In May of this year, during my review of the Merrell Bare Access 2 running shoes, I wrote,
I would love it if the folks at Merrell made a trail version of the BA … Merrell, if you are making this shoe, I’m available for wear testing … US size 10.
Little did I know at the time, but Merrell was in the process of releasing just such a shoe. I give you the Merrell Barefoot Trail Run Ascend Glove.
Because of my experience with the Bare Access 2, many of my comparisons will be against that shoe along with the more minimal Merrell Trail Glove 2.
Basic shoe layout
The Ascend Glove, like the Bare Access, shares many of the traits that you find in today’s minimalist running shoes. A 0mm heel to toe drop means no overly cushioned heel which promotes a mid to forefoot strike. The wide toe box gives ample room for toe splay for better control. The shoe is relatively lightweight compared to traditional trail shoes weighing in at 8oz. for a men’s size 9. This is slightly heavier than the Bare Access 2 (6.2oz.) and thinner than Trail Glove (6.7oz.).
The thing that makes this shoe differ from more traditional minimalist shoes is the cushioning. With 6mm of cushion, 50% more than the Trail Glove’s 4mm, this shoe becomes a great long distance runner and perfect for those of us that aren’t so light on our feet.
I love that Merrell uses the same last on all of the shoes in their Barefoot line. I knew exactly what I was getting when I ordered these shoes … a glove-like fit that seems to have been moulded for my foot. Like the Bare Access 2, the Ascend Glove has a small arch bump that is less for support than it is to make the shoe hug your foot, yet it doesn’t keep your foot arch from doing its job as a natural spring.
The upper of this shoe is an interesting mix of synthetic mesh layers. It differs a bit from the Bare Access in that the BA has dual layers (thick, open mesh on the inside and thin, tight mesh on the outside). The Ascend Glove uses dual mesh, but in different densities throughout the shoe. Close inspection shows a tight mesh at the toe box and heel with wider mesh on the sides for ventilation and draining. Closer inspection around the toe reveals key areas reinforced with even tighter weaves for added strength. It is clear that these shoes are intended to take more punishment than their Bare Access sibling. The mesh is very breathable and has served me well during the steamy North Carolina summer running trails at lunch in 90°+ weather.
The lacing system utilizes traditional eyelets versus the Omni-Fit system used in the Trail Glove. I don’t have first-hand experience with the Omni-Fit system to give a proper comparison. The closest I have was with my son’s Merrell Flux Gloves that look to have a similar system. One of the straps that holds the lace at the top eventually broke. Luckily that was at the end of the shoe’s life. I have been pleased with the eyelets on my Bare Access 2’s and the same is true for these Ascend Gloves. The Ascends one up the BA’s by adding metal grommets around the eyelets. Another bonus for durability.
The tongue and ankle collar have a slight bit of padding around them. I. Love. This. I have worn trail shoes that have little more than a thin piece of fabric between the top of my foot and the laces. The padding in the tongue keeps it from bunching and causing hot spots and helps protect against stress points from the laces. The padding and soft lining around the ankle collar help prevent irritation of my Achilles when running sockless.
Speaking of running sockless – the Ascend Glove has a built-in sock liner, which is consistent with other shoes in Merrell’s Barefoot line. The seams are nicely hidden allowing you to go barefoot without worry of hot spots. The soil of the trails I run most weeks it very sandy. This has caused problems for me on a few occasions in the past when I ran sockless. The sand would get in the shoe and work its way between the top of my big toe and the shoe, eventually causing a blister. Lacing up the last eyelet or using a pair of gaiters may solve this problem. I usually run with a thin pair of Feetures socks, so getting sand in the shoe isn’t usually an issue.
Once again Merrell has teamed up with Vibram to develop an extremely competent outsole. It utilizes large lugs that are great for grip in rugged situations. These lugs are fairly flat which makes them great for the occasional pavement run. I haven’t tried climbing steep hills with loose soil, but I imagine you would want a shoe with pointed lugs for those situations. Having said that, I recently took these bad boys on a hiking trip in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. I was constantly amazed at how well the shoes handled climbing wet slippery rocks and mud. The Vibram material would stick with defiance.
The shoe has two built-in rock plates or TrailProtect pads in Merrell speak, one in the forefoot and the other in the heel. The Ascend Glove was noticeably more comfortable on trail runs with large gravel than in the Bare Access. The pads showed their strength when navigating mountain paths that required jumping from rock to rock. Often I would land on sharp edges where the giant stones had split apart. Even with the rock plates, the shoe is amazingly flexible.
Bonus! I noticed one day as I was leaving a trail that these are great driving shoes. They have excellent pedal feel and don’t grab my floor mats like some other shoes. Heel-toe shifting? Don’t mind if I do.
I have to admit that I was very worried about the price of these shoes. I had a hard time understanding why a shoe that seemed so similar to the $90 Bare Access 2 would cost $120. What could be so different that makes them worth 33% more? Having owned the shoes for a while now, I can see the differences that aren’t easy to spot on a computer screen. The thicker Vibram sole with TrailProtect pads, the complex mesh upper, the grommeted eyelets. Are they worth it? Yes. But I still have to hope these last long enough for me to save up for another pair.
Merrell has developed a great hybrid shoe with the Barefoot Trail Run Ascend Glove. A nice blend of the hard core Trail Glove and the softer road shoe, Bare Access 2. It gives confidence on the trails while providing a bit more comfort for longer runs and even works on the road.
This article originally appeared on NathanMaxwell.net.