
There is next to no evidence that pronation causes injury or that stability shoes actually correct pronation. See http://www.scienceofrunning.com/2010/01/why-running-shoes-do-not-work-looking.html for more.
Based on customer feedback, what kind of improvements would you expect your average runner to see after making the jump to Altra?
In short, expect a more efficient form and more relaxed, powerful feet and lower legs. Most all runners will notice that they run with better, lower impact technique right away. Since Zero Drop allows the spring of the lower leg to load more fully, a lot of people experience personal records pretty quickly—this is apparent on our Facebook page! Also, people with feet problems such as neuromas or plantar fasciitis may see those melt away as they get their feet back in natural alignment. Additionally, black toenails and blisters don’t need to be part of running, especially when your feet and toes have room to spread out and relax!
How does a runner determine if they require Stability or Neutral shoes if they are interested in getting into an Altra?
First off, I tell someone to start by getting something similar in support & cushion to what you are currently using. Eventually, I believe most runners are best off by using the least amount of support and cushion necessary for what they are doing. We are trying to take people whose feet have been basically deformed from a lifetime of wearing shoes not shaped like feet and restore them back to natural function. While half of all shoes sold are stability shoes, the data shows that only around 15% of runners should be wearing them.
Is there anyone these shoes aren’t good for? Over pronators, high arches, speed demons, etc?
Altra makes a shoe for just about every type of runner. Of course shoes are very individual, so you really need to test them out and see what works for you. Altra’s were originally built to help injured runners and those who excessively heel strike or over-stride, so for people who already have great form, the benefits may not be as high, but they’ll still be apparent. If you happen to be afraid of a lower heel for some reason, just put an inexpensive removable arch & heel cushion in the shoes for your harder runs until you’re comfortable with not needing it anymore. This will allow you to get the comfort, stability, and power of the foot-shaped toe box while making your transition seamless.
Can you talk a little bit about women’s shoes specifically and the whole industry model of “shrink it and pink it”?
This has become such a big part of the early story of Altra. Everyone just takes the men’s shoe and shrinks it and pinks it to save money on midsole and outsole tooling. Our last maker and I were both really passionate about spending the additional money to just focus directly on females. Women have narrower heel, a longer arch, and a higher instep, so shouldn’t their shoes be different!? We want to continue to do the right thing and give them a shoe that is truly designed 100% to fit a female foot. We also make the cushioning softer as females prefer softer cushioning and have less fat pad on their feet.
And the running industry in general, we are seeing a big upswing in non-traditional shoe manufacturers including you guys, Hoka, Newton, Zoot, Karhu, Topo, Airia, etc. What do you think is the catalyst for this change in the industry?
I think the biggest reason is that consumers are getting smarter. People are realizing, we have all this new “technology”, but injury rates haven’t gone down! All major brands out there now are essentially creating the same shoes with a different marketing spin. There just isn’t a lot of difference between them. For 30 years straight we always had the same thing. Every “fix” was exacerbating the problem, so it was causing a continued buildup of the problem. Regardless of whether they got it right or not, I give a lot of credit to the Newtons and Vibrams of the world who stuck their necks out and went for it.
You guys have really climbed in terms of market share in the past 2-3 years, how important is it to control your growth so you appear genuine to running while also staying competitive?
From a market share perspective, we have basically doubled every year. In terms of staying genuine, we are all runners and we spend a lot of time with the running community, so I’m not too worried about that. My vision is to make a product for every runner. We have evolved our line to match against what consumers are currently wearing to give them an option that is similar to what they are wearing. I definitely take some flak from the minimal purists, but the bottom line is we want to make a shoe for every person, every condition, and every need. You can be completely idealistic, but you have to get people on board first. Our highly cushioned shoes like the Paradigm are like gateway drugs to more natural footwear.
If you look five years down the road, where do you see Altra within the athletic apparel landscape?
First off, I want to be seen as the company that helped people understand how to run better and healthier. Our five-year goal is to be in the realm of the heavyweights and definitely at the top of the secondary pool. This means selling just as many as the Nikes, Mizunos, Adidas, New Balance, etc. of the world and in some markets we are doing that even today, especially in the West. From a product standpoint, we will continue to evolve our products and see what the next thing is to help runners run better and injury free and figure out how to incorporate that into our lineup. We have been pretty successful with walking and cross training as well, so we may continue looking at categories that make sense.
If you could only run one road or trail every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I rarely run the same route twice, but I would say the 20-mile Larch Mountain Loop in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon or Big Baldy from the Rock Pile on Mt. Timpanogos in Utah where I grew up running.
And you would be wearing?
I typically run trail and love the Superior 2 and the Lone Peak 2.5. I use The One2 on the road for speed-work and racing, while I use the Paradigm for really long runs and for bombing downhill on trail. Lastly, I’ll use the Instinct 3 for regular road runs, as it feels invisible and I love that.
Thank you for hanging out with us!!
Thanks so much for having me!