Every month marathoner Nitendra Singh Rawat browses through Nike’s official website looking for discounts on running shoes. He clocks between 230 and 250 kilometres a week during training and a pair of shoes lasts him barely a month.
Each time Rawat, a naib subedar of the Indian Army, buys a pair, the average price of which is Rs 15,000, it burns a hole in his pocket . “If the model costs over Rs 20,000, there is the additional cost of customs duty,” laments Rawat. His foot size is 8.5 (UK) so he has to import the shoes for the perfect fit, half-an-inch smaller and it is too tight; half-an-inch bigger and it is loose. At any cost, he needs the best shoe he can afford, preferably a Nike, he says.
Marathoners gravitate to the swoosh-brand because it was worn by those who have run the fastest five marathons ever.
Explained | How technology aids running
On Saturday Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier (1:59:40) in the marathon, with the help of a dedicated team of pacermakers guided by laser beams during a time-trial which was run on a flat 4.3 kilometer stretch. The historic run in Vienna won’t make it to the record books as this wasn’t a competitive marathon.
What it did do was open a debate on whether the hybrid shoe the Kenyan wore was akin to ‘technological doping’ and changed the sport of running into an arms race between sports-shoe manufacturers.
Kipchoge, according to the Nike website, wore the yet-to-be-commercially released version of the VaporFly Next% series, reinforcing the belief among marathoners that what you wear on your feet could be the single biggest difference when it comes to shaving off seconds and even minutes in the 42.195 kilometre race.
Kipchoge, the official world record holder, and the other legend of this era Kenenisa Bekele, the second fastest marathon runner, have the advantage of using cutting edge custom-made shoes that push the envelope in terms of running technology.
But this footwear is out of reach of those outside the pantheon of greats—like Rawat. At least as of now.
In April this year Rawat participated in the London Marathon where he finished 27th and clocked 2 hours, 15 minutes and 59 seconds. He was wearing a shoe which had a relatively flat sole compared to the thick cushioning on the latest Nike version. He remembers the discomfort when running over a gradient.
Being abroad, he took the opportunity to scout for the particular model Kipchoge had worn when he set the world record (2:01:39) at Berlin last year—a hybrid model which had the upper of the VaporFly Elite and the outsole of VaporNext%.
Rawat was happy about the bargain deal he got at a store in London. “It was much cheaper than what I would have had to pay online,” Rawat says.
When he slipped them on and trained, it brought a smile to his face. “Felt the difference immediately. The feel of the road was different and I felt like my feet were getting energy from the shoe each time I took a step. It was almost like someone was assisting me while running by pushing me from the back,” Rawat says. “Of course a shoe which costs Rs 25,000 would come with its benefits,” Rawat says.
Even if Rawat breaks the bank to buy the model in which Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier, it will take him months to get his hands on one. “I have been buying shoes for years and usually when it comes to the latest model, they are produced in small batches of about 100 or so. So they are not available immediately. It takes at least six months for a new model to be sold in the market and by that time the next generation shoe is out. So in a way, runners like me are always a technology-cycle behind,” Rawat adds.
Experts who have taken apart the shoe have discovered a carbon-fibre plate in the sole of the Nike Vaporfly series, which lab tests have shown help a runner become 4 percent more efficient.
Yannis Pitsiladis, one of the founders of the initial project to break the sub-two barrier, calls for shoe technology becoming more egalitarian for a level-playing field.
“This is up to the individual sporting federations to make sure there is fairness in sport. My view and that of the Sub2 project is that we have to use technology to innovate and make sport safer but we should never sacrifice fairness to achieve this. The public demands more and more of our athletes, which means the sport is becoming less and less safe. We want our athletes to do things which they are not designed to do. Technology helps them to do things but as long as the technology is available to all —the so-called ‘spirit of universality of sport’—then I totally agree technology should be used. It is certainly unfair if only select individuals can have access to the best technology,” Pitsiladis says.
India’s other top marathoner, Thonakal Gopi, is currently better off than his contemporary Rawat.
After years of scrounging for shoes, from brands like Nike and Adidas, Gopi got a boost when Asics gave him a contract in December. At the IAAF World Championships earlier this month, Gopi wore a pair of Asics, a prototype of sorts similar to what Kipchoge had on his feet, to clock 2:15.57 and finish 27th.
Post-race, like elite marathon runners do, Gopi gave his feedback to the company. The athlete talks about how there is a constant stream of communication with the sports wear brand to improve running technology to help a marathoner go faster.
“I noticed that when I crossed about 30 kilometres, the first model of the shoe Asics had given me used to emit a sound when my foot hit the road. So I gave them the feedback and they changed it immediately and gave me an updated pair. I am satisfied with the pair of Asics I used during the world championships in Doha. There were light and at the same time provided the right amount of protection and cushioning. The shoe is the most important equipment for a marathon runner. A shoe can make or break a race however great a marathon runner one is, especially with technology being updated so often,” Gopi adds.
Hugh Jones, winner of the London, Stockholm and Oslo marathons in the early 80s, talks about a time when science was simple when it came to shoes. Jones was the course measurer at Vienna where Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier.
“Everybody says they (the shoes) do have some impact, some push back that gives you a boost. In our days shoes were just simple shoes and you were mainly trading off the weight against the support. So you would have a race shoe which was light but didn’t have much support and a training shoe which would be heavier and have more support. But now there seems to be a different range (of parameters) against which you measure the performance of the shoe,” Jones, who is the race director for the Delhi half marathon, says.
Witnessing first-hand Kipchoge’s feat at Vienna has made Jones cautiously optimistic about a human being breaking the two-hour mark in an open marathon. “I have revised my thoughts on it since Kipchoge got to work because I would have thought before that it would not have happened in my lifetime. I think it will happen in my lifetime now but it might take a while yet. It is coming but (Vienna) has given the false impression of how close we are by him doing it in a controlled environment.”
The aids Kichoge got, including the shoes, Jones says made it a ‘scientific experiment’ rather than a pure marathon.