Will Hoka spark the next fitness shoe craze?

The Hoka One One Bondi B (upper, left) looks like the Humvee of running shoes compared to two popular minimalist shoes, the New Balance Minimus (middle) and the Vibram Five Fingers. David Quick/postandcourier.com

When I first heard about the Hoka One One shoe and looked it up online, my first thought was that it looked like a shoe for leg-length discrepancies.

Except it wasn't just one shoe. It was a pair of stacked shoes for the purposes of running, hiking and "athletic walking."

Hoka, the name of which is derived from the ancient Maori language and roughly translates to "now it is time to fly," seems poised not only to create another specialty niche in athletic shoes but even more confusion among consumers.

Buyers of athletic shoes have been on quite a ride lately, including the tidal wave of "minimalist" shoe models started by the Nike Free and Vibram's Five Fingers less than a decade ago, the rise of Newtons (shoes purported to encourage midfoot striking), and the three multimillion-dollar settlements in the past year over false advertising claims of "toning shoes."

The latter have been particularly interesting to follow in the past year. In September 2011, Reebok agreed to pay $25 million in a settlement for claims made over it Easy Tones shoes. In May, Sketchers got nailed for $40 million for Shape-Ups. In August, a Massachusetts judge ordered New Balance to pay $2.3 million for its TrueBalance and Rock&Tone lines.

Now along comes the French-made Hoka, which bears a slight resemblance to a toning shoe but doesn't make any claims to burn more calories and trim and tone your legs and butt. Who can blame them?

According to its website, Hoka is "the brainchild of two gravity sports enthusiasts," Jean-Luc Diard and Nicolas Mermoud, who agreed that fatigue and muscle strain were challenges for all runners and created the super-cushioned shoes.

The emergence of Hoka, starting with ultra marathon runners primarily in the Midwest and West, appears to be a classic "swinging of the pendulum" from the minimalist to a "maximumalist" (yeah, I just invented a word) shoe, but it's not quite that either because they are lightweight.

The Hoka Bondi B weighs 9.8 ounces, which puts in it within the range of a conventional lightweight performance trainer. That's not bad for what appears to be the Humvee of running shoes.

Typical of trends, the arrival of the Hoka to South Carolina is behind the rest of the nation, but The Foot Store in Mount Pleasant has been on pace with the West Coast and Midwest.

Store owner Carolyn Varndell says she first heard about Hokas from a store, Playmakers, in her home state of Michigan and started carrying the shoes two years ago. Currently, The Foot Store is carrying Bondi B and Mafate models, but can't get the Stinson Evo.

"We're into shoes that aren't conventional," says Varndell, describing Hokas as "anti-gravity" shoes. "When you put them on, you kind of bounce around in them. They are lighter than most shoes, but are stacked from the forefoot to the heel, which is fairly level. It doesn't have a lot of degree change from heel to toe."

Increasingly, that heel- to-toe profile is known as "the drop," and many minimalist shoes are at or close to a "zero drop." Confusing, right?

I tried on a pair of Hokas for myself at The Foot Store, though I'm not tempted to buy because of the price, $170-$190, and because, just like Five Fingers, Hokas just look ridiculous.

That said, wearing the Hokas for five minutes in the store felt like I was standing, walking and jogging on a cloud - light and super cushioned. The stacked footbed is filled with extra-lightweight EVA foam. Despite the stack, which I thought would lend itself to ankle twisting, the Hokas also felt very stable. I'd practically have to land on my ankle to twist it.

I first heard about the Hokas from an unlikely source: a cyclist who isn't supposed to run because of a old neck injury.

For the first time since hurting his neck, Dr. Joe Calandra, an orthopedist, has been doing a little jogging in his new pair of Hokas, which he ordered from the Colorado Running Company and received two weeks ago.

"A former patient and friend with severe osteoarthritis in one knee told me about them. He is a stud triathlete but had to stop running until he came across Hoka about two years ago," says Calandra. "Now he has done two Ironman distance triathlons since (getting Hokas)."

Varndell says she envisions local athletes buying a pair of Hokas for use on "recovery days," or for running or walking on days following a particularly hard workout.

Another local Hoka wearer, ultra runner Mark Nowling, also works at the store doing its social media posting and describes himself as a "shoe geek."

He's run two 50-mile races in the Hoka Bondi B model, and said he didn't feel as beaten up afterward. Still, he's not ready to give up some minimalist favs, the Inov 8s and Altras, as well as Newton shoes, in what he calls a "Swiss Army knife" approach to wearing running shoes.