Trading Souls for Soles

Runners are accustomed to dealing in the supernatural. That is, we happily coexist in a community of metaphysical spirits: ghosts of performances past, present, and future. We instinctively compare ourselves to old iterations of us, the protagonists, and to idealized versions of them, our competitors. We continually strive for performances that will immortalize our current selves and make it that much harder for our future selves to better. We chase ghosts of our heroes and race those of our rivals – their marks on our courses known and internalized. We even routinely indulge in out-of-body experiences, leaving the monotony of a training run to put ourselves in the mix of a cherished (or regretted) race or, naturally, in the Olympic final (not this Olympic cycle, of course, but next cycle, where the ghost of one’s future self has inevitably come into form as one of the best in the world).

These ghosts are omnipresent – comforting, encouraging, motivating, and unifying. Our training routes have known best times (that pre-date Strava), and if you run with a team, performances past and runners of old are constantly evoked. Certain workouts have legendary leaderboards. The track itself is a tie that binds – a 400 meter oval that is the veritable definition of universality. The workout some guy does on a track in South Africa transcends both time and space, and is fair game for another runner in North Dakota. 

This gets at a defining feature of running, one that distinguishes it from nearly every other sport: our performances have both internal and external validity. What we do can be compared within ourselves and within others, across time and space. This creates a supernatural community that invites any and unites all.

Existing in Amber

No other sport has this sort of cohesive, temporally transcendent commonwealth. Ever-changing rules and updated technology continually evolve most other pursuits. Performances bring joy within the moment and heroes are cherished forever, but efforts don’t have the sort of transferability that running enjoys. 

Our closest cousins in swimming, cycling, and skiing all suffer from this fleeting transcription of effort in some form or another. In cycling, technology, equipment, and aerodynamics are in constant evolution, seemingly turning the sport on its head every few years. Suit tech and pool set-ups in swimming make marks as fluid as the medium in which they compete. Wax choice and the interactions with a dynamic winter environment isolate ski performances. 

How can one individual operationally compare himself or herself to the performance of a hero or club-mate of old when equipment and environment have so much bearing on the measured outcome? Running’s simplicity has preserved it – covering a certain distance on foot as quickly as possible is sport stripped bare. Participating in the sport is a communal act in the fourth-dimension, and its ties bind generations.

How did running come to exist in such a time-transcending bubble for so long? I suspect this quality may be one of convenient coincidence. If we look at any sport, the progression of performance is driven by several major factors – notably training, equipment, and competition. In running, these three things made their most substantial gains and approached their asymptotes at approximately the same time: in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Around this time, footwear made its biggest jumps, incorporating EVA-based midsoles to facilitate training for a broader population of athletes. All-weather tracks began to replace cinder tracks, speeding up performances. The teachings of Arthur Lydiard and others were disseminated across the world, laying the foundations for much of modern training. These things, along with some stellar performances and characters in the early 1970s (e.g. Steve Prefontaine, Frank Shorter, etc.), helped launch the “jogging” boom in the US, and sparked masses of participation and media exposure that drove greater competition. 

So, by the end of the 1970s, the training, equipment, and societal importance of distance running was largely similar to what it is today. Obviously these things have evolved, but they haven’t done so structurally. Tracks are marginally faster but largely similar in surface. Training is more refined but fundamentally very similar. Shoes, until a few years ago, had advanced, but by fractions of a percent in their weight and ability to store and return energy. Many were still simply iterations of the same EVA-based foams of decades past. Until now.

Breaking the Amber 

The introduction of the Nike VaporFly in 2017 was the first time in over 40 years that a single factor had been introduced to the sport that seismically shifted performance. The shoe demonstrably improved running speed for a given effort, and like a new species being introduced to an ecosystem without a predator, it quickly saw records being re-written on the roads from 100 miles to 5 kilometers.

The performance shift happened across the board, with scores of runners across the spectrum routinely bettering previous personal bests by several minutes. From those vying for Olympic qualification standards to those trying to crack four hours in the marathon, it seemed like the mark had been moved. Or rather, the man or woman had been moved (as opposed to did the moving) and the mark stayed the same.

This is the fundamental discomfort that the VaporFly and the forthcoming shoes that follow its form bring to the running community: it cuts our ties with the supernatural. It cuts our ties to performances past, it cuts our ties to performances of the present (between the have and the have-nots), and it probably cuts our ties to performances of the future.

In Ann Arbor, we have a rolodex of routes and workouts that have battle-hardened runners for decades, from college freshmen to Olympic medalists to Boston champions. Harvard Hill, the Arb, and the Barton Tempo have featured in the logs of all who came here to get faster. Times are handed down, generation to generation.

A few months ago, Nick Willis was doing a classic workout that Michigan teams have done for ages: 2 x 4 mile in Gallup Park. The route itself is part of the equation, as it has distinct qualities – wood-chipped sections, exposed wind stretches, etc. These make it a unique workout in its own right, but also one to compare against all those who came before and all those to come. He set out with an eye on the session’s “record” held by John Mortimer, a multi-time All-American, Big Ten champ, and Michigan legend. Mort ran 18:56 and 18:52. Nick had at it and went 18:56 and 18:50.

Upon hearing the result, I remember immediately reflecting, “and he wasn’t wearing VaporFlys!” What if he had been and got it by a few seconds? Inevitably we’d be qualifying the performance and wondering what it really meant, handing down an asterisk to future generations on the leaderboard-of-mouth. That I was grateful he was in standard flats was a sad meta-reflection in the moment, but one that has come to characterize every performance analysis in running today. That perpetual qualification of comparison renders our ghosts, once a beloved and fluid part of our community, as a now distinct species.

“And sorry I could not travel both”

Personally, I’m actually ambivalent to the matter, or rather, I can see the arguments for and against this new wave. On one hand, it’s a logical development of technology that facilities faster running, which is certainly more fun. It’s eerily similar to the introduction of the “klapskate” in speed skating in the late 1990s. The skate had a blade that hinged on the front of the skate and detached under the heel, allowing for more complete ankle extension and thus a more powerful knee extension during push-off. It moved all the speed-skating world records by ~4% in one season. Sound familiar? The VaporFly development is analogous in that it simply gives the runner a structure that better harasses his or her mechanical energy throughout the gait cycle. Perhaps we’ve just been spoiled by that confluence of technological and societal advances in the late 60s and early 70s that we’re long overdue, and perhaps this is just a seismic shift that will persist for another 40 years.  

On the other hand, I’d love to go back to the amber, when shoes were all ostensibly similar and objectively simpler. I’d love to watch marathons or road races and not be applying asterisks to everything. I’d hate to watch (and compete in) races where the things being put on our feet are some strange unrecognizable creation, fragile to that moment in time. I remember watching ski races in the Winter Olympics growing up and hearing about how the difference between 1st and 15th place was decided by which wax the skier chose that day. I couldn’t understand why anyone would compete in something so intractable. 

I also fear that the distinct mechanical features of the shoe may have consequences we haven’t yet seen unfold. Perhaps such shoes might be putting some structures in our legs and feet at risk, either from being over stressed or underworked. It reminds me of helmets in football – obviously better for the immediate integrity of the skull, but perhaps allowing collisions of greater forces than are truly sustainable in the long-term for the less-observable brain tissue. But that’s purely apprehensive speculation – perhaps there’s no effect, or even a case to be made for a beneficial effect. Moreover, even if they are detrimental for habitual use, most competition equipment is. No distance runner logs most of his miles in spikes.

Regardless, I can support either stance, but in the case of the former, I do hope that shoe companies offer something similar as quickly as possible. To Nike’s credit, they published the science of the shoe up front and made no secret about its structures or components. Most of it is not patented. Why other companies haven’t simply recognized the innovation and adapted the blueprint puzzles me. The shoe has been out for two and a half years, and nobody else has introduced a Pebax-based midsole with a carbon-fiber plate. Perhaps there was hesitation anticipating regulation, or maybe the complications were in the cost or complexity of the manufacturing? Development across the board would certainly benefit the sport in its current state, as we have a situation now where races are being decided by affiliation and shoe choice. That’s obviously part of the game – competition drives innovation – but it’s also what has made these last few years all the more unsatisfying to watch.

As it is, we’re standing in the vestibule with our ghosts. I can’t help but feel like we’re parting ways with them, shaking hands and exchanging asterisks. We certainly can’t bury them, but I suspect we may be relegating them to that aforementioned “other species”. Hopefully it’s not that seismic – hopefully it’s a simple shift, one that persists for decades. That way, they’re simply another population that speaks a slightly different language. That’d be great – it would mean we simply need some sharp physiologists and bright biomechanists to keep studying the language and outlining the translation. Whatever happens, we have to find a way to maintain contact with our supernatural community. I don’t want to lose my favorite running partners and fiercest rivals. 

Paul Cummings, Greg Meyer, and Benji Durden do battle in the 1983 Boston Marathon (photo: Jeff Johnson)

Paul Cummings, Greg Meyer, and Benji Durden do battle in the 1983 Boston Marathon (photo: Jeff Johnson)

Geoff Burns