New Balance 749

, February 7, 2012

New Balance 749The New Balance 749 has a discreet label inside the shoe which says ‘Made in the UK’. In these days of austerity, with all the naysayers decrying the ability of British manufacturing, if I was New Balance I would be shouting this fact from the rooftops.

However, this quiet modesty to my mind typifies the approach New Balance takes in making and selling running shoes. From my first childhood school cross-country races deep in ‘It’s grim oop North Yorkshire’, to more recent international mountain marathons there is an enduring tradition – there will always be some plucky guy or gal knee deep in mud, wearing ronhills, wellies and a dayglo lifa hat freezing half to death selling New Balance shoes from the back of a van. They are a brand with a loyal following and large fan base, especially amongst the more ‘experienced’ running brigade! However, although I’ve had both New Balance spikes and New Balance fell shoes, I’ve never been a particular fan of their ‘standard’ running shoes, usually plumping for competitor brands such as Asics, Nike, or my benchmark brand Saucony.

The New Balance 749 is described as a ‘multi-terrain’ support shoe and has a raft of technology including Abzorb cushioning, a medial post, and the N-Lock lace and webbing system. My first impressions were that they appeared very well made and the styling was excellent (not that this should concern buyers too much when looking for a mud-plugging shoe). I did take an instant dislike to a reflective piece of styling that sits right above the big toe as it applies pressure and is inflexible – not ideal in a key rubbing point. In practice I think my Hobbit/Gruffalo feet have pushed it out and it is now not an issue, so don’t be put off in the shop!  Having given these shoes a thorough work-out this Autumn I can say that they are very good at dedicated trail running in soft conditions, but fall short on solid and hard-pack surfaces.

Without diving onto my hobby horse and galloping away into the distance I’ll digress for a moment… The multiple demands that trail runners place upon a shoe (at a price point) always seem to me to lead to particular compromises within ‘trail’ orientated running shoes. Designing a road shoe is much simpler: is it breathable, grippy enough for wet and dry tarmac as well as the occasional foray onto grass, cushioned, supportive? TICK, Job Done. On the other hand, there is an almost endless EXTRA list of attributes we runners would like designed into trail shoes including: waterproofing, ‘scree gaiters’, aggressive treads, more robust kevlar outers, lower profile to avoid ankle twisting, fancy lacing systems to stop you losing a shoe in a bog etc., etc… Oh, and we want them to cost the same or be cheaper than our ‘main’ shoes because they’re our second pair! Such unrealistic demands lead to compromises and I’ve rarely persevered with trail-orientated shoes because many simply aren’t that great.

So…back to the New Balance 749. These too are a compromise shoe as they aren’t waterproofed with Gore-tex like the latest Salomon trail shoes, they don’t run like the best of Asics and Saucony’s dedicated road offerings on the tarmac, nor are they as grippy as the latest ‘sticky’ lugged Inov 8 fell shoes on wet rock but despite this I really recommend these shoes as overall they do most things quite well. I complete almost all my training off-road and living on the edge of the Cairngorms this can be quite rough with a good mixture of granite slab hillsides, slimy peat trails and forest roads. For these sorts of multi-surface conditions the design of the 749 is excellent and it really feels like the right shoe for off-road running in the UK. I particularly liked: the N-Lock lacing system which does a great job of keeping your foot stable in the shoe while tackling really rough terrain; the lightweight upper which dries really quickly; the spiky lugged tread which on all but the greasiest slab rock is very reassuring on off-road trails; and finally I love the fact that for the first time in my memory I’ve tried a trail shoe that is almost unnoticeable, when compared to normal on-road shoes, as you transit tarmac sections en-route to your next adventure into the forest.

When you take into account that these are made in the UK and that they are widely available for under £50.00 (not just from your man Dave’s van at your local x-country race) there is very little to dislike. If you run predominantly off-road I would encourage you to support a UK job and try a pair…or even better get a pair from Dave’s van and buy local too.

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