Let’s just consider running shoes for a second, shall we?  I mean, the name itself, not just their brands or models. “Running shoes”, as opposed to shoes that we wear while running. But doesn’t it seem like we are getting closer to the reality of that literal description with each passing marketing season?

The way modern running shoes are being designed it won’t be too long before some built-in flinging device will be inserted to take the nasty little requirement of generating our own power out of the equation.

Soon we will begin to hear about the first sub-1 hour marathon before Eliud Kipchoge has a chance to fully recover from his first sub-2. And everyone will applaud but like the proliferation of home runs in Major League Baseball this year, the performances in one era will be impossible to compare against another and something fundamental will be lost.

You may remember we saw something along this line at the 2006 Boston Marathon when Spira Shoes offered a $1 million bonus to two sub-2:20 Kenyan runners if they won the race wearing Spira’s spring-embedded shoes. The two took the lead and hauled ass for the first ten miles, then were run down never to be seen again.  Spira itself ceased to exist in 2016.

Think about it, spring-loaded running shoes.  It’s right in line with the whole “convenience” trend that has marked the country’s progress since the Industrial Revolution.  

By the middle of the 20th century, modern technology was making the kind of work that defined the human experience for thousands of years obsolete. Everything in the 1950s was about ‘time-saving’ from pop-up toasters to frozen TV dinners. And as with all such advances, things were good to a point.

At the end of the 20th century, pollsters asked what were the most important inventions of the last century. The obvious answers were cars, airplanes, televisions, and computers. But one invention easily overlooked was the automatic washing machine. So meaningful was it in terms of women’s liberation that Swedish statistician Hans Rosling suggested that it was “the greatest invention of the Industrial Age.

“Convenience” in all forms became the holy grail of post-World War II America until 70-some years later an entire workforce has been displaced by technological conveniences, even as political tricksters have found their own convenient boogeymen to blame.

And it’s not just that. Old world educational necessities like showing your work product in solving math problems have been replaced by another of the 20th century’s most important inventions, the computer. 

But while simplifying our tasks, machines have robbed us of our own ability to compute for ourselves. Like how GPS has stripped us of our bird’s-eye sense of our placement on the planet.  For everything gained, therefore, something is lost.

And since those utilitarian educational processes are no longer taught, they are no longer learned. And when you stretch that pie-shaped wedge out far enough, you find that teachers can no longer read the scribblings of their students because cursive writing has gone out of fashion. Thus have profs at elite Ivy League schools suggested eliminating essay exams altogether.

Yet the state of Texas has recently reassessed that issue. According to the list of updates issued under the Texas Education Code, starting this year, students will be taught to write cursive letters in second grade, and by third grade, students will be expected to be able to “write complete words, thoughts, and answers legibly in cursive writing leaving appropriate spaces between words.”

The elimination of fundamental educational skills is a sensibility that mirrors the recent IAAF decision to cut the length of Diamond League athletics meetings by simply eliminating distance races altogether. Yes, and amputation will solve a hangnail problem, too.

As anyone who has ever taken up distance running realizes, it is the process that becomes the addiction, not the racing results. So, too, in education is the development of the skill set the object of the lesson rather than the final exam grade.

Rudimentary computational skills have a utility in and of themselves, just as self-powered locomotion on foot does. It is the process that teaches the larger lessons of life. So though it may be infinitely easier to just scrap the need and depend on a convenience, what’s lost is independence of mind.

Just like we may eventually go faster in actual “running shoes”, but we’d be missing the entire object of the exercise as we did.


10 thoughts on “PURPOSE IN THE PROCESS

  1. My sister and dad are very into bicycle racing. One of the things I’ve always hated about that sport is the huge advantage that comes with paying outrageous sums of money for better equipment. If you take two riders of comparable ability and place one on a $1000 bike and another on a $7000 bike the guy on the better bike will look like the far superior athlete.

    One thing I’ve always liked about running is it isn’t that expensive of a sport to get into and you can compare with relative accuracy your performance to those a generation before you. I always raced on the roads in Saucony Type A’s, they’re not expensive, and there was not really any significant difference between the shoes people wore 25 years ago to race in. I can compare my times to my high school coach and give him the business that I am 2 minutes faster in a marathon than him. While my college coach occasionally gives me the business that he ran 5 minutes faster in the marathon (in all fairness he won the OT). We all feel that despite the changes in the era we are competing on a relatively level playing field. If I were to put on 4% and race in them now there is no doubt in my mind that I would have an advantage over what they had in the 80’s and 90’s.

    To me, there is something damaging to the sport about that. I’m all for advances in technology especially when safety is increased. But in sports where times and records are so important the value of technology solely for the purpose of increasing performance feels wrong. Also the exclusiveness of these new shoes with certain guys getting prototypes years in advance or the cost increase of flats from $70, about what you can buy a Type A on sale for, to $250 for these new shoes. The idea to be on a level playing field at my next marathon I need to buy one specific brand of shoes is wrong and our sport needs to take a closer look at these new shoes and how they impact our past and present.

    1. Ryan,

      I agree, we don’t want to disassociate ourselves from the past in our desire to outperform it. Something fundamental is lost when we do, and for nothing meaningful in the long run.


    1. Matt,

      Thanks for responding. Oddly, perhaps, but I didn’t use modern editing tools for this blog post. Instead, I depended on my overbearing classical education that taught and drilled proper usage and spelling. How well I remember those weekly spelling bees in grade school and our sentence diagramming lessons in English class.

      The new technology is wonderful, but the old ways remain useful, as well.


  2. Hey, Toni, a good friend of mine was the second shoe designer for Spira and was responsible for packaging the patented spring technology in a shoe that looked and felt more conventional and attractive when compared to earlier models. Dan Norton sent me a few pair to test early on. My immediate impression was that “this doggone technology actually works!” But, it was not so much an improvement in performance/energy return… as it was that the built in heel spring would help the shoe prolong its energy return even when the cushioning material that wrapped around it would get a bit “old and tired.” The Spira running shoes just never went “dead” with age like most other brands do. I estimated that a runner could go well past 500 miles in those shoes, if they needed to. And, Dan’s designs made the whole shoe “look” and “feel” more palatable and conventional… just like Hoka has with their newest offerings. The net result was… and still is… better “protection” rather than better “performance.”

    1. Greg,

      I knew Dan Norton back when. We lived in the same neighborhood in Boston. Good guy. You describe the Spira technology well. Never got a toe hold in the market, though.


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