ATLANTA — The history of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, for so long about who finishes first, second and third to qualify for the Games, has an additional main question here Saturday.
What shoes will these runners be wearing?
An arms race in a foot race, as a two-time Olympian lime trees mis, was, unknowingly at the time, triggered in trials four years ago. There, in Los Angeles, some Nike-sponsored runners raced in never-before-seen prototypes of what later became known as the Vaporfly.
Reported studies claim that the latest version – the unusually large Alphafly with extra foam and a carbon fiber plate – can increase a rider’s efficiency by several percentage points.
Other shoemakers have caught up with the technology by releasing their own prototypes and new versions ahead of Saturday’s tryouts (12 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).
In Vaporfly versions: Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge broke the marathon world record by 78 seconds in 2018. Kipchoge became the first person to beat two hours for a marathon in 2019 in an event not eligible for the record (in an Alphafly). The next day, the Kenyan Brigitte 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 compete on three U.S. Olympic marathon teams. “It’s hard to know if it’s the athletes, if it’s the shoes or what combination it is that you’re looking at.”
The shoes led World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, to say there was “enough evidence to raise concerns that the integrity of sport is under threat”.
On January 31, World Athletics ruled that, for this spring and beyond, any shoe must have been available for purchase for at least four months prior to use in competition. He also limited the height of the shoes, although, according to Nike, his Vaporfly and Alphafly, including the version that Kipchoge wore for his marathon under-two, respect these limits.
“I feel like every conversation I have is, what shoe is this person wearing. Do you think it helped them run faster? I feel like conversations drive athletes away,” said Emilie Sisson, a New Balance runner among Saturday’s favorites. “People don’t even really know how much work these shoes do yet. Innovation is great and can be great for sports, but at the same time I don’t like to see shoes getting bigger and bigger and with more plaques and things like that. … Hopefully the conversations will eventually get back to the athletes, not the shoes they’re wearing.
A tweet this week suggested that Nike is giving each of the men and women running Saturday a free pair of Alphaflys. A record of 771 qualified runners.
Most Olympic team contenders are not sponsored by Nike. Many intend to run in recent versions of the shoes from their own sponsors, which are said to have similar technology to Nike’s.
“Three or four years ago the shoe industry was turned upside down with the shoe that was launched 15 years ahead of its time,” said the Saucony-sponsored Rio Olympian. Jared Neighborhoodone of the favorites in men’s running, with Nike sponsored Galen Rupp. “For decades, I felt like the focus was on making shoes lighter and lighter and lighter, and that was all we focused on. Then, everything suddenly there was this idea that maybe adding weight right away was actually going to improve performance.
Ward, an assistant professor of statistics at BYU, has done his own research on Nike effects, though he said he’s never worn them.
He plans to run Saturday in a version of a Saucony shoe he first ran the New York City Marathon on Nov. 3. He was America’s top male runner at sixth in his best time in three New York starts by 99 seconds.
“I feel like the Saucony is very competitive,” Ward said. “The results I’m seeing in terms of energy cost benefits are enough to make me smile.”
Linden said she will be wearing a version of Brooks shoes that will soon be available for purchase. She’s had them for about a month. Before this era of high-tech footwear, Linden had never had so little time with his running shoes before a big marathon. Linden, the winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon, starts her 20th marathon on Saturday.
“That’s the thing with shoes right now. It’s not just the speed of the athlete that matters, the speed of the company matters,” Linden said, noting during a recent Boston Marathon that she had her shoes on six days before the race. “How fast do they put in the new innovations and the newest and greatest thing? It’s a bit of an arms race in a running race.
Two of Nike’s top American male marathoners, Bernard Lagate and Leonard Korirsaid Thursday evening that they have not decided whether to race in the new Alphafly or an earlier version of Vaporfly.
“The biggest benefit I get is when I run 20 miles, or even 25, if I wear it, I can recover faster,” Lagat said of the Alphafly.
There is no set answer as to whether a specific shoe will stimulate a specific athlete – as there always has been. Saturday will crown six members of the US Olympic team and provide another set of data to analyze.
“I’m sure studies will surface everywhere comparing everyone’s versions of the shoe,” Ward said. “So we should have answers to that shortly.”
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