My Take on the Carbon-Plated Running Shoe Controversy

Last week a package was delivered to my front door. Inside it was a shoebox, and inside the shoebox was a pair of snazzy pink running shoes in size 11.5. Yes, they were Nike Vaporfly Next%’s, the footwear at the center of a raging controversy about what runners should and shouldn’t be allowed to wear on their feet during competition. 

I haven’t run in them yet, but I have tried them on and walked around in them and I can tell already that I will be faster in these shoes than I’ve been in any other shoes I’ve worn in my 27 years as a runner—even faster than I was in the two pairs of Vaporfly 4%’s I’ve owned since they were brought to market. They really do feel sort of like cheating, but I don’t feel like a cheater when I wear them, because I’ve never been the sort of athlete who has personal ethical qualms about gaining a performance advantage through safe and legal means. 

For example, I did almost all of my training for last year’s Ironman Santa Rosa on a set of Zipp wheels that came stock with my Felt IA2 triathlon bike. Then, two weeks before the event, I had a new pair of top-of-the-line race wheels installed. Instantly I rode about 1.5 mph faster at the same power output. As with my Nike’s, riding on these wheels feels felt sort of like cheating, but the performance advantage they conferred did not make feel like a cheater because the wheels were legal.

The difference between my triathlon race wheels and the Vaporfly is that the latter might in fact be banned by the International Amateur Athletics Association. They’re considering the matter now. Personally, I have no opinion one way or the other on the matter. I understand that a line has to be drawn somewhere. Just as recumbent bikes are not allowed in triathlons, shoes that run for you should not be allowed in running events (or in triathlons, for that matter). But I have no clear sense of precisely where that line ought to fall.

People I respect come down on both sides of the debate. Brian Metzler, who wrote the book Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture & Cool of Running Shoes, has called the push to ban the Vaporfly as “the dumbest take in running right now.” Meanwhile, sports science researcher Yannis Pitsiladis has called the shoe “the opposite of athletic integrity.”

I’ll leave it to them to fight it out. What’s far more interesting to me is who chooses to purchase and wear the Vaporfly and similar shoes and who doesn’t. In a word: faster runners do and slower runners, by and large, don’t. But why should this be? In absolute terms, the shoes offer an even bigger advantage to slower runners. A 4-hour marathoner who gets a 1 percent performance boost from them will shave 2:24 off his finish time, whereas a 2:30 marathoner who gets the same 1 percent performance advantage will save only 90 seconds. Sure, the shoes are outrageously expensive, but faster runners don’t have more disposable income than slower runners do.

The real reason slower runners tend not to shell out for Vaporfly’s and similar kicks is the same reason they’re less likely than faster runners to run doubles and to spend 20 minutes every evening doing corrective exercises: They don’t feel they’re good enough at running to deserve to. It’s basic human psychology—in selecting and pursuing vocations and avocations, people tend to invest the most time and energy in the things for which they have the greatest aptitude. In other words, talent and passion are deeply connected. And yet they’re not the same thing. It is possible, and indeed not all that uncommon, for people to have a great passion for some activity they have no special talent for.

I’m one of them. My passion for endurance training and racing far exceeds my talent. I try almostas hard to realize my full potential as elite endurance athletes do (indeed, I once spent an entire summer training with a team of professional runners, an experience you can read about here), and I don’t believe that even one iota of the time and effort I’ve invested in this quest has been wasted. Slower athletes are no less rewarded than faster athletes by the choice to pour all the passion they have into the quest to find out how good they can be.

As a coach, I’m all about getting passionate everyday endurance athletes to think and behave like passionate elite endurance athletes. Success in this endeavor requires that I convince the athletes I coach that they deserve to do what it takes to realize their full potential, regardless of their degree of talent. It’s not always easy. Heck, when I tried on my new pink shoes for the first time, I briefly wondered, Am I too slow to be seen publicly in these things?, before dismissing the thought as inconsistent with my core convictions. The real me would like nothing more than to see runners far slower than I am wearing Vaporfly’s and similar shoes at races.

To be clear, it’s not all about the shoes. I place far great value on getting slower runners to train more like faster runners than on getting them to wear the shoes faster runners are wearing. But until and unless they are outlawed, I will encourage runners of every speed to seize the advantage these products offer.