OPINION PIECE: The shoe war

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It was a rainy day in Rio on 21 August 2016, as Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge flew down the final stretch to take victory in the Olympic Marathon, crossing the line in 2:08:44. Behind him, Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa took the silver with America’s Galen Rupp finishing 3rd. Three different countries, but all 3 athletes had one thing in common: they were wearing a secret Nike shoe that has been designed in a way to look the same as all the other Rio colorway Nike models in the field.

Earlier in 2016, Kipchoge had won the London Marathon in the same prototype (as it was now referred to). A month later in Berlin, Kenenisa Bekele ran the marathon of his life, coming agonizingly close to the world record at the time. In October Abel Kirui recorded victory in Chicago and 2 weeks later Ghirmay Gebrselassie won New York.

All were sporting the new Nike prototype.

Then on 7 March 2017, Nike announced the Nike Vaporfly elite and Nike Vaporfly 4% which would be used at a special sub 2-hour marathon attempt in Monza. Much thicker than the normal racing flat, a new Zoom X midsole foam together with a full-length carbon plate embedded in the midsole was the magic. The shoe was said to be so special that American Shalane Flanagan had nightmares about someone taking her shoes!

In the breaking 2 event, Kipchoge emerged victorious but came up just short, running 2:00:25  (a time that was still over 2 minutes quicker than the World Record, but did not count as an official time due to the pacers dropping in and out of the event, amongst other reasons).

When the commercial shoes hit the market, they were instantly sold out. And it wasn’t just your fast, above average runners who wanted them, it was everyone! As the results trickled in and time went on, everyone was talking about the Vaporfly and paying big amounts of money for a pair (even buying them off websites like eBay). It got to the point where runners sponsored by other shoe brands resorted to wearing the Nike shoes, and just blacking out the Vaporfly branding.

Other brands then started to come up with their own versions of super shoes, but still, nothing was able to match the Vaporfly.

It got worse for them when in October 2019 Kipchoge became the first human to run a sub 2 marathon when he clocked 1:59:40 in the Ineos exhibition event. On his feet were a new updated super shoe! The Nike Alphafly, which featured an even thicker midsole, and 2 zoom air pods in the forefoot.

There was outcry from every corner which prompted World Athletics to put together a committee to investigate shoes, and announced that shoes would be limited to a stack height of 40mm. Coincidentally, this meant that the Alphafly which came in at exactly 40mm measured off a US8, was legal.

By then, many brands had released their own versions of ‘super shoes’ as they were being referred to, with Brooks even announcing 2 versions of their shoes within the space of a month at the US Olympic Marathon trials. Adidas, who had the previous marathon World Record had not released a super shoe but from pages on Instagram such as Protosofthegram who show prototypes and leaked releases, something was brewing. Could it be good enough though to match the Vaporfly and Alphafly which was now rewriting record books?

The answer was yes.

Enter the Adidas Adizero Adios Pro.

Adidas’s answer to Nike’s lineup. A special half marathon put together in Prague to debut the shoe kicked off with a new women’s World Record. This was repeated at the World Half Marathon championships again.

However, the past weekend in Valencia was where the real show happened.

Kenyan Kibiwott Kandie rewrote the record books, smashing the World Record in the half marathon with an out of this world 57:32, with teammate and 10km World record holder Rhonex Kipruto running his debut and also smashing the previous mark with a time of 57:49. In the accompanying Marathon, Adidas athletes Evans Chebet and Peres Jepchirchir took victory, with world leading times of 2:03:00 and 2:17:16 respectively.

Finally, a shoe had arrived that was deemed good enough, if not better than the Vaporfly.

The question most ask now is not who won the race, but what shoes were they wearing.

The sport has entered a time where technology may prove to be the difference between winning and coming second. And don’t think that the track is safe from this. With the men’s and women’s 5000m Word Record broken this year as well as the men’s 10 000m record obliterated in thicker than normal spikes, the shoe war now heads to the track.

Time will tell how much more you can do with a shoe, but one thing for sure: the shoe war will continue!

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