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HOKA: A Little Story About a Big Shoe

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Photography courtesy of: HOKA

From its origins in the French Alps to becoming a regular staple on trails and sidewalks around the world, the story of HOKA is one of a brand in flight. To celebrate the launch of HOKA We Are All Born To Fly Challenge - where you're invited to tackle 15km in 15 days - we look back at the story of a shoe that was born to fly.

Good ideas often strike in unusual places. Take, for instance, the idea that planted the seed that grew into HOKA. Few would expect the spark for one of the fastest-growing performance footwear and apparel brands to arrive at an aid station in the middle of Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) - one of the world's most grueling ultramarathons. But it happened. Nicolas Mermoud was running the race, Jean-Luc Diard was crewing for him, and as fatigue kicked in they wondered whether Nicolas would have been able to run more efficiently for longer if his legs had been better protected on the trails.

That passing chat turned into a bigger conversation, as Nicolas and Jean-Luc started to analyze the footwear options available to trail runners. 

In particular, the pair, who regularly climbed, mountain biked and skied around their base in the French Alps, wondered why running was so uncomfortable when going downhill, compared to other sports which made it... fun.

Photography courtesy of: HOKA

"We both like to go fast and have sensations and use technology," Nicolas reflected during a talk with HOKA’s team. "We could not understand why, when we got to the top of the mountain, the fun would stop. All of the toys we were using [in other sports] would provide an amazing thrill and adrenaline through the downhill. But not running.”

The pair set out to change that.

JOIN HOKA’s We Are All Born To Fly Challenge - Tackle 15km in 15 Days

The origins of HOKA

Nicolas and Jean-Luc began experimenting with the foam on the soles of the shoes, testing out different structures and shapes. At first, the soles were... big. But as they tested and refined the shoe, they realized that they were on to something.

When we got to the top of the mountain, the fun would stop. All of the toys we were using [in other sports] would provide an amazing thrill and adrenaline through the downhill. But not running.

True, the sole of the shoe was still 'big', particularly when compared to rival brands, but the cushioning it provided allowed them to move faster, and more comfortably over the downhill terrain.

"We found a course," Nicolas continued. "It was probably as long as a downhill slalom run and we started timing ourselves. The first time I put on the shoes I was about five seconds faster over this course compared to the other shoes we tested. We decided it was time to go to market."

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HOKA, which in Maori means 'to fly over land', was born. 

The company launched HOKA One One, and in their first year discovered that athletes were wearing the shoes - and winning races - around the world. "At the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010 we won the three toughest races - men and women - on three continents, and we weren't even aware of it," Jean-Luc reflects.

For a company focused on downhill running, they very quickly found that the only way was up. 

Accidentally reinventing the running shoe

It's not easy to break into the running shoe market. It’s arguably even harder to change the mindset of runners. The launch of the One One allowed HOKA to do both those things.

During a time when the running world was trending towards 'barefoot' running and minimalist shoes, HOKA went 'maximalist'. Big soles, bright shoes, and the promise that anyone wearing a HOKA could run downhill faster than, well, anyone who wasn’t. What they didn't realize at the time was that, by providing a more comfortable 'ride', they were solving a bigger problem for runners all over the world.

"When you look at the sport of running, there is some pain involved that people don't like," Jean-Luc explains. "When you look at twenty-year-old athletes who have to stop competing for a year because they are injured, that's a problem. When you have people who are not running when they would like to because it is uncomfortable, that's a problem too.”

Photography courtesy of: HOKA

The support and cushioning provided by the HOKA One One tackled those problems head on. In particular, the company focused on three areas of the shoe to help runners on all surfaces:

  1. A cushioned midsole that acts like a shock absorber, allowing the foot to land softly and then spring back up.

  2. The Active Foot Frame, which supports the foot inside the shoe, raising or lowering the midsole walls.

  3. The MetaRocker, which allows a faster transition from the heel/midsole to the forefoot, while providing more ground contact. 

The result is a running shoe that not only enables trail and ultra-endurance athletes to run faster and more efficiently but gives everyday runners the chance to experience the same sensation.

Photography courtesy of: HOKA

We Are All Born To Fly

Needless to say, HOKA continues to build on the platform that the One One provided. The Mafate, the original HOKA first launched back in 2009, remains a popular shoe for trail runners worldwide, but the brand has diversified well beyond the backcountry. Popular road models like the Clifton and the Bondi provide additional cushioning to help reduce the impact of repetitive strikes on a hard, flat surface. Meanwhile, an extended range of walking shoes is available to provide support and comfort across multiple terrains - including the amphibious Hopara that helps you 'fly' over water as well as land.

In short, ‘HOKA’ is a brand for everyone. It is built on the belief that 'we are all born to fly’, that everyone, regardless of their background, ability, size, or age, should have the opportunity to experience the joy and pleasure of running and walking on the trails, sidewalks and... anywhere they choose to be active. 

Through their shoes, their partnerships, and their approach to sustainability, HOKA is striding towards a more comfortable, inclusive, and joyous environment for runners and walkers the world over. So next time you're heading out for a walk with the family, or gearing up for an ultramarathon, rest assured: there is a HOKA shoe that can help you 'fly'. 

The HOKA We Are All Born To Fly Challenge

Run 15km in 15 days anywhere between the 8th and 22nd of July to receive your very own digital HOKA We Are All Born To Fly Challenge badge to add to your Strava Trophy case.​

Not only that, but all finishers can sign up to our prize draw on HOKA.com for the chance to win a pair of HOKA shoes of your choice*. 15 lucky winners will bag themselves a pair each.​

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