When I first found out that Bozo wasn’t really a clown – that he didn’t have crazy, red hair or a squeaky, red nose or giant feet in his giant, red shoes – I was sad.  Maybe I’ve been anti-clown ever since.  It can be tough to examine your own biases.  But, I’ll tell you what helped with that bit of introspection: these bright, red and orange, giant shoes.  Are you thinking, “what the f%$k, Dave? What does Bozo have to do with trail running?”  Fair question.  Seriously.  And the answer is, nothing really.  Except that for some reason Hoka Challenger ATR 3s that I’ve been running in for the last few months are red with bright orange cushioning.  And, they’re pretty awesome.

 

I’ll admit to having an anti-Hoka bias going into this review.  I’m not a fan of running in the first place.  I hate running on roads, but I’ll trail run if I absolutely have to.  So, the Challengers had a lot to overcome.  I expected them to disconnect me from the trail.  A small part of me may have worried about rolling my ankle.  All of those fears were unfounded and about as off-base as possible.  After putting about 100 miles on the Challenger ATR 3s, I may not be sold on that exact Hoka model (more below), but I’m sold on the maximal cushioning movement.  And, honestly, I’m enjoying running a bit more too.

Hoka Technology

I put these shoes on knowing absolutely nothing about Hoka outside of the fact that they make your feet look silly and that some pretty badass, champion trail runners won a lot of races in them.  Those misconceptions I had?  Well, if I had taken less than five minutes to read Hoka’s website, I wouldn’t have been so worried about my ankles.

 

The first, and most obvious, feature of Hoka shoes is the oversized midsole – the Marshmallow, if you will.  With 29mm of foam under the heel and 24mm up front (and 4mm rubber lugs for traction), you’re separated from the trail by over an inch of sole.  That also makes for a 5mm drop from heel to toe, which isn’t bad in the scheme of things.  An ultra-wide footprint makes Hokas surprisingly stable.

Next, there’s Hoka’s Meta Rocker.  Rather than having a flat profile heel with toe rocker like some shoes, Hoka continues the curve from toe to heel.  They claim this leads to a more natural, rolling gait.  It reminds me of Pearl Izumi’s Trail N3 (RIP) shoe; similar rocker, but less drop.

 

 

Finally, Hoka puts your foot inside the midsole instead of on top of it, calling this the Active Foot Frame.  So, while the Challenger has 33mm of foam and rubber under your foot, the midsole extends up another few mm to cradle your foot.  The result is a maximally cushioned shoe that feels plush, but doesn’t feel like it will let your foot roll off the side of the sole.

Hoka Challenger ATR Features

In addition to the universally Hoka-ish features, the Challenger ATR has some specific qualities that make it unique.  It has an additional, “3D Puff Print” frame for extra support.  The rubber lugs on the sole adhere to the heel and forefoot only, leaving the midfoot foam exposed to save weight.  And, save weight they do.  Despite being absolutely huge, the Challenger ATR 3 weighs only 9.5 oz in a US 9.

 

The Challenger ATR is a mostly-mesh shoe with some reinforcements for structure and durability.  There’s a sort-of rubberized matrix that looks like it’s printed on the outside of the mesh to prevent stretch.  Hoka also includes a toe bumper up front and a solid heel reinforcement in back to lock your heel in place.  Double lace holes at the top of the shoe mean you can lock things down even more.  Thanks for including those, Hoka!

Challenger ATR 3 Fit

I’ve read complaints about some sizing inconsistency in Hoka shoes from version to version.  So, take this fit advice with a grain of salt and a sip of whiskey and take advantage of Hoka’s 30-day Challenge.

 

The Challenger ATR 3s were way too narrow for my feet.  They’re not quite Salomon Speedcross narrow, but close.  The toe box is wide enough, though not as wide as I’d like, especially compared to the PI Trail N3 or an Altra.  Where I really ran (not intended) into trouble though was in the midfoot.  While there was plenty of vertical volume, I needed significantly more room right around the base of the fifth metatarsal.

Length-wise, fit is spot on.  A size 9.5 was perfectly comparable to the Trail N3 and Altra’s line and even Salomon’s trail runners.

Review: Hoka Challenger ATR 3

I mentioned above that the Challengers almost made running enjoyable.  Once upon a time, in my youth, I was capable of running long distances.  Ten years ago, I notched a pair of Ironmans on my belt and ran the Denver Marathon.  These days, I’d rather ride my bike and running more than three miles pretty much doesn’t happen.

That said, these Hokas inspired a doubling and tripling of that, with a max run over eight miles.  A combination of cushioning and support made the miles fly by as much as miles can.  Probably should bring some music next time.

 

On the trail, the Challenger ATR 3s provide adequate traction on dirt and rock and stick decently to wet.  I didn’t find any serious mud, unfortunately.  I also took them out on the road – they tempered my hatred of road running to the point that it was almost bearable.  Hoka’s cushioning soaked up the shock of pavement pounding well and the lugs weren’t so prominent that they felt out of place on asphalt.

Two things surprised me about the Challengers.  First, I never felt unstable.  Despite being suspended above the ground by an inch of soft foam, Hoka designed enough stability into the shoes to keep my feet planted.  At the same time, these aren’t motion control shoes, so I could still bend my ankles if needed.  Second, I was surprised by how much trail sensitivity I retained through the foam.  I could feel that rocks and roots were there, but never felt them poking me.

Final Thoughts

The Hoka Challenger ATR 3s surprised me in a lot of ways.  They made trail running comfortable and, honestly, easier.  As a result, running became more enjoyable.  Anything that can do that is unicorn magic.

I want to find a pair of Hokas that fit my midfoot better.  I don’t think they exist right now, which may force me into an Altra Timp or Olympus.

Since sending the ATR 3 over, Hoka has updated the Challenger to the ATR 4, which rearranges some of the upper while maintaining plenty of mesh and adds a larger toe bumper for more protection.

Miss you, Bozo.

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