It won’t be news to anyone who follows the sport, but professional distance running has recently been beset by a peculiar dilemma involving performance-enhancing footwear.
Quick primer for those who have lived in blissful ignorance: In 2016, unbeknownst to the wider public, the top three finishers in the men’s marathon at the Rio Olympics were all wearing a prototype Nike shoe that allegedly offered unprecedented benefits in running economy thanks to its unique fusion of Pebax foam with a curved, carbon fiber plate. That prototype, of course, was an early iteration of the Nike Vaporfly 4%—a shoe which has since become so ubiquitous on both the professional and amateur road racing scenes that it feels like we’re in the midst of some kind of contagion. The madness shows no signs of letting up, especially since both the men’s and women’s marathon world records have recently been smashed by runners wearing the shoe. Amateurs, meanwhile, have been lopping minutes off their PBs.
“I actually think we’re going to have asterisks on all the results that are like AV and BV—Before Vaporfly,” former New York Road Runners President Mary Wittenberg said in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. “It’s insane. Without making any judgment about it, it’s just a fact.”
Needless to say, this development has prompted questions of competitive fairness and performance integrity. E.g.: Is it really tenable that some runners should be allowed to compete in a shoe that confers a proven four or five percent improvement in running economy, when other athletes, for reasons of contractual obligation, don’t have access to similar technology? Is Eliud Kipchoge’s Vaporfly-abetted marathon world record of 2:01:39 really more impressive than Dennis Kimetto’s previous mark of 2:02:57, given that the latter (Adidas-sponsored) athlete didn’t benefit from this recent design breakthrough?
Although other shoe companies have been slow to respond to Nike’s Pebax-coated gambit, they seem to be catching up with prototypes of their own. This, in turn, has led to concerns about a prospective arms race in which brands will try to outflank each other with ever-more lavishly designed supershoes, until road racing, that wonderfully simple and pure sport (if you ignore all the doping), starts to go the way of Formula One: the best technology wins.
To keep things from spiraling completely out of control, there has been speculation that perhaps the International Association of Athletics Federations will introduce new regulations on what runners are allowed to have on their feet; one seemingly sensible (and feasibly enforceable) suggestion has been to cap the stack height on racing flats. But not everybody is confident that the IAAF is interested in doing anything at all.
So what do the runners themselves think? At the press conference prior to Sunday’s New York City Marathon, we asked some of the finest marathon runners in the world for their thoughts on the ongoing shoe debate.
Mary Keitany (sponsored by Adidas)
“The shoes don’t run. It is the person who is running. So I don’t mind about the shoes. Many people are asking about what kind of shoes Nike are using. I don’t know. I don’t have a clue about it. I know my shoes are Adidas and I am comfortable with it.”
Jared Ward (Saucony)
“I’m excited for a point when the shoe thing stabilizes and we get back to talking a little bit more about the athletes and the performances. The shoes have been a big part . . . but I think it will level out. At some point there’s diminishing returns because as you get taller and taller shoes, you have to build wider and wider shoes and then they start getting heavy. So, it will be interesting to see what these shoes converge at, or if the IAAF decides to do some regulating.”
Des Linden (Brooks)
“It’s a little frustrating to see people in the past who are just getting bumped off lists but they didn’t have access to that [shoe technology] . . . We just have to educate people and make sure they understand that something different is happening right now. . . I think the shoe [prototype] is fantastic that Brooks put together. I hate the concept [of a shoe arms race], but I love the shoe. I could go either way. If they banned it [i.e. various iterations of supershoes] tomorrow, I’d be, like, ‘Great! That’s fine, too.’ . . . It’s an arms race and it should be a footrace. We should find out who the best athlete is, who can cover 26.2 miles better than the other person, not who has the newest, greatest technology . . . I think there’s going to be a certain breaking point where it just gets to be a little bit too much. We’ll see. I’m not in charge of it, so we’ll see what happens.”
Geoffrey Kamworor (Nike)
“I think the Vaporfly shoe is not only for the elite athletes, but it’s also for the amateur runners. Everyone can run in it. It’s for everyone.”
Allie Kieffer (Asics)
“You know, I don’t care, to be honest. I’ve been running and will race on Sunday in a prototype Asics. I assume that is legal even though it’s not out for everybody. I love the shoe. I think that the fastest American woman this year has been Sara Hall, who also is wearing the Asics prototype, so I feel like I’m in good company there. It’s not really in my control and I don’t feel like I care about that fight that much.”
Sara Hall (Asics)
“I think, honestly, it’s a bummer. It’s a bit of a distraction to our sport right now. It’s hard to really just celebrate performances at face value right now. So I think it would help to have some limits, just like other sports have, like swimming, or triathlon, or cycling. They all have limits of the gear. So I think that would help create more of an even playing field. I don’t really get too distracted by it. I like my flats. They are comfortable for me. I ran Berlin without any kind of mechanical advantage, so I think I should be okay.”
Kellyn Taylor (Hoka One One)
“I think it’s really a tricky subject. I think that’s been the dilemma: Where do you draw the line in terms of technology? It’s always advancing, but is there a line that can’t be crossed, where it’s too much when it’s just about the shoe and not the athlete? I think I’m kind of where everybody is. Is it too far? I don’t know. I’ve never worn them. I have no idea what they feel like, but I think that it’s close.”
Lelisa Desisa (Nike)
“I don’t think about that.”