In 2004 I arrived in China young and bright eyed wearing Walmart jeans and Walmart shoes because I was a cheap kid right out of college. Within a month or so I had made an amazing discovery. The Chinese have a shoe that cost less than a Walmart shoe (around a dollar for a pair) and it’s built incredibly well. 布鞋, as it’s called in Chinese, translates simply as “cloth shoe” and there appear to be hundreds of factories across China that make a near-identical version of them.
The shoe is nothing fancy: cloth top, a cloth insole and a small strip of rubber (seemingly similar to tire rubber) across the bottom. They stretch with use become incredibly comfortable almost immediately. Today they’re largely shunned by young people as a relic of an earlier poorer time, though many of the elderly and poor still wear them exclusively. They quickly became my only shoe for regular life, the only time they’re genuinely terrible is when it’s dumping rain (the cotton insole and upper absorb the water and they become a swamp).
Sometime around mid-2010 I got in to minimal-shoe running. Like many people I started with Vibram Five Fingers and was sold almost immediately on the craze. For the first time ever I had a mid-forefoot strike and my knees stopped hurting overnight. It took about 6 weeks to ramp up completely to running in minimal shoes because I had such weak calves. But then my standard 4 mile run turned in to 7 miles because, for the first time in my life, I was actually enjoying running. Before discovering minimal shoes I ran regularly for mental stability. After discovering minimal shoes I run regularly because I genuinely enjoy it—a huge improvement.
Vibram Five Fingers were cheap in China ($10/pair or so), but then one day I attempted running in my cloth shoes, and they were amazing. They became my default for a number of years until I moved back the U.S.. Once here I decided I needed to find something that was more sustainable. I love my cloth shoes, but since I would no longer be able to buy them easily, I went looking for something else. I landed on the Merrell Trail Glove.
It was an amazing shoe. The sole was thin enough to feel every pebble underneath your toes, but thick enough to protect you from the sharpest of them. The Vibram sole was covered on the inside by something that felt like leather and stayed attached to the bottom for the duration of the time I wore the shoe. Perhaps most importantly, the shoe lasted me nearly two years of regular use. I estimate that I run approximately 400 miles every six months, so that means these babies lasted me about 1600 miles.
They were so fantastic that when they finally broke down on me I went out immediately to try to find another of the exact same pair. Sadly Merrell had stopped making them. The Amazon reviews say that the Vapor Glove 2 (the follow up shoe) wasn’t truly a minimal shoe, but had some amount of arch support. I never bought a pair to check if this was true (it was a deal breaker for me). The Vapor Glove 3 is where I landed and when they arrived I was excited that, while different, they appeared to carry on the spirit of the original Trail Glove.
Sadly I was pretty wrong. The toe covering would catch my toenail as I ran (something I eventually got used to). The original Trail Glove had that leather-like lining over the insole, but these had a piece of thin and lose cloth. The cloth covering over the insole came disconnected from the bottom of the shoe almost immediately and pebbles started to get in the shoe and down between the cloth layer and the in-sole.
In less than two months the outside of the shoe had ripped through and now lots of rocks were getting in. I have pretty thick callouses on my feet and this wasn’t inherently a deal breaker with the shoes so much as it was a huge disappointment. Whoever made the original Trail Glove either dramatically lowered their standards for this shoe, or Merrell decided the two year life of the original was too long to be profitable.
I pushed through though because I really wanted to like these shoes. But they just kept breaking down. Soon the other shoe sprung a similar hole. Within less than 6 months of usage (approx 400 miles) they were no longer wearable.
Some will say that a shoe only has about a six month life, and that’s true for thick soled shoes if you want a significant padding or spring in your step. But as a minimal runner, literally the only thing the shoe needs to do is stay attached to my foot (preferably without gaping holes to let in rocks and mud). And my disappointment with these was entirely related to the high expectations the initial shoe set.
I had been singing the praises of the original Trail Glove to lots and lots of people who I know went out and bought Merrills at my suggestion. Sadly now I’m strongly encouraging folks to look elsewhere. And elsewhere is where I looked for a while. I’ve been eyeing Lems for a long time but I’ve heard mixed things that have held me off for now (folks who love the shoe, folks who hate the service, folks who say they run small etc…). And there are certainly others companies out there (and yes I’ve done huaraches, but almost all the running I do is in the Rocky Mountains, and something to protect my toes from a good stubbing is essential). But then I remembered my cheap Chinese shoe.
The pair pictured above is a pair I wore for several years and ran a marathon in. This is a trusty shoe. Look at how small the holes are. The sole did eventually wear completely through as the soft rubber on the bottom is nothing compared to what Vibram is making these days. The cloth bottom tends to last even as the rubber bottom wears out. And twice I covered the holes in the bottom with duct tape and used them for a few more hundred miles.
My main reason for not using these cloth shoes regularly since I’ve been back in the states is two fold:
1) The toe box is restricted.
2) I can’t easily buy them in the United States. How can my go to shoe be a shoe I can’t get easily?
I’ve dealt with the first part thus far because the beauty of these cloth tops is that they are much more stretchable than a normal shoe. The canvas stretches to allow my toes pretty good spread by about the third run. But I’m under no illusion that this is equivalent space to a true wide-toe box. I am pushing through and ignoring this for now due to lack of a better alternative.
And the second issue I solved by getting on Taobao.com and purchasing 10 pair (and paying for international shipping). I figure if I can squeeze 6mos to 2 years out of each pair these should last me a good decade or two. I may never need to buy another disappointing minimal shoe. I might be set with my communist statement of near-perfection.
I write this article at least in part to shame the minimal shoe manufacturers in the US for making every shoe cost a small fortune and not last. I’d love to see someone make a business out of importing 布鞋 and selling them for $10/pair. Alternatively, a cloth shoe like this with a wide toe box and a Vibram sole on it would be the literal height of perfection.