Review of Merrell Avalaunch


 

Pros

  • Great looking shoe that transitions effortlessly from trail to pub
  • Excellent traction on a variety of surfaces
  • Drains well
  • Minimalist shoe that allows you to feel the trail

Cons

  • Narrow toe box is not conducive for long runs
  • Lycra collar cannot be closed tightly around the ankle which allows debris in and allows the shoe to slip off easily
Overall – 6 out of 10

I just finished a week on the trails in the Merrell Avalaunch’s – one of Merrell’s new trail runners designed for the Tough Mudder in 2017.

At first blush, these trail runners have everything your looking for in an OCR shoe. An aggressive tread with ridges for rope climbs, stone guard, a durable fabric and mesh upper that drains easily, integrated Lycra gaiters/collar and quick laces.  They also feature a minimalist design with a 7mm drop and they’re light-weight at 9oz.

Ultimately though, they have some issues that prevent me from recommending them for any serious OCR events.

Aesthetics

Let’s get this out of the way…  These are really great looking shoes.  The orange and black with gray along with a discrete Tough Mudder logo on the heal gives these kicks an aggressive stylish look like without screaming “I’m an OCR Weekend Warrior!”

You could just as easily wear these on a hiking trail as you can on an obstacle course.  They stand out without sticking out and I received some compliments and questions on them when someone noticed.

The tread is aggressive but not so aggressive that it looks like you’re wearing cleats.  So you could easily transition from the trail to a pub without anyone giving you the hairy eyeball.

The General Fit

These fit me true to size from a toe to heel standpoint.  I have wider feet and prefer a wide size shoe and I found these to be a bit too narrow in the toe box for my liking.  Although it was tight I didn’t notice the restriction after a couple of hours.  For my test, I put about 15 miles on the trails on them and afterwards found them to be better than out of the box but still a bit too tight.  I didn’t get any blisters and there were no apparent hot spots but I was glad to take these off after a run to let my feet breath.  The upper around the toe box is a flexible rubber coated fabric and mesh and my guess is that these will stretch out after a long break in period.

Lacing system

For some reason, Merrell advertises these with a traditional lacing system.  However, they confirmed with me in advance of my purchase that these shoes use a quick lace system.  I’m not sure why the discrepancy but they still haven’t fixed it on their website.

In any case, their quick lace system is pretty standard and similar to those used by Salomon and Innov-8.  The laces terminate in a fob on the end and have a slide mechanism that you pinch to loosen.  Very easy to use and allows for quick adjustments.

Traction

Merrell uses their M Select GRIP outsole in the Avalaunch which is the same material that they use in their other OCR trail shoes.  This tread is really sticky and gives you great traction on a variety of surfaces.  I walked on wet logs, loose gravel, and large stones and never felt like my footing would slip.  The tread pattern is aggressive but at 5mm is not too deep, which in my experience makes for a good combination in OCR events.  An advantage in the tread design the Avalaunch has over some of Merrell’s other OCR offerings is the addition of ridges lengthwise along the instep.  These ridges don’t add anything for trail traction but they are a welcome addition for rope climbs.

 Construction – Durable Fabric and Mesh Upper

The shoe material features a fabric and mesh upper that is enveloped by lace tightening points that connects to the main lacing system.  When you tighten your laces this grips your foot along the back of the toe box, mid sole, and low along and above the heel.  Along the edge of the toe box, with about an inch rise, the fabric is coated in rubber material that reinforces the fabric and  helps to keep thin mud from leaking in to the footbed.

There are no drainage ports but this material drains easily so wet feet won’t be an issue.  Most of the water gets pushed out by running action after just a couple of minutes.  This is a tight knit fabric so I found that splashes did not get in easily.  You really had to submerge the whole shoe.

Construction – Lycra Collar / Integrated Gaiter

The upper third of the shoe is designed to serve as a sort of gaiter providing a close but flexible and comfortable fit.  It is made out of a very comfortable Lycra and easy to slip in and out of.  The shoe does not have a tongue and instead this comfort collar comfortably wraps around your whole ankle.  The collar has a pocket tab with a velcro clasp to house the base of the quick lies.  This integrated gaiter is actually one of the more attractive features that led me to these shoes.  No tongue means less gaps for debris to get into the shoe.

On the comfort side they got this right.  These shoes feel great around the ankle and I appreciated the flexibility.

However, the laces don’t extend high enough into the back of the collar and instead tighten up around the back of the heel.  I am concerned that there is no way to tighten up the fit around high around the ankle.  I noticed that as my foot flexed, a ¼ inch gap opens up along the instep.  In a race I can easily see trail debris and mud slipping in here.

More concerning for OCR athletes, this Lycra is almost too flexible and with the low lacing point  I could easily pull the shoe right off my foot even though it was fully laced and tightened.  Not good for deep mud situations.

Gap opens up along instep Shoe easily slips off even when laced tight

Cushioning

The Avalaunch features a minimalist design with very little cushioning.  There is some added cushioning in the heel but very little throughout the foot bed.  What cushioning it does have is made from EVA, which is an extremely elastic material that returns energy to your step.

The Avalaunch also features Merrell’s ‘UniFly’ midsole along with their ‘TrailProtect pad’ which work well together to keep your foot protected from sharp rocks and other trail hazards.  The minimal cushioning along with these features enable you to maintain a good feel of the trail, which I like.  I never had anything seriously poke me but I could still feel the edges of rocks and other trail features.  It was easy to maintain a sure footing on every surface.

For some, this enhanced trail feel may be looked at as a detriment.  Not everyone wants to feel the trail.  However for those that like a minimalist design this is right up your alley.

Bottom Line

I really, really, wanted to like these shoes.  I prefer light-weight minimalist shoes with a small drop and these seemed to fit the bill.  They also seem to have everything I’m looking for in an OCR shoe, integrated Lycra gaiters, flexible and well-draining upper, light-weight, and awesome traction.

Unfortunately, the width of the toe box is too narrow form me and the minimal cushioning was both a blessing and a curse.  I could feel the trail underfoot but I could feel everything else along the edge of the narrow toe box.  The Lycra upper flexes too much at the top creating a gap that dirt and debris could get into and it’s difficult to tighten so these may slip off in mud runs.

These may work for you if you have narrow feet, but even then, I can only recommend these for short 5K trail races.  For longer serious OCR events the pinch in the toe box and the risk of debris getting in the shoe is only going to get worse as the race goes on.