SOLES DISCRETION

First of all, the athletes out-trained the distance years ago. In that sense, the mighty marathon has been brought to heel. No longer a spirit draining test of endurance, today the marathon has been reduced to just another speed event contested over a longish distance. It’s no longer, runner beware. It’s distance be damned!

We saw a reflection of that again this weekend when Ethiopia’s Yomif Kejelcha won the Valencia Half Marathon In 59:05. A generation ago you would never have seen an athlete who set an indoor world record in the mile in March (3:47.01) transfer so fluidly to a sub-60 half-marathon in October of the same year (see list below).

Attitudes about the challenges in distance running have simply changed along with many other factors that continue to make headlines in and out of courtrooms.

These days for the marathon to grow its fangs back requires severe weather. And even then – as we saw in Doha at the World Championships in September – the very top echelon of runners are merely slowed rather than halted.

This coming weekend in New York City, the marathon will once again be finished by 95+% of its 50,000 starters, while up front a handful of contenders will race the entire distance and seem ready for more if the necessity arose.

To all of that, we now add a better mouse trap, the Nike Vaporfly shoes. This past weekend in Frankfurt, we witnessed a final four of identically garbed and footed runners battling into the final kilometer before a champion was decided.

Final four in final sprint in Frankfurt.

1. Fikre Tefera ETH 2:07:08
2. Dawit Wolde ETH 2:07:10
3. Aweke Yimer BRN 2:07:12
4. Martin Kosgey KEN 2:07:20

As long as all wore the same gear, then what ensued was indeed a test to determine who amongst them was the better athlete. But for those employing any other footwear than Vaporflys, the route was not level. The ones wearing the better energy transfer mechanisms were in another class. A different metabolic cost per stride was in play.

During its 1994 season, NASCAR was involved in a tire war after years during which every team used the same manufacturer’s rubber.  The skirmish line in that war fell along the safety-speed continuum as one manufacturer’s tires allowed faster speeds, but proved less safe as they wore out more quickly at the higher speeds.

And since in auto racing the specter of death is always a lurking presence, the choice of which tires to run on at 180 mph carried a gravity well beyond the concerns of foot racers and their choice in shoes at 13 mph.

But beyond the issue of safety, people in the NASCAR community in 1994 were unified in their understanding that which was the better tire wasn’t the conversation they wanted their fans to be having. As one team manager stated it, “We don’t want tires to be our stars.”

In the ongoing discussion of the Nike Vaporfly revolution in running shoe design currently embroiling athletics, the running community might want to keep that 1994 NASCAR admonition in mind, “we don’t want shoes to be our stars.” Because the simple corollary will be, if they are, then it won’t be the men or women wearing them that glitter.

LIST

TOP 10 Indoor Milers and Their Longest Races in the same calendar year

Yomif Kejelcha (ETH) – 3:47.01, Boston 3/03/19  –    Longest race – 59:05 Half-Marathon, Valencia, ESP 10/27/19

Hicham El Guerrouj (MAR) – 3:48.45, Flanders 2/12/1997  – Longest – 1 mile

Edward Cheserek (KEN) – 3:49.44, Boston 2/09/18 – Longest – 21:16 4.748 mi., Manchester, Ct  11/22/18

Eamonn Coghlan (IRL) – 3:59.78, N.J. 2/27/83  – Longest – 5000m, Helsinki World Championships

Bernard Lagat (USA) – 3:49.89, Fayetteville 2/11/05  – Longest – 12:59.29 5000m, Berlin 9/04/05

Johnny Gregorek (USA) – 3:49.98, Boston 3/03/19  – Longest – 1 mile

Matthew Centrowitz (USA) – 3:50.63, NYC 2/20/16 – Longest – 7:40.71 3000m, Portland 2/05/16

Noureddine Morceli (ALG) – 3:50.70, Birmingham 2/20/93  – Longest – 14:93.85 5000m, Zurich 8/17/

Galen Rupp (USA) – 3:50.92, Boston 1/26/13.  Longest – 27:24 10,000m, Moscow 8/10/13

Marcus O’Sullivan (IRL) – 3:50.94, N.J. 2/13/1988. Longest – 13:39.63 5000m, 7/05/1988

 

END

15 thoughts on “SOLES DISCRETION

  1. #okboomer.

    When tracks moved from cinder to rubberized to mondo we saw the same hysteria. “This changes the sport!” “It’s all about the surface!” Not everyone had access to those tracks right away either (for decades it was only the wealthy and the elite) but they soon became the standard. Now you can go to your local HS and run laps without checking to see if it has recently been rolled. Isn’t that progress? Is anyone comparing Bekele to Nurmi? No. And phylon has helped runners run more and faster for four decades now. But when it first appeared on market it too was only for the top folks. While everyone else was still jogging in their leather Onitsuka Tigers and rubberized sole New Balance Tracksters, Brooks was adding an EVA midsole and Nike was adding air pockets and cutting weight from their training and racing shoes, both of which allowed runners to train and race more and to run faster than ever before. They decreased injuries and added years to careers. Are you saying we should all still be racing barefoot? Or with leather spikes and metal pins?

    Boomers never made a sound over Michael Johnson’s golden spikes being unfair. And the majority of track athletes and fans are still silent regarding Nike’s race to the lightest sprint and distance spikes (now at only 151 grams and 118 grams respectively). We all know weight = time in sprints. But when it comes to something Boomers have pride in (their marathon time), they go crazy when technology advances and leaves them behind. The people racing in Vaporfly’s aren’t complaining. But whose careers ended before the Vaporfly are up in arms (looking at you Ryan Hall*).

    So before you go off half-crazed that the world is ending, realize this trend has been happening for decades and chances are you helped drive it. Yes, the TV commentators and media covering the sport lack any ability to talk about ANYTHING other than the course/world/personal records. If the front runners aren’t on that pace, there is a noticeable loss of energy and excitement in the voice of the folks behind the camera. You want racing? Talk about tactics, splits and types of strategy that racing requires. The mental game. I blame Sammy Wanjiru for some of this. He ran balls-out all the time and made anything less than that style of bold front-running, less than exciting. But I would argue there is more beauty in Meb’s wins at the Majors than there are in Kipchoge’s. Does the TV commentary reflect that? Nope. Does the pre-race media hype where they list everyone’s PRs reflect that? Nope. So this Next% generation is going to chase time and cut it by using the tools available. Just like the last generation, and the one before, and the one before that.

    *Ryan Hall calling out the shoes as being too fast is a bit ironic as he claims to be 2:04 guy without mentioning the the race where he ran that time had a 20 mile-per-hour tailwind

    • Sky,

      Good points, all. And Vaporfly is Brilliant engineering by Nike,. It is a better mousetrap. But as you say, not everyone at present has availability to it. I think that’s the issue from a competitive standpoint.

      New Technology always leads to faster times, and you can’t stand still with advances in technology. That’s just not the human spirit. It’s just that there is a gap between when only one group has access things get skewed competitively forget about time.

      Is it at all similar to the high testosterone/transgender issue where a few competitors have a naturally occurring advantage over their competitors?

      It is it like if we had nine guys in the Olympic 100 m final and new a starting blocks technology came out but only two of them got to use the new blocks because they had promotion contracts with the blocks manufacturer. Well we sort of know how the results of that before the gun.

      Apple and Samsung were at war for about seven years over smartphone patents, with Apple accusing its rival of copying the iPhone’s design. After multiple trials and Apple being awarded millions of dollars, the two companies eventually settled in June 2018, ending litigation.

      I don’t know the answer, other than perhaps until the IAAF settles the issue with a ruling, and who likes to go down that road?

      I, too, have a hard time blaming a company for for excellence. And that’s with the Vaporfly are, excellent. But does that excellence compromise the fairness of the race?

      When tracks changed surfaces, everyone in the specific race ran on the same surface. With Vaporflys, not everyone is on the same surface in the same race . Thanks for contributing

      Toni

      • Tony,
        I agree this is amazing technology. Other companies are following Nike’s lead and have some versions coming out now. However, this looks a lot like the Golf industry a number of years ago with the advent of the large head driver and the push to get the average golfer to drive the ball longer and straighter with the new head technology. It became the holy grail. I am a bit older now, but when I played golf in my youth(between 80mile running weeks) I could drive the ball about 240+ yards. Sometimes even straight. Now, 35 years later and not nearly as strong, I can drive it 240+ yards without much effort and usually more consistently straight due to the amazing driver technology. It just seems we have seen this before. Getting the average runner excited about running faster, but not training any more than before. Why not? When I ran track in my youth, the tracks were cinder or sandstone. In college tartan was the new surface and what a difference that made! Once on the roads, I looked for the bouncy, forgiving training and racing shoes. If I was running today, I would definitely give the Vapor Fly’s a spin. I think most runners who wanted to just run a pr on the roads would. However, the cautionary tale might be to look at the how far can shoe companies go to lengthen a runners stride(time in the air). Imagine a shoe that actually launches you stride by stride like having a tail wind or running slightly down hill except this is on the flat and hills. The elite records would, like now, fall quickly as each new innovation comes along. So, finally, the question is how far is shoe innovation going be allowed to go. One final example. Cycling. Cycling has made huge strides in creating lighter and more aero bicycles to increase speed and reduce wind drag. But look at the restrains they put on the bike that can be used for the Hour Record attempts. They are trying to make it more about the man or women than about the machine they ride. I will leave it at that. . something others can debate. For me I just enjoy now watching the best runners on the track and road go at it as long as there is no doping or mechanical advantage.

      • ZenB,
        Thanks for the instructive comment. Knowing you can’t stop progress, nor want to, all I’d like to see is an even playing field. Everyone’ Golf club and golf ball must conform to a universally accepted standard. Everyone’s bike, too. Then the differences in outcome will have been engineered by the athletes not a piece of equipment or medical additive. Best,

        Toni

  2. Toni,

    I think the problem is that the Vaporfly doesn’t violate any current rules. The CF plate nor the cushioning propel the runner, they just rob less energy.

    At 38 I set lifetime PRs in the 3k and 5k wearing vaporflies. I now question the legitimacy of those times (850 and 1522). The reason I bring this up is because the shoe isn’t designed for those distances. My feeling was that the shoe is designed for that pace, so it might help. So was it the placebo effect, my training, or magic?

    People setting HUGE PRs point to the placebo effect. Many of us are simply capable of more than we ever imagined, so a “magic shoe” may unlock that last 2,3,4% of permance.

    i’ll also say this about the shoes…they’re simply good shoes. The upper is very comfortable, and cushioning is as good as any daily trainer.

  3. In my mind, the rules for shoes could be taken from the homologation rules for rally racing (think Lancer Evo, WRX Sti, Focus RS). Now I know this analogy won’t line up exactly, but I do think the overall sentiment is correct.

    From Wikipedia –

    “In racing series that are “production-based”, meaning that the vehicles entered in the series are based on production vehicles for sale to the public,homologation requires not only compliance with a racing series’ technical guidelines (for example, engine displacement, chassis construction, suspension design and such), but it often includes minimum levels of sales to ensure that vehicles are not designed and produced solely for racing in that series. Since such vehicles are primarily intended for the race track, practical use on public roads is generally a secondary design consideration, so long as government regulations are met.”

    To me…if Nike wants to use Vaporfly shoes on elite runners for major marathons, the sanctioning body(s) should have rules in place, that in order to use a particular shoe, a certain amount must be produced and available to the general global public. So the shoe Kipchoge wore a few weeks ago on his 1:59 callenge, if they find their way into a World Major…those exact shoes…I should be able to buy them. Nike can price them how they seem fit, but that production run must meet certain levels to stop exclusivity. I know we can all buy the Vaoprflys currently, but lets be real..and like you stated, the shoes Kipchoge wears are not the same that you and I can buy at our local retailer.

    • But Kipchoge didn’t wear the Vaporfly in Vienna. He wore the Alphafly – a beast even more wonderful and rare than the Vaporfly, 4%, or Next%.

      • Semantics at this point. Call it what you want. Rules would still apply to any new model in the eyes of a governing body. Calling it something else just makes it that much easier to seclude from the outside looking in..in my opinion.

  4. Unfortunately, the shoes are indeed the stars because that is what the sponsors are selling, and it is the money that keeps the whole enterprise spinning along. Team sports can sell tickets, but marathons and track meets need eyeballs and they need those eyeballs to translate into sales.

  5. Re: Kejelcha’s range this year ……

    Steve Ovett – from 200m to Half Marathon.

    Steve Ovett gained prominence in 1977 when he began to regularly defeat the 1976 Olympic 1500 metres champion John Walker. In the early season Debenhams Mile in London, Ovett defeated Walker and set a British record of 3:54.7. Then in the European Cup 1500m, Ovett produced an outstanding last lap of 52.4 seconds to win a fiercely competitive race just ahead of his friend and rival Thomas Wessinghage.

    At the inaugural IAAF World Cup in Athletics, he commenced his ‘kick’ with 200m to go, running the final turn in 11.8 and the last 200m in 25.1. He left John Walker and the rest of the field far behind. Walker was so astonished by Ovett’s kick, that he dropped out of the race with 120 metres to go. He won gold ahead of his good friend, West German Thomas Wessinghage. As Ovett raced away from the field, Ron Pickering, commenting for the race on BBC Television, said “and there’s one man’s blazing speed, that has torn this field asunder”. Ovett’s time of 3:34.45 was a British Record.

    Now comparing with Kejelcha’s range this year – Earlier in 1977, Steve Ovett was about to fly to Edinburgh to compete in a 1,000m race on the track. But, the flight was cancelled due to weather conditions in Scotland. So, he decided on the spur of the moment to run the inaugural Dartford Half-Marathon instead! He won easily in 65:38.

    Ovett’s Range: 200m 21.7 (‘75), 400m 47.5 (’74), 800m 1:44.09 (’78), Mile 3:48.40 (’81), 3000m 7:41.3 (’77), 2 Miles 8:13.51 (’78), 5000m 13:20.06 (’86) and Half Marathon 65:38 (’77 only ran once at this distance)

    • Peter,

      Thanks for the historical perspective. Ovett was a beast. Lived wTching him race. I’m not saying milers back in the day couldn’t race a half-marathon, just that you would never see it. Plus, big difference between a knock about half and a big time competition amidst specialists.

      Brave new world, as always.

      Best,

      Toni

  6. Besides not terribly relevant…tires in cars going 200mph…but not another NASCAR comparison…ugh…

    Anyways….the idea it was all idyllic before the shoes came along is wishful thinking….the story wasn’t about the runners…but about PEDs…it seemed that every top performance was greeted with skepticism…look at the sad NOP lot…especially Mo….the Russians…the East Africans etc…

    Now it’s about the shoes….a technological marvel that thrilled the public….I’d take that sort of commentary any day over the drug innuendos….

    Also these shoes aren’t that exclusive….you can buy them for $250…which is relatively cheap these days….also Jared Ward’s shoe company has their own version…Anyways it’s the dawn of a brand new era and I think it’s great…

    • Truesdon,

      Appreciate the response. Not that I don’t agree, but I guess by now the issue of drugs compromising the sport is all but axiomatic.

      As for the equipment. You can’t get anywhere near the same Vaporfly at retail that the top athletes are wearing in competition. Just like you can buy a Porsche at a dealership but it ain’t what the pros drive.

      Thanks,

      Toni

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