Over October 14-15, when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) disclosed its male and female nominees for the 2019 Athlete of the Year awards, both the world record holders in the marathon – Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei – featured on the list.
Kosgei had just smashed the 16 year-old world record of Paula Radcliffe at the 2019 Chicago Marathon while Kipchoge, world record holder among men since the 2018 Berlin Marathon, had only a day before Kosgei’s feat, become the first human to accomplish a sub two hour-marathon albeit unofficially.
Going by media reports, questions are being posed on the shoes used.
Ineos 1:59 Challenge, the event at which Kipchoge dipped below two hours on October 12 in Vienna, was his second attempt at doing so. In 2017, at a run sponsored by shoe giant Nike and staged in Monza, he had clocked 2:00:25 (the project was called Breaking2). The 2017 attempt had employed a new shoe Nike was working on; it had carbon fiber plates in it and promised to improve running economy marginally. That measure, although small when quantified, matters a great deal when the battle is about shaving seconds over a distance of 42.2 kilometers. In an August 2019 article on shoes with this technology, Outside magazine wrote, “ The Vaporfly’s midsole also included a spatula-shaped carbon-fiber plate that the brand said was meant to help fling the runner forward with every stride—or to at least create a convincing illusion that something like that was happening. “I feel like I’m running downhill,” Nike-sponsored marathoner Galen Rupp purportedly said the first time he tried it.’’ The shoes are totally legal. By the time of Kipchoge’s 2019 attempt, the Nike shoe he used appears to have improved further. Nike’s website provides insight; the following is from a statement dated October 11, 2019 posted under the site’s news section:
“ Kipchoge first tested what was to become the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite in January 2016. He was instantly entranced by the radical tooling and the road feel. A few months later, Kipchoge wore the shoe, still an under-the-radar prototype, in London and again that year in Rio. Shortly after his gold-medal performance in Brazil, he addressed Nike designers with a few sharp questions: “What’s running in your mind after this shoe? Do you have plans for another version with more advanced benefits?” Since then, he’s been leading each iterative advance of Nike’s NEXT% range. Kipchoge first visited the Nike Sports Research Lab (NSRL) in 2016 as part of the journey toward Breaking2. The experience solidified friendships — Kipchoge had been regularly emailing Nike contacts for marathon footwear advice since 2013 — and set in motion a new stage in his competitive career.
“ The symbiosis between Kipchoge and the NSRL manifested itself in his brilliant performance in Monza, then progressed to breaking the marathon world record in Berlin in 2018. It has also stoked Kipchoge’s insatiable appetite for pushing the limits of potential — illustrated in how he cares for his body, prepares for his races and shifts right back into his next challenge. In turn, Kipchoge’s verve spurs the NSRL to continue to pursue science-led innovations that push the limits of performance running. Kipchoge will attempt to break the two-hour barrier on October 12 wearing a future edition of Nike’s Next% marathon shoe. No matter the outcome, what’s clear is that this champion’s singular experience will prompt more feedback, more questions and, ultimately, more advance in the sport as a whole.’’ On October 12, Kipchoge, running at Ineos 1:59 Challenge in Vienna, covered the 42.2 kilometer-distance of the full marathon in 1:59:40, an unofficial timing not considered for record purposes.
On October 14, author Alex Hutchinson writing in Outside magazine, highlighted two points. First, Jonathan Gault of LetsRun had pointed out that the five fastest record-eligible marathons had all happened in the last 13 months and they had been achieved wearing versions of the Nike Vaporfly. Second, Kosgei’s post-race interview – again as appeared on LetsRun – hints that she too may have been using similar shoes although visually (as seen in photos from the race), Hutchinson felt, the shoe seemed closer to the “ commercially available Vaporfly Next%.’’ That last point is important for as he pointed out, in 2018 the IAAF tweaked its rules to say that any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of universality of athletics. On October 15, The Times reported that IAAF and Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) had received complaints from athletes citing the advantage posed by the new shoes. It was also reported that IAAF issued a statement to The Times informing of a working group set up “ to consider the issues.’’
As trend, technological advancements shaping athletics is not new. The pole of pole vault and the javelin are great examples of new levels reached with the help of technology. In pole vault, the old bamboo pole gave way to poles made of tubular aluminum and later, fiberglass (including carbon fiber in places as required). Needless to say, technology enabled higher vaults. But there were also limits set. The javelin was redesigned when the distances thrown threatened to exceed the length of a stadium infield. In 2008, a new type of full body swimsuit by Speedo, capable of reducing drag in water by 24 per cent, was gear of choice in several world records broken. In 2009, the sport’s apex body enacted rules disallowing full body swimsuits and specifying type of fabric to be used. Against this backdrop, the relevant factors to emphasize in the case of marathons – it would seem – are level playing field in baseline (spirit of universality) and how much of technological advancement works against the essence of the sport. Needless to say, in an ever evolving world, this will be subject of periodic review and debate.
Incidentally as regards running shoes, Nike is not alone in using carbon fiber plate in the sole. In May, at an event to celebrate the launch of Carbon X from Hoka One One, American ultramarathoner Jim Walmsley had set a new 50 mile world-best mark (unofficial) of 4:50:07. A simple Google search for running shoes with carbon fiber plates yielded at least four models – Nike Zoom Vaporfly, Hoka One One Evo Carbon Rocket, Hoka One One Carbon X, Skechers Speed Elite and New Balance Fuel Cell 5280. Going by reviews and articles on these shoes, it would seem that carbon fiber plate combined with right foam cushioning and overall design is what makes the difference.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)