We’d like to introduce you to Golden Harper, the founder of Altra Footwear—foot-shaped athletic shoes that encourage foot and toe health. We recently interviewed Golden about his company, his journey as a entrepreneur, and his experience with Correct Toes. Here is our discussion:
Q1. It’s no secret. We’re big fans of Altra footwear, and we feel very fortunate to work with you. For our readers, please tell us a bit about yourself and Altra.
A1. I grew up running and ran my first marathon at age 10, and was lucky enough to set a World Best for the marathon for 12 years old—2 hours and 45 minutes. I also broke the national record for the 5k in cross country in high school and had a successful collegiate running career. After college, I got hooked on fastpacking, peak bagging, and running ultra distances. I grew up working in my family running store, Runner’s Corner, and majored in exercise science where I did all my research papers on running technique and running injuries.
Altra makes shoes that are built to put the foot and body in their natural position. The company was started with the sole purpose of helping runners to fix their running injuries and run with better form. There might have been a little personal motivation too…we wanted to go out and run ultra distances without our feet and our joints killing us afterwards!
Q2. Prior to the inception of Altra, we implored several shoe companies, both small and large, to design a shoe that’s completely flat, widest at the ends of the toes, lightweight, and flexible — in other words, a shoe that respects natural foot anatomy. We wanted such a shoe to be available for the sake of our patients (and ourselves!). While many individuals within these companies understood the merits of our request, their companies didn’t believe in the marketability of such a shoe. In light of these circumstances, we’re curious about what inspired you to start a footwear company, especially one as unique and unconventional as Altra?
A2. Altra was started because I was managing Runner’s Corner and found that the shoes we were selling to everyone made them run far differently—worse—than when they ran in spikes, flats, or barefoot. I figured out the only real difference was that the traditional running shoes had an elevated heel that also made the back of the shoe heavier. At first, I was heating shoes up in my toaster oven and then peeling off the midsole and outsole and putting in a flat piece of foam and then gluing the outsole back on. Our high-speed video analysis confirmed that people ran so much better—like they did without shoes on.
Eventually, we started working with a local shoe maker to modify existing popular running shoes. We pretty much sold them to customers that we couldn’t fix any other way as kind of a last ditch effort to fix their problems. It worked way more effectively than we could have ever imagined and we sold around 1,000 pairs that first year, much of them off of word-of-mouth from people who had been healed by them. My cousin, Jeremy, is one of those who had been healed by the natural shoes and better form, and he made the connections that ended up hooking us up with some of the best biomechanists and shoe engineers and developers in the world. Icon Health & Fitness eventually came on board and gave us the backing and resources to take our Healthy Running philosophy to the world.
Q3. What feedback have you received from your customers about wearing Altra shoes and Correct Toes, and about the general natural foot health approach?
A3. That it works! For years at Runner’s Corner, we had been making people size up and wide-lace their shoes to try and get some of the benefits, but things like Correct Toes and shoes like Altra took that to a whole new level of effectiveness. About the only time I don’t see the natural foot health approach work is when people aren’t willing to put in the work. Aside from that, it’s almost like magic. People’s problems start to melt away when they can get their feet in to a natural position and retrain their body how to work as it was originally intended to work.
Q4. Nowadays, there are many running footwear models that label themselves as ‘foot-healthy’, ‘foot-strengthening’, and ‘joint-healthy’. And yet their shoes have heel elevation and excessive cushioning, and the toe box is still narrow and tapered, which as we well know, does not allow for natural toe splay. Why do you suppose these footwear companies are so resistant to a zero-drop platform and anatomically-shaped toe box?
A4. Shareholders? Different is scary? The designers at one major shoe company told me they were making “more marketable versions” of our shoes, and the guys at another said that in five years they would be where we are now, but they needed time to transition their customer base. Aside from that, they’ve all spent 30 years marketing the benefits of heel cushioning, etc.
A5. One of my favorites is my buddy, Brian, went on a month-long road trip selling Altras around the country and wore Correct Toes while driving the whole time…when he came home his foot looked way better! It was a huge testament to me, and I was already a believer! Aside from that, I’ve known tons of people who have used the Altra and Correct Toes combination to fix bunions, neuromas, plantar fasciosis, and more.
Q6. Will you offer us a sneak-peak of what’s coming from Altra?
A6. Our goal has always been to be approachable without compromising natural foot positioning. Our shoes will always be Zero Drop and Foot-Shaped. Currently, we’re working on how to get our message out to a younger population, so creating products for them is one thing we’re working on. Another is we’re trying to figure out how to make a super-minimal foot-strengthening shoe and market it in a way that it can be used a couple times a week for every runner, whether they like minimalism or not.
However, we also want to be approachable and make shoes for people that would never be interested in a “minimal” shoe. This is why we make what I call “gateway drugs”—shoes that have cushioning and support that are for those that don’t understand or want anything to do with minimal shoes. With these shoes, we will be capturing a customer base that never would have tried the natural foot health philosophy. We get them to wear one of our more cushioned, supportive shoes and then help them to understand that they likely don’t need that stuff. I’ve always had the philosophy that someone is much better off in a highly cushioned shoe that is Zero Drop and with a foot-shaped toe box than they are with a really cushioned shoe that has an elevated heel and a tapered toe box. At least they’ll get the benefits of natural toe splay, foot positioning, and better running form than they would get otherwise.
Q7. Please feel free to share anything else you’d like our readers to know about.
A7. I’d just like to share that Dr. Ray and the Correct Toes team are the real deal, and this stuff really works. Most everyone reading this already knows that, but it’s up to them to get this information out there. So if you’re reading this, share it with people you care about so they can benefit too! Also, please don’t feel like Altra is abandoning you just because we are making shoes that have cushioning—we are all believers in the body and its natural ability. We just want to share that with as many people as possible, and not discriminate against those that happen to like cushion or want to run 100 miles on rocky terrain without their feet hurting.
Thank you, Golden, for sharing your experience, and for your invaluable role in helping people to enjoy their favorite athletic activities — with strength and health, and without pain!