The day Shoe Tech blotted out the sun

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“It’s way too hot to run a marathon!” we moaned. A group of us – Oiselle’s friends, co-workers, teammates – took the one-mile walk from our hotel to the 2016 Los Angeles Olympic Marathon Trials course. We were happy and celebratory, but we were nervous too. Although it was February, the weather was hellish.

Twenty-four athletes from L’Oiselle, including a favorite for the Olympic team, Kara Goucher, were running that day. It was so hot that race organizers rushed the night before to buy sponges, towels and other cooling aids for the runners. At first, Kara appeared calm, wearing an ice vest, talking quietly with her coaches. Supplies were on the road, but not enough. Set the oven to 80 degrees and bake for twenty-six point two thousand …as fans we knew we had to show up in style that day, the riders would need us.

A delayed start time for television coverage only amplified the heat. As the sun rose, the asphalt shimmered, stretching long and straight in either direction, without a hint of greenery. We were in the shadow of the buildings. Right from the start, my friend Sarah Lesko burst into tears. It seems reasonable. We kissed and walked.

Halfway through the race, as the miles ticked on, the heat-exhausted athletes began to stumble and bend. Onlookers became first responders, arms wrapped around slumped bodies. The assistants shouted… “Where is the nearest aid station!?” Down the road, I saw our athlete Andie Cozzarelli being loaded into an ambulance.

Despite everything going so visibly wrong, there was also an unseen factor shaping the race, undetected by fans, athletes and the media. It would later turn out that the leaders of the men’s and women’s races wore “secret shoes”. These were entirely new shoes that had proven to offer a performance advantage; footwear that had not been pre-approved by the IAAF, as required by the rules (the IAAF is now known as World Athletics).

Thanks to that grueling heat that day in Los Angeles, Kara would finish fourth, missing out on the Olympic team by one spot. Two of the three women who went to Rio wore the secret shoes. We won’t know the full story until much later. In 2017, the IAAF would quietly change its rules.

In the years that followed, the number of women running less than 2h45 would soarand the number of women qualifying for the Olympic marathon trials would rise from an average of 205 qualifiers to an impressive 511. As clear as the data can make it, shoe technology was reshaping the sport.

A lot was about to change after that hot day in Los Angeles. But it wasn’t the first time a global sport had faced the conflict between mechanical assistance and human effort.

The confrontation in a swimsuit

In 2008 and 2009, elite swimming came face to face with a NASA-tested Speedo swimsuit that was so fast, so streamlined, that thirteen world records were immediately broken. Introduced before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and endorsed by FINA (the international swimming federation), it was unveiled with great fanfare and worn by Michael Phelps and 98% of medal-winning swimmers that year.

A year later, FINA accepted the scale and scope of the assistance provided by the suits and, in 2009, banned them from competition. Records set in the suits were allowed, but future competitors could not enjoy the benefits of the LZR suit or others like it.

For some in athletics, the way FINA stepped in to set clear boundaries around the LZR suit is a nostalgic outcome. It’s as if World Athletics lost the opportunity to end inequality from the start. FINA’s decision was messy, reversing a year later, but in the end there was an undeniable clarity that carried the sport forward.

“It’s just innovation”

Some claim that shoes are tech, and that each iteration, from the leather loafers to the standard foam soles that are now readily available, is just a continuum. And that this latest round of bells, whistles, plates and foam is just technology doing what technology does: make us better. On the other hand, some see the jumps in performance driven by the shoe as so high, so dramatic, that performance cannot coexist with the past. They not only represent a corruption of sport today, but also its history.

What is clear is that shoe technology is here to stay. The time when something could have been done to establish simple equipment guidelines (as FINA has done; or as it exists in many sports, from field events to skiing to cycling, golf and more), has long passed – like flickering heat in the LA Wind.

So which one is it? Is modern shoe technology the inevitable march of technology that simply maximizes human performance? Or is it mechanical doping that destabilizes the rules of the game?

Before and after

Unlike FINA and the LZR lawsuits, World Athletics refused to act in 2016. And later when they did, they made their decision dizzying and complicated. Example A: Worldwide regulation of athletic shoes.

Depending on whether it is a field, a track, a cross-country, a road or a trail, the stacking heights allowed range from 0 to 40 mm. But ironically, the highest stack height of 40mm (the one that provides the most assist the longer you run) is what’s allowed on the roads.

Complexity breeds confusion. People get lost. And suddenly, a sport known for its beautiful simplicity (the first to cross the line wins!) is less understandable, less relatable.

What are we looking at? Which athletes have which shoe technology? Is the current athlete better than a former record holder, or is he better? Do we need annotations for Before Shoe Tech (BST) and After Shoe Tech (AST)? Do we need multiple columns in registers?

What if we learned that some people respond better to shoe technology than others? What if a heel striker gets more response? From now on do we only value heel strikers? And what about cost and accessibility? Can all athletes afford shoe technology? Is an athlete who can afford shoe technology better than one who cannot? (The typical running shoes with a technical cost of around $250 per pair).

What happens to athletes who run for different companies that don’t have shoe technology or have competing shoe technology? Should an athlete break with their sponsor to wear a non-sponsor’s shoe technology and not get paid? Do athletes have to choose between getting paid and going fast? Why would brands with shoe technologies pay athletes to simply run in them for free? What happens when NEW shoe technology is developed? There are rules that say they have to be approved, but those rules were there before and were ignored (like in Los Angeles). What are we looking at? What do we believe?

Sometimes these questions — about the validity of current performance that seem likely to be driven by shoe technology — can be uncomfortable. As fans of the sport, they go against our desire to encourage all new records and emerging stars. These new efforts should not be ignored. But should that prevent us from being lucid and curious? The questioning of technology in running is not a rejection of current participants, but rather an open question about what we are experiencing and fairness in sport.

But let’s forget the elites for a moment. Now that the shoe technology has been available to the general public for years, we also know that they are very popular with runners who run faster than ever.

As an athlete, I’ve worn shoe technologies (blinded with birds, mind you) and felt their springback, propelling me into spicy moments. I don’t deny that it’s nice to embrace these faster times. This pleasure is intoxicating and builds confidence. But then the research into the benefits nags at me.

Is shoe technology a warp field? It is complicated. Collectively, as fans of the sport, do we have the kind of mental jujitsu needed to keep the tension between celebrating every tech-focused shoe PR as worthy and real, while asking the tough questions about the role of tech? in our sport? Where do we draw the line? What level of benefit, energy return, or assist are we considering too much?

24 seconds

After a slew of breaking records, I popped the question online. What do we see? It was remarkable to see some of the comments and responses. First American marathon runners weighing down with questions and frustration as if to collectively state the obvious: records fall for a reason, and that reason is shoes. And a perspective that says: For the fan base and the media, not including this context is not only wrong, but disrespectful to athletes with previous records and brands.

The frustration is palpable. While chatting with a female marathon expert friend, she asked me, “Do you think Keira D’Amato could beat Deena Kastor, in Deena’s prime, without the shoes?”

American Records:
2006, Deena Kastor, 2:19:36
2022, Keira D’Amato, 2:19:12

24 seconds.

At what cost did shoes become part of sport? What is the impact on athletes and sponsors? The fans? The record book? It may take decades to find out. History continues to unfold and we are changing. I’m curious to see where we will be in 10 or 20 years.

But one thing is etched in my memory: the origin story of that day at the Trials in 2016; of how governing body rules were broken, later changed (quietly), and how that sparked forces of equipment inequity that the sport still grapples with today. We testified. We did what we could to make our voices heard. And like everyone else, we just watched it unfold.

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