In February, I ran the Hagg Mud 25K. As anyone who has ever run a Hagg Mud event knows, this race lives up to its name! I wore water-resistent trail shoes with a very aggressive tread to combat the extreme slipperiness of the course, and for the amazingly sloppy trail sections they worked great. But the Hagg Mud course also includes some extended stretches of asphalt road, and on those paved sections my feet were cursing the clunkiness of the trail shoes and the relative stiffness of their soles. As I lumbered along the road I wished I had shoes that worked equally well on road AND trail. Hagg Mud is hardly the only “trail” race that also includes at least a small percentage of pavement at some point. A “hybrid” shoe be a great resource for events like this, I thought to myself.
So when I got a chance to test a pair of Columbia Montrail shoes for Run Oregon, I immediately called dibs on just such a shoe: The Variant X.S.R., described as a shoe “that has it all – stable cushioning for roads and sure footedness for trail surfaces,” and “a running shoe that transitions from road to trail seamlessly.” Maybe it sounded too good to be true, but I was excited to find out.
My first impressions when I took them out of the box were: a) They had the typical extra weight of trail shoes in my hands, and b) “Wow, they’re bright!” Would they feel especially heavy on the roads? And would I really want to risk getting the strikingly bright “Blue Chill” and “Fission” shoes dirty and muddy on actual trails?
I needn’t have worried. Rather than being mismatched to both road and trail, they live up to their billing and perform beautifully on all surfaces. I tried them out on a couple runs along the Oaks Bottom trails in SE Portland, with substantial mileage on road and sidewalk to and from. First of all, they fit well, and feel great on my feet. Once I started running, the sense of extra heft disappeared, and the fit, cushioning, and flexibility contributed to a sense of comfort and sprightliness.
The Variant X.S.R.s immediately felt as though they belonged among my favorite and most nimble road shoes, with great cushioning, stability, and response, with none of the typical “clunkiness” on pavement of most trail shoes. The pronounced stiffness in the soles of many trail shoes was nowhere to be found here. The softness, pliability, and suppleness of the soles lend themselves to a natural stride on the road.
That was fine on manmade surfaces, but how would that translate to trails? Would the lack of stiff, extra rugged soles neuter these shoes’ effectiveness on rough terrain? How would the Variants make the transition to off-road running? Surprisingly well, actually! The Oaks Bottom trails are a mixture of large and small gravel, loose rocks, embedded rocks, mud, and dirt. The cushioning that made the ride on the roads so smooth made the rocks and gravel melt away underfoot. And the soft ride did not compromise stability, as the shoes felt supportive and steady across a variety of trail surfaces.
At first glance, the Variants didn’t look like they would provide much traction. To ensure a smooth, comfortable ride on pavement, the outsoles are relatively flat and lack aggressive lugs. But upon closer inspection I noticed that the soles are composed of a “sticky” compound, with a fine, gritty, tread, and some impromptu quick stops and sudden starts revealed good grip on rocks and in shallow to moderate mud.
While I was still reluctant to get the bright blue shoes dirty, I did inadvertently step in a medium-deep puddle along the trail. I was prepared to accept a suddenly muddy left shoe, but to my relief I found that the relatively thick midsole had kept the colorful upper out of the water, both preserving the aesthetics of the shoe and keeping my foot dry. Again, the high ride and generous cushioning didn’t seem to compromise stability.
Other “trail” features of the Variants include sturdy reinforced toes and a firmly structured external heel framework. Neither of these seems to diminish the comfort or smoothness of the shoes on the road. Other than the inevitability of getting them dirty, the Columbia Montrail Variant X.S.R. really does seem to combine the best of both worlds for road and trail.
Company: Columbia Montrail
Product: Variant X.S.R.
Description (from website):
ROAD TO TRAIL TRAINER
Finally, a trainer that has it all – stable cushioning for roads and sure footedness for trail surfaces. The men’s Variant X.S.R. Running Shoe is crafted of a seamless, engineered mesh upper with an external molded heal counter for support. An innovative midsole delivers superior energy return and durability. The result is a running shoe that transitions from road to trail seamlessly.”
Seamless engineered mesh with no-sew for supportive protection. Enhanced heel fit via a molded external heel counter.
New PearlFoam™ cushioning innovation provides superior energy return and durability in a comfortingly soft package. Unique guiding FluidFoam™ cage provides an incredibly smooth transition. Ride heights: 23mm heel / 15mm forefoot.
Highly durable and abrasion resistant rubber outsole with maximized surface contact and deep flex grooves specifically engineered to work with the biomechanics of the gait-cycle. 3.5mm-5mm variable outsole lug height.”
Thank you to Columbia Montrail for providing us with a sample pair. Please read our transparency page for info on how we do our reviews.