By Robert Johnson
March 6, 2020
Another fantastic US Olympic Marathon Trials are in the books and now that a few days have passed, it’s time to try to make sense of it all.
Quadrennially, the US Olympic Trials are arguably the biggest race of all for American distance fans. Yes, the Olympics are more important globally, but the Olympics often take place far away in an obscure time zone and one’s attention is scattered across six different mid-d and distance events. With the US Olympic Marathon Trials, all eyes are on a single race for each gender, the drama is always epic, and the results life-changing.
That was true once again this year, but the uneven playing field in regards to shoe technology has sapped a significant amount of the enjoyment for me as a fan and makes it next to impossible to analyze as a journalist. How so?
Two reasons. The first and biggest reason is that after a race concludes, running fans are now forced to sit down and ponder something they’ve never had to contemplate before: “Would the results have been different had the racers worn different shoes?”
That’s something that doesn’t seem likely to go away anytime soon, now that World Athletics has deemed “super shoe” technology — first brought to market in the Nike Vaporfly 4% and now with the Nike Alphafly — legal for competition. Nike’s shoes have been shown, scientifically, to improve some athletes’ running economy by more than 4%. The other brands are scrambling to play catchup, but until we get the same scientific data on the effectiveness of their new shoes, the question will persist.
Is Des Linden the Kara Goucher of 2020?
In terms of Saturday’s US Olympic Trials, it seems clear to me that shoe technology almost certainly put Sally Kipyego on the team. Kipyego, the third placer in the women’s race, was wearing Nike’s super shoe, the Next%, while a slew of women just behind her were not. Two-time Olympian and 2018 Boston Marathon champ Des Linden finished in the worst position of all — fourth — just 11 seconds behind Kipyego and wasn’t in one of Nike’s shoes. Linden was wearing a Brooks prototype that includes a carbon fiber plate, but we have no reason to believe her shoe is as good as Kipyego’s. If Linden had worn the Next% like Kipyego, would she have made the team? Probably.
Remember, sports scientist and Olympian Shalaya Kipp, who was involved in the initial Nike study that resulted in the Vaporflys getting their 4% name, said she believes the 4th placer at the 2016 Trials, Kara Goucher, would have beaten Shalane Flanagan had she had access to the shoes. Goucher was 1:05 back four years ago.
But let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, Linden’s shoes were equal to the Next%. Well, there were four other women in Atlanta that weren’t wearing Nike shoes who were all closer to Kipyego this year than Goucher was to Flanagan in 2016: Laura Thweatt (Saucony, 16 seconds), Stephanie Bruce (HOKA ONE ONE, 19 seconds), Emma Ulmer (Saucony, 43 seconds), and Kellyn Taylor (HOKA, 63 seconds). We’ll forever be asking, “Would one of them have made the team had they had different shoes?”
Messageboard poster “Juggernaught” perfectly summed up my disdain for what shoe technology has done to our sport when he wrote the following on our messageboard:
Either way, this race didn’t select the top three runners. It selected the top three combinations of runner and sponsor. If we swapped shoes, we would almost certainly have a different top three women. So are we fans of shoe companies or runner? I would prefer to cheer for the runners.
Times are almost meaningless nowadays — all three super-elite marathons of 2020 have rewritten the record books
The second reason why the shoes have ruined things for me and many other fans is that it’s totally altered what is viewed as a good time.
Prior to this year, never had a single marathon produced 14 sub-2:08 performances. There have been three super-elite marathons so far in 2020, and all three have produced 14 or more sub-2:08s (Dubai 14, Seville 14, and Tokyo 17).
What happened last weekend at the Tokyo Marathon was absurd. In Japan, marathoning is almost a national sport, and prior to this year, only 16 Japanese men had ever broken 2:08 in the marathon. Yet in Tokyo, just a few hours after the US Olympic Marathon Trials ended, 10 different Japanese men did it in a single race.
Yes, 10. That’s double the number to have ever done it in the history of the United States.
|Comparing The Japanese Times in 2020 Tokyo vs All-Time in The US|
|All-Time USA||Japanese at 2020 Tokyo|
Counting non-Japanese athletes, a total of 28 men broke 2:10 in Tokyo. Prior to Tokyo, the most sub-2:10s in one race was 17 — which is how many broke 2:08 in Tokyo.
How in the hell is that possible?
Yahoo! Japan is reporting 28 of the top 30 runners in Tokyo were wearing some version of the new Nike shoes — either Vaporfly Next% or Alphafly.
And thanks in part to the new shoe technology, American men set multiple records themselves at the Olympic Trials in Atlanta on Saturday — despite the fact that the race was run on a windy day on an extremely hilly course. The Trials saw the most number of sub-2:11 marathons (five) and the most sub-2:13s (12) ever by Americans in one race.
|1983 Boston* wind aided||3||4||8||11|
|2012 Olympic Trials||4||4||8||11|
|2020 Olympic Trials||1||5||7||12|
And guess how many of the men in the top 10 in Atlanta wore the new Nike shoes? Nine.
Some think the fact that only one of the top eight finishers in the women’s race at the Trials was wearing Nike shows the shoes aren’t all that important. I totally disagree. The reality is, there was a much wider gap in talent on the women’s side than the men’s side. The gap in seed times between the 3rd and 12th fastest starters on the men’s side was 2:29; for the women, it was 5:00. And hardly any of the top women’s entrants in the race wore the new Nike shoes. Only two of the top 10 entrants wore Nike, and one of those was the injured Jordan Hasay. The other was Kipyego, and she made the team.
While no scientific studies have been done yet examining how the Vaporfly technology specifically performs on hills, I hope some are produced as I am forced to wonder if they might be even more powerful on hills. What is the #1 complaint from runners when running a hilly marathon like Boston or Atlanta? Their legs and quads got trashed — particularly from all the downhill running. That’s what top seeds Sara Hall and Emily Sisson said after the Trials; “obliterated” was the word Hall used.
And what do people who have raced in the Nike shoes rave the most about? How the shoes “save” their legs and keep them fresh for late in the race. Never before have people been able to race in a shoe that provides so much cushioning but is still incredibly lightweight. I’m always going to wonder whether Hall or Sisson would have made the team on Saturday had they been wearing Nike’s new shoes.
And though we don’t have any scientific data yet about whether Nike’s shoes are more effective on hilly courses compared to flat ones, we at least know they work on hilly courses. The shoes have helped runners set course records at multiple hugely hilly races in recent years, whether it’s an up or down year at the Comrades Marathon or an up or downhill stage at Japan’s famed Hakone Ekiden.
Available to all? Not quite
Another thing: I don’t want to hear how anyone could have worn the Nike Alphaflys in the Trials since Nike was offering them to anyone who wanted them in Atlanta. That’s not a realistic option for many pros with endorsement contracts with other companies. They could lose their contract or face a lawsuit if they ran in Nikes rather than their sponsor’s shoe.
It’s not a level playing field when an athlete is forced to choose between keeping their main source of income (and compete at a disadvantage) or competing on a level playing field.
Many Trials athletes don’t even have endorsement contracts but run for a club that gives their athletes free gear from a specific brand. We know multiple athletes in this situation who took Nike up on their offer and raced in the Alphaflys as their club didn’t offer them their sponsor’s latest prototype. Even though these athletes disguised the shoes, they were grilled after the fact and asked to justify their decision to run in a shoe that could help them by several minutes.
Thankfully, it looks like a few clubs and pro groups did the right thing and let their athletes wear the Nikes. Runner’s World photos show the Reebok Boston Track Club let their athletes race in Nike shoes — just with some spray paint over them. What happened? They vastly exceeded expectations and placed in the top 10 as Marty Hehir PR’d by 2+ minutes to grab 6th and Colin Bennie was 8th in his debut.
Same thing for the On ZAP Endurance group. Tyler Pennel and Josh Izewski both wore spray-painted Nike shoes and what happened? They exceeded expectations with Pennel placing 12th in a PR of 2:12:34 and Izewski placing 17th. A spokesperson for On confirmed they gave permission to wear the shoes, saying, “The prototype of On’s next generation long-distance running shoe is still a work in progress, so it was agreed for them to wear a shoe they felt most comfortable in for optimum performance during the marathon. On puts its athletes first and foremost to be the best they can be.”
On was founded by former world duathlon champion Olivier Bernhard and Roger Federer is an owner as well, so no doubt they understand not giving up an advantage. Or maybe it was just easier for On and Reebok to let their athletes wear Nike shoes because their prototypes don’t appear to be near to market. Nonetheless, we praise them for letting their athletes compete with the best equipment possible.
Moving forward, shame on any other shoe company that doesn’t do what On and Reebok did. If World Athletics isn’t going to change the rules, it’s not right to put your athletes at a multiple-minute disadvantage.
Here we go, @Nike launched the #Alphafly literally the day before the olympic trials and nonetheless basically half of the elite runners chose it probably without training in it once. Most of the others held on to the #Vaporfly. THATS how much trust they have in the Next% brand. pic.twitter.com/22Wd3wssXh
— Tom Troll (@Tom__Troll) March 2, 2020
So much has been written on the Vaporfly that I’m reluctant to add to it, but I’m in 🇪🇹 and had some thoughts on its effects here, where the average running shop looks like this and is stocked with kit sold by sponsored athletes and second-hand shoes. 1/1 pic.twitter.com/J0fbVcq8aQ
— Michael Crawley (@mphcrawley) February 12, 2020