Sponsored by Arc'teryx
Adventure runner and Arc'teryx product tester Josh Barringer on what goes into making a successful trail-running shoe
Though he has since gone on to compete in legendary races like Western States and Hawaii’s HURT, as well as a month of self-supported running in Tasmania, 35-year-old ultrarunner and Arc’teryx writer Josh Barringer spent the first couple decades of his life without harboring an inkling of interest in fast bipedal travel. “Running was always the punishment for not playing well in tennis practice,” said Barringer, who grew up amid the sticky heat of Monroe, Louisiana, “so it never really held any magic or allure for me.”
That was, at least, until he moved to South Carolina for grad school at Clemson. “I basically started running when I was doing experiments for my masters degree, because most of them would take 30 to 40 hours, and you’d have to check on them every couple hours,” he said, “which meant you couldn’t sleep for two days. The only way I could think of to stay awake was to go for runs in the middle of the night.”
After a post-grad school move to Seattle to start a metal band, he began training on a whim with a roommate who was planning to run the Chicago marathon. Despite an initial “never again” feeling post-race, Barringer slowly began pushing the envelope, thinking, “what if I actually trained to win, instead of just crossing the finish line.” The seed was planted, and soon he was running 50 mile and later, 100 mile races.
Now Barringer spends his time adventure running, both close to home in the Pacific Northwest and internationally in remote locales like Tasmania. He made all his own gear and clothes for the Tasmania expedition, designing everything from his hydration vest to shoes.
After initially joining Arc’teryx in 2015 as a technical writer, Barringer moved into an open position as a creative and marketing copywriter in August 2017. He describes his role as “writing everything from technical details of products to full-on campaigns, website stuff, email content, you name it.” As an ultra and mountain runner, he also is one of the brand’s primary product testers, and was instrumental in developing the new Norvan LD trail shoe.
Trail Runner caught up with Josh to talk about his work with Arc’teryx, his running and his work on the Norvan LD.
How does Arc’teryx as a brand stand out in your eyes?
They do things differently. 100%. All the development is done in house, we make everything in our design center. All the samples, prototypes ... everything we’re trying to develop is made here and tested and iterated on multiple times. My first hand experience with that is the designers walk up to my desk and are like, “How many miles are you running this weekend. Can you test this for us?” It’s actually made me a better runner, because I normally don’t give a shit about how far I’ve run, but when I’m testing shoes, they need to know exact conditions, distance run, elevation… they need to know all the details I normally don’t care about.
Every single thing is considered. They’ll make these Frankenstein-type products for me. Like most of the shoes I’m running in, the left foot is different than the right foot, but they won’t tell me what’s different. Even the LD shoe, I ran from the first prototype until the last production was made, and everything from the number of eyelets to the type of laces that we were using… literally every single aspect was scrutinized and considered. Every decision was intentional.
For example, I have a pretty bony backheel, and they asked me to take the first LD iteration on some long runs on the weekend. My heel ended up cutting through the fabric and cutting through the back of the shoe. Then a couple of weeks later the next prototype came in, and it was the microfiber that we currently use to line the inside of the shoe. I have yet to be able to rub through that, which has been phenomenal. They take feedback and criticism well, but also very seriously. They want to know not only what didn’t work, they want to know why.
Any particularly wild product testing stories?
Back in April, I ran the North Coast trail here, self-supported. It's at the very tip of Vancouver Island, super remote. You have to take a ferry to get to the island, drive for hours, and then it’s a boat drop off, in the middle of nowhere. They made me a pack specifically for this trip just to test a couple different things. I was running in the Norvan LD and a couple other random prototypes.
All the gear held up and it all worked out, which says a lot specifically because of how crazy the weather is here in Vancouver. What we do well, what Arc’teryx is known for, is protection, and Arc’teryx makes the hardy, durable gear we do simply because in the Pacific Northwest, with the weather we have, we need it if we want to have a good time outside.
The craziest thing on that trip was we ended up running in the same direction as three or four wolves for a couple hours, and at some point we looked up and there was an entire pack of wolves staring straight at us. The alpha ran straight at us, howling and barking. I was thinking, “this is how i die.” It was intense, but we luckily made it away without getting hurt.
The Arc’teryx offices have a trail network nearby, where a lot of product testing is done, right? Could you describe trail system and the office culture its proximity breeds?
Yeah we do, and it's expansive. I actually live on it. The trails are basically right across the street. It’s maybe a one or two minute drive and you're at the trail systems. It’s super gnarly, it’s got crazy rocks, roots, and it’s generally always wet. It’s really muddy, super sticky mud, and there’s always flowing water somewhere. So you just get used to having to deal with everything being soaking wet and/or cold. There’s also tons of mountain biking, which for me means basically getting to run on fun little obstacle courses. If you just run one of the trails across, it’s over 50k. There’s tons of different peaks in the area too, it’s just a huge trail network.
We have a running club that runs the trails every Wednesday during lunch, and in winter people will do a dawn patrol, skin up a mountain and ski down, then roll up to work at like 8:30 or 9:00.
So if in three words you had to describe the culture of the Arc’teryx office and brand, what words would you use?
Dedicated, extreme and exploratory. One of the things I love about it is, nobody stands out. Like, yeah I can run long distances, but I come into work and there’s people that did super long stand-up paddle boarding trips on the weekend, or have done some crazy ski traverse, or have climbed ridiculous ice routes or insane peak traverses. Everyone stands out.
Yeah I can run long distances, but I come into work and there’s people that did super long stand-up paddle boarding trips on the weekend, or have done some crazy ski traverse, or have climbed ridiculous ice routes or insane peak traverses. Everyone stands out.—Josh Barringer
Let's talk about the specifics of the product development. With the Norvan, for example, from the inception of an idea like that, what are the steps Arc’teryx goes through to bring the product to life, and what’s your role in that process?
So, first the designers come up with the intent, the purpose of a concept product. They want every product to have an intended use, not just be a product for product’s sake. With the LD they wanted something that would go long distance, which means it needs to be comfortable, it needs to have a pretty versatile grip, and it needs be durable to withstand all the different terrain that it’s going to pass over.
That kind of guided the design of everything that they were after. That informs the EVA they were going after, it informs drop they wanted to try to achieve, and all the other little design details that came out over time. And my role was, they would basically give me a pair of shoes, and every time I would run in them I would give them feedback on how it went, what I did, what I felt could be better. As soon as I could say, “Yeah my heel was cutting through this,” they’d be like, “cool, we know a fabric we could use to mitigate that.” We stressed a lot over how the laces tuck into the tongue too. I was running in pairs of shoes where each tongue was different. I never knew what was coming. They were testing every possible option.
Once the first prototype of the Norvan got to you, how long did the testing process take. How long before the final product was ready for the consumer?
Probably a year and a half. I was in the shoe since August 2016, and the shoe didn’t get released until this year.
One thing I like is that the designers aren’t afraid to kill a product, either. If the prototypes aren’t cutting it, or it’s not gonna meet the standards they set, they’ll just chop it. They don’t want to put something out unless it’s perfect and ready to go.
So that’s something you’ve experienced since working there, you’ve seen them kill products that didn’t fit the bill?
Well yeah, but I can’t talk about it. And I’m very sad about that, because it’s honestly my absolute favorite piece I have in my posession.
And they killed it?
Sadly, yeah. Well, it is coming at some point, it’s just not being released when it would have been. It just wasn’t ready.
Okay, so describe the Norvan. What makes it unique, what makes you feel proud of it as a product?
Longevity for one. I run in a lot of different shoes, and when the designers sat me down for my opinion, that was the main thing I wanted the LD to have, durability. I also appreciate the breathability and comfort of it. I took a black prototype pair to Tasmania, and I was afraid it would be too hot, but it wasn’t at all. I love how quickly they drain, too. Looking at the shoe, personally, it doesn’t look like a quick-draining shoe, but in Tasmania I was running in so much muddy water, and my feet didn’t feel soggy at all. I would do two-day runs overnight and would have no blisters. I’ve actually never had a blister from running in the Norvan.
Prior to the shoe, honestly I was all about minimalist and natural running. I didn’t want to run in anything higher than a four mil drop. When they presented the thought process of this being a nine mil drop I was like, “Okay fine, I’ll give it a shot,” and it completely converted me over. The shoe really is built for distance, because overtime your stabilizers are going to go out and you’re going to need something to help support that, your calf, your achilles, etc.
The most surprising thing is probably the outsole. It’s deceivingly grippy. The rock plate construction is pretty dope too, they did a injection-molded crease so it allows the foot to naturally flex, so you don’t feel the rock plate, but you get the benefits.
But by far the thing I’m most proud of is the micro-fiber lining. I’m not going to list other brands, but I could, out of the box, cut through a shoe in two runs in some circumstance. The fact that I ran 800 or 900 kilometers in one pair of these shoes without cutting through any of the fabric, without any blisters, is phenomenal. That’s what I’m most proud of.
Any planned adventures for the future?
I want to go back to Tasmania, I think that place is the next uncovered gem for trail running. And Georgia. Not Atlanta, [laughs] but Georgia the country. It’s starting to become a place where there’s a bit of through-hiking, and if there’s through-hiking there’s running. That’s the goal for 2019.