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At U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, competitors also include shoe companies

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ATLANTA — The story of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, for so long about who finishes first, second and third to qualify for the Games, has an added primary question here on Saturday.

What shoes will those runners be wearing?

An arms race within a foot race, as two-time Olympian Des Linden put it, was, unknowingly at the time, sparked at trials four years ago. There in Los Angeles, some Nike-sponsored runners raced in unreleased prototypes of what later became known as the Vaporfly.

Reported studies claim the latest version — the unusually tall Alphafly with extra foam and a carbon fiber plate — can boost a runner’s efficiency by several percentage points.

Other shoe companies have been playing catch-up to the technology, releasing their own prototypes and new versions ahead of Saturday’s trials (12 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

In versions of the Vaporfly: Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge broke the marathon world record by 78 seconds in 2018. Kipchoge became the first person to break two hours for a marathon in 2019 in a non-record-eligible event (in an Alphafly). The next day, Kenyan Brigid Kosgei lowered the 16-year-old women’s marathon world record by 81 seconds.

“[Marathon] times don’t make sense anymore, necessarily,” Linden, who is sponsored by Brooks Running, said Thursday as she bids to become the first woman to make three U.S. Olympic marathon teams. “It’s hard to figure out if it’s the athletes, if it’s the shoes or what combination it is that you’re watching.”

The shoes caused World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, to say that there was “sufficient evidence to raise concerns that the integrity of the sport might be threatened.”

On Jan. 31, World Athletics ruled that, for this spring and beyond, any shoe must have been available to buy for at least four months prior to competition use. It also limited the height of shoes, though, according to Nike, its Vaporflys and Alphaflys, including the version Kipchoge wore for his sub-two marathon, meet those limits.

“I feel like every conversation I have is: What shoe is that person wearing. Do you think that helped them run faster? I feel like the conversations are taking away from the athletes,” said Emily Sisson, a New Balance runner among Saturday’s favorites. “People don’t really still know even how much work these shoes are doing. Innovation is great, and can be great for the sport, but at the same time, I don’t like seeing shoes getting bigger and bigger and with more plates and things like that. … I’m hoping eventually the conversations will start drifting back to the athletes, not what shoes are they wearing.”

A tweet this week suggested that Nike is offering every one of the men and women racing on Saturday a free pair of Alphaflys. A record 771 runners qualified.

Most of the Olympic team contenders are not sponsored by Nike. Many intend to race in recent versions of their own sponsors’ shoes, believed to have similar technology to Nike’s.

“Three or four years ago, the shoe industry was turned on its side with the shoe that was released that was 15 years ahead of its time,” said Saucony-sponsored Rio Olympian Jared Ward, one of the favorites in the men’s race, along with Nike-sponsored Galen Rupp. “For decades, I feel like the emphasis was on making shoes lighter and lighter and lighter, and that was all we were focused on. Then, all of a sudden, there was this idea that maybe adding weight the right away is going to actually help performance.”

Ward, a BYU adjunct statistics professor, did his own research on the Nike effects, though he said he has never worn them.

He plans to race Saturday in a version of a Saucony shoe that he first competed in at the New York City Marathon on Nov. 3. He was the top American male runner in sixth place in his fastest time in three New York City starts by 99 seconds.

“I feel like the Saucony is very much competitive,” Ward said. “The results that I’m seeing in terms of energy-cost benefit are enough to make me smile.”

Linden said she will wear a Brooks shoe version that will soon be available for purchase. She has had them for about a month. Before this high-tech shoe era, Linden never had such a short amount of time with her race shoes before a major marathon. Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon winner, starts her 20th marathon on Saturday.

“That’s the thing with the shoes right now. It’s not only does the athlete’s speed matter, the company’s speed matters,” said Linden, noting at a recent Boston Marathon that she had her shoes six days before the race. “How quick are they turning around the new innovations and the newest, greatest thing? It’s a bit of an arms race within a foot race.”

Two of Nike’s top male U.S. marathoners, Bernard Lagat and Leonard Korir, said as of Thursday night they had not decided whether they will race in the new Alphafly or a previous Vaporfly version.

“The most advantage that I get is that when I run 20 miles, or even 25, if I wear that, I can recover faster,” Lagat said of the Alphafly.

There’s no defined answer as to how much a specific shoe can boost a specific athlete — same as it’s always been. Saturday will crown six U.S. Olympic team members and provide another set of data to analyze.

“I’m sure studies are going to surface everywhere comparing everybody’s versions of the shoe,” Ward said. “So we should have answers to that before long.”

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Nike Alphafly marathon shoes cleared for competition; Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2 shoes meet thickness standard

Nike Alphafly
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Nike will release a version of its scrutinized, record-breaking marathon Vaporfly shoes — the “Alphafly” — at the end of this month. It will meet new legal standards to be used in competition such as the Olympics, according to the apparel giant.

On Wednesday, Nike announced that a new version of the Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT% will be made available to the public and legally eligible to wear in official races.

World Athletics said last week that there is an immediate indefinite moratorium on any shoe that is thicker than 40 millimeters or contains more than one rigid embedded plate (of any material). World Athletics also ruled that any shoe used in competition, starting April 30, must have been available for purchase by any athlete on the open retail market for four months.

When Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a marathon in under two hours on Oct. 12 — in a non-sanctioned event — he wore a prototype of the Nike Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%, unusually tall shoes. That specific pair is slightly thicker than 40mm, but since it’s a larger shoe size than the 8.5 used to determine the 40mm standard, it would still be legal to use in competition, assuming it met availability standards, according to Nike.

On Oct. 13, fellow Kenyan Brigid Kosgei won the Chicago Marathon in 2:14:04, shattering the 16-year-old women’s world record by 81 seconds. She wore a different Vaporfly version that remains legal, according to Nike.

“Where World Athletics has reason to believe that a type of shoe or specific technology may not be compliant with the rules or the spirit of the rules, it may submit the shoe or technology for study and may prohibit the use of the shoe or technology while it is under examination,” a release read.

World Athletics will establish a group to guide future research into shoe technology. It previously had vaguer rules regulating shoes.

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

Days after Kipchoge and Kosgei’s breakthroughs, World Athletics (then known as the IAAF) commissioned a group to review shoe technologies.

“It is clear that some forms of technology would provide an athlete with assistance that runs contrary to the values of the sport,” a statement read in October. “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.”

Kipchoge, speaking three weeks after his sub-two-hour marathon, defended the shoes.

“I respect technology. I respect innovation,” he said. “The world is moving, and you can’t stop. We are moving with the world, and the world is changing. I expect the [World Athletics] committee will be respecting the change in the world, the innovation, the technology.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Kipchoge’s shoes would be illegal for being greater than 40mm.

Nike Vaporfly shoe designs deemed legal by World Athletics

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MONACO (AP) — While the governing body of track and field acknowledged on Friday that shoe technology poses a risk to the sport, it cleared distance runners to keep wearing a favored Nike design.

World Athletics published updated guidelines which limited the use of prototype shoes like the high-tech Nike style worn in a sub-2 hour marathon run by Eliud Kipchoge in Vienna in October.

Independent research showed “sufficient evidence to raise concerns that the integrity of the sport might be threatened by the recent developments in shoe technology,” the Monaco-based governing body said.

An expert working group will be created to assess new shoes entering the market.

Still, the more established Nike style called Vaporfly, increasingly favored by top marathon runners, can be worn.

World Athletics set a guideline taking effect April 30 that a shoe must have been available to buy for at least four months to be eligible for use in competition.

“If a shoe is not openly available to all then it will be deemed a prototype and use of it in competition will not be permitted,” the statement said.

The Tokyo Olympics open in just under six months.

“As we enter the Olympic year, we don’t believe we can rule out shoes that have been generally available for a considerable period of time,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said, “but we can draw a line by prohibiting the use of shoes that go further than what is currently on the market while we investigate further.

“I believe these new rules strike the right balance by offering certainty to athletes and manufacturers as they prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.”

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