When former Flower Mound Marcus and UT standout Craig Lutz first saw the Hoka One One, the official footwear partner of Sunday’s BMW Dallas Marathon, he thought the shoes were crazy-looking.
The shoes feature a wide body with an oversized midsole cushion. They are designed to be extremely light with extra cushioning so runners feel like they are flying. The shoe’s name, pronounced HO-ka O-nay O-nay, means “flying over the earth” in Maori, an Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the indigenous population of New Zealand.
“You slip them on, and all you think is: ‘Wow. My feet feel like they’re on pillow tops,'” said Lutz, a member of Hoka One One’s Northern Arizona professional running club. “It’s a comfortable ride.”
The company, the world’s fastest-growing premium running shoe brand, has come a long way since launching its first “maximalist” shoe in 2009. The brand now makes models for road running, track and triathlon. It’s included in conversations about the world’s top running shoe brands, according to Mark Sullivan, president of Formula4Media, LLC, which produces The Running Event, the industry’s trade show and conference.
“Hoka is a hot footwear brand right now,” added Don Lucas, founder of Luke’s Locker. “For a period of time, when they first started selling their shoes, people looked at them as a gimmick. They were so different-looking. Now, we get a ton of calls for Hoka shoes.”
Hoka’s French co-founders, Nicolas Mermoud and Jean-Luc Diard, set out to create a better trail running shoe to minimize the pounding for hard-core ultra runners who tackle thousands of feet of climbs and downhills in mountain trail races in the Alps and Pyrenees.
“The genesis was to make a shoe for these athletes that would help give them the best possible chance to be successful,” said Mike McManus, Hoka’s global sports marketing manager. “They started tinkering away to do something that a traditional running shoe wasn’t able to do.”
Sullivan recalls Hoka’s inauspicious debut at The Running Event 2009 in Austin. Representatives couldn’t afford to buy a booth but showed up to hawk the shoes from the hotel lobby. The shoes created such a buzz that Hoka ended up on the trade show floor.
“For any brand to crack through, you have to be dramatically different,” Sullivan said. “When these crazy guys showed up from Europe with these wild-looking shoes, people were skeptical … Slowly these guys won over a couple stores that took on Hoka products. They became evangelists. That’s how it started to take off.”
In April 2013, Hoka was bought by Deckers Outdoor, the parent company of UGG, Teva and other footwear brands. The financial support enabled Hoka’s founders to develop innovative track, road and triathlon shoes, too, McManus said.
The company’s marketing efforts also expanded. They’ve signed elite pro athletes and sponsored major races. Two-time Olympian Leo Manzano set personal bests and says he’s been injury free since becoming a sponsored athlete in 2014. In March, Hoka became the official running shoe sponsor of the Ironman U.S. Series. The company now also sponsors several track meets and a few road races.
“A lot of people aren’t familiar with their brand, and it’s a completely different-looking shoe,” said Ashleigh Szczachor, the marathon’s director of business development. “Their whole challenge is to get people in [their shoes].”
That’s why McManus sought to be part of the Dallas Marathon. McManus, a lifelong competitive runner, joined Hoka in June after working with Adidas in a similar capacity. He had spent time in Dallas and was familiar with Luke’s Locker and many iterations of the Dallas Marathon. He had watched Dallas establish new partnerships, showcase elite talent and garner national attention. In May, race officials signed a four-year title sponsorship deal with BMW.
“Dallas is one of the best and important running cities in the United States,” McManus said. “A main objective of Hoka One One continues to be brand awareness.”
Since Hoka’s partnership with Dallas was announced in September, hundreds of North Texas runners have test-run Hoka models at four BMW Social Runs.
The company also donated shoes to the marathon’s community fitness programs, including to dozens of fourth- and fifth-graders at Ben Milam Elementary School. The students will wear them at Saturday’s Mayor’s Race 5K.
In addition, five Hoka pro runners, including Manzano, will participate in the event’s Pro Relay Challenge, which pits North Texas’ five professional sports franchises (the Cowboys, Mavericks, Stars, Rangers and FC Dallas) in a friendly rivalry to raise money for charity.
The other pros, all of whom participated in the 2016 Olympic trials, are Colby Alexander, Kyle Merber, Stephanie Schappert and Nicol Traynor. Manzano said he appreciates the company’s passion for the sport and its commitment to its athletes.
When he signed with Hoka, the company didn’t have a track spike. He said the company delivered an innovative spike design within six months.
“Whether it is track spikes for Leo Manzano or something for that runner trying to finish Dallas for the very first time, Nico and Jean Luk are tinkering every single day to figure out new solutions,” McManus said. “It’s an innovation philosophy for problem-solving rather than just trying to make big shoes that are lightweight and fast.”