The super global sports star of 2019: the Nike Vaporfly
Running shoe phenomenon enables Kipchoge and others to rewrite the records book
Eliud Kipchoge runs during the Nike Breaking2: Sub-Two Marathon Attempt at Autodromo di Monza on May 6, 2017 in Monza, Italy. Photograph: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images
We have our winner. Nowhere does the objective take on the subjective with greater fear or envy than at any of these annual sports star awards, only nowhere did they agree with more success than when deciding on the super global sports star of 2019.
Not everyone can throw a punch like Katie Taylor or hole putts like Shane Lowry. But everyone can run, or at least think they can, and medals or times, places or records, personal bests or age-group barriers, no man or woman, team or country, had a year in history to rival the now properly global running shoe phenomenon known as the Nike Vaporfly.
It’s always been hard trying to distinguish what counts or matters most within one chosen sport, the sort of conversation and debate Ayn Rand could have written another very long book about, but in distance running, that old art of putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible and for as long as possible, most people will go for time.
Take a look over any of the times that counted in 2019 – from the big city marathon to the local parkrun – and chances are the Nike Vaporfly are right there on the ground beneath their feet.
This is the running shoe first officially introduced by Nike for their Breaking-2 project, in Monza in 2017, where they overtly flaunted every possible legal aid to help Eliud Kipchoge run a first sub two-hour marathon – the final frontier of distance running – while also flouting many of the rules that define such frontiers.
In the end Kipchoge clocked 2:00:25, and for all the debate around the fairness of that run his feet seemed to be talking the loudest, or rather the Vaporfly were.
The shoe was promptly marketed for general sale, first as the Zoom Vaporfly 4% for the no-discount price of €250, before earlier this year being replaced by the ZoomX Vaporfly Next%, which sells for a tidy €275.
Meanwhile Kipchoge and plenty others have been going where no marathon runners have gone before. Last year in Berlin, the Kenyan took the world marathon record down to 2:01:39, first official sub-2:02 and the biggest improvement on a men’s marathon world record in 51 years.
No prizes for guessing what happened next.
Nike gently tweaked the shoe again, and wearing what was dubbed the ZoomX AlphaFLY, Kipchoge ran 1:59:40 in another flaunting/flouting marathon in Vienna in October, and the rest is distance running history.
Despite some objections to the legality of that time (mine included), Kipchoge, it seems, has already made that record his own, and Ridley Scott is reportedly finishing off a film to help make sure of it.
Last month, Kipchoge was also named World Athletics male athlete of the year, the first back-to-back winner since Usain Bolt in 2012-13, despite the fact he only raced twice in 2019: in Vienna, and in the London Marathon back in April, when wearing the Vaporfly Next% for the first time he won in a new course record time of 2:02:37. Two races, two wins, one not even official: they may as well have given that award to the Vaporfly too.
Also in the running for female athlete of the year was Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei, who in the Chicago Marathon in October, broke Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year-old world record with her 2:14:04 (and that’s not a misprint).
It’s not that long since a lot of top male distance runners would have been delighted with a 2:14 marathon, and in bettering Radcliffe’s old record by nearly a minute and a half, Kosgei was also running in the Vaporfly Next%.
That’s been the story behind every big city marathon this year, from Dublin to Beijing, from New York to Honolulu.
Just last Sunday at the 47th running of the Honolulu Marathon on Oahu, another Kenyan Titus Ekiru ran a course record of 2:07:59, where given the heat, humidity and killer hills of that race (I know that because I’ve run it) that’s probably close to another sub-two.
“Who ever thought we’d see times like this here?” said Honolulu Marathon president Jim Barahal, in charge of this race since the days when Hunter Thompson would come to town. Has Barahal not heard of the Vaporfly Next%?
Same story behind the Valencia Marathon earlier this month, where Paul Pollock ran five minutes faster than his previous best when clocking 2:10:25, earning his qualification for next year’s Tokyo Marathon in the process, also running in the Vaporfly Next%.
Only John Treacy, with his 2:09:15 from 1988, has gone faster in the history of Irish distance running, although that line between past and present times is being increasingly blurred. In Valencia, for example, 174 finishers broke 2:30, compared to 99 in 2018, and 77 in 2017.
Same story too behind Stephen Scullion and his second-place finish in the Dublin Marathon, running 2:12:01, the then fastest by any Irish man in 17 years (before Pollock went faster again).
And same story behind Sinead Diver, who via Mayo, Limerick and now Melbourne, and who just four months shy of turning 43, finished fifth best woman overall in the New York Marathon in November, having already improved her best to 2:24:11 in London last April to finish seventh best overall.
The New York Times ran a feature on Friday under the headline: Nike’s Fastest Shoes May Give Runners an Even Bigger Advantage Than We Thought. Their latest data, based on race results from over one million marathons/half marathons in dozens of countries from April 2014 to December 2019, showed that runners in the Vaporfly 4% or Vaporfly Next% ran four to five per cent faster than a runner wearing an average running shoe.
All of which begs the question: is this fair? World Athletics, the governing body of this sport, are traditionally a stickler for rules: step half a foot inside the track in a 10,000m race and you’re likely to get yourself disqualified; take anything that offers a proper advantage over your opposition and you’re likely to get yourself banned for four fours.
They’ve set up a working group, including former athletes and experts across sports science, ethics and biomechanics, to look into the Nike Vaporfly, the essential advantage, unfair or otherwise, seemingly the thick foam of its midsole, built on a curved carbon-fibre plate, creating not so much a spring as a levering effect.
Their current rule states “any type of shoe used must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics”, and there is least evidence of that too – at the race start line, and in the race results. There’s no going back on 2019, just a decision to make in 2020, the only problem being time is already running away.