Sole Searching: How NNormal Changed Trail Running With Radical Durability

Ultrarunner Kílian Jornet's latest pursuit is to upend the footwear world by making super-durable trail running shoes

Sole Searching: How NNormal Changed Trail Running With Radical Durability

Author

Tanner Bowden

Photographer

Courtesy NNormal

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For the third installment in our ongoing Sole Searching series of deep dives into past, present, and future icons with partners Vibram, our scope organically grew beyond a single style to share a larger story of an athlete-owned brand’s unique origin and its core efforts to tackle sustainability, durability, and longevity through conscious design. To see how we got here, check out past Sole Searching features on Bedrock Sandals and the Arc'teryx Vertex Alpine.


Kílian Jornet has never shied away from doing hard things. The renowned Spanish ultrarunner has logged too many achievements to list—from fastest known times on the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc to countless trail race wins, including four at the infamous UTMB. Even against all that, the athlete's more recent self-imposed gauntlet might be the most challenging yet: creating a sustainable running company from scratch. Somehow, it's not surprising that with NNormal, the brand he co-founded in 2022, he appears to be succeeding.

In the lead-up to creating NNormal, Jornet, a father of two, began wondering about the sustainability of his athletic pursuits and whether he was doing enough to live a low-impact lifestyle. In a single year, an ultrarunner of his caliber competing at different distances might burn through more than a dozen pairs of shoes, leaving behind a trail of waste in the form of beat-up sneakers. This notion led to NNormal's founding principle: sustainability through unsurpassed quality.

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Jornet and his first shoe for NNormal, creating sustainability through durability

The NNormal vision of quality is longevity. "For that we put durability at its center," Jornet tells me. "To make product that performs at its maximum but where durability (physical, aesthetic, and repairable) is not compromised." But how does a company starting from zero turn a high-held value like that into a running shoe?

For that, Jornet turned to Camper, a family-owned company based in Mallorca that's been making footwear since 1877. Jornet's values for sustainability via quality aligned with those held by Camper's founders and, even though the company's focus has long been on lifestyle footwear, the two agreed to partner up to bring NNormal's shoes from idea to reality.

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Jornet is heavily involved in the development of NNormal's products

"A performance shoe has different elements that need to be taken well under consideration in comparison to a walking shoe," says Birte Fahrbach, NNormal's head of product. "Yet, the principles stay similar. To create a great trail running shoe we needed to dial into the elements of stability, running biomechanics, running efficiency and make sure that the foot is well protected but also supported to cover all distances from short to ultra distance races."

"The technical ingredients play a huge role in creating a great product," Fahrbach continues. In the Kjerag, the first shoe NNormal made, those ingredients include a Vibram outsole, EExpure midsole foam, and an upper made of Matryx, a material consisting of coated polyamide and Kevlar yarns. All are critical in helping the Kjerag achieve Jornet's high bar for durability, and as the point of contact between runner and rock (or dirt or mud or snow) that Vibram outsole particularly so.

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The Kjerag was NNormal's first trail running shoe

"Big companies in footwear pay attention to what NNormal is doing."

Vibram's time- and trail-tested soles are no secret ingredient in the footwear world, but while most companies prefer to incorporate it into their designs in an exclusive way, NNormal did something clever, explains Jerome Bernard, Vibram's sport innovation marketing global director. "They immediately adopted a sole design that we had developed for trail running events." These soles were made especially for on-the-spot resoling, so a runner in town for a race could walk up with a worn-out pair of shoes and leave with fresh treads. Vibram has been doing this for nearly a decade and has resoled thousands of trail runners.

"Camper and NNormal," says Bernard, "they had the idea to use more or less 95% this kind of sole." This way, NNormal footwear is made to be resoled from the start, and NNormal and Vibram have partnered on a repair program to make the shoes last as long as possible.

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NNormal's Tomir 2.0 is a versatile high-cushion trail shoe

Because NNormal shoes are designed to last, it might be a long time before runners ever need to think about repair work though. Fahrbach notes that their designers work toward a durability standard of over 1,200 kilometers (just shy of 750 miles) of use. Lab tests can qualify an assurance like that, but Jornet's standards are more practical. So, in 2022, he set out to run a series of trail running's most reputed events—Zegama, Hardrock, Sierre-Zinal, and UTMB—in a single pair of Kjerags. He placed fourth at Sierre-Zinal and first in every other race, but in a short film about the endeavor Jornet seems to rank that feat below the proof of concept it established for NNormal.

It's been two years since Jornet debuted NNormal's first shoe at the 2022 Zegama. Now the company has a few models, the technical Kjerag and the more versatile Tomir and Tormir 2.0, with an innovation concept in the works called the Kboix that'll have interchangeable midsoles. The line will remain concise, following a design tenet Fahrbach refers to as "humbling simplicity." All in the service of longevity and sustainability.

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NNormal tests its products on rugged Mallorca and elsewhere in Europe

Ultramarathons can seem like solo endeavors but every runner brings a support team to the trail. Similarly, it's only through a unique collaboration with its partners at Camper and Vibram that NNormal has achieved more than a fledgling footwear company can hope for in a short few years. "Big companies in footwear pay attention to what NNormal is doing," says Bernard.

But Jornet's athlete mindset knows that the other side of any finish line reveals more paths to take, and more challenges. "As an athlete you have goals that might seem like end goals, but when reaching them you see many new possibilities," he says. "I think the same with NNormal."

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