The New Balance Summit Unknowns are priced between $90 and $110, and offer a design similar to New Balance’s 1400 road shoe.
These shoes, however, have a rock plate. The midsole is soft and light, as well. It is recommended as an all-purpose, all-terrain trail shoe.
On my first run, I decided to test the shoe on a trail that had both dry sections and muddy sections. When I put the shoes on, I was pleasantly surprised that they didn’t feel like “new” shoes. Since my feet are narrow at the heel and midfoot, I usually end up with blisters or hot spots in new, wider shoes, especially when water or mud are involved. However, these hugged my feet and drained surprisingly well, and I never had an issue. While some reviewers commented that the attached tongue was a problem for them, and they found it would bunch as their runs went along, I never found I had to adjust them.
On subsequent runs, I tested the shoes on more technical, rooty downhills and some steeper climbs. I always felt connected to the ground, which isn’t something I experience in every shoe. I felt there was just enough padding to give these shoes a comfortable plant, but it wasn’t so much that I felt I was awkwardly lugging the shoes around. They fit my feet well from the first run to the last.
I found that they are not superb in heavy mud over 3 inches deep or on thick ice, but I wouldn’t NOT buy them because of that. I still slid around a bit as I do in some of the other shoes with less tread. However, the comfort, lightweight design, and performance on every other type of trail terrain I encountered made me consider them to be well worth their price.
These shoes also stand up well to normal wear and tear. Snagging them on thorns or stubbing them on rocks didn’t seem to cause any major damage. I never noticed any tearing in the mesh, and the rubberized toe section was great protection for a toe-stubber like I am.
I think the Summit Unknowns are a great racing shoe for 50K or less. I found them to be fine for road sections, but they definitely show well on a dry dirt trail, with technical spots. And they grip well on steeper climbs, which impressed me. I never felt unsafe or like I couldn’t trust the shoes to hold me in place on a steep downhill. I plan to use them in my lineup for an upcoming trail 50 miler, just to see how they fare over a 50K.
The toe box of the Summit Unknowns is rubberized and protective, but the mesh is light and allows for drainage. The exterior heel area is rubberized, as well. While the toe box is not overly wide, it is comfortable and I never had rubbing or contact blisters on my toes, even when wet.
While these are by no means a minimal shoe, they don’t have a significant amount of padding like one might find in a Hoka (or similar) trail shoe. However, I felt that the rock plate kept my bony feet from feeling the rocks and stones, and there was enough padding in the sole to make my feet comfortable and protected.
I never noticed any significant wearing on the mesh upper, even after some wet, muddy trail and on some sharp rocks, roots and thorns that I expected would be likely to cause tearing or holes to develop. The entire shoe held up well, even though I put them to work and did my best to push the fabric and rubber to their limits.
I expect they would perform well on tougher terrain than I tested, as well, such as rocks and longer climbs/descents. I would definitely have them in my lineup for an ultra trail race.
Responsiveness & Speed
As a middle-of-the-pack runner, I liked that the Summit Unknowns made me feel fast. While I am more accustomed to a heavier, “meatier” shoe, I liked that the lighter weight made me feel like I was able to push off and lift my feet more easily.
I would definitely choose these shoes on a fast dirt trail course, even one with some technical spots. I pushed my speed on a few different runs, and my feet always felt light. The shoes wore in well, and I felt they actually enhanced my performance when it came to speed.
Comfort and Fit
The Summit Unknowns fit true to size and are lightweight and responsive. The padding and traction would be great for any runner who likes a fast run or climb on dry dirt trail. I was able to put them on and go with very little adjusting.
Some reviewers talked about needing to adjust the tongue of the shoe repeatedly due to the design, but I never found that to be an issue, even when wet. These shoes also drain well in mud and streams.
While the Summit Unknowns don’t necessarily have the toothy tread that would make them my first choice for deep mud or thick ice, they shine in every other way as an multi-purpose, all-terrain trail shoe. They are light, responsive, form well to the foot, have a comfortable amount of sole padding, and they drain exceptionally well for runners who don’t mind splashing through the occasional stream crossing.
We purchased a pair of New Balance Summit Unknown from runningwarehouse using our own money. This did not influence the outcome of this review, written after running more than 50 miles in them.