Doug Robinson: Utah man's new running shoe could be golden

Published: Tuesday, June 18 2013 6:05 a.m. MDT

Golden Harper poses with an Altra shoe. The Utahn created Altra, a shoe company, in hopes of delivering shoes that were more natural.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

The thing is, the running shoe, as we know it, is all wrong. Comically wrong.

Just look at it. It’s not shaped like a foot; it’s shaped like a missile. It doesn’t work like a foot, either. The toes are crammed together, unable to spread out and fully contribute to forward propulsion. The heel is raised and padded, encouraging a heel-first foot strike and hindering the calf muscle from “loading” for a big push off the ground. The arch is pushed up, preventing the foot from flattening out to produce a spring effect. The front end is curled to further neutralize the role of the toes.

It’s a mess, and yet the running shoe has remained largely unchanged since the 70’s running boom, except to become more padded and more heel-oriented. Only in recent years, especially since the publishing of “Born to Run,” has the running shoe’s design really been questioned.

Golden Harper recognized these flaws years ago while selling shoes in his father’s store in Orem — Runner’s Corner. To put runners in the best shoe for their running mechanics and structure, he videotaped them running barefoot and then in shoes. He was amazed by what he saw.

“What I saw was that people run great without shoes, but when they run in training shoes, the wheels come off,” he says. “We just spent 45 minutes to sell them a shoe, and they run way better without the shoe. We were wondering, are we doing any good here? We’re selling them shoes to make them run bad!”

For years Golden and his father, Hawk, cut up shoes in the back room of Runner’s Corner and dabbled with building a better shoe — the heel of, say, a Nike, with the toe box of a New Balance, combined with the arch of a Mizuno, and so forth. Golden continued to pursue the creation of a better running shoe, eventually consulting a team of Portland-based biomechanical engineers on the project. The result is on the shelves of running stores nationally. The brand name of his shoe is Altra, and it’s the opposite of everything described in the first paragraph of this column, in both appearance and design.

“We’re giving people a shoe that’s a running technique lesson in a box,” says Harper. “It provides a natural foot and body position. You are instantly going to run better. You can see it immediately.”

Harper decided to challenge the Big Seven of running shoes — Brooks, Asics, Saucony, Nike, New Balance, Mizuno and Adidas — which dominate the field like Jamaican sprinters in the dashes. That’s why he sold the shoe to Logan-based Icon Health and Fitness (he retained a stake and a role in the company “heading up brand management” and, of course, is considered the shoe’s founder).

“We needed money, multi-millions, to compete with the big boys,” says Harper. “We could’ve gone grass roots and been a nobody. But, I’d rather have a small piece of something big than a big piece of something small. This deal allowed us to focus on building great shoes and teaching running form.”

For the uninitiated, breaking into the Big Seven in the running shoe business is like challenging McDonald’s and Wendy’s in the fast-food business, but Altra is making a run at them, pardon the pun.

“We are in year two and we pulled even with Adidas in sales a few months ago,” says Harper. “We are No. 8-ish nationwide, in about 500 stores. We should do about $20 million in sales this year and overtake Adidas and Mizuno.”

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