Has Nike got a grip on the trails with the Ultrafly?
A Vaporfly for the trails?
For years, Nike has dominated the track and the road. Podiums are filled with their shoes. Runners from the elite to the Sunday strollers have looked to get their latest race shoes on foot. Until now, the trails have not been so successful. To change this, we now have the Nike Ultrafly. Their premium ZoomX foam, Vaporweave upper, Flyplate and, probably most importantly, Vibram Megagrip taking outsole duties. A shoe that has been arousing interest for many months now with leaks online, rumours and some people having access to early testing samples, is finally upon us. Is the Nike Ultrafly a Vaporlfy for the trails or an expensive Frankenshoe which misses the mark?
Specs: Pump Up the Volume
My Nike Ultrafly sample was a men’s US size 8 which weighed in at 280g (9.87oz)
38.5mm heel and 30mm forefoot for an 8.5mm drop
Platform width: Forefoot approx. 115mm and heel approx. 90mm
Does Vaporweave translate to the trails?
Stepping into the Nike Ultrafly, the first thing I noticed is the width. The forefoot is very wide indeed. Hopefully very good news for our wide foot brethren. Initial step in comfort was excellent. The Vaporweave, very familiar to those who ran in the original Vaporfly, wraps the foot and holds it secure. The heel cup is stout but not obtrusive. Along the shoe, the tongue is gusseted and, whilst thin, the padding is placed strategically where any lace pressure may occur. Lockdown was not an issue for me. The gusseted lacing loops and plastic overlays of the Swoosh and Nike Trail logo work to add a little structure.
My biggest gripe with the upper is the laces. For a highly engineered shoe which Nike have pulled out all the stops to make the Rolls-Royce of trails shoes, they seem to have just grabbed the laces out of an Air Force 1 box and stuck them on. A few times on runs, even with double knots, undergrowth managed to snatch them open. I had to stop to re-tie which is a bit of a frustration.
On the run, the upper is super breathable. I’ve been running in July temperatures of up to 30 degrees C (86F). While this may not challenge some of the more extreme trail temperatures out there with Western States and Badwater 135, it was certainly enough to build up a sweat over here. Sadly, I found the Vaporweave offers very little protection from sharp vegetation on the trails. Thistles and brambles had no issue with biting into my feet.
Even with the width of the platform, the Nike Ultrafly does not run long. I would say the shoe is true to size in my experience. The only slippage in the shoe occurred in the heel when on a very steep climb on my toes. The stiffness of the Flyplate in the Ultrafly’s midsole almost leverages the heel looser when climbing tougher gradients. Using a runner’s knot lessened this greatly on later escapades.
Does ZoomX translate to the trail?
I am sure by now that most people have had some experience of ZoomX. Nike’s ultimate Pebax racing foam. In the Ultrafly, the ZoomX is encased an outer fabric to protect it and enhance durability and add stability to the ride. The step-in feel has the familiar squish and sink. When moving, the carbon Flyplate makes itself known with the leverage and pop off the toe. It has the feel of a Nike racing shoe.
Nike Ultrafly – ultra comfort
While I am more of a trail tourist than a gnarled ultrarunner, I have run in a range of trail shoes. I can honestly say that, so far, this has been the most enjoyable to run in. I have used it over a range of surfaces and at a range of paces. Each time I have taken it out, I have found myself wanting to extend the run. This must be a good thing for a shoe designed for the longest distances in the running world. The Ultrafly has already scored a second and third place podium finish in the Western States Endurance Run in its first official season.
On slower, easier runs, the midsole and Flyplate is probably less required but still make the shoe a very leg saving and pleasant ride. It never felt awkward for me even at very slow paces. The ZoomX can really be felt as a benefit on anything but the softest terrain where I was ankle deep in mud. Despite the weight on the scales, the shoe doesn’t feel heavy on foot. Thankfully, the combination of foam and plate makes the miles fly past.
As the midsole says, the Nike Ultrafly is a shoe “Designed to be fast AF”. From my experiences so far, the best of the Ultrafly comes when pushing the pace. The bounce of the foam, the push of the plate leads to easy speed. On road, field and forest paths, picking up the pace is a joy. Also, due to the width of the shoe and the impact of the plate and the wrapped foam it feels stable on all the terrain I have thrown at it. I haven’t run technical alpine trails as they are hard to find in Southeast England. However, on rutted fields, rock strewn and tree root laden paths and undergrowth covered tracks, I never once feared for my ankles.
Road to trail joy
The ride also makes this an excellent road to trail shoe. The ride on the road is fast, easy and very fun. The combination of midsole and outsole will make these a slippery autumn and winter month workout shoe for me when the roads and pavements start to become a little more treacherous.
The only time I found the ride to be less than optimal was when running on firm, cambered terrain. Here, the stiffness of the plate made the shoe want to remain rigid and slightly awkward. This is an area where a shoe like the Tecton X2 might have an advantage with its split plate. Even a more flexible nylon plate would help with this and slower climbing feel.
Have Nike finally got a grip?
Nike trail outsoles suck. Although the Peg Trail 4 went someway to improving this, they were still nowhere near the top tier of grip offered by other brands. To address this in the Ultrafly, Nike employed the assistance of Vibram. A full-length slab of orange Vibram Litebase Megagrip covers the shoe. This adds both grip and stability. Whilst the lugs won’t compete with the likes of Inov8 being only 3-3.5mm in depth. They were able to provide sure grip across nearly all the conditions I could find to challenge them. They also cleared of mud quickly and efficiently.
How does it handle the mucky stuff?
Thankfully, we had a few days of rain while I was early testing the Ultrafly. I sought out the worst mud I could find and even a stream or two to run through. Only once did the grip fail me. That was on an absolute mudslide of a climb. Steep, wet grass and lots of fresh mud, I’m not sure much outside a set of spikes or Inov8 Mudclaw would have been much more able in the conditions. On everything else, the grip was sure and secure. Wet tree roots, for once, did not cause me to fear for my life.
On the roads, you can feel the grip biting into the pavement. While this doesn’t add to the efficiency of the Ultrafly on pavement, it is good to know that you aren’t likely to slip or slide anywhere. As I said earlier, I will be using these as a sloppy pavement workout shoe in the Autumn and Winter months when footing all over is less secure. Durability so far, in the first 50 or so kilometres has been no issue with very little wear visible despite the mixed terrain usage.
Is the Ultrafly worth the hype?
Nike set out to create a fast, racing shoe for trails. The results already have proved that they have managed this with the Ultrafly. This is a shoe which is best for less technical, more firmly packed terrain as the stiffness of the plate and lack of flex can be disconcerting on cambered terrain where agility is paramount.
A deeply cushioned, midsole coupled with a responsive, propulsive plate and excellent outsole grip has made for a thoroughly enjoyable shoe. If someone were tempted to build a single shoe rotation for road, trail and racing, they could do a lot worse than this.
All day comfort combined with on-tap speed is a potent combination and makes for a shoe which I always want to run longer in. At a price of $250 this may be a little steep for a trail shoe but with the versatility and pleasure that this shoe has brought me, I would be very tempted to purchase the Nike Ultrafly again as a one stop trail training and racing shoe.
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