Zero drop. Wider foot-shaped toe box. All on the Wasatch Front. What else? Confidence. Altra is, possibly, the new black. We’ve talked in private to the two leaders of the friendly-based independent company, acquired by Icon Health and Fitness in 2011.

Exclusive interview by Gaël Couturier (done over several Skype calls over February-March). Cover shot from the personal collection of Golden Harper.

FitWild: What do you say to someone who’s surprised by the look of the Altra shoes?

Golden Harper, creator, founder, Product Development and PR officer: Well, guess what: I actually think it’s an advantage. I think it’s kind of hilarious that people find Altra shoes looking strange when they actually look like…feet. People are so used to the wrong shape of shoes, they have even forgotten what their feet looks like. Even in pre-school, kids know better: they put the triangular shape into the triangle and the square shape into the square. Easy! But when it comes to shoes, people are so used to putting their square shaped feet into triangular shape shoes…it’s unbelievable. What we do at Altra when people tell us our shoes look weird, we tell them to take off their shoes and take a better look at their feet with socks on. And we show them that this shape is the shape of the shoe. Most foot problems come from shoes and a lot are related to the toe box and to the elevated heel and arch form of the shoe. If you look at the millions of people on earth who do not wear shoes, or who only wear sandals, they have much less foot problems than the rest of the ones who do. Consequently, runners, when they go to a running store, when they go to the podiatrist, when they go to the doctor they too often say: “I have this problem with my feet”. To me, most of the foot problems are caused by that triangular shape that most shoe manufacturers have been trying to make us wear for decades. So this comment about the way our shoes look is actually a great opportunity for us to explain how our shoe will undeniably benefit the runner in you.


FitWild: But doesn’t the large toe box give a less precise drive, especially downhill when you’re flying over the trail?

Brian Beckstead, Co-founder & Global Sales Manager: Most people are used to a very narrow feel and Altra sure doesn’t have that rock climbing smearing ability. However, with the foot-shaped toebox, your great toe can extend straight out from your foot, providing much better, more natural stability and balance with each footfall. This makes you more balanced when you hit the ground in my opinion, more comfortable on a daily basis and much healthier in the long run. There may be pros and cons, sure, but we believe there’s more pros than cons and some of it is just a matter of getting used to it anyway. Sometimes, some people feel a bit of lower calf soreness. I’ve heard that, yes. But I believe it’s only because they have been wearing shoes with elevated heel their entire life. If nature wanted us with an elevated heel, why weren’t we born that way? We were born with zero drop, period, and that’s what we do. Any soreness in the calves will go within two to six weeks. And it’s worth it to try us because it really does take the pressure off the knees. Altra makes you healthier. And this is not just marketing, this is something we believe in, something we breathe everyday in our beautiful state of Utah.

Golden Harper: Agreed. It may just be about personal adaptation and personal preferences. A lot of people I know say they have actually more control because their toes are able to spread out inside the shoe, giving them more front foot control, while releasing the pressure on their quads. But everybody is different and we all adapt differently so that’s OK, I expect different feedbacks as well.


FitWild: What’s the story behind Altra? Give us a little explanation on when and how did you guys start this adventure?

Golden Harper: I personally started to develop these shoes about 8 eight years ago. When we first started using slow motion video at my running store, my father and I could see that modern running shoes caused people to run with inefficient, high impact form. Using my collegiate research as my guide, I went to work with my toaster oven to try and solve those customers’ injury problems. I melted outsoles off of traditional running shoes and removed the excess heel elevation. It was ugly, but it worked! I coined the term “Zero Drop” to describe how the level cushioning no longer dropped from the heel down to the forefoot. We enlisted our local shoe cobbler to modify our customers’ current running shoes to Zero Drop. This worked so well at reducing injuries that we had nearly 1,000 customers buy and modify their shoes that first year!

We had surveys from these runners that told how much the shoes helped their injuries. So we took the surveys to some of the big running shoe companies and told them how to make shoes that would help these injuries. But, they weren’t interested. That blew my mind! It was incredibly disappointing. Luckily, some of the best and most innovative minds in the running shoe industry contacted us. With their expertise and two years of development, we created the world’s first cushioned, Zero Drop™ shoes. We built them to be optimal for long distances and to avoid the foot problems that are common with minimalist shoes.

Daily Herald - Sept 1, 2013

“Big manufacturers are never going to copy a smaller brand like us because we’re not taking enough of a significant part of their market share, yet. If zero drop and a foot-shaped toe box is an advantage, which I believe it is, that means they have to admit that everything else they’ve made is not working that well and that they were wrong”. Golden Harper, creator, founder, Product Development and PR officer.

FitWild: This is quite a revelation…

Golden Harper: Hang on a second. Zero Drop™ was just one of the steps we took to return runners’ feet to their natural position. Our research made it clear that shoes need a toe box that actually mirrors the shape of a healthy foot. We built the distinctive FootShape™ toe box specifically to help alleviate foot problems, including bunions, neuromas, and plantar fasciitis. This toe box also enhances stability and comfort while providing a more powerful push-off. After I had created the shoes, my cousin Jeremy Howlett found some connections that helped us jump-start the company. Later on we needed someone to help with sales so that’s when we offered Brian the job.

Brian Beckstead: Like Golden said, I worked at Runner’s Corner for about 10 years, on and off all through the end of high school and college. I’m the youngest of 9 kids and I come from a family of runners. I personally started running track when I was about 12 as well as training runs with my dad. I met with Golden on the very first day of high school. He was also a runner. We had a good group of friends. We were all really competitive. I ended up running in college, but I had a really terrible college career: tibia stress fracture, both legs, twice: 4 stress fractures. After my those, I waited a year and I started running on the trail because I was scared I would keep getting injured. A few months later, I ran my first half-marathon in 1h18’ and 2 months later I ran my first marathon in 2’57”. Since I kind of liked the trails better by that time, I decided to run my first 50 km. And that’s how I got addicted and I haven’t much touched the road since. I usually run like 5 to 7 ultras a year. I did UTMB last summer in France, in 38 hours.

When Golden went to Hawaii during college, I was the general manager of his dad’s store. And when he came back from Hawaii, after he finished his college, I left and took a job as a manager at an outdoor specialty store, Canyon Sports, in Salt Lake City. Six months into the job, I felt I wanted to do something else and be my own boss. Incidentally, that’s when Golden called me to say he had been modifying some of his shoes and that I should check it out. We were already best friends: he was pacing me on my 100 miles races, we were fishing and running together. So I was one of the first to know he was working on modifying his own running shoes in a toaster oven. Isn’t that incredible?  I mean, look at the timing of all of this! At the time, I wanted to launch my own business, but I was thinking about retail more. I wasn’t considering launching a running shoe brand. We would go to trade shows for our regular jobs, meet there, he would go for Runner’s Corner and I would go for Canyon Sports, and we would naturally discuss our zero drop philosophy with those big shoe companies executives and other shoes designers: they all looked at us like we were mad dogs who had no idea what they were talking about. It got to the point in the fall of 2009 where Golden called me and said that he was seriously considering launching his own shoe company with the zero drop & foot-shaped concept. It was really an interesting time and a perfect connection. It was just one of those situations where everything lines up so perfectly.


FitWild: Great timing indeed, especially considering that, at the time, people were already talking about minimalism…How are you different from minimalism?

Brian Beckstead: They were indeed just starting to be talking about minimalism, but definitely not using the term “zero drop”. This is where we kind of built the framework for our company because we said look: minimalism is great because of zero drop, not because of minimal cushioning. It has to do with zero drop and your toes being able to splay in this foot shape. Minimalism influenced the beginning of Altra, yes, but we’re actually very different from minimalism: we have a lot of the benefit of minimalism but we also have 36 mm cushioning in one of our shoes, for example. And it worked both ways: Altra also influenced minimalism because, right away, people adopted the concept of zero drop and started talking about it when referring to minimalism. So in August 2009, we started the company, along with Jeremy Howlett, Golden’s cousin. He was into the marketing wing and still takes over the social media side of the business for us.


FitWild: What does Altra mean? What’s the story of the name?

Brian Beckstead: We first started with the name Evo Designs, because we were thinking of ourselves sort of as evolutionist. Then we went from Evo Design to Alterra – which is Latin for change, or to mend or fix something – and we shortened it to Altra. We like to think of ourselves as an alternative brand. Because we’re different and we’re proud of being different. Altra means a change. Altra is an evolution. It’s an evolution footwear company, and that’s from where the name came from. And then we’ve always been about running technique. Actually if you take off the two A in our brand name, you get LTR, which is our Learn To Run initiative, a technique about learning how to run properly that we promote within our brand.

Courtesy of Altra Running

“At Adidas and Nike, they knew that they were supposed to design shoes the way we’re doing it now at Altra, 15 years before we even got started! This is crazy right?”. Golden Harper, creator, founder, Product Development and PR officer.

FitWild: Nice. Now, tell me how did Utah and the city of Salt Lake City – where both of you are originally from – influenced the birth and the evolution of the Altra brand, which office is still today close by Salt Lake?

Brian Beckstead: We are originally from the South of Salt Lake City, and our actual headquarters is North of town. Salt Lake City is the epicenter of the Wasatch Front, from the Wasatch Mountains. This morning before I got to work for example, we went trail running with some of the boys, testing the Lone Peak 3. All of our trail shoe names are inspired by mountains from around Salt Lake City: Lone Peak, Mount Olympus, Superior…all of them. We may be influenced by this beautiful mountain range, but we are definitely also road oriented. Our flagship shoe called the Instinct, one with moderate cushioning, won several awards here in America. And the Torin, which also does really well, is our number two selling shoe, behind the Lone Peak. We actually do more business on the road than on the trail in the US – 60 vs. 40%. But we’re probably better known in the trail running community, particularly internationally where we sell around 60-70% of trail running shoes. We also don’t have any top ten selling road shoe on the market, when we have 3 of our trail running shoes in the top 7 shoes in today’s US market. We’re the ninth largest road brand in the US and the fourth largest trail brand in the US. But since the road market is so much bigger than the trail market, especially here in the US, and even, again, if our global recognition may be bigger on the trail shoes, we definitely do more business with road shoes.


FitWild: Back to the timing of your brand. It’s an interesting time for running: there’s Altra, there’s Hoka One One, there’s Newton…Are you guys looking closely at what any other of those new innovative brands are doing?

Golden Harper: You’re right, timing is interesting here again. Our launch wasn’t made on purpose regarding those other brands, and honestly, Hoka One One and Newton were nothing back when we started the brand 5 years ago and we didn’t really know much of anything about them. What I was doing was virtual insanity. You got to understand one thing: everybody was telling me I was absolutely crazy, that our concept behind the brand would never work, that we would never get investors to fund our project. So yes, you’re right, it was a pretty interesting time when we launched because no one was considering that we would be successful. I thought we would, sure, but no one else did.

Brian Beckstead: Of course we look at what other brands do. But I tell you, we look at them in terms of placement competitor. As a running shoe brand, we have to fight for wall space in the running shops. Any shop. It’s hard. And in those cases, unfortunately, we are battling with Hoka  One One and Newton. I personally want to see authentic unique young new brands succeed. What we’re mostly trying to battle against is this mindset that such and such brands, because they have been doing it for over 40 years, therefore they must know what’s right or wrong about running shoe. That’s stupid! I would rather fight such old companies than fight an innovative brand like Newton or Hoka One One. But that’s the reality of the market right now. We also want to break away from the standard running shoe and let people know that different is good, that different is better. We are the latest technology, and this is what’s best for your feet. I sure look at those young energetic companies you mention but, honestly, we look at what everybody does.


FitWild: What about Under Armour? You don’t ever mention UA. Aren’t you afraid of what Kevin Plank does, pushing hard in the high-tech segment by buying fitness and nutrition app companies for $710 millions?

Brian Beckstead: We don’t really view Under Armour as a running brand. They are not found in running stores. In our running channels, they’re not even on the radar.

Brian Beckstead: I tell you what. We just very recently launched in the US a new line of apparel and there’s one piece in particular that, if you’re a trail runner, you’d go crazy about. We want to be a complete running brand. We don’t want to be considered a trail running brand only or a road running brand only. We want to be able to provide running apparel for the runners from head to toe. Just like Under Armour probably, fair enough. But our products are authentic and innovative and we don’t shy away from being different, we want to innovate. We think outside the box. Our main hashtag is “zero limits” because we believe that our shoes can help people break their limits, push, be creative, not just physically but also mentally. There’s going to be some challenges on the apparel side to keep being so different all the time, I give you that. Some of our pieces right now are not all ground breaking and unique but some of them are like this.


FitWild: Enlighten me…

Brian Beckstead: The Stash jacket: it’s a jacket where you don’t have to take off your backpack off to put on the jacket. How innovative is that? You can put your jacket over the backpack, almost without slowing down your running. We have some new fabrics also, among them an amazing stretch: our ZeroLite fabric, put on Performance Half Zip jacket. We’re always trying to push the limits about what a running brand should do and can do but since we have people out there who really love the brand, we’re also sometimes just going to provide them with pure branded products like a simple Altra tee-shirt. What’s wrong with that? We’re also launching the Altra IQ powered by iFit, our new smart shoe, soon. It’s a road shoe that teaches you how to run in a way to protect your body. And nobody has ever done a fully interactive smart shoe before. So that’s exciting!


FitWild: How do you explain that it’s not a big running existing shoe company that invented Altra?

Golden Harper: Now this is the good story your readers will enjoy. When we first got started, important heads from the “Nike advanced concept team” and guys from Adidas that I knew, they all told me the same thing: “we knew that shoes needed to be built this way about 15 years ago. We had all the research and all the data and we knew that we had to shape shoes like feet, but the shareholders and the marketers & designers would never let us do it because it meant taking a big step back from everything our brands had been promoting and nobody in their right mind would allow us to do that”. What I’m saying is that at Adidas and Nike, they knew that they were supposed to design shoes the way we’re doing it now at Altra, 15 years before we even got started! This is crazy right? Part of the reason those top people left – and they all in their own way told me the same thing – was that everything great they ever made, everything revolutionary, everything that was progressive, was always destroyed by either the design team or the marketing team before it could ever make it to the market. And they finally couldn’t take it anymore. They just got tired of developing really great products and technologies that were changed by marketing and ruined by design just because of the way they looked. On another note, big manufacturers are never going to copy a smaller brand like us because we’re not taking enough of a significant part of their market share, yet. If zero drop and a foot-shaped toe box is an advantage, which I believe it is, that means they have to admit that everything else they’ve made is not working that well and that they were wrong. Saucony, by the way is slowly moving this way, by widening the toe box and bringing the heel down. Now, 8 mm is the highest drop they make there at Saucony. And New Balance is also doing the same thing. But they’re doing it very slowly, over a decade really, in order not to be noticed by the public and not to having to discredit themselves. And when they release shoes with zero drop they tell you those shoes are just training tool, but not proper running shoes. Brooks did exactly this with a shoe named the Drift, which was a zero drop running shoe, but since it was too much of a difficult marketing problem for them to solve – even they try to say the shoe was a training tool – they finally dropped it and stopped making it. The Adrenaline is Brooks’ best selling shoe, so they could not stop getting all the benefits from the sales of the Adrenaline and say hey, drop the Adrenaline, the Drift is a much better shoe that will help you get a better technique, run healthier and get rid of your foot problems!


FitWild: There seems to be a relationship of love between the brand and your athletes. How do you manage that? I met Damian Stoy on a race in India and the guy impressed me by the love he was communicating about his Altra shoes.

Golden Harper: What happens is that people usually call us and explain how good they are and how much they are in love with the Altra product. Or, when people call us, we just send them one or two pairs of shoes and tell them that if they really like them, and don’t like their old regular running shoes, and will never run in anything aside from Altra, then we can start thinking about sponsoring them.

Brian Beckstead: We don’t go hunt for athletes. They hunt us. I wish we had sports marketing people, but we run a pretty tight ship here. For us it’s just about the product and the people around us who want something different and they say they love something different. When we worked in retail, something Golden and I noticed all the time was that there was not much differences from an engineering standpoint between all those other brands. They more or less all had 24 mm heel, 12 mm forefoot and the same triangular toe boxes design. I just think when people find a shoe that’s so different from anything they’ve ever tried, there’s a natural emotional connection. We ran an all around social media campaign a few years ago, at the start of Altra, called our Altra Maniac campaign. Some very animated fans went out and kind of became super heroes for the brand, because they so happy to communicated the concept. Altra was fixing for them a foot or knee issue that they had had for many years. Their feet were so comfortable at mile 80 of an ultra race now, that they automatically made that emotional connection to our brand. It just happened. Snap! That’s actually what a lot of our people experience.


FitWild: So what’s the future of Altra now?

Golden Harper: We have a cross-country shoe coming out in May and more apparel is also coming. Our focus will definitely continue to be core trail running, road running, ultra running, but we’re also coming up with a casual boot for trekking and a running boot. We’re the number one shoe on long distance hikes like the Pacific Crest Trail and we want to continue to work with that audience. There’s going to be some natural extensions like this for us, but our main focus will always be about making running shoes. We’re an outdoor rugged brand by DNA. Brian and I, we live in the mountains and we play in the outdoors, whether it’s running, fishing, skiing, snowboarding, backpacking, you name it. When people get used to our zero drop and foot shape what happens is that they have a hard time wearing other type of shoes, shoes with an elevated heel and a tighter triangular toe box. That’s why we get people asking us to become more involved in lifestyle apparel and shoes.

Brian Beckstead: We are now the proud and official sponsor or Western States 100, Hardrock 100, Bear 100 and of course Wasatch 100, among others, and we will continue to inspire and support generations of runners all over the planet.

Courtesy of Altra Running

“We don’t go hunt for athletes. They hunt us”. Brian Beckstead, Co-founder & Global Sales Manager

Images courtesy of Altra Running