Listen. Fionnuala McCormack is not mad. She’s disappointed.
She’s not the kind of athlete to go off on one without very good cause. The two-time European champion doesn’t like the limelight — she’d rather have her teeth pulled than be splashed across the headlines — but some things just need to be said.
The 35-year-old thought last Friday would be a good day. With World Athletics unveiling its long-awaited new rules on shoe technology, McCormack hoped to see a strict line drawn to ensure races could again be decided the old-fashioned way: by talent and toughness, rather than technology. So what was her reaction when the news broke?
“They haven’t really changed the rules, have they?” she says. “They thought the problem was big enough to sit down and have a meeting about it, but then they just went, ‘Off you go, as you are.’ That’s not logical.”
She describes the new regulations as “weak” and believes they “support one particular brand” — Nike.
The rules impose a limit on the thickness of running shoes — no midsole can be above 40mm — and shoes cannot contain more than one plate.
The changes came about in response to the game-changing effect of the Nike Vaporfly, the controversial shoe that was first seen at the top level in 2016. It contains one carbon fibre plate surrounded by ultra-light, hyper-responsive Pebax foam, and experts have measured its midsole height at 39mm.
The shoe offers an almost 5% improvement in running economy which translates to an improvement of between one and two minutes for elite marathoners. The latest version, the Alphafly, is substantially more efficient and is due for release this month.
The shoe will have a midsole of exactly 40mm with one carbon plate, which makes McCormack sceptical about the process that led to the new regulations.
“The smaller the stack height, the less room you have for making these massive technological advances,” she says. “They should have done what was being recommended by loads of people and have the stack height much smaller. As it is it’s pretty much a free-for-all.
McCormack has never raced in the Vaporfly. She likely never will. She’s sponsored by New Balance, which is set to launch its own carbon-plated shoe in the coming months.
Though many New Balance athletes wore a prototype of that shoe last year, McCormack chose not to, believing it violated the previous rule that all shoes must be reasonably available to all.
Under the new regulations, the use of prototypes will not be allowed after April 30, with shoes needing to be on the market for at least four months prior to being worn in elite competition.
McCormack finished fifth in the Chicago Marathon last October in New Balance racing flats with a thin midsole.
As she gears up for the World Half Marathon Championships and a fourth Olympic Games, she’s conflicted about wearing the new generation of super-thick, carbon-plated shoes.
“I don’t agree with the technology but I’m not sure I’m going to have much of a choice,” she says.
She has read widely on the topic and digested both sides of the debate, but McCormack rejects the argument that the Vaporfly is as a natural evolution in the sport’s technology.
“I don’t think it’s just moving with the times because it’s too big of a jump over a very short period for (the sport to say), ‘Oh, that’s just the way things are now.’ I feel World Athletics have let us down and it’s kind of what we’ve come to expect at this stage, which is disappointing and sad.
“They’re playing us for fools a bit and we’re going along with it. Maybe if it gets bad enough they’ll fix it.”
- Fionnuala McCormack was speaking as an ambassador for the Kia Race Series 2020. Now in it’s third year, the series is organised by Pop Up Races and includes seven races nationwide.