You Better Run: Runners riding ‘Super Shoes’ into the record books

Tom Dalton of Rotterdam shows off his Nike Vaporfly "super shoes."

Tom Dalton of Rotterdam shows off his Nike Vaporfly "super shoes."

YOU BETTER RUN – If you’re of a certain age (mine), you’re familiar with the old Disney movie “The Absent-Minded Professor” starring Fred MacMurray as “Dr. Boom,” a chemist who invents the gravity-defying substance called Flubber.

Flubber kept popping into my head as I was reading an article published in May of last year by Podiatry Today titled, “Running Super Shoes: Truly Super, or Just Hype?”

Mike MacAdam - You Better RunI kept waiting for the part where Podiatry Today maybe described a quality about the super shoes that gives runners a Flubber-like advantage, thus disqualifying them from competition.

I had to settle for this fascinating nugget: “The full-length carbon-fiber plate within the PEBA midsole reduces negative work at the MTPJs during propulsion and increases the lever arm of the foot for the ankle plantarflexors to push off during propulsion. However, the carbon-fiber plate within the midsole does not likely function as a spring, as many have suggested.”

You should see me at parties.

I’m a fan of the Hoka Clifton these days, upon the recommendation of two co-workers who said they’re easier on your knees, and that’s been my shoe of choice for a few years now.

But Tom Dalton of Rotterdam, the former Siena College All-American who dominated the Capital Region road racing scene for years and has been inducted into multiple halls of fame, tipped me on the super shoes last year, and has seen the benefits himself.

That supports the flood of evidence that has been coming from all levels, including the world-elite ranks since at least 2019, when Eliud Kipchoge and the team at Nike contrived to break two hours for a marathon, and did so (1:59.40) in Vienna, Austria. He wore a prototype of the Nike Vaporfly called the Alphafly.

So, not Just Hype.

“My vintage group, we refer to them as the steroid shoes,” he said with a laugh during a phone interview on Tuesday. “But it’s just one of those things where technology has come along, and now every shoe company has it.”

What makes a super shoe a super shoe?

These babies have two components, the carbon-fiber plate in the sole and a thick midsole made of a lower-density copolymer foam, that are responsible for more economical physics during the stride. That translates to a little bit more speed with comparable exertion that you’d get with more conventional not-so-super shoes.

When Tom described them — and the results they generated — during a conversation at the Freihofer’s Run for Women last spring, I said, ‘They sound illegal as all hell.”

And in fact, there was a movement afoot to consider banning them that ended in 2020, when the global governing body of track and field, World Athletics, issued new regulations with which the Nike Vaporfly’s specs complied.

Anyway, every shoe company has their own version of the super shoe now, everybody’s wearing them, and the results show.

At the 2022 David Hemery Valentine Invitational on Boston University’s famously fast indoor track, Grant Fisher crushed the U.S. indoor record for 5,000 meters in 12:53.73, and Canadian and European records also fell by the wayside with sub-13:00 times.

“Then you see what the people are doing in the marathon, and the elite marathon runners are running about three minutes faster,” Dalton said. “So now they have a spiked version of it, and that’s why I think you’re starting to see these absolute incredible times being run on track.”

Jim Ryun was the first high schooler to break the four-minute mile barrier in the U.S., and he did it five times in 1964-65.

By the time Alan Webb did it in high school in 2001, there were only two other runners, 

Tim Danielson (1966) and Marty Liquori (1967), to crack 4:00.

Since 2020, it’s been done nine times by seven different runners.

“The correlation I guess you can make is it’s the difference between hitting a golf ball with probably the old medal woods or the old persimmon, wooden ones back in the 60’s and 70’s,” Dalton said. “Now everybody on tour hits the ball 300 yards. So they can’t keep lengthening all these golf course, because people can just crush the golf ball so far.

“Tiger Woods was kind of the first guy 20 years hitting it 300 yards consistently, and now everybody does.”

There is some precedent for banning running shoes with certain features that provide an advantage, perceived or not.

“The Forbidden Shoe” (which sounds like it could be the title of the worst horror movie ever) became the nickname for the Puma Brush Spikes in 1968, when synthetic tartan tracks began replacing cinder tracks.

The Brush Spikes had 68 tiny needle-like spikes in the forefoot, and the world record book took a beating. John Carlos ran a 19.92 for 200 meters at the 1968 U.S. Olympic Trials, and teammate Vince Matthews had run 44.4 for 400 two weeks prior.

As the story goes, adidas was working on their own version of The Forbidden Shoe and couldn’t get their act together in time for the Olympics, so they did the next best thing: petitioning the IAAF to have the shoes banned, which they did, vacating the records set by Carlos and Matthews in the process.

The current super shoes have proven to be safe from any action by the authorities.

Dalton said he’s OK with that, and not just because he uses them.

“I guess I’ve come to terms with accepting it,” he said. “At first, I was like, ‘Man, they’ve got to put an asterisk by this.’ Guys in the 5,000 are dropping 30, 40 seconds. Just incredible improvement.

“The way I look at it is I don’t think the shoes are quite as effective when you’re running cross country. So you see some of the times these guys are running on the old standard courses and see what they run on the track, and there’s no correlation.

“You used to see a guy who could break five minutes a mile on a cross country course, and then what they run on the track. There’s guys that are running outrageous times on the track, and then 5:10, 5:20 on a cross country course.”

Dalton, who has won the Stockade-athon seven times, the Troy Turkey Trot eight times, the Albany Corporate Challenge 14 times and is a five-time USATF Masters Cross Country Runner of the Year, mostly does trail runs these days and doesn’t have any immediate racing plans this year.

Because he’s on the trails, he only runs in his Vaporflys once a week or so.

“But I am telling you, they make a huge difference,” he said. “I tried them, and I’d go over to the track and kind of do the same thing. I have a Garmin watch, and at the end of it, I’m running 30 seconds faster per mile with basically what I’m thinking is the same effort. Then I check my heart rate afterwards, and my heart rate’s lower. It’s just incredible.”

They’ve also proven to be durable, he said, and “Well, they better be, for the price tag.”

That would be $275 a pop, and until they come out with a Flubber version, I’ll stick to my Hokas.

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