Ok A new shoe by VJ Sport is an exciting thing. I will be clear from the very start, VJ Sport produce, in my opinion, currently the three best shoes for fell, skyrunning, mountain and longer-distance trail/ mountain races. I have said time and time again and I will repeat it here, the iRock 3, XTRM and MAXx are a trio of shoes that provide a perfect weapon choice for specific terrain and distance. Although the three shoes are very obviously from the same family, (they look very similar) – They all have ‘Fitlock,’ they all have amazingly durable Kevlar uppers and they all have the amazing Butyl rubber (albeit in different size lugs) outsole that VJ are renowned for, but they do not all fit the same, have the same cushioning or have the same drop. The iRock 3 is narrower, has more precision and aggressive lugs, the XTRM sits between the iRock 3 and the MAXx and the MAXx has been the more recent shoe, offering a wider fit and more cushioning for longer distance trail and mountain races. There is no getting away from the fact that longer-distance races, basically when time on feet is longer, the need for ‘more’ in a shoe can be preferable, but it does depend on the runner. Up until now, the MAXx was the only option from VJ Sport with extra cushioning.
Step in the ULTRA.
As the name suggests, the new ULTRA from VJ Sport is here to address the need and requirement for a trail/ mountain shoe that is ideal for any distance but will come in to its own when going beyond 50km and longer. With the recent announcement by inov-8 of the Trailfly Ultra G 300 Max, there is obviously a change happening in the mountain shoe world, VJ and inov-8 have never made shoes with so much cushioning before!
I am fortunate to have had the ULTRA for 5 weeks now and have tried them out on a multitude of terrain and conditions.
The ULTRA immediately looks like a VJ Sport shoe, it has all the usual characteristics, notably the upper and Fitlock. Turning the shoe over, the Butyl outsole is there. But on closer look and inspection, notable things stand out:
- More cushioning.
- Different Fitlock.
- Wider toe box.
- Different lacing configuration.
- Different outsole.
- Different width and shape to the outsole.
- Heal box more padded.
But first, let’s look at the width of the shoe from the outsole.
The ULTRA outsole is wider from front to back and noticeably in the mid foot, clearly emphasising that this shoe is designed for less technical and more cruise like trails and rocky terrain. The lugs are comparable to the MAXx at 4mm but you see how the outsole is completely different. This wide last also compensates for the higher stack height from the cushioning. This makes the shoe feel considerably less like a ‘Max’ shoe and that is a real benefit.
The ULTRA cushioning was anticipated to be a step up from the MAXx (10mm/16mm) both at the front and rear and designed to provide a more plush and forgiving ride over longer distances. With 27mm at the front and 33mm at the rear of EVA, this isn’t just a step up from the MAXx, it’s another world! We are in ‘Hoka’ territory with this cushioning. Like the MAXx, the ULTRA has a 6mm drop which on a personal level, is a surprise, I expected 8mm. However, 6mm sits nicely and may well keep more runners happy.
The Fitlock, a key characteristic of VJ Shoes and one of the standout USP’s that make VJ so good, is here on the ULTRA but has a different look compared to the MAXx. The MAXx is a harder plastic whereas the ULTRA is lighter and a less aggressive. It’s softer and more flexible and therefore adapts to the foot better.
The heel box on iRock, XTRM and MAXx is quite minimal and really grips the heel, here with the ULTRA, the cushioning/ padding is a little more noticeable but not at the compromise of a firm hold. Your foot really sits inside and is snug and secure.
The upper is classic VJ Sport mixing Kevlar and Nylon (22/78%) to provide a durable and breathable upper. Toe protection is similar to the MAXx but the whole upper package feels like a step up with similar breathability but better durability.
The laminated overlays, while not the same, are comparable with the MAXx but very different to the XTRM and iRock which has stitched on and heavily reinforced layers to reflect the harsh terrain that they will be used in.
The lacing configuration is slightly different to the MAXx but still has the trusted firm and reassured hold that one expects from VJ Sport and Fitlock. There are the extra eyelets for lock-lacing or similar.
The weight of the shoe is a wow, my MAXx in an EU44/ UK9.5 weigh 313g, the ULTRA with considerably more cushioning weighs 286g – I am actually not sure how VJ Sport have made this shoe so much more lighter? Obviously the Fitlock is different and a saving can be made there, but still…? Compare this to the recent offering from inov-8 HERE and each shoe is 100g lighter… So, 200g a pair! Just imagine on an ultra adding 200g to every full cadence, it’s a huge difference and why the inov-8 felt so heavy.
The rear of the MAXx and ULTRA are quite similar, certainly in regard to the overlays, but the noticeable difference is more cushioning in the sole and additional padding for the heel.
The outsole is significantly different. I have already mentioned how from front to rear, the ULTRA has a much wider last, but it also has a different lug layout. On the MAXx it is Butyl rubber all over. The ULTRA is a mix allowing the softer yellow cushioning to penetrate and mix with the lugs designed to provide a more cushioned feel. It is very noticeably difference to the MAXx. There is no compromise on lugs or grip and the new layout with enhanced lug pattern has more grip.
While not a complete departure for VJ Sport, the ULTRA really is something different and only shows how the brand are listening to the customer to bring all they they love from the other shoes and produce something that is designed for longer outings without losing what makes a VJ Sport shoe great. The ULTRA with 27mm/ 33mm cushioning is a head turner, particularly when one considers the MAXx which was ‘the’ cushioned VJ Sport trail shoe was 10mm/ 16mm.
I have had the shoes for five weeks and accumulated nearly 300km on them.
The feel of the ULTRA is very similar to the MAXx when slipping on with a noticeable extra room at the front. The lacing is reassured and with the Fitlock, just perfect. It really is my favourite lacing method of any shoe brand. The heel area is noticeably more padded and comes a little higher than the MAXx. The hold of instep and around the Navicular bone is unique and reassured. I found after 50-miles that my foot really started to bed inside the shoe and what was already comfortable, became more so. Particularly around the heal area. On longer runs, I also found the additional toe room welcome.
Sizing is inline with iRock, XTRM and MAXx. I use UK9.5/EU44 in all my VJ Sport shoes but I will hint at a word of caution, this ULTRA ‘may’ size a little smaller. So just be careful, I definitely feel a little less length in comparison to my MAXx but I still have used a UK9.5 with no issues. Read here about how a shoe should fit.
The wider last is really noticeable and provides a much more stable platform on any terrain. It has really grown on me… They are great on snow! Depending on ones individual run style, shoes with a narrower last, as seen on the iRock, XTRM and MAXx can cause some inward foot roll, even with the Fitlock. This is considerably less noticeable on the ULTRA. An important consideration with the extra height from the cushioning too.
Grip is as one expects from VJ Sport, it is superb on trails, wet or dry rocks and obviously, with a less aggressive lug, grip in mud is compromised when it is deep and sloppy.
My first run was intentionally a road run of 14km. I wanted to really feel what that 27mm/33mm cushioning felt like… NOT what I expected! I was really expecting some floaty, bouncy, marshmallow like propulsion with the shoe almost collapsing under my feet and then recoiling and throwing me forward. I got none of this, they felt firm. I said to myself, “new shoe, it will soften,” 14km later, no, still quite a firm feel and I was struggling to believe the 27/33 claim. To be fair, road use in the ULTRA should probably be limited as the Butyl outsole will wear. On my third road run, I started to feel a change and while not bouncy soft, I was feeling a difference both in overall comfort and energy return.
An initial trail run with a mixture of frozen ground, tree roots, rocks, a little snow and occasional ice felt similar to the feel on the road. I need to be clear, it’s not that there is anything wrong with the feel or the cushioning of the ULTRA, it’s just not what I expected from a shoe with 27/33mm of EVA. Surely, the whole purpose of so much cushioning is that it feels cushioned and allows one to run longer with more comfort? But, the more I have run in the shoe, the better the feel has come. Certainly, with over 100km in the shoes, they had bed in and that normal VJ feel has started to come. When in mud and softer terrain, the shoe had the usual VJ traits.
Despite a high stack height, the shoes do not feel like a Max shoe, on the contrary, I questioned ‘if’ there is so much cushioning? VJ have confirmed that there is. On technical terrain, the wider last compensates for the cushioning and while not as agile as a MAXx or XTRM, the ULTRA still has loads of confidence and reassurance on the rough stuff and technical terrain. Arguably, the ULTRA is the best Max cushioned shoe I have tried on trail which has considerably less roll and instability. The ULTRA really does feel like a beefed up MAXx which is superb and consistent with the VJ line-up. No point in changing what works, just adapt it. The control in the ULTRA comes from several factors: 1. The firmer cushioning stops the shoe compressing and collapsing and becoming unstable and therefore roll to the left and right is less. 2. The wider last helps provide a more stable platform on which to land. 3. The VJ Fitlock is awesome and really holds the foot. 4. Flex, particularly in the propulsive phase is till good despite additional cushioning.
The upper had all the secure and familiar VJ Sport feel and the new Fitlock was holding my foot stable just as the previous incarnations. A notable feel difference comes from the wider toe box and the overall wider feel of the outsole. The heel box is really secure and a confidence booster when climbing. Despite the cushioning, the propulsive phase (flex behind the metatarsals) is still pretty good and reassuring providing some bounce and return when picking up the tempo.
The more I have run in the ULTRA, the better they have become. This not unusual for a VJ shoe, I had a similar feeling with the MAXx. Ultimately, if you like VJ shoes, need more cushioning and wider toe box, the ULTRA is going to make you very happy.
I am a huge VJ Sport fan and the ULTRA is a great addition to the line-up that carries on the tradition of great foot hold with Fitlock and the stand-out Butyl outsole grip. The added cushioning now answers the calling from consumers for a shoe that is ideal for really long ultras be that on trail or in the mountains. Having said that, the shoe works great on shorter runs too, it is just less nimble, particularly in comparison to an XTRM. The cushioning will not be for everyone, but that is fine, it provides an option! For someone who has avoided Max cushioned shoes since 2012 (read here) the ULTRA has made me re-look at my relationship with a heavily cushioned shoe and while I wouldn’t wear them all the time, the option to have them for longer outings is one that I have enjoyed. The cushioning is not as cushioned (soft) as other cushioned shoes, it has a firmer feel initially but does soften with more use. It’s not floaty/ bouncing cushioning, but firmer with a more controlled bounce and this is crucial for me on trail, there is considerably less roll and less of a ‘high’ feel. The wider last also considerably helps providing a secure platform on which to land, only enhanced by the excellent VJ grip. The wider toe box will also be appreciated by many. I feel that the ULTRA is a mountain shoe and therefore more designed for the tougher races that mixes challenging terrain with distance. UTMB a prime example.
Ultimately, the VJ Sport ULTRA is a really solid mountain ultra shoe that is well built, has great foot hold and has one of, if not the best outsoles out there. They are also light! Highly recommended.
To clarify, the shoes were provided to test, as are all the shoes that I review. But this is not a paid review.
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