I love a good product story, especially one I got in on the ground floor of. The new Zoot Ultra Kane is a great product story with a fairy tale ending. Like all fairy tales there is one scary part though…
Zoot is an original triathlon brand, one of few authentic brands in the industry. The company got its start by sewing one piece tri suits sold on the pier in Kona during Ironman week. Crystal Miland, Zoot’s founder, noticed the one piece suits were particularly popular with German athletes who pronounced the word for the triathlon onesies as a “tria-tlon zoooot”. The name stuck and the company became “Zoot”.
As a grass roots triathlon brand Zoot is one of few manufacturers who make an entire triathlon wardrobe: Footwear, technical race clothing in several levels, pre and après ensembles along with wetsuits.
When Zoot made the decision to enter footwear almost four years ago their goal was to build triathlon specific running shoes, not just a generic shoe design with a heel tab and elastic laces. As a result Zoot footwear incorporates numerous unique technologies specific to triathlon. No other footwear company offers the combination of optimal features specific to the triathlete.
Think about the requirements unique to a triathlete’s running shoe:
• It has to be easy to don at speed.
• It needs to have barefoot capability to facilitate running without socks, also for faster transitions.
• It needs to have adequate drainage so water from aid station cups poured over your head doesn’t add to shoe weight and collect inside the shoe potentially causing blisters.
• The geometry of the shoe has to facilitate the running gait of a fatigued athlete after a hard bike ride.
• The shoe should be washable and durable since triathlon race shoes frequently get dirty and have body lubricant, aid station and other smelly, offensive fluids deposited on them (peeing while running at Ironman distance).
I was a Zoot early adopter and used their very first running shoe. Zoot’s earliest running shoes did fulfill their goals but missed basics in running shoe construction. The shoes fit too loose and tended to cause blisters despite the smooth lining. There was minimal motion control in the early shoes. At 170 pounds I limited my use to shorter events up to Olympic distance. Early shoe efforts by Zoot got the bells and whistles, but missed the bread and butter.
The new Zoot Ultra Kane incorporates each of the unique technologies Zoot started with but added solid fit and performance improvements that make the Zoot Ultra Kane the single best triathlon running shoe this reviewer has trained and raced in.
“…the single best triathlon running shoe this reviewer has trained and raced in.”
Zoot labels the Ultra Kane as a “high mileage stability trainer”. I’ll suggest this may be the better choice than their ultra-light shoes for 70% of us: tri- guys built like me, 5’9”, 170 pounds, average build, neutral-ish foot. Zoot shoes are split into two categories on their product page: Tri Footwear and Run Footwear. The Ultra Kane lives in the Run Footwear tab. Shoes like the rocket-slipper Ultra Speed with its low slung 10mm drop from heel to toe and all stretch upper reside in the Tri Footwear category. The Zoot Ultra Kane has more traditional running shoe geometry with a 13mm forefoot and a 25mm heel for a 13mm drop.
Zoot contends their 10mm drop Tri Footwear shoe design is configured for running off the bike. This reviewer likes the more traditional 13mm drop of the Zoot Ultra Kane likely because I am doing a 7:30-8:30 mile off the bike, not a 6:30 mile. Faster runners may like the low-riding 10mm drop shoes.
The Ultra Kane does lack some of the tri-specific features from the Tri Footwear category: There are no drain holes in the sole for water to leech out and the upper uses less obvious donning tabs. I would miss the drain holes if water ever made it to my feet, but here in Tucson you are literally dry by the time it gets there. For races in moderate climes the drain holes are a boon. The reduced donning tabs still work perfectly. I raced in the Ultra Kane this past weekend and had a lightning fast T2 and no problems with the shoe loading up with water.
The Zoot Ultra Kane also uses enough stability and motion control to offer confidence on wobbly legs after a tough bike. I’m convinced after only one race that the stability mitigates fatigue off the bike. This was missing from the early generations of Zoot shoes.
Another significant improvement for Zoot has been a redesign of their uppers. Early (previous year) designs from Zoot donned quickly but did not fit securely. The fabric was too open-weave and did not fit precisely enough across the saddle area of the shoe. The toe box on early efforts felt non-existent. A new fabric identified by Zoot’s Kevin Hoard as “TekSheen” is used on the outside of the shoe upper. TekSheen is a 79% nylon, 21% Spandex power stretch fabric that is used in compression garments by Zoot. The powerful compression of the fabric provides a more precise, secure fit with better foot control. The fit is adaptable as your feet swell late in a race or during the bike before you don your running shoes. TekSheen in the upper of the Zoot Ultra Kane is a key technology that optimizes this shoe. I like the TekSheen upper more than the Air Mesh upper on other Zoot shoes for its snug fit and better compression.
Zoot uses a Dri-Lex fabric lining in the Ultra-Kane which manages moisture and provides a friction-reduced interior facilitating sockless running. In training I ran sockless with this shoe and no other treatments or additions to my foot- no foot powder or lubricant. Zero problems. On race day I put some Sportslick around the entrance to the shoe for fastest donning. Even though part of the run course was on sand I had no problems going sockless.
A key feature to the Ultra Kane is the stable ride. Part of the stable ride is from torsional rigidity. The Ultra Kane uses a CarbonSpan+ layer molded into the midsole and visible on the medial side of the shoe and through the outsole under the shoe. This carbon fiber roll control component looks just like a carbon fiber bike frame and performs a similar function: lightweight addition of stiffness.
Other ride control and cushioning features include four separate densities of midsole material with the stiffest controlling pronation on the medial (inside) side of the shoe. Cushion on this shoe comes from Z-Bound material found throughout the sole length. Z-Bound is soft and the carbon is stiff. The combination of the two materials moderates the need for stability with the desire for cushioning. At my weight and size I’ll say this moderation is perfectly executed.
There is a rigid thermoplastic heel counter visible on the lateral heel and the heel stability is adequate without being heavy.
A set of six “spars” cross the upper and thread the laces adding some degree of wrap to the shoe. Although I haven’t tried it, I wager you could run in these shoes without the laces installed as with the entirely lace-less racing moccasin, The Zoot Ultra Speed. I tied these shoes once and have slipped them on every since.
I trained on varied terrain in the Zoot Ultra Kane from groomed desert trails on loose gravel and solid hard pack to pavement including broken asphalt and concrete. In racing I ran on hard packed trails and a paved surface used for training law enforcement and military drivers. A key benefit to the powerful Tek-Sheen upper is a complete lack of foreign debris entry. It is almost like wearing a gaiter.
The Zoot Ultra Kane is light also, tipping our scale at 10.2 ounces for a men’s 9. Our sample was .5 ounces lighter than Zoot’s 10.7 ounce claimed weight.
If there are two criticisms of the Ultra Kane one is price. At $150 this is an expensive shoe, on par with other premium kicks like Newton. I’ll argue the unique technologies and category-killing performance justify a premium. Ferraris are more than Fords. My other beef is the lackluster color. Zoot has produced some bilious colorways but the Ultra Kane is the opposite end of the spectrum; gray. Just plain gray. If you like low key then you’ve love it. For a race day shoe and a shoe with unique technologies I could do with some bling.
I test a lot of shoes but actually use few of them. The Zoot Ultra Kane now resides in my transition bag for race day and comes out a couple times a week for spritely runs. This is the best shoe offering Zoot has fielded and the best tri specific runner in the entire category. With this shoe, Zoot owns the tri specialty running market. I give the Zoot Ultra Kane “Best in Category” for triathlon running shoes.