Wake Up and Smell the Carbon!

Stacked cushioning arrangement for shoe sole structure, from US patent application US20190365034A1.

 

“…Things move on, and innovation is normal. But when the innovation is so large and sudden, what happens is that it distorts the contribution made by the runner to performance. It leaves us unable to assess whether we are seeing a human advance, and a great human athletic feat, or one where the winner of the race might not even be the best runner in the race. So we celebrate Kipchoge, deservedly (I love watching him run, irrespective of any questions or doubts over anything), but in order to do so, we need to engage a degree of cognitive dissonance, because whatever he is doing is not comparable to what runners were doing even 4 years ago, at the time HE HIMSELF was running. We can’t even compare Kipchoge to Kipchoge. And if you’re an Olympic hopeful, running to qualify, for example, and you lose a race by 45 seconds and the technology stands to be worth 2:20, then I think this compromises the integrity of the sport and its fairness.” – Ross Tucker, “Evaluating Eliud

“Tokyo Kokusai University’s Vincent Yegon […] busted the greatest performance in Hakone history, a 59:25 course record for the 21.4 km Third Stage, 2:01 off the old record set just last year and equivalent to a 58:35 half marathon. Announcers’ minds went blank, wondering out loud if the clocks were malfunctioning.” – Brett Larner, “Coming Down from Hakone” (Japan Running News)

“It becomes a problem only when it becomes too obvious, but it’s not too obvious until it’s too late!” – Ross Tucker, “Ban the Nike Vaporfly and Other Carbon Fiber Devices


What has it been – almost three years, now? – of watching Nike’s new racing shoe technology devour the distance running world.

Back in 2017 Nike used the Breaking 2:00 project to introduce the Vaporfly 4%, a shoe that claimed to improve running economy by a scarcely believable 4%. But with all the other science and pseudo-science that Nike threw into the project, nobody at first could really tell how much difference the shoes made.

I, at least, dismissed the potential impact of the new running shoe technology on the sport I loved. I was obsessed, instead, by the pacing, the reduction of air resistance, the precision running of the absolute minimum distance. Was the carbon fiber plate in each shoe a legal innovation? Was there something truly unique about the geometry of the shoe or the cushioning? Surely, these were important questions, but I continued to ignore them for two simple reasons. First, you wouldn’t catch me shelling out $250 for these shoes; and second, I calculated that if carbon plates were so great and judged to be legal, it wouldn’t take long for every shoe company to follow Nike’s lead.

As the evidence mounted that new shoes, and not intrinsic performance improvements, might be contributing significantly to new records, I stubbornly avoided the implications. What did the latest shoe hype have to do with me? I just kept telling myself that although the latest Nike shoes might be a little better than what runners were wearing way back in 2016 (it seems such an innocent time now), shoes had been getting marginally better for decades, and there was no reason to fear a revolution.

In 2018, the shoes — of course I mean the humans wearing the shoes — won a lot of races. Kipchoge took care of unfinished business at the 2018 Berlin Marathon by running a record-legal 2:01:38 to smash the world best by over a minute. Maybe because Kipchoge was the consensus greatest marathoner of all time, it didn’t occur to me to grapple with how much of that improvement was due to the shoes and how much to the man. He was the best, so that amazing performance seemed no less than fitting. I continued to pretend that nothing had changed.

It took much more willful avoidance in the latter half of 2019 to not see the carbon crisis.

Having told myself I wouldn’t bother with the controversy, I tried to minimize the accumulated sense of numbness and disbelief I felt as performance after performance left me wondering whether the clocks were malfunctioning: Kipchoge’s 1:59-something at the INEOS Challenge, Bekele’s 2:01:41 at Berlin; Kosgei’s 2:14:04 at Chicago… what did it all mean?

Then in the first few days of the new year, I reached a personal tipping point. Maybe it was seeing all those stage records set at the Hakone Ekiden (where 84% of the field word Vaporfly Next% shoes); or maybe it was hearing Tyler talk about the dilemma faced by Hoka-sponsored athletes (and others) who would head to the trials competing against Nike athletes with their possibly performance-enhancing footwear; or maybe it was the article on Bloomberg.com about how shares of ASICS were taking a huge beating as ASICS-sponsored athletes jumped aboard the Vaporfly train.

I had managed to ignore the issue for a long time, but suddenly it felt like a disaster.

Tyler encouraged me to imagine myself in Scott Fauble’s situation. Fauble is a runner with the Hoka NAZ Elite training group, owns a 2:09:09 marathon from Boston 2019, and is surely one of the favorites for a spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon team. Fauble can only worry about his own training; he can’t know or control how his competitors are training, or how fast they will run in Atlanta. But he also must see the results from fall races, read the stories and the studies, acknowledge the mounting evidence that the new Nike racing shoes are worth a couple of minutes improvement to an elite marathoner. While Hoka has introduced a shoe to compete with Nike’s Vaporfly NEXT%, is he confident that the race will be run on (to torture the metaphor) a level playing field? What if the Nike shoes give his rivals a minute advantage, or two minutes? Is he confident that he is two minutes better than the athletes who will toe the line in Atlanta wearing the Vaporflys?

And what is there to do about any of this? It’s understandable that the best runners would want to compete in the fastest shoes. And it’s also understandable that spectators would want to see fast times, but they also want to watch the race with some confidence that the top three will be determined by running ability, not by technical advantages in footwear.


Having been so late to this issue, I find myself wanting to sound the alarm, but of course, others have been sounding the alarm for a couple of years. It’s all old news now. All I can do is quote other bloggers, re-post graphics showing the domination of Nike shoes at the World Marathon Majors, rely on technical and statistical analyses done by people with actual science chops, and whine about it. What difference will it make?

But I wonder if I’m the only one who has only recently reached that tipping point, has seen enough to lose faith in that metaphorical (and maybe illusory) level playing field? With the OT Marathon approaching, will the running world be thrilled at the results of the selection process, or will there be asterisks and question marks and grumbling and a further blow to the sport itself?

I have to admit, the most likely outcome is that Nike wins. They’ll keep their advantage for a while, capture more market share, and continue to do what they please. In a few years, perhaps, the other shoe companies will catch up. Innovation will continue. In a market economy, new technology will continue to create winners and losers.

Maybe in five years every one of us will be running our local 5Ks and setting gaudy new PRs with carbon plates and novel high-tech cushioning in our shoes.

Maybe in twenty-five years, athletes and fans will look back at the pre-carbon days and wonder how we ever managed to run in the primitive shoe technology of the early 21st century. Breaking two hours for the marathon will be routine. No one will be any better but everyone will be faster.

As for me, by then I’ll be muttering to myself in some corner of the nursing home about the athletes I knew in my (relative youth), and when they show the Boston Marathon on TV, I’ll be the guy shaking and cursing at my digital watch because, damn it, it’s malfunctioning again.

 

 

 

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
This entry was posted in Marathon, Records & Statistics, Shoes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Wake Up and Smell the Carbon!

  1. Dan Sullivan says:

    Frank Shorter compares it to the special suits swimmers used to wear. I seem to remember cycling, at some point, add a technology rule to the timed records. One hour ride etc. After times nose dived because of technology they went back in history, picked Eddie Mercx’s 1972 record (it stood for 12 years) & limited it to technology available at that time. Races against time are a little different than those than are man against man, woman against woman. Like the two hour marathon they are often staged time trials. But these two sports at least tried.

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