Ted Westbrook is a competitive high-mileage distance runner. You may recognize his name from the ESPN article “Top 1,000 Boston Marathon Finishers.” He’s right there at 889. Ted has also won the Charlevoix Marathon and probably a bunch of other stuff my Google search failed to turn up. So, he knows a thing or two about running shoes. Here’s his review of the Nike Epic React Flyknit Running Shoes after 100 miles of running on them.
Nike was heavily hyping the Epic React Flyknit Shoe and featuring it in its smartphone app in advance of the shoe’s release in February of 2018, and it received a lot of attention from runners from the outset. The marketing promised an entirely new midsole foam material, called React, claimed to be an improvement in weight, cushioning, and energy return over Nike’s existing EVA foams (e.g., Lunarlon, Cushlon, Phylon, Phylite). Nike’s Pebax-based ZoomX foam, as yet only found in its $250 Vaporfly and $180 Pegasus Turbo models, is in another price/performance category altogether.
React was supposed to be more durable than Lunarlon or Cushlon and much more durable than the short-lived ZoomX. The look of the Epic React is distinctive, with a minimal, sock-like knit upper on an oversized wedge of textured foam. That foam acts as both midsole and outsole, as only the very front and very rear of the flat bottom of the shoe are covered with a harder rubber.
As a result, it’s inevitable that the foam will contact the ground—even in high-wear areas like under the ball of the foot—on every footstrike. This led many to doubt the overall durability of the shoe, although most agreed it looked cool and no one could argue with its lightweight bona fides at 7.8 oz for a men’s size 9.
My First Experiences with the Nike Epic React Flyknit Running Shoes
$150 is more than I usually spend on shoes, in part because I wear through them quickly. I’ve paid as much or more for running shoes exactly three times and regretted it once. So, I waited until I could find a discount and pulled the trigger when I found them for $120.
Out of the box, they looked like a premium shoe. I’ve been a fan of Flyknit construction in other Nike offerings, and the Epic React was no different. The upper is slightly stretchy in places. There is no separate tongue; it’s just part of the knit upper. The lace eyelets are plastic pieces bonded onto the shoe. Swoosh logos are also bonded on, and there is a thin but hard plastic heel cup on the outside, above a hard-plastic rim around the top of the React foam heel.
I was surprised by how indispensable the heel pull was for getting the shoe on. You can’t step into this shoe without it because of the bootie-like upper. I found the easiest way to get it on was to put the shoe flat on the floor, grab the loop, and push my foot in – steps not required with any other shoe I’ve worn. That said, the fit seemed very nice on my normal size-9 feet. Standing in the shoes was comfortable, with a noticeable flatness underfoot which I contrasted with the lumpier feel of my Nikes with Zoom Air cushioning units. They felt good.
The First Run on the Nike Epic React Flyknit Running Shoes
My first run in the Epic React was an easy 8-miler in the pouring rain on hilly streets. They had a fast, smooth, and bouncy feel to them. The upper moved with my feet. There was nothing clunky or rigid about the shoe. Normally I get up to pace slowly and end up with a first mile in the 7:20 range; my first mile on this run was 7:02 and felt great. I liked the shoes immediately and, in my mind, they became the go-to training shoe. There were no traction issues on the wet roads. The shoe always felt stable but, refreshingly, not too rigid. All was not well, however.
Rubbed the Wrong Way
Over the next few runs, I started to feel some rubbing on the outer edges of my heels. This was especially pronounced going uphill and prompted more than one occasion of switching out the shoes for a different pair after 5 miles to avoid serious blistering. The problem did not subside after a “break-in” period of 20+ more miles. I tried increasing the lace tension to try to lock my heel to the heel cup of the shoe. This made the problem worse.
I finally settled on keeping the laces loose, not attempting to lock them down at all. This resolved the issue. They no longer seem to rub unless worn with thicker socks. My heel does move up and down in the shoe a little, but I have not found it bothersome.
Two observations here: (1) with the sock-thickness issue, the very breathable Flyknit upper, and the lack of any sort of deep traction lugs, these aren’t going to be winter warriors; and (2) if you’re someone who likes a locked-down fit and can’t stand a shoe feeling like it’s moving around a little on you, this might not be the shoe for you.
After the Break-In
Having discovered the lace-tension secret, I put the shoes through the paces. They performed surprisingly well during workouts I would normally do in racing shoes, like fartleks at VO2max. The React foam kept feeling bouncy and forgiving whether I was on a fast midfoot strike at 5:20 pace or, while doing rest jogs on downhills, landing decidedly on my heels. On heel-striking, the shoe feels smooth and stable rockering from heel to toe-off. I loved the versatility.
This pair now has 103 miles on them over the course of 13 runs. As one would expect with an exposed-foam outsole, there is a visible abrasion on the React outsole under the ball of the foot. So far, this has not created any noticeable traction problem.
The cushioning and bouncy feeling of the React remain great. I see no wear on the Flyknit upper and nothing noticeable on the rubber reinforcement under the toe or heel. The shoes give all impressions that they have a lot of life left in them. To be fair, a training shoe marketed to high-mileage runners with promises of durability should still look and feel great at 100 miles.
I plan to keep running in the Nike Epic React Flyknit Running Shoes for at least 300 more miles, hopefully more, to get a final tally on their price-to-miles ratio. On that subject, I consider a training shoe to be a good value if it lasts long enough to cost 25 cents per mile or less. This is a tall order for expensive shoes and would mean getting a whopping 480 miles out of these Epic Reacts. The good news is that as long as the React foam holds up, I expect to enjoy those miles.