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Opinion: The Day the Shoes Blotted Out the Sun

Oiselle CEO Sally Bergesen asks: Who are we short-changing when we choose to ignore the shoe tech dilemma?

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“It’s way too hot to run a marathon!” we moaned. A group of us—Oiselle friends, co-workers, teammates—made the one mile walk from our hotel to the course of the Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles in 2016. We were happy and festive, but we were jittery too. Despite it being February, the weather was infernal.

Twenty-four Oiselle athletes, including a favorite to make the Olympic Team, Kara Goucher, would be racing that day. It was so unexpectedly hot, the race organizers scrambled the night before to buy sponges, towels, and other cooling aids for the racers. At the start, Kara appeared calm, wearing an ice vest, talking quietly with her coaches. Aid stations were on the route, but not nearly enough. Set oven to 80 degrees and bake for twenty-six point two miles … as fans, we knew we had to show up big that day, the runners would need us.

A delayed start time, for TV coverage, only amplified the heat. As the sun inched higher, the asphalt shimmered, stretching out long and straight in both directions, without a hint of greenery. We stood in the thin shade of the buildings. Right at the start, my friend Sarah Lesko burst into tears. That seemed reasonable. We hugged and walked.

Mid-race, as the miles wore on, heat-exhausted athletes began to stumble and fold. Spectators became first responders, with arms wrapped around sagging bodies. Helpers called out … “Where’s the nearest aid station!?” Down the road, I saw our athlete Andie Cozzarelli being loaded into an ambulance.

Despite all that was going so visibly wrong, there was also an invisible factor shaping the race, undetected by fans, athletes, and the media. It would later come to light that the leaders of both the men’s and women’s races were wearing “secret shoes.” These were entirely new shoes that had proven to give a performance advantage; shoes that had not been pre-approved by the IAAF, as the rules required (IAAF is now known as World Athletics).

Through that grueling heat on that L.A. day, Kara would finish fourth, missing the Olympic Team by one spot. Two of the three women that went on to Rio were wearing the secret shoes. We wouldn’t know the full story until much later. In 2017, the IAAF would quietly change its rules.

In the years that followed, the number of women running sub-2:45 would skyrocket, and the number of women who qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials would go from an average of 205 qualifiers to a stunning 511. As clear as data can make it, shoe technology was reshaping the sport.

A lot was about to change following that hot day in L.A. But it wasn’t the first time a global sport had come face to face with the conflict between mechanical assistance and human effort.

The Swimsuit Showdown

In 2008 and 2009, elite swimming came face to face with a NASA-tested Speedo swimsuit that was so fast, so hydrodynamic, that thirteen world records were immediately smashed. Introduced prior to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and approved by FINA (the international swim federation), it was unveiled to much fanfare, and worn by Michael Phelps as well as 98% of the swimmers who won medals that year.

A year later, FINA came to terms with the size and scope of the assistance that the suits provided, and by 2009, they banned them from competition. The records set in the suits were allowed to stand, but future competitors would not be able to tap into the benefits of the LZR suit or others like it.

For some in track and field, the way FINA stepped in to set clear boundaries around the LZR suit is a wistful result. It feels like World Athletics lost the opportunity to halt inequity right at the start. The FINA ruling was messy, reversing themselves one year later, but in the end, there was undeniable clarity that allowed the sport to move forward.

“It’s Just Innovation”

Some argue that shoes are tech, and that every iteration, from leather moccasins to the standard foam soles that are now readily available, are just a continuum. And that this latest round of bells, whistles, plates, and foam is just tech doing what tech does: making us better. On the other hand, some see the shoe-driven jumps in performance as so high, so dramatic, that the performances can’t coexist with the past. They represent not only a corruption of the sport today, but its history too.

What’s clear is that shoe tech is here to stay. The moment at which something could have been done to set simple equipment guidelines (like FINA did; or as exists in many sports, from field events to skiing to cycling, golf and more), has long since passed—like a heat shimmer in the L.A. wind.

So which is it? Is modern shoe tech the inevitable march of technology that simply maximizes human performance? Or is it mechanical doping that un-levels the playing field?

Before and After

Unlike FINA and the LZR suits, World Athletics declined to act in 2016. And later, when they did act, they made their ruling dizzying and complicated. Example A: World Athletics shoe regulations.

Depending on whether it’s field, track, cross-country, roads, or trail, allowable stack heights range from 0 to 40mm. But ironically, the highest 40mm stack height (the one that delivers the most assistance the longer you run in them) is what’s allowed on the roads.

Complexity breeds confusion. People get lost. And suddenly, a sport known for its beautiful simplicity (first person across the line wins!) is less understandable, less relatable.

What are we watching? Which athletes have which shoe tech? Is the current athlete better than a former record holder, or are they shoe-enhanced? Do we need annotations for Before Shoe Tech (BST) and After Shoe Tech (AST)? Do we need multiple columns in the record books?

And what if we learn that some people respond to shoe tech better than others? What if a heel striker gets more response? From here on, do we only value heel strikers? And what about cost and accessibility? Can all athletes afford the shoe tech? Is an athlete who can afford the shoe tech better than one who can’t? (Typical running shoes with tech cost ~$250 per pair).

What happens to athletes who run for different companies that don’t have shoe tech, or have competing shoe tech? Should an athlete break up with their sponsor to wear shoe tech of a non-sponsor—and not get paid? Are athletes having to choose between getting paid and going fast? Why would brands with shoe tech pay athletes who will simply run in them for free? What happens when NEWER shoe tech is developed? There are rules that say they have to be approved—but those rules were there before, and were disregarded (like in LA). What are we looking at? What do we believe?

Sometimes these questions—about the validity of current performances that appear likely to be driven by shoe tech—can be uncomfortable. As fans of the sport, they work against our desire to cheer for all the new records, and the emerging stars. These new efforts are not to be dismissed. But should that prevent us from being clear eyed and curious? The questioning of technology in running is not a dismissal of the current participants, but rather an open question about what we are experiencing and fairness in sports.

But let’s forget the elites for a minute. Now that shoe tech has been available to the masses for years, we’re also aware they are well-loved by runners who have run faster than ever before.

As an athlete, I’ve worn shoe tech (bedazzled with birds, mind you) and I’ve felt their springy return, propelling me to some spicy times. I don’t deny that it’s enjoyable to embrace those faster times. That enjoyment is intoxicating and confidence-building. But then the research about advantages nags at me.

Is shoe tech a distortion field? It’s complicated. Collectively, as fans of the sport, do we have the kind of mental jujitsu required to hold tension between celebrating every shoe-tech driven PR as worthy and real, while asking the hard questions about the role of tech in our sport? Where do we draw the line? What level of advantage, energy return, or assistance do we consider too much?

24 Seconds

After a slew of records were broken, I begged the question online. What are we seeing? It was notable to see some of the comments and replies. Leading American marathoners weighing in with questions and frustration as if to collectively state the obvious: records are falling for a reason, and that reason is shoes. And a perspective that says: for the fan base and the media to not include that context is not only false, but disrespectful to the athletes holding prior records and marks.

The frustration is palpable. In talking with a friend who’s an expert in the women’s marathon, she asked me, “Do you think Keira D’Amato could beat Deena Kastor, in Deena’s prime—without the shoes?”

American records:
2006, Deena Kastor, 2:19:36
2022, Keira D’Amato, 2:19:12

24 seconds.

At what cost have the shoes become embedded in the sport? What is the impact on the athletes and sponsorships? The fans? The record books? It may take decades to find out. The story is still unfolding, and we are mid–sea change. I’m curious to see where we are in 10 or 20 years.

But one thing is etched into my memory: the origin story of that day at the Trials in 2016; of how the governing body rules were broken, later amended (quietly), and how that unleashed forces of equipment inequity that the sport is still grappling with today. We bore witness. We did what we could to make our voices heard. And like everyone else, we simply watched it unfold.