by Shahid Judge
Cosmas Lagat walked into the room sporting a flashy lime-green pair of shoes. It didn’t stand out from the rest of his peers, who make up the elite international contingent competing in the Mumbai Marathon on Sunday, but there was something distinctly familiar with the Kenyan’s chosen footwear. Soon enough, the question about the shoes did arise.
Last year, the 29-year-old recorded a time of 2:09:15 hrs to win the 42-km race in Mumbai, just short of the 2:08:35 record set in 2016. Surely these new shoes which resembled the famed Nike Vaporfly – a variant of which Eliud Kipchoge used to cover the distance of a marathon in under two hours – would help Lagat break the course record.
The runner took a few moments to consider the question, then said: “I’m hoping to do well, not the shoe.”
That’s been the common answer for athletes being questioned about the shoe that has been designed in such a way that it has been giving runners better timings. A shoe that is set to change the art of marathon running, a shoe that World Athletics is investigating to see if it should be made illegal.
According to Tim Hutchings, a former Great Britain middle-distance runner who is a regular marathon commentator, the shoe should be “outlawed.”
“It’s a technology that has lifted performances so dramatically that it has actually spoilt the sport of it. People are setting personal bests and breaking national records and breaking course records even setting world records,” Hutchings says. “People are running so fast at all levels. There are good club runners who are buying the shoes for $250-300 and improving their personal bests by five minutes over a full marathon. It’s getting ridiculous.”
The shoes were first designed as a part of an attempt to enable an athlete to run the length of a marathon in under two hours – a feat that was seemingly impossible. And so with a modified prototype of the Vaporfly, and with all the elements kept in check on a flat and straight course in Vienna in October, Kipchoge clocked 1:59:40 hrs.
“If you look at the stats required, and break down the speed you have to move at over each mile, it’s insanely quick. A lot of people say Eliud did it in Vienna, but he didn’t. He broke all the rules, and rules are there for a reason and they have been respected by generation after generation of runners, decade after decade,” Hutchings says. “What that group did in Vienna was great entertainment, but they cherry-picked the rules that didn’t suit them, and they picked other rules which did. So it’s an invalid run. It was not a marathon!”
The record didn’t count. But it did help Brigid Kosgei break Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year women’s world record, when the Kenyan clocked 2:14:04 hrs at the Chicago Marathon (the previous record 2:15:25 was set at the London Marathon in 2003).
By then, the ability of the shoes to boost timings was clear and it created a ripple effect. All of a sudden there has been a sharp demand for the shoes, not just from amateur runners. Even the professionals are desperate for it.
“Apparently some East African athletes have been turning down contracts from other brands because they are so desperate to run in those Nike shoes. That’s how ridiculous it has gotten,” he adds.
“World Athletics have now said that they will look closely at this and that it may get banned. You have to draw the line somewhere. But they’ve possibly been guilty of turning their eye off the technicalities of the rules on equipment, because it’s been so many years that someone has come up with something like this.” The problem that arises with the shoes is that it provides an imbalance between the use of technology and actual talent.
“You’re not denigrating the athlete about how much hard work they’ve put in training, that’s not the point. All generations of athletes have worked very hard. We respect that. But they have to respect the fact that these shoes give them a huge advantage,” Hutchings adds. For now though, until World Athletics says otherwise, the shoes are legal and free to be used in competition. And so it’s up to Lagat to use it, bearing in mind he came within a minute close of breaking the course record in Mumbai last year.
Later on during the press meet, he makes it clear that at that point in time he wasn’t wearing the Vaporfly. But then he adds: “(On race day) yeah, I’ll use it.”