Monday, January 15, 2007

Shoe Review: The Inov-8 F-Lite 300

England’s premier off-road shoemaker takes on an Oregon winter.

Testing Environment: I tested the Inov-8 F-Lite 300 in and around Forest Park (5000 acres / 70 miles of trails) in Portland, Oregon. Forest Park features both single-track and fire-road running with over 1000' of vertical climb from the lowest to highest points. I ran in these shoes 2 to 4 times each week in the usual assortment of winter-time mud, rock-hard frozen dirt and up to 5 inches of snow.

Initial Impressions: My first impression of this shoe was very positive. The F-Lite 300 has the fantastic, no-frills fit of other Inov-8 shoes with a trim mid-sole and medium tread for mixed on and off road use. Once again Inov-8 has given us a lightweight training shoe with the durability of a hiking boot. Unlike a hiking boot and unlike many heavier trail running shoes, the Inov-8 F-Lite 300 is comfortable right out of the box requiring little or no break-in period.

Ideal Terrain and Conditions: The F-Lite 300 is a superb all-around shoe, smack dab in the middle of Inov-8's broad range of off-road running shoes. No other running shoe company makes 13 different models designed for so many specific conditions. Need a superlight racer for dry, uphill mountain races? Inov-8 makes a shoe for that (F-Lite 250). Need a shoe with a super aggressive tread with studs for winter racing? Inov-8 makes a shoe for that (MudClaw O+ 340). Got mud? Try the MudRoc 280. Got dry hard packed dirt? Try the RocLite 315. The only downside of so much specialization is that some Inov-8 shoes are nearly un-usable in the wrong conditions - for example, if you had to run on pavement with the "soccer cleat-like" MudClaw O 330, it would be quite uncomfortable. The F-Lite 300 strikes a great balance of on and off road effectiveness with the classic glove-like Inov-8 fit and super tough materials and construction. The best conditions for the F-Lite 300 would be dry to slightly wet mixed trail / road running. Less ideal conditions would be deep mud, wet grass, snow and other loose unconsolidated surfaces.

Best Features: My favorite feature of the Inov-8 F-Lite 300 is the construction of the upper. No other shoe company has nailed the lightweight and durable like Inov-8. Inov-8 has just enough abrasion resistant materials in the toe and heel uses a very light but stiff material across the top of the foot. The F-Lite 300 also has contoured eyelets only where they are needed, at the top of the lacing pattern. Other nice details include a simple and breathable padded tongue that is NOT sewn into the shoe. Too many trail shoes have nearly the entire tongue sewn in under the guise of water-proofing, which creates bunching and hot-spots.

Worst Features: The only thing I don't like about this shoe is that it is a jack of all conditions and a master of none. Fortunately, Inov-8 makes plenty of other shoes to choose from.

Final Thoughts: For what it is designed for, I think the F-Lite 300 is an excellent all around trail running shoe. In a town where "too cool for school" Nike and Adidas employees are wearing all manner of prototype shoes, the F-Lite 300 still gets fellow runners asking enviously, "what kind of shoe is that"?