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Why I Will Never Wear Performance Enhancing Shoes

I stayed up half the night thinking about it, and then something occurred to me, and I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep, and haven’t thought about it since. You know what occurred to me?… (Robin Williams)

…I don’t need to wear them. I don’t need to join in. I don’t need to worry about how much is down to me, and how much is down to the them.

Of course, I’m talking about shoes.

So here it is, ladies and gentlemen:

I will never wear performance enhancing shoes.

This is not a lecture, nor a debate, just a personal decision.

Unless you were living under a rock, you will have heard that last Saturday, Kipchoge ran a sub 2 hour marathon. Then, on the Sunday, Kosgei smashed Paula Radcliffe’s marathon World Record. The internet and press is on fire with stories about their shoes; Nike 4%, Next %, Alphafly, and any other model of shoe which are proven to significantly improve a runner’s performance. They contain a carbon fibre footplate and Pebax cushioning, which combine to dramatically improve running efficiency.

Some say this seismic shift is a bad thing, and others say it is inevitable. There have been comparisons made with cycling, Formula 1, and any amount of other sports, where technological advances are expected and embraced. Well, running is better than all those sports. Running is so great it isn’t even a sport. It is our number 1 survival mechanism, it is our number 1 hunting mechanism, it is the thing we are best at, better than every other mammal on the planet. It is the thing we have been doing for a million years. It is also, by far, the biggest mass participation sport in the world.

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When I strip it right back, further and further, peel off every layer till I get to the very soul of it, running comes down to me versus me. Every run I have ever done, every race I have ever run, every second, was 100% me. Not 95%, not even 96%. When I next run a performance I am proud of, I want all the glory, I don’t want to share it with my enormous, expensive shoes.

We all wear shoes now, whereas before we were all barefoot, so any shoe could be seen as performance enhancing. We have been wearing shoes for thousands of years, they kept our feet warm as we migrated into the northern hemisphere, they protect our skin from tarmac and glass etc, and they are now a firmly ingrained part of our socially demanded dress code. When I run, I want to stay as close as possible to that original model. I can’t go back to being a hunter gatherer on the savanna, barefoot. Wearing shoes is a necessary part of life. But I still want to stay as close to unaided human running as possible. Shoes haven’t improved performance significantly for 50 years, infact, there is evidence to say that since they evolved from the simple plimsoll, they have just caused more injuries.

Until the Nike 4% came along in 2017, your choice of shoe was more to do with comfort, feel, longevity, style and brand preference. The performance benefits had never been proven above 1%, which is inside the margin for error.

With these new shoes, comes a new record book, a clean slate. That’s not something I can get on board with. I want to continue running against every previous generation, and every previous me. I don’t want an asterix beside my next performance.

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I have a kit deal with On; their ‘clouds’ give a soft landing and firm push off, which I love cos its feels a bit like running barefoot on savanna, and they are also really nice to look at. I have refused to wear Nike shoes since I was 15 years old. I don’t agree with their ethics. Again, not a lecture, or discussion, just a personal decision. When I left my job in Victory School, the pupils clubbed together to buy me a pair of running shoes. They were Nikes. I thanked the kids profusely, went home, and binned them.

Some in the running community are happy to let the relevant authorities make the decisions on Performance Enhancing Shoes, as they do with drugs and substances. If the powers that be condone these shoes, then who are we to argue?

The IAAF (now rebranded ‘World Athletics’) is run by Seb Coe. Lord Coe was on Nike payroll for 38 years, was paid £100,000 a year as their Ambassador, and only gave up the paycheck when he was forced to admit the conflict of interest. Coe has just presided over the worst World Championships in athletics history, Doha. Where they confiscate migrant passports and work thousands a year to their deaths under the scorching sun. Where no one turned up to watch the champs, until they started bussing those surviving migrants into the empty stands. Where the stadium had to be permanently air conditioned, and the marathon held in the middle of the night, through empty streets. Where the former president of the IAAF is to stand trial for accepting millions of dollars to stage the Championships there. Not contrite, Lord Coe wrote this defence instead, ignoring the human rights and corruptions issues, and replacing them with a threatening and arrogant diatribe, to justify the whole debacle.

Nike are selling their latest Vaporfly for £240. I don’t trust Lord Coe to cut that revenue stream. The next world champs are being held in Oregon, also known as Nike Town. There was no biding process, no transparency, nothing to see here. Rumour has it, the IAAF will shortly deem legal any shoe that does not have ‘motor assistance’, thereby formally opening the flood gates for the inevitable arms race. Kipchoge’s shoe, the Alphafly, has three carbon plates and air pockets, improves efficiency by 7-8%, and could cost upwards of £1000 when released to general market.

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I can see how we have got to this position. A worse than useless, corrupt governing body that is only intent in filling it’s own pockets, pro-athletes whose contract depends on winning races, and then a trickle down effect where the sub-elite, then the masses, think, well if the best guys are wearing them, I’m a fool not to. I won’t pretend I haven’t been tempted myself. I was wracking my brain thinking, maybe I could fit in one marathon next year where I do wear them. But it has just never felt right for me.

I am not getting involved in this. I can already see the runners around me looking different, more springy, resilient. I don’t want to run next to a competitor having bought an advantage over him (or her). If you want to wear them, then good for you, the world will keep spinning, and we can stay friends (wanker).

In all seriousness though, don’t get this the wrong way. I’m not judging anyone, life is way too short for that noise. If you are a runner, in whatever shoes, then you have my respect and admiration.

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I might well get left behind; in the next few years, all the road shoes in the world might be performance enhancing. I might be the only guy feels this way, makes this decision. In which case I will become a full-time fell runner. I am excited and liberated by my choice. It’s not hurting anyone, I get to keep the thing I love just the way I like it, as pure and simple as possible.

Some light reading, if you are so inclined:

How Do Nike’s Vaporfly 4% Shoes Actually Work?

Is it the shoes? A simple proposal for regulating footwear in road running

Doha’s empty seats tell tale of corruption, warped priorities and vested interests

Trading Souls for Soles

Non-Running Related Highlight of the Month

Totally, totally running related. My kids run their first ever race. Ras y Cob in Porthmadog. They catch the steam train to start line, then run the mile back. Jim not feeling well but soldiers on, El falls and picks herself up and sprints for the line. Thanks loads to the organisers, great event!

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Russell Bentley
Russell Bentley
Track runner. Trained in Kenya, Won the Snowdonia Marathon 2018, PB Berlin Marathon 2:20:20

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