REVIEW BY KARL FORCEY
Someone once advised me that you should never race in a new pair of shoes. Wise words, but to hell with that! My La Sportiva Helios IIIs arrived the day before a night-time 21km race in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, which included the notorious “Dungeon”. It was too good an opportunity not to put these shoes through the wringer!
La Sportiva is an Italian brand that started way back in 1928. They originally made hand-crafted wooden clogs and leather boots for lumberjacks and other labourers in the Italian Alps. While still not widely available in Australia, La Sportiva are increasing their profile by sponsoring some big events, such as Ultra-Trail Australia and the Brisbane Trail Ultra.
The Helios III is the third iteration of La Sportiva’s popular lightweight, minimalist trail shoe. It has a low drop: 20mm at the rear and 16mm up front for 4mm total. The upper is a tough mono-burr mesh and ripstop nylon, while the tongue is gusseted and attaches to the midsole – a trend that a lot of manufacturers are now embracing. Strategically placed 3D-printed foam pads are just where you want them in the tongue and cuff to make slipping this shoe on comfortable and snug. Unlike the rest of La Sportiva’s range, the heel counter is flexible but still provides support.
The outsole utilises La Sportiva’s custom Frixion Blue rubber compound, designed to provide traction on a variety of surfaces. Ridges run horizontally across the shoe with lugs on each ridge. The ridges and wavy design are a big part of why the shoe flexes and conforms beneath your foot, while the triangular lugs add additional grip on looser surfaces and steep hills.
So, how do they feel? The first thing I noticed was that they were quite narrow. Fortunately, the upper gives a bit when you put them on, and they are snug but not uncomfortable. Over time, they do stretch and mould to your foot a bit. If you like a big, roomy toebox, though, these may not be for you.
Walking around at the start line of the 21km race, I admired how the minimalist sole flexed under my weight. That wavy outsole design really does work. They felt light, too. Like, crazy light. These shoes wanted to go fast. This is where the Helios has always contrasted with La Sportiva’s other offerings, which tend to be bulkier and stiffer. I have owned a pair of Jackals before, but ultimately, they were not for me.
As the race started, I fell into my usual rhythm on the hard-packed, flattish dirt trail. With no stack to speak of and minimal weight, I felt almost intimate with the ground. With a centre of gravity this low, it would be hard to ankle roll. I could feel everything. The midsole rubber gave some protection and had a lovely, squishy, comfortable return, but the texture of whatever was underfoot was always there. Some people love this; others not so much. I enjoyed it a lot; a perfect balance of sensation and cushioning. That said, with no rock plate in this shoe, if you land on something sharp and jagged, you’re going to feel it – especially if the spiky thing you tread on slips up between those outsole waves into the soft underbelly of exposed midsole rubber. This happened to me a couple of times on the rockier sections. This didn’t cancel out the benefits, though. Running up and down the steeper sections, the lugs held me in place. I targeted some puddles, and even in the greasy Queensland mud, there was no slippage. The shoes drained quickly, too. That breathable nylon meant that any water that came in flowed straight back out in a few strides. After 17km, I dropped into the Dungeon with confidence. Steep, gnarly ups and downs with deep ruts and sporadic water hazards in the dark – I cared not. I knew by now these shoes wouldn’t let me down, and I was right.
I finished the race well near the front of the mid pack and my feet were still happy. It was only a half marathon, though, I hear you say. What if I wanted to go long in these? Well, La Sportiva advertise all-day comfort, and the midsole is surprisingly plush for something so slim. I have done a couple of longer runs in them since and haven’t had any real fatigue, but I’m not sure I could confidently run an ultra in these without my feet starting to hurt. Maybe I’m just a wuss, though? I do know a couple of serious local runners who have run 100km-plus in these and swear by them. As always, it’s a personal thing.
The Helios III has upgraded some of the quibbles that plagued version II. They have returned to a traditional lacing system, made big improvements to the upper, and given us that gusseted, more cushioned tongue that hugs your midfoot. Also of note: these shoes are vegan friendly, so I could enjoy my post-race barbecue with a clear conscience… Apart from the narrow fit, I found it hard to fault these. Depending on where you run, your foot may or may not get stabbed, but you’ll laugh anyway as these are a well-crafted, fast and fun shoe.
Available in Opal/Neptune, Neptune/Poppy, Clay/Citrus and Black/Poppy for men, and
Pacific Blue/Neptune and Clay/Hibiscus for Women.
RRP: $199.95 AU / $214.57 NZ