Kevin Seaward: ‘The first time I wore the Vaporflys, I hated them’
Ireland’s rising marathon man talks running shoe technology and the need to train hard
Ireland’s Kevin Seaward running the men’s marathon at the 2018 European Athletics Championships in Berlin on August 12th, 2018. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
We cover some considerable time and distance in the career of Kevin Seaward before the talk turns to running shoe technology. Because while the 2:10:10 marathon Seaward clocked in Seville on Sunday turned some heads and raised some eyebrows, it certainly wasn’t all about what he was wearing on his feet.
At age 35, running in his ninth marathon and already one of the more consistent Irish runners since his schoolboy days St Malachy’s in Belfast, Seaward did improve his lifetime best by some 3½ minutes, putting him first in line for selection for the Tokyo Olympic marathon this summer, and also moving him second only to John Treacy on the Irish all-time marathon list.
A breakthrough, unquestionably, but also a performance Seaward has long been working towards after twice running the European Championship marathon, already competing in the Rio Olympic marathon in 2016, and finishing fourth in the Commonwealth Games marathon in 2018. It was definitely no accident.
Still, Seaward makes no secret of the fact he was wearing a pair of Nike Vaporfly Next %, which many people either claim or accept have contributed to a drop in marathon times across the board since they were introduced in 2017. It wasn’t a decision Seaward made lightly either, especially as he was paying for them out of his own pocket (they retail for €275).
It was also the first time he raced a marathon wearing the Vaporfly, having run his previous best of 2:13:39 in Berlin last September wearing the more traditional Adidas Boost. It leaves Seaward eminently qualified to discuss the issue, also because by his own admission he struggled with some of the ethics and morals around recent shoe technology, and in no way feels he is crossing any line – and certainly not cheating.
“You might laugh, but the first time I wore the Vaporflys, I hated them,” he says. “So I certainly wasn’t even overly sure about wearing them. I ran Berlin in my normal Adidas, but crossing the finish line I was probably the only one not wearing a carbon-plated shoe such as the Nike Vaporflys, or New Balance.
“Nike are certainly getting some nice publicity out of it, and the shoe technology is moving forward very quickly, and I’m not overly happy that this is where we are at, because everything should feel like it’s coming solely from the hard work that’s been put in during training, which is one of the principles of the sport. So it wasn’t something that sat remarkably easy with me.
“But you have to be in great shape, training remarkably hard, well coached. The shoes aren’t going to do that for you. I’ve no shoe contract, never had. I’ve been lucky that Adidas have given me some shoes and kit over the years, but I would buy quite a bit of my own stuff as well. So to be left behind a little bit by a shoe would be difficult for anyone.
I do feel they are necessary, that people running in carbon-plated shoes are getting that little bit more stability
“With the World Athletics ruling now, limiting the height [of the sole, to 40mm], I think we will start to see things plateau again. It’s all within the rules that are there, so I won’t say it’s cheating, because I don’t think it is. Ethically and morally it’s within the rules. Still, some people will judge your performance on it, and I’ve struggled a little bit with that.”
All of which begs the next question: does he feel they offer any advantage?
“It’s hard to say. The way I like to run marathons, I like to finish hard. Do I feel they are helpful? I do feel they are necessary, that people running in carbon-plated shoes are getting that little bit more stability, maybe saving legs a little bit from the beatings on the road. But I’ve also seen enough people in Berlin and Seville and other marathons run badly, fall apart, or run slower than in their PBs in the carbon-plated shoe. People run badly wearing them too, you don’t hear as much about that.”
Seaward is telling me this on his lunch break at Martin High School in the village of Anstey in Leicester, close to where he now lives at Loughborough. He’d travelled to Seville last week during the midterm break, and was back in his full-time leadership position at Martin High School on Monday, where he also teaches PE.
That work-training balance, he says, is far more crucial to his breakthroughs of recent years than what he’s wearing on his feet. “I’d trained harder his year than ever before, all the key training sessions that you can benchmark against previous years, the 15-mile tempo runs, I was running 4:55 miles, compared to 5:05, 5:10, in a 120-mile week of training, so everything suggested I was in much better shape.
“It really is about the routine, for me, and I don’t think I could do either of them as successfully on their own. Teaching for me became much more enjoyable when I started full-time, and moved to leadership in 2015, when things took off even more, and the more I got distracted from running, had time away, the better I actually got. So for me, I couldn’t take one without the other. The students don’t care if you’ve had a good or bad session, so having the balance has been a great help, really nice.”