Over the course of the weekend during the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon in Colorado, we spoke with ultrarunners Max King and Stian Angermund about the Salomon Sense 7 trail shoe debuting this fall. We went over everything from how the shoe started to how these athletes (among others) shaped its current iteration and what other S/Lab kicks we can expect in the future.
Salomon’s original Sense trail shoe model was created between ultrarunner Kilian Jornet‘s appearances at the Western States Endurance Run in California. Jornet began talking about the project with Salomon’s design team just before the 2010 race, where he placed third, and shortly after they began to work on prototypes to have a shoe ready for the 2011 race.
“When we work with athletes on a project, they need to have a technical background and be able to express their needs,” says Patrick Leick, Salomon’s footwear product manager. “Kilian is very good, knows exactly what he wants and can provide specific feedback.”
Prior to the 2010 race, Jornet and Leick had worked on making a Frankenstein’s monster out of other existing models, but for 2011 they started from scratch. Fortunately, Jornet spent much of that winter ski mountaineering in the same region, so the design team could easily get him revised prototypes, slowly tweaking the fit and materials. Leick estimates that between September and December, the Salomon design team had made roughly 40 prototype shoes for Jornet.
In May, Jornet wore a late prototype to race in Australia, as a test. “Luckily we made this decision because we discovered some problems during the race,” says Leick. Within a month, the Salomon development team was able to modify the shoe to eliminate hotspots and it was ready for Jornet to wear in the 2011 Western States race, which he won.
The good and bad of that success was that the race-specific Sense became an everyday lust item among trail runners. Salomon can produce a shoe for Kilian intended for one race and make it out of very expensive, technical materials that only need to last 100 miles. “That is not a problem because it is only for an athlete, but when we go into production we cannot do this,” says Leick. “We have to respect our consumers, so the durability is very important.”
King has a succinct history of the Sense’s different models since it hit the market in 2012. “It started out as a really lightweight shoe but the durability was terrible and it got beefier and beefier over the years and then the athletes said it was too heavy,” says King. “Now we’re starting to see it go back the other direction and we’re using lighter weight materials, the upper is lighter but it’s not as protective.”
While King is working on his own shoe, he’s already a big fan of the new Sense 7 and said it was what he would have worn for the Pikes Peak Marathon if his foot wasn’t still tender from an injury.
Salomon Sense 7 Specs
Drop: 4mm (18mm/14mm)
Weight: 7 oz. M (9M)
Midsole: EnergyCell+ and Dual Density Compressed EVA midsole
Outsole: Premium Wet Traction Contagrip
From the beginning, the Salomon team behind a shoe project includes not just athletes and S-Lab designers, but people from marketing and the business side to listen to the needs of the athletes and the goals for that particular shoe.
Early prototypes are about making ideas into something for an athlete to wear and provide feedback on—there are no budget constraints. Later, the reality of production costs and market appeal set in. The team begins working on tooling the prototypes to be sure that base model is something that can be replicated on a larger scale. That is where decisions about the types of foams, soles and uppers happen—the give and take of the weight and protection desired for the shoe, for the race, based on the athlete’s preferences.
“It’s funny, as athletes we’re really specific and have ideas of what we want. Where one of us might want more protection in our midfoot area, the other one doesn’t because it puts a little bit of weight in there,” says King. “The product designers are always frustrated with us because they’re having to compromise.”
But aside from athlete feedback, there’s also the production and marketing sides, which want to make sure the shoe that eventually comes to market will last for hundreds of miles and have a competitive price. As the Sense rebounds toward its racing pedigree, Salomon continues to fill other niches for training and racing in other conditions.
As a Norway resident, Angermund’s typical runs include sharp, wet rocks so he needs a shoe with good grip and protection. He likes the Sense 7 for shorter runs, but it isn’t a good fit for longer runs in such harsh conditions. Angermund and the development team are working on a shoe for next year’s Ring of Steall race in Scotland, a process that began with emails to the design team based on what he feels are the best parts of the S-Lab Wings SoftGround and asking for certain changes.
He will have already run in the second prototype by the time this article is published. It incorporates some big changes from the first iteration. “There were a lot of good things, but I like a little more protection in the mesh and the grip wasn’t there,” Angermund says. “Then Patrick [Leick] and the others came up with some amazing ideas from the custom ME:sh program and put that into the shoe.”
Last year, Salomon released the S/Lab Sense Ultra, which was co-developed with Francois d’Haene to include more cushion and protection along with other ultra-friendly features. The Sense Ultra went on to become the best-selling S/Lab shoe. This year’s version has undergone more tweaks, dropped Sense from its name, and is already collecting accolades. This reflects Salomon’s continued trend of innovation and specialization.
Whether it’s the Sense 7’s or the Sense Ultras, there’s a lot to love about Salomon’s S/Lab trail shoes. As they continue to develop the S/Lab family, we’ll most likely be seeing more and more shoes designed for specific athletes and restructured into a more durable mass-produced product for the public. Currently, the Sense 7 is set to drop this October and will retail for $180. But in the meantime, check out the rest of the models in the brand’s S/Lab collection.