Putting the foot down

Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon world record holder, crosses the finish line wearing Nike...
Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge, the marathon world record holder, crosses the finish line wearing Nike Vaporfly shoes to complete the distance in less than two hours in Vienna in October. Photo: Reuters
After years of trying to beat the three-hour barrier, new technology could make the difference. Or is that cheating? Jamie Doward ponders the ethics of the Nike Vaporfly. 

My name is Jamie and I’m a cheat. This is my confession.

As with most things today, the internet is largely to blame. Initially, I started exploring online forums, seeking others with my own niche interests. Much of the stuff was pretty hardcore. Some swore that regular doses of beetroot juice could boost my performance. Others suggested forgoing meat. Perhaps experimenting at altitude might help.

A consensus quickly emerged: if I wanted to run a sub-three-hour marathon, the best thing I could do was buy a pair of Nike Vaporfly shoes. The shoes had price tag of $350 and a running life of only about 320km, which meant they cost anywhere between two and three times the price of others — but almost everyone swore they were worth it. As one forum dweller said: "They really are magic".

For once, the hype matched reality. Using data taken from users of the running app Strava, the New York Times reported that, yes, it was just as Nike claimed: the shoes could shave about 4% off a marathon time for certain runners. For someone who runs marathons in about three hours and eight minutes, this sort of saving was the equivalent of blood-doping.

This is because the Vaporfly combines a carbon plate and compressed foam to give runners incredible returns on the energy they expend.

The greatest marathon runner of all time, Eliud Kipchoge, used a variant of the Vaporfly when he ran his sub-two-hour marathon last year. The next day, Brigid Kosgei ran 2:14.04 at the Chicago marathon in a pair of modified Vaporflys, and took 81 seconds off Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year-old world record.

These performances have had a seismic effect on the running shoe market. When they first went on sale, the Vaporfly 4% — the first iteration of the shoe — sold out so quickly that pairs were going for more than $2000 on the resale market.

Struggling to justify that price to myself, I bagged a pair of the 4%’s cheaper cousin, the Zoom Fly 2 Flyknit, which, at $280 (at the time) were still a good $100 more than I’d ever spent on a pair of running shoes.

Athletes wear Nike Vaporfly shoes during the Dubai Marathon last week. Photo: Reuters
Athletes wear Nike Vaporfly shoes during the Dubai Marathon last week. Photo: Reuters
Like the Vaporfly, they had a carbon plate, and the difference this made was immediately apparent. I ran the Pisa marathon in three hours 17 seconds, shaving more than seven minutes off my personal best.

To be clear: there were many factors at play on that day and I’m not suggesting the shoes benefit everyone. Many runners claim that the shoes reward more efficient, faster runners who have spent several years chasing personal bests. Reviews suggest they are not great for regular training at a slower pace. But it’s clear they gave me a significant boost.

Too significant, apparently.

The world athletics ruling body is preparing to tighten regulations governing shoe technology.

"World Athletics definitely agrees that there needs to be greater clarity on what is permissible in elite sport and in our competitions," it said in a statement.

One option, suggested by industry experts, is for limits to be set on the depth of foam and the amount of carbon in shoes used in elite competition.

Regulations state that any shoe "must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics and must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage".

The genie is out of the bottle. The focus is on Nike because it got there first, but the French shoe company Hoka One One now has two pairs with a carbon plate, while New Balance has its own version, the FuelCell 5280, aimed at mile runners.

Several elite runners sponsored by Adidas were recently photographed at the Houston half marathon sporting a prototype shoe that also appears to boast a carbon fibre plate. Other brands must surely be looking to follow Nike’s lead.

Regardless of what World Athletics decides, such shoes will, in some people’s minds, be associated with giving runners an unfair advantage.

Bryce Dyer, a sports technologist and specialist in product design at Bournemouth University, says they are "the equivalent of bringing a gun to a knife fight". Others draw comparisons with Speedo’s controversial LZR swimsuit, which helped competitors break a host of world records in the pool before being banned.

The backlash against the shoes began in running forums almost immediately after their launch. "Like putting springs on your feet," one person said. "Should be banned."

Now, as the debate moves from the online world to the real one, amateur runners face an ethical dilemma: should they race in shoes fitted with the new technology or switch to avoid being accused of engaging in what Yannis Pitsiladis, a professor of sport and exercise science at Brighton University, suggested was "technological doping"?

It’s clear that I need to ask myself some urgent questions. I’ve spent a decade chasing a sub-three-hour marathon. How much do I want it? Enough to let technology take some of the credit?

— Guardian News and Media


Add a Comment