From the Toaster to the Track: How Altra Footwear Was Born

A man holding an Altra running shoe

Golden Harper and the Zero-Drop Revolution

Golden Harper, the founder of Altra Footwear, never intended to create a line of running shoes. He grew up working in his family’s running store and thought he would always work there. In fact, when he went off to college, he did so with the intention of learning more about running form and biomechanics so that he could better help the customers he saw every day. What he learned, though, changed everything. He came back and developed a whole new type of running footwear based on natural foot shape and running stride. To Harper, building shoes is all about finding innovative solutions for people so that they can run stronger and reach their goals.

With the launch of the brand-new Altra Duo, we caught up with Harper to chat about making shoes, Altra, and the future:

A young boy crosses the finish line of a race
A man wearing Altra running shoes and apparel running in the mountains
A man holding an Altra running shoe

You grew up surrounded by running. Your parents were runners, your family owned a running store, and you ran your first marathon in 2:45 at the age of 12! What was it like?

My next-door neighbors ran, and many of our family friends ran. I just thought everyone ran; to me, it was normal. I wanted to run a marathon. No one pushed me to do it. In fact, I think my parents were trying to hold me back because they put me in team sports and never encouraged me to run long distances. But for whatever reason, that’s what I was good at, and that’s what I wanted to do. Finally, they let me.

You’ve been running since you were 12 and said you have rarely had an injury despite running high mileage. How is that possible?

My dad was drafted by the Angels when he was in his 30s but then blew out his knee. He was told that he would never be able to walk normally or run again. Then a friend challenged him to run the Las Vegas Marathon. He’s competitive, so he said yes. But he couldn’t run. After studying Kenyan runners, he changed his running form, and his knee pain went away. And so, I grew up in an environment where the technique you run with is important to avoid injury. I was able to run up to 80 miles per week as a 12-year-old without getting injured.

Creating a shoe company was not your plan. What happened?

No, I never really set out to make shoes, but I wanted to help people. And as I studied running injuries, I realized that running form and injuries are connected. At the shop, we started filming customers with a high-speed camera on a treadmill. We noticed that if we filmed someone running barefoot, or in racing flats, they ran a certain way. Then, if we filmed them in some of our best-selling shoes, their form changed—they often overstrided and ran with a slower cadence. It’s not practical to run barefoot, so I thought, what if we make weight-balanced shoes that have the same amount of cushioning from front to back? Would shoes like that help people to run better?

So, after modifying the initial shoes in my toaster oven, I started working with a local shoe cobbler to alter already-existing shoes. We sold over 1000 pairs of those modified running shoes all by word of mouth. I then pitched my idea to different shoe companies, and no one was interested. So, we decided to make our own.

Since the beginning, Altra has grown exponentially every year. What’s the journey been like so far?

We’ve managed a growth rate of nearly 50 percent every year. And now, I feel like we’re headed toward being more of a household name and less of a niche brand. The beginning wasn’t easy, though. We were on the verge of extinction about 50 times in our first year. I mean, we went to hell and back. Since then, it’s been a ton of work, and it hasn’t been easy, but it has been consistent.

Which shoe do you think is the most revolutionary?

The Paradigm has been just an incredible shoe for us. It’s the most versatile in our line. It’s light, cushy, and super stable. But it’s 10 ounces. So, we decided to make a more of a supportive, maximum cushioned shoe like the Paradigm, but even lighter and faster. So, we came up with the Duo. It has 31 mm of lightweight cushioning and weighs less than 8 ounces (men’s size 9).

It’s built on a whole new last because we wanted something with a unique fit. It features a streamlined, race-like fit in the back half combined with the roomy toe box we’re known for. I think it looks way sleeker than any of our previous training shoes and yet, statistically speaking, it has more toe room than any other shoe we’ve ever made.

Side note: We also have an exciting new shoe called the Solstice that’s coming out next month (stay tuned for our review).

Where does Altra go from here?

We’re not just about selling shoes. Going forward, I just really hope that we continue to change people’s lives for the better, that we keep our focus on innovative solutions that help people remain injury free. We make products that truly help people. … And I think that’s why we have such a passionate and loyal fan base. It’s no small task, but I’m committed to making that happen.