Ten years ago, after an incident with a toaster oven, a cobbler shop, and a lot of rejection, a dream was born.
Brian Beckstead and Golden Harper, friends since high school, had long wished for a different kind of running shoe, one that would replicate running barefoot on grass and a person’s natural stride. “We’d see people running barefoot… and then see them running on concrete, and they’d be running differently,” said Beckstead in a recent video from the shoe and apparel brand Altra Running.
Back in 2007, Beckstead ran the Wasatch Front 100 Mile, one of the oldest and most revered 100-mile races in North America, and one where he personally faced the realization that he (and likely many others) needed a different type of shoe. Sustaining enormous blisters from mile 40 onward, Beckstead attempted to duct tape his feet to assuage the pain. This worked, but only until mile 60, but there were still 40 miles to go. He did complete the race, hobbling across the finish line.
Fast forward to 2009, when, in a moment of mad-scientist inspiration, Harper decided to hack off part of the heel of his shoes and melt them back together in his kitchen toaster oven, in an attempt to create a more natural foot-friendly shoe. It worked. The team received great reviews from friends who tested the shoes, and decided to bring this innovation to the larger public. While working at his father’s store, the Runner’s Corner in Orem, Utah, Harper began sending customers to the cobbler shop across the street. While the cobbler, who was used to adding, not subtracting from shoes, was skeptical at first, the thousands of customers over the next year cemented the idea that this “zero-drop” style shoe could succeed. Beckstead and Harper approached multiple investors and existing shoe companies, all of whom shot down their idea. At the time, Beckstead was in somewhat dire straights.
“We were living in my parents basement with a one-year-old, no income, credit-card debt, and couldn’t get a loan. It was a really tough time,” said Beckstead in a recent interview with iRunFar.
So they decided to go it alone. Aided by Beckstead’s father as a first investor, Beckstead mortgaged his inheritance and the team began to build the company that is now Altra. That initial investment led to Altra’s first three shoe prototypes. Testing the first official (and, at the time, only) Lone Peak shoe at the Wasatch Front 100 Mile in 2010 and sustaining no blisters, Beckstead was ecstatic and believed their dream could truly come to fruition. After nearly 100 miles of Beckstead running, and his teammates Golden and Howlett crewing and pacing, they knew Altra would succeed.
“It was like an out-of-body experience,” Beckstead recalls. “Once I got to mile 97 and had no blisters, no problems, it’s like I was in a different universe, realizing that Altra really could work, and that it was actually going to be really big.”
Altra and the Lone Peak — named after one of the peaks in the Wasatch Range — officially launched in the North American market 2011 to much critical acclaim, racking up awards from multiple running and gear publications. While much of the “minimalist shoe” market (including shoes like the Vibram FiveFingers and Xero Shoe) waxes and wanes, Altra’s zero-drop shoes have stood the test of time, and their market has grown exponentially, especially in the realm of trail running. Speaking of zero-drop, Altra has moved away from the term they initially coined, and now describes their products as shoes with “balanced cushioning.”
“We coined that term [zero-drop], and it ended up being adopted by the minimalist shoe movement, which is fine, but that’s not what we are,” states Beckstead. “We really wanted a more accurate word with positive connotations to describe our shoes, which is where balanced cushioning comes in.”
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Altra and the Lone Peak, their flagship trail shoe. The 2021 edition is the Altra Lone Peak 5 trail running shoe, which iRunFar has separately reviewed.
Altra is taking things, ahem, a step farther for the brand’s 10th anniversary, and has created the Altra Lone Peak 5 10th Anniversary Edition trail running shoe, which marries some modern technology while using detailing, colorways, and throwback upper materials inspired by the original Altra Lone Peak. Inspired by Beckstead’s successful Wasatch Front 100 Mile in 2010, the limited-edition model uses a similar breathable mesh upper to the original from 1o years ago. (If you’re looking for a durable, long-distance, do-it-all trail shoe, check out the Lone Peak 5.)
Looking to the future, Beckstead is optimistic and excited about where Altra is going.
“We’re still known as a niche brand, particularly in the road running world. But we’ve started breaking more into the road running world, and we actually now sell more road than trail shoes,” he says. After two acquisitions, the most recent in 2018, “Altra just has huge aspirations, we have a great new line-up for 2022. We’ve had huge growth while staying true to who we are.”