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Mountain Madness: Hoka’s TenNine Sets a New Standard for Downhill Mountain Running

Our impressions after first runs in HOKA's TenNine, a return to their roots of innovative weirdness.

Hoka One One TenNine

12.7 oz. (men’s size 9)
4mm (33mm heel, 29mm forefoot)
HOKA TenNine
photo: HOKA

Top Line:

As a shoe brand, Hoka was founded on running shoe innovation—specifically creating maximally cushioned trail running shoes (and later road running models) at the peak of the minimalist running boom. We all thought they looked weird, but they worked.

Hoka has continued to be at the forefront of shoe design with advanced foam technologies and, recently, the release of three race-day shoes with carbon plates embedded in the midsole (one of which was worn by Aliphine Tuliamuk to win the Marathon Trials). The latest and greatest from Hoka is the gargantuan TenNine, a truly cartoonish-looking trail running model that far transcends what we know in the maximalist shoe category.

What’s New:

With the TenNine, Hoka says it went back to its mountain running roots to create the ultimate ride for downhill trail running over unpredictable terrain, much the way a high-travel, full-suspension downhill mountain bike with 29-inch wheels devours rocky trails. The TenNine has an oversized platform and a huge extension off the back of the heel—so large that it makes our wear-tester size 10.5 seem more like a size 14 or so—to accommodate for what feels like a stiff plate in the midsole. You’ll find a moderately-aggressive outsole lug pattern in the forefoot, and a smoother and lower-profile pattern in the rear of the shoe. The design creates the ability to almost surf down some types of loose rocks and gravel.

HOKA TenNine
Same size 10.5 shoes / photo: Brian Metzler

The theory is that maximal ground contact, the rockered design of the undercarriage, a firm demeanor and extended tail make it stable and secure on loose and unstable terrain. And after my initial wear-test runs, I generally agree, even though I had some serious near-death falls.

Don’t let looks fool you about its bulk. The TenNine, like the original Hoka Mafate of 2010, is fairly lightweight. It’s not nearly as light as other trail shoes on the market now, but for its grotesque size and shape it’s pretty darn light (about 12.7 oz. for a men’s size 9). It doesn’t feel heavy or bulky when you put it on, especially on smooth trails. The foam midsole is light and stable, while the upper is light, breathable and stretchy to accommodate for swelling feet on hot days on long mountain runs.

This Shoe Is for You If:

While most ultrarunners and mountain runners are inclined to run uphill, this shoe is built for downhilling. There is, of course, no such thing as downhill-only trail running, unless maybe you live near a ski resort that allows running on its slopes in the summertime and you can take chairlifts up and then fly like a fiend back down. Given this reality, I can understand the TenNine as a “freeride” running shoe similar to how big-travel mountain bikes, fat skis for skiing powder and even oversized tennis rackets have changed the “sweet spot” of those sports. It could also be a great mountain running shoe for peak-bagging and off-trail routes. Can it be used as an everyday trail runner? Not really, but if you live in a town or region known for rugged mountain trails like Boulder, Bend, Jackson, Tahoe, Colorado Springs, Moab or Sedona it can be a fun specialty shoe for specific routes.

photo: HOKA

First Runs:

I’ve run in the TenNine about 10 times on a variety of surfaces over the past two weeks and I’m still not sure about it as a full-on trail running shoe. Don’t get me wrong, I get the concept and I do think it runs well on some types of rugged terrain—especially dirt trails, loose gravel and mountain scree. (Not so much on the snowy/icy trails in Boulder has experienced in February.)

But given its wonky size and shape, it is not exactly nimble, and, as noted, it takes some getting used to—and by some, I mean a lot. I’m not slamming the shoe for that. It took me a while to get used to the high-off-the-ground feel of the original Mafate and Stinson ATR in 2010 because the proprioceptive connection between my brain, my Hoka-shod feet and the ground didn’t immediately get in sync.

The immediate challenge with the TenNine is that there’s no way to anticipate the huge tail of a shoe because I’ve never experienced anything like that before. But there are times when I have wished for a huge tail like this—specifically while running down scree fields on Colorado 14ers—so I like the concept, and look forward to running in it when the mountains thaw out this summer.

HOKA TenNine wear-tested
photo: Brian Metzler

For now, I actually think this shoe runs better—or at least more predictably—on smooth dirt trails, paved roads and bike paths. The long extension in the heel acts like a dampening system that seems to reduce the blunt force impact with the ground and create a propulsive spring as the foot rolls from heel to toe. It is a unique shoe that might work well for heavy heel-strikers on the roads, but it also encourages heavy heel striking too, which isn’t really the best thing because that means you’re overstriding. That said, it runs pretty smoothly on roads, gravel paths and smooth dirt trails.

The bottom line? For me, I think this is a very cool concept that could lead to new innovations, especially in road running just the same way the Mafate and Stinson ATR changed the game in shoes 10 years ago and how Nike’s original Vaporfly Elite (circa 2017) paved the way for the current Alphafly Next% shoes.

To illustrate how truly unique these shoes are, note the warning Hoka issues with them:

WARNING: HOKA ONE ONE designed this product as a piece of specialized equipment specifically for running.  Think of these like ski boots or cycling shoes. Using this product for anything other than running may impair balance and dexterity. So, don’t wear these on stairs or while driving.

Similar Shoes: Nothing really, but its closest relatives are the Altra Olympus 3.5, Hoka One One Stinson ATR 5, Hoka One One Evo Mafate.