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Adidas Ultraboost 20 review: Are good running shoes enough to help this unfit writer finish a race?

As Malaysia (and the world) fights against the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are working/studying remotely in a bid to flatten the curve of the coronavirus. But as we cross over the midway threshold of the Movement Control Order, the cabin fever has certainly hit me hard.

I’ll address this first: No, I’m not somebody that exercises regularly. You might catch a glimpse of me talking a slow walk through the local park in the middle of the night (insomnia issues), but that’s just about the extent of it. But with more than half of the MCO period passed, I’ve actually begun to miss the sweat, the grind, and the satisfaction of an active lifestyle (really).

Since we’re all law-abiding Malaysian citizens (I’d also prefer not to be arrested), outdoor exercise isn’t an option right now. Instead, I’ve resorted to flicking through old videos I’d taken pre-MCO, of events I’d attended—and a few in particular caught my eye. These were made up of vlogs I recorded while trying out a pair of Ultraboost 20 running shoes at the Adidas Ultraboost 20 Space Race that was held in Tamarind Square, Cyberjaya.

And now that we’ve all got a little bit of time on our hands—why not share the experience? Here are my thoughts on the Adidas Ultraboost 20, after 3 months of wearing ’em.

What’s the hype all about?

These were my first pair of Ultraboost shoes, so to be honest, I didn’t know if they would actually live up to the hype. What I did know, however, was that these came with a retail price of RM780, along with some pretty serious running tech (just like all of their Ultraboost shoes).

The coolest bit about the U20s? They came with little badges on them that say “ISS National Lab”—a tribute to a burgeoning partnership between Adidas and the International Space Station that will see Boost technology sent to space someday.

So when Adidas reached out to me (of all people) to take part in the Space Race—once the shock had subsided—I thought: why not? It was an opportunity to try out some awesome new shoes, and the Space Race had something else that was going for it: District.

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Basically, the folks from District Malaysia were responsible for the Space Race format, where smartphone location technology was used to create a “virtual” race of sorts. Checkpoints are collected (and vital to plot your race path), and stuff like augmented reality (AR) tech and leaderboards help to gamify the process of running.

Okay, now that you’ve got the context of it all: let’s go.

On your marks, get set, *pistol shot*

If you’ve watched the video above, you’ll know that there isn’t much footage from the middle of the race. I’ll be forthright about this: I was so exhausted by the mid-point of the race, that I had to focus all of my energy into putting one foot in front of the other. Fortunately, I gave up and began to walk—and shoot vlogs.

I also had some trouble with the District app, where I wasn’t notified when nearing a checkpoint (again, I was too focused on “running”). I ended up missing the checkpoint, and having to double back to clear that checkpoint—which definitely affected my final time.

Still, the app was pretty easy to use, as long as you make sure that every checkpoint is cleared. The way it works, you go a certain checkpoint, and only then does the app direct you to the next checkpoint. It’s a novel way of exploring the city, and on a weekend, in light drizzle, it was a pretty serene way to spend a weekend morning.

You’re also supposed to have the use of AR-based tech during the runs. This makes for a Pokemon Go-style event, which can help to reduce the monotony of a long run, for me. However, AR wasn’t used for this particular race—a representative assured me that the AR feature is however available for regular virtual runs on the app.

The run lasted was around 7km in distance, although I reckon that I ran an extra kilometre to make up for my earlier missed checkpoint—just what my already-embarrassing finishing time needed. Ultimately, I finished somewhere behind the middle pack of runners, which I had mixed feelings about.

My embarrassing finishing time, in all its glory

On the one hand, that didn’t sound too bad considering that most of the race participants were regular runners with the Adidas Runners Group Kuala Lumpur. But on the other, participants were made up of a pretty wide demographic of runners, without any gender or age restrictions. As a man in my late-twenties, this sombred up my self-congratulations a little.

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Adidas Ultraboost 20: So, so comfortable

As I watched the vlogs, I noticed a few things. Firstly: I was (and am) a very unfit person, no question there. And secondly, the Ultraboost 20 is a serious pair of running shoes. The Boost mid-sole offered a significant cushioning effect from the impact of the road, and the Continental-branded sole gave me a surprising amount of traction in the rain.

The design of the sole/mid-sole also means that there’s plenty of heel support, although I’m not really a fan of how it juts out at the back of the shoe. Perhaps this is because I use the shoes as everyday shoes—work, events, travelling, or even just going out in general: they’re just really, really comfortable to wear.

A big reason for that is the Primeknit+ technology that Adidas uses for the Ultraboost 20 shoes. I’m not sure if “+” stands for extra awesome (?), but the material gets a lot of credit from me for the lightweight nature of the Ultraboost 20. To me, Adidas has struck the right balance between the lightweight nature of the shoes, and the support they offer.

Initially, I was a little worried about the durability of the lightweight material, although they look as good as new 3 months on.

Wearing them as everyday shoes, I also like the simple aesthetic of the Ultraboost 20’s design. It’s a minimalist look, despite the aforementioned jutting-out heel support. There have also been quite a few new colour options released since the first release, and something that caught my eye was Adidas’ series that pays tribute to major cities around the world.

Unfortunately, they’re missing a Kuala Lumpur-themed Ultraboost 20 edition. Adidas, sort that out?

My favourite part about the race was…

… the end of the race. Even the most comfortable and technologically advanced of running shoes weren’t going to stop me from feeling the effects of a long run. Which is why the post-race recovery centre, courtesy of Adidas Runners Kuala Lumpur, was my favourite part of the race.

Basically, runners from the group achieve medals based on the number of races they’ve completed, and Adidas Bronze runners have access to a recovery station after races. These facilities are offered in partnership with professionals, who help to speed up post-race recoveries for the runners.

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There’s the use of cryotherapy, Normatech, and something called Theragun—all different sort of technologies to help shorten recovery times. I had the chance to try out the Theragun (or rather, someone used it on me), and it certainly helped to restore circulation to my legs (which by now, were feeling like logs). Finally, after about 20 minutes of “percussive therapy”, I was ready to make the long walk back to the car.

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone

Despite the issues I had with the app, I still think that District has a lot of potential. It’s a new way to explore urban cities, and an interesting way to approach the often monotonous (at least, for me) activity of running.

The biggest barrier to success for District, I think, is the need to carry your phone with you as you run. This is something that can certainly be fixed by smartwatch integration—after all, most smartwatches come with in-built GPS tech, and it would turn a promising idea into a genuinely game-changing one.

But the overwhelming feeling I had as I watched the vlogs was one of longing. See, I may not have been the most active person pre-MCO. I definitely didn’t enjoy the early mornings that are a part and parcel of morning jogs, even around the park. But that changes now.

More than anything, I’ve come to realise during this MCO period that I miss being active—I suppose it’s sort of a case of you-don’t-know-what-you-have-till-it’s-gone. So I’m making a declaration right now, a promise to you.

Once this MCO has been lifted (whenever that is), I’m going to strap on one of my smartwatches, load up District, and put on my Ultraboost 20 shoes. And then I’m going to run.

Hopefully, when the next running event invite comes in, I’ll be ready. In the meantime, anyone looking for a running partner?

To find out more about the Adidas Ultraboost 20, click here.

Photography by Zachary Yoong with the Sony A7 III.