Nike's Vaporfly rattling running world as shoe credited for record times
Canadian marathoner hopes shoe technology provides boost to Olympic berth
For Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet, the choice was easy.
The 40-year-old knew that if he wanted to qualify for this summer's Tokyo Olympics, he had to dump his long-time sponsor New Balance and switch to Nike and its Vaporfly running shoe.
"The Nike Vaporflys are on a whole different level," Coolsaet said. "Before you'd see little incremental changes to shoes. But this is just everything."
The Hamilton native has represented Canada at the previous two summer Olympics, but acknowledged that at his age, he's not as fast as he used to be. Coolsaet needs to run a time of at least two hours 11 minutes and 30 seconds in order to secure a spot in Tokyo. He said he's close but not quite there yet.
"I need everything I can get. And the Vaporfly is often worth about two minutes in a marathon, and if I can get two minutes, then I can be competitive," he said. "I've done that [run the qualifying standard] six times, so I know what it takes to get there.… And I hope the Vaporfly gives me that edge."
WATCH | Is the Vaporfly shoe unfair?
The shoe industry is famous for its hype and hyperbole, promises that the latest shoe will change your life. But these shoes appear to live up to the hype.
"I can't think of anything else in my lifetime that's had a bigger impact on performances in running over the last two years — basically every world running record that I can think of has been broken," said Alex Hutchison, a science writer and a senior editor at Canadian Running Magazine.
The numbers don't lie. Since the Vaporfly was introduced in 2016, the fastest times ever recorded for both the men's and women's marathons have been recorded. And in the last six major marathons, 31 of 36 podium spots have been claimed by runners wearing the shoe.
And even though it wasn't during a sanctioned race, Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge was wearing the Vaporflys when he ran a sub-two-hour marathon, something once considered unthinkable.
The ultra-light foam
So what makes this shoe different? Like many elite running shoes it has a carbon fibre plate, which prevents the foot from bending, that is encased by a layer of foam. But the Vaporfly is different because that layer of foam is much thicker but without any added weight.
"Normally, if you have a shoe with foam this thick it would be super heavy, but this foam is ultra light," Hutchison said. "The carbon fibre plate that keeps the shoe stiff prevents your foot from bending and losing energy and keeps it stable even though you've got this massive layer of foam that is compressing and giving you energy back with every step."
So far, other companies haven't been able to keep pace, despite feverishly working on similar prototypes ahead of this summer's Olympics. And with Nike set to introduce a new shoe with an even thicker foam base, some are saying it's time to regulate what many are calling a form of technological doping.
On Friday, World Athletics, the body that governs international running, acknowledged that shoe technology poses a risk to the sport, it cleared distance runners to keep wearing a favoured Nike design.
"I'm really struggling with what the logical next step is here," said Kevin Mackinnon, editor of Triathlon Magazine Canada said ahead of Friday's decesion. "Do we want to stop this technology? Do we want to stop these changes that are improving the sport? Absolutely not. Do things go too far? Absolutely. So coming up with the balance is what we need to do, and I'm guessing that's what World Athletics is trying to do right now."
In a statement to NBC earlier this week, World Athletics said that "technical officials, athletes, health and science practitioners and legal experts" have been investigating for months whether the shoe violates a rule that shoes used in races must be "reasonably available" to all runners and cannot provide "any unfair assistance or advantage."
The statement went on to say "that some forms of technology would provide an athlete with assistance that runs contrary to the values of the sport." The challenge, it said, is to "find the right balance in the technical rules between encouraging the development and use of new technologies in athletics and the preservation of the fundamental characteristics of the sport: accessibility, universality and fairness."
Since this controversy emerged, Nike has maintained its shoe doesn't provide any advantage.
But McKinnon said the numbers don't lie.
"People have always talked about the purity of running. Anyone can get into it. All you need is a pair of shoes. And you can get out there and be competitive with the best in the world," McKinnon said. "Now, we're certain to say maybe that's not possible."
"We have to decide where we're going to draw the line and then everyone who uses things that we've agreed are OK — that's fine," Hutchinson said. "Lots of things are performance enhancing. It's a question of agreeing on what's going to be acceptable."
As for Coolsaet, he's embracing his new shoes. If he's told they are no longer allowed, he will have to re-evaluate as he strives to represent his country in a third Olympic Games. But until then, he's taking advantage of everything he can. There's no other choice.
"Well, you can still be competitive, but you'd be more competitive if you're wearing them," Coolsaet said. "You're pretty much just giving somebody a head start in a race, and unless you're one of the top athletes in the world, you don't want to give anybody a head start at this level."