The birth of Altra shoes
Champion runner Golden Harper uses his passion for helping injured runners, homemade ingenuity and thoughtful research to create a unique, beloved brand.
When you run before you can walk, you were born to be a runner.
When you win a world championship at age 8, your running future is bright.When your parents own a running store where you start working at age 9, you learn quite a bit about sneakers, running form and injuries.
Put it all together, and you have Golden Harper, champion runner and founder of Altra Shoes.
A champion at all levels
When he was an infant, Harper’s parents read some studies indicating that the longer kids crawl, the more intelligent they would become. “So whenever I stood up, they would push me back down. Apparently, I got set down near a playground and they looked away…I just ran towards the kids playing.”
He has barely stopped running since. (“I showed up to kindergarten, and was like, ‘So, where do you run?’ “)
His running accolades are impressive:
At age 8, he won the World Youth Championships, a 2K race.
The following year, he learned that a 12-year-old finished a marathon around 4:30 and received a huge 5-foot trophy for that effort. Harper was mad at his parents because they didn’t let him race the full marathon. “I would have gotten that trophy.” A year later, he did with a 3:08 time.
He then ran 2:57 at age 11 (a U.S. record) and 2:45 at age 12 (a world record).
There were supporters but also haters of his early success. He would hear the negativity: “You’re not going to be good in high school. … You’re not going to get a scholarship. … You’re not going to be able to run when you get older.”
After taking his freshman year of high school off, he ran cross-country his sophomore year and finished 45th at state. “You hear all those haters in your head and want to prove them wrong,” Harper says. “We put a plan together — my dad, who was a coach, and I — and I won state the next year.”
Harper went on to run in college and was a conference champion at BYU-Hawaii, finishing with the 17th fastest time in the nation.
After college, he decided to try ultras, starting with the Alpine to Slickrock 50 miler. He won — of course — by more than an hour.
From a toaster oven experiment to major brand
Accolades aside, Harper’s greatest contribution to the sport of running may very well be Altra shoes, the genesis of which started with an experiment in a toaster oven.
His parents not only worked in and managed running stores, they were race directors and competitors themselves.
“My dad was always modifying shoes,” Harper says. “He won the St. George Marathon as a 38-year-old with no cartilage in his knees. The Saucony Racers from that race had holes drilled in the back so the back half of the shoe was lighter, which he said made it easier to land more smoothly, which made it easier on his knees.”
His dad’s experimentation with shoes was routine in the Harper household.
“I don’t know if there was ever a moment when it was like, ‘Wow. Shoes need to be better,’ “ Harper recalls. “It was always there from a young age. It was always a case of if the shoe isn’t fitting your needs, you just modify it so that it does. That’s always what we did at my house. We always modified them to fit our needs.”
And the modifications eventually lead to the unique Altra toe box.
“One thing we did at the store with incredible success for people with foot problems, was to sell people shoes that were ‘too big and skip the laces at the bottom of the shoe so the feet could totally spread out and relax,” he says. “We had so much success with this that nearly half of the people at local road races would have their shoes laced this way. Interestingly enough, my college research showed that nearly all foot problems come from the way shoes are shaped today … they crowd the foot out of its natural position. This eventually paved the way for the Altra FootShape™ toe box, which I believe is the most important feature of Altra shoes.”
With nearly a decade of experience working in a running store, Harper studied running technique and injuries in college. At the family running store, he learned that most people come into the store because something hurts. “If you’re not just going through the motions of your job, you want to help.”
Harper studied as much as he could about running form, foot injuries and such in college, even writing his English papers about running injuries.
“I had written these papers in college, and it made me realize that the marketing and the research were at two very different places,” he says. “Then we got a high-speed camera at the running store and we were the first running store in the country to sell Five Fingers, as a supplement to regular shoes. Once we got them, we wanted to see if they actually changed people’s running technique.”
Harper put people on the video camera to see what the foot was doing. “Without a modern, elevated heel shoe on, the foot stays more parallel to the ground and then it swings underneath the knee before it hits the ground. In traditional shoes, the heel drops and then it lands further out in front of the body with more impact. We knew that most runners over-stride and this showed that the elevated heel in shoes was contributing to it.”
Testing out a revolutionary theory
Next, Harper had a theory he wanted to test out: take the elevated height out of the heel part of the shoe. So he took a pair of shoes home, popped them in the toaster oven and took off the rubber outsole and the foam midsole. He then put in some flat, weight balanced foam, and glued the outsoles back on. He then went for a run.
“For the first time in my life, I was wearing a supportive, cushioned training shoe that didn’t make me feel like I was fighting my shoe.” he recalls. “That was a great moment for me. I looked up at the sky and said, ‘Thank you.’ ”
After that, Harper modified and tested shoes on the staff. Twenty-four out of 25 employees loved the modified version. Then they tested the shoes on the store’s “hopeless customers.”
“At every store, there are dozens of people who have had the same problem forever,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you have done — orthotics, supportive shoes, physical therapy, they’ve tried it all.”
So Harper offered them the shoes, noting that on video it appeared to improve form, and told them it may or may not help, but it might be worth a shot. The test subjects were told to run in the modified sneakers and then fill out a survey in six weeks.
“Interestingly enough before the six weeks was up and before the surveys came back, their friends came in,” Harper says. “And they would say, ‘You gave Joe a pair of these ugly modified shoes. And his knee doesn’t hurt as bad, and I’ve known him for 10 years. I want in on that action.’ It got out of hand real quick.”
Without any marketing or advertising or having them on display, the Harpers’ shoe store sold 1,000 modified shoes the first year.
‘Just some dude selling shoes’
Now, of course, Altras are emerging as a force in the running shoe industry. Harper insists on using research, not marketing, to help today’s runners, especially those who are dealing with injuries.
“The market certainly wasn’t asking for what we did,” he says. “Barefoot running wasn’t big yet. When our shoes first hit the market, barefoot running was just starting. People would ask what we were doing, and why our shoes had cushioning.”
Altra shoes have changed slightly since the early days, but the passion for helping runners is still there. “We’ve been really true to who we are,” Harper says, noting that they still make their original Instinct and Lone Peak versions with just a little more cushioning. “Regardless of which Altra shoe you put on, your foot is going to be in that natural, happy state. And you are going to be able to move bio-mechanically correctly. And that is a beautiful thing.”
Sizing is definitely affected when trying Altra shoes, Harper says. “The sizing is a completely different paradigm here. We tell people, ‘If it doesn’t feel too big in the toes, it’s too small!’ ”
People should have a thumbnail’s width between the end of their toes and the edge of the sneaker. “It’s definitely a unique fitting experience,” Harper says, noting that Altra offers a 30-day guarantee on their shoes, regardless of where they are purchased. For example, some customers order two sizes and send one pair back that does not fit, even after being run on.
Harper also recommends running on uneven surfaces. “Many running researchers believe that the majority of running injuries are due to muscle imbalances coming from running on flat consistent surfaces. This is likely why tracks and treadmills have higher injury rates than any other surface.”
He recommends running off-road once out of every three runs to avoid injury. “Trail runners generally log many more miles than road runners and are far less injured,” he says. “In college, we found that if people could do 33 percent of their running on uneven ground such as cobblestones, trails, grass, sand, etc. that they were significantly less injured.“
Even after all of his success, Harper still goes to expos, aims to help runners and is “just some dude selling shoes to them.”
For Harper, “Success to me looks like I go out to a race and I see people running with good running technique. I see compact arms, I see low impact landing, I see high cadence. I see good posture. This is about more than shoes. This is getting people to run better, run healthier.
“Success to me is that we have changed the world in a way that American runners no longer look terrible in comparison. Success to me is that the injury rate goes down. To me, that is success, it is not a sales figure.”
Name: Golden Harper Hometown: Orem, Utah Number of years running: 31 How many miles a week do you typically run: Currently 30 or less with all the travel I do. But they are QUALITY miles! Favorite race distance: Moab Alpine to Slickrock 50 or the Wahsatch Steeplechase Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Oatmeal, banana and white grape juice a few hours before. I like to sip on Roctane drink pre-race. Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don’t typically listen to music while running, but the few times I have, Bullet the Blue Sky or Where the Streets Have No Name by U2 have been awesome! “I wanna run …” Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Our task it to become our best selves. One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the joy of trying again, for no failure ever need be final.” –Thomas S. Monson Where can other runners connect or follow you: www.GoldenHarper.com, www.twitter.com/rungolden1, www.facebook.com/rungolden1 What’s next for Altra? “Finding as many ways as possible to help people run better and avoid injury. Keep an eye out for our ‘IQ’ shoe next year that will take our mantra of a ‘coach in a shoebox’ to a whole new level on your smartphone.” What’s next for Golden Harper? “Finding awesome mountains to run to the top of and new ways to help runners improve their form and stay healthy.”