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Foot race or arms race? New York City Marathon runners enter high-tech shoe debate

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NEW YORK — Among the otherwise typical New York City Marathon storylines — like course records and prep for the U.S. Olympic Trials on Feb. 29 — is the debate over shoe technology that escalated after recent historic performances.

Sunday’s race is the first major marathon since the breakthrough weekend of Oct. 12-13.

Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a sub-two-hour marathon (not in a race, but in a non-record-eligible event where he was the only contestant, with pacers). The next day, countrywoman Brigid Kosgei won the Chicago Marathon in 2:14:04, shattering the 16-year-old women’s world record by 81 seconds.

Both Kipchoge, regarded as the greatest marathoner in history before his 1:59, and Kosgei, arguably the world’s greatest active female road runner before the 2:14, ran in versions of the Nike Vaporfly — uniquely tall shoes on the outside with a carbon fiber plate on the inside. Kipchoge has been running on versions of them for years, including when he lowered the world record by 78 seconds to 2:01:39 in 2018.

In the last 13 months, four men combined to run the five fastest marathons in history, all reportedly in versions of the Vaporfly. Other shoe companies have been tasked to catch up to Nike’s technology since the Vaporfly debuted in 2016.

“It is an arms race, and it should be a foot race,” said Des Linden, a two-time Olympian and 2018 Boston Marathon champion who is sponsored by and runs in Brooks shoes. “We should find out who the best athlete is and who can cover 26.2 [miles] better than the other person. Not who has the newest, greatest technology.”

Linden said she will race Sunday in the latest version of a shoe that Brooks has been working on for two years but didn’t say how close its technology was to the Nike Vaporfly.

“I’m not sure how much I can say about the Brooks shoe,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with them where it was like, is this OK to wear? What’s your guys standing on this? They’re like, yeah, it’s absolutely widely available to the public. There’s plenty of Brooks athletes out there in that shoe. The technology isn’t something that isn’t available to the public. It seems like we’re in a good spot.”

The IAAF, track and field’s international governing body, does have rules regulating shoes.

“Any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics,” it reads. “Shoes must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage.”

Days after Kipchoge and Kosgei’s breakthroughs, the IAAF said it commissioned a group to review shoe technologies and possibly recommend rule changes by the end of the year.

“It is clear that some forms of technology would provide an athlete with assistance that runs contrary to the values of the sport,” the IAAF said. “The challenge for the IAAF 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.”

Versions of the Vaporfly have been made available to the public, but Kipchoge ran his 1:59 (again, not in a race) in a prototype. Linden said she doesn’t think the playing field is level between athletes in Nike shoes and those who are not.

“Every company has a different pace that they’re working at,” she said. “So we’re all obviously behind [Nike] to begin with.

“Now that it’s available, it’s everyone playing catch-up. I think that we can get there, but also, are they going to put a hard stop against how far this can go?”

Another top American in the New York City field, Sara Hall, just chopped four minutes off her marathon PR last month wearing her Asics.

“I haven’t run in carbon-plated shoes at all,” she said. “But I think the upside of that is, I really feel like I have ownership over my PRs and stuff. I know I worked really hard to get that PR, and I didn’t just have springs and things like that.”

Jared Ward, who finished sixth at the Rio Olympics (not in Vaporflies), said he’s running Sunday in the latest version of a Saucony shoe that will be released in the spring. Ward, also a statistics professor at BYU, said he hasn’t put a lot of thought into the Nike shoes, but that the shoe industry “is on its side a little bit.”

“At some point, there’s diminishing returns because if you get taller and taller shoes, you have to build wider and wider shoes, and then they start getting heavy,” he said. “In a year or two, things are going to stabilize, and then we’ll be back to running.

“I’m looking more at what the athletes are doing. I think Kipchoge and Kosgei are some of the best, probably the best marathoners ever. And so we put them in good shoes, and they run well, but they’re going to run well in whatever they’re running in.”

The Vaporflies were created in part because athletes did not find the lightweight, minimalist shoe movement to their liking. Take Shalane Flanagan, the four-time Olympian, longtime Nike athlete and 2017 New York City Marathon winner who recently retired.

Flanagan said she and other marathoners told Nike around 2014 and 2015 that they wanted more cushioning. Eventually, Flanagan and Amy Cragg debuted a version of the Vaporfly at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.

“Even within my training, I felt I was able to recover quicker because there wasn’t as much muscle breakdown, fiber breakdown, because the load of the landing was softened,” she said. “I was able to get through the training and not feel so sore all the time.”

Those first Vaporflies had a carbon fiber plate, but not nearly as technical as the newer versions, said Flanagan, now coaching a Nike group of runners in Oregon.

“At the time it was more focused on the foam than the shank that was within it,” she said.

Flanagan, before answering questions on the subject, admitted she has bias as a Nike athlete/coach.

“If you look at all different sports, there’s always been kind of a pivotal point in which the sport has decided we’re going to this direction or we’re not going to go a direction in terms of innovation,” she said, noting high-tech swimsuits (banned in 2010), tennis rackets, speed skating suits and baseball bats. “It’s up to our sport to decide which direction we want to go — innovate or stay the same?”

One of the high-profile Nike athletes running on Sunday is Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor, the half marathon world-record holder, 2017 New York City champion and a training partner of Kipchoge. He will race in Vaporflies, but not the same version that Kipchoge had three weeks ago. Kamworor was asked what he would say to those who want them regulated or even banned.

“Vaporfly shoe is not only for the elite athletes, but it’s also for the average runners,” he said, referring to the IAAF’s mandate of universality. “It’s not limited to some people. It’s for everyone.”

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Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indianapolis Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by pre-race DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV sitdown on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

MORE: Meet Arnie the Terminator, Katie Ledecky’s top rival

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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