Last week’s Boston Marathon sparked another debate about shoe technology in professional running. This time, the question was not whether super shoes undermined cherished notions of competitive fairness, but whether professional runners were forced to choose between securing the best possible sponsorship deal and maximizing their chances of success by retaining the freedom to run in their favorite. shoe. This was framed as a choice between financial security and “betting on yourself”.
In Boston, Scott Fauble and Nell Rojas were the fastest Americans in the men’s and women’s races, with PRs of 2:08:52 and 2:25:57, respectively. Both athletes had recently opted out of their sponsorship deals and were racing alone; Fauble decided against renewing his relationship with Hoka late last year, as Rojas terminated his contract with Adidas before Boston after just a few months with the brand. Fauble maintained that his decision was based on the fact that he had reached a plateau and wanted to take his training in a new direction, but Rojas said the running shoes from Adidas were not for him. In Boston, the two athletes ended up running their fastest marathons yet in Nike’s Alphafly runner, despite not having a deal with the company. Seen from one angle, their success seemed like an unwitting endorsement of Nike, a brand whose product was so good that America’s top runners chose to run in it without being paid to do so.
At least that’s how some people saw it. 2018 Boston champion and longtime athlete Brooks Des Linden weighed in on Twitter“Some of the fastest times in American history are currently being run for free,” Linden wrote. âIf the best are willing to take $0 from a shoe sponsor because they feel they need VF [i.e. the Vaporfly, the Alphaflyâs predecessor] to be competitive, why would Nike pay them? And what can the next level possibly ask for? Hoka sponsored racer Kellyn Taylor replied, âThat’s 100% what’s going on. Not to mention that the company with the most competitive shoe is also known to undervalue/pay athletes + extremely corrupt. This era of shoe technology has created quite a mess.
The era of shoe technology has also revealed a paradox from those innocent days before people started worrying about super foams and carbon fiber plates: brands used to pay runners to demonstrate the effectiveness of their product, even though everyone somehow knew that the shoes didn’t really work. matter that much. (Friendly reminder that in 2014, Meb won Boston at Skechers.) After Nike secretly outfitted its athletes with proto Vaporflys during the 2016 Olympics and subsequent evidence proved the performance benefits of the shoes were real, an athlete’s choice of footwear has suddenly become essential. To make matters even more complex, the advantages of the Vaporfly were more pronounced for some riders than for others. Once competing companies released their own models, some riders wondered if they fit better with certain brands. Rojas is a good example.
In an email, two-time Olympian Kara Goucher told me she thinks pro runners are at a disadvantage when everyone knows they have a strong performance-based preference for a certain shoe. Echoing Linden’s point, Goucher told me that this creates a dynamic where shoe companies have too much clout. âI think it destroys the athlete sponsorship model,â she says. “It actually takes away opportunities, because unless the one company that works best for you thinks you’re a perfect match, you may never get sponsored.”
Goucher was adamant that none of this was the athletes fault. She also pointed out that the problem wasn’t just that Nike wielded too much power, as both winners in Boston this year wore Adidas. In theory, any company that develops a superior shoe design could hold athletes hostage.
But is that really a problem now that most major shoe companies have their own padded runner and there’s no clear evidence that any one model offers any indisputable benefit? Molly Seidel, the recent Olympic bronze medalist and arguably America’s most successful marathon runner at the moment, competes with Puma, a company that has only recently made a push to expand its presence in the running shoe market. Meanwhile, Aliphine Tuliamuk won the 2020 US Olympic Trials at Hokas, defeating a vast armada of athletes decked out in the all-new Alphafly. (Of course, if Seidel or Tuliamuk had a secret preference for Nike, we wouldn’t know.)
Professional runner Ben True has been sponsored by Saucony for years, but the company did not renew his contract after the 2020 season. He spent much of the last year testing various great shoes before running his debut. in the marathon in New York. He told me he absolutely felt the sponsorship game had changed as brands with superior shoe technology realized they didn’t need to pay athletes so much, especially with more marketing dollars directed to social media influencers. According to him, Adidas, Nike and Asics had products “far superior” to the competition, at least during his tests last summer. True eventually signed with Asics, although he hinted it might not be his most lucrative option. In fact, he was “betting on himself” and what he believed to be the most successful brand. âWhat you see is the companies that don’t have shoes at the same level are really the only ones offering a lot of money to athletes because they basically have to bribe the athlete,â True told me. . “They say, ‘We know we’re giving you an inferior product, but we still want you to run for us. “”
Understandably, some runners were frustrated with the overemphasis on footwear. Perhaps no one more than Fauble, who last year wrote an essay titled “Let’s all take a chill pill, Super Shoes Editionin which he argued that all the esoteric profanity about stack heights and Pebax foam alienates potential fans, distracts from the race itself, and diminishes outstanding performance. While I actually think talking about magic shoes isn’t such a bad way to get the layman interested in watching people run around for two hours, I agree that shouldn’t be the main narrative. Goucher, who works as a race commentator for NBC, also said she prefers to minimize shoes when calling a race on television.
But if there’s one upside to the footwear debate, it’s perhaps that it’s sometimes inspired speculation about what professional racing would look like if more athletes weren’t dependent on a running contract. shoes as the main source of income. Perhaps the current sponsorship model needs to be âdestroyed,â as Goucher put it, in order to find a more sustainable alternative. Keira D’Amato, who earlier this year broke Deena Kastor’s long-standing American marathon record, was already a real estate professional when she signed a sponsorship deal with Nike last year. For most of her remarkable rise to the top of the American Marathon in her mid-thirties (D’Amato just turned 38), she was not financially tied to any shoe contract obligations; Do whatever you want with it. That’s not to say the solution is that all professional riders should just get full-time jobs, but it does prove that traditional sponsorships aren’t required to succeed at the highest level.
After Fauble’s big day in Boston, sportswriter Darren Rovell made a call to Chipotle on Twitter, stating that the company should offer Fauble a contract. (Fauble is a known burrito enthusiast.) The prospect of the âfast-casualâ Mexican food giant taking a pro racer under its wing was a little absurd, but also intriguing. Could a marriage between Fauble and Chipotle become the running equivalent of Michael Phelps and Subway’s famous collab? Phelps might have had the advantage of being one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, but both Fauble and Chipotle were born in the Denver metro area in the early nineties. History writes itself.