Nike’s Controversial New Shoes Made Me Run Faster

EARLIER THIS WEEK, WIRED ran a story about the new Nike Free Run Sale tied to Breaking2, the company’s attempt to help runners break the two-hour mark at a special marathon this spring. As part of WIRED’s exclusive look at that initiative, our writer took a trial run in the sneakers as part of his training to achieve his own personal milestone: a sub-90-minute half-marathon.

I thought we were talking about doping; Haile Gebrselassie thought we were talking about shoes. It was November 22, 2012, and we were sitting in Gebrselassie’s eighth-floor office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on a warm afternoon, locked in a long discussion about the limits of a runner’s body. Gebrselassie is not only a double-Olympic gold medalist with two marathon world records to his name; he is also a gregarious and provocative aficionado of the sport.

So I asked him: What did he consider the best time a clean athlete could run for the marathon?

“You ask me, clean? No technology, no help? That is what Abebe Bikila ran in 1960. That was barefoot. The cleanest.”

Bikila was the first black African to win a gold medal at the Olympics, when he beat a stacked marathon field in Rome, in 1960, barefoot. He is a hero to many Ethiopians, and it was perhaps not surprising to hear Gebrselassie invoke his name. What did surprise me was Gebrselassie’s understanding of the word “clean.” To him, changes in footwear—not improvements in diet, or training, or pacing, or psychology, or the emergence of blood doping, or any number of other factors—explained most of the 12 minutes that have fallen from the marathon world record since 1960. In his view, the last pure marathon was an unshod marathon.

That conversation in Addis Ababa popped into my head on Tuesday afternoon, as I laced up a pair of Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly 4% shoes on the Formula 1 track outside Monza, Italy. These are the shoes I’ll be wearing in a few months when I attempt to break my goal of 90 minutes for the half-marathon. They are a mass-market, albeit expensive, version of the “concept car” shoe that Eliud Kipchoge, Zersenay Tadese, and Lelisa Desisa will wear when they make their sub-two-hour attempt—the Zoom Vaporfly nike free shoes

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