Cathal Dennehy: Welcome to the age of the super shoes

The six fastest 800m indoor times in history by Irishwomen were all run in the past month
Cathal Dennehy: Welcome to the age of the super shoes

The Zoomx Dragonfly from Nike.

You see the time, and then there’s that moment: your eyes widen, your adrenaline flows, and you turn to whoever is with you and express that child-like excitement.

But soon after, along comes the doubt, the reservations.

That nagging follow-up question arrives like a health and safety officer to a house party.

What’s going on here? It’s a question you can’t help ask, one many in athletics have confronted as track records came crashing down over the past year.

Last week the trend continued on an Irish front, with the national indoor women’s 800m record broken twice, first by Nadia Power and then Síofra Cléirigh-Buttner, and the men’s 800m indoor record was broken by Mark English.

As Jon Mulkeen of World Athletics tweeted on Sunday night, the six fastest indoor times in history by Irishwomen were all run in the past month.

Irish records have been tumbling this year and a lot of people are putting it down to footwear.
Irish records have been tumbling this year and a lot of people are putting it down to footwear.

Of course, there are many factors at play whenever an astonishing flood of performances arrives at once, and while some were wearing old-school spikes without a carbon plate in sight, only the deluded would suggest footwear isn’t a factor.

Welcome to the age of the super shoes.

As a journalist who writes primarily about the sport, I’ve spent as much time thinking about shoes these past few years as Christian Louboutin, ever since Nike disregarded the rules that shoes worn in competition must be freely available and handed a game-changing prototype to a select few before the 2016 Olympics.

Anyone with a passing interest knows what happened next, with road-running records arriving not so much with their typical light dusting as with a disillusioning avalanche.

Early last year, soon after World Athletics announced rules to limit the stack height of shoes, I spoke to one of the world’s top researchers in the area, Geoffrey Burns, and his warning about the slew of records has stayed with me.

“It’s like a massive bowl of ice cream. It’s awesome right now, but I suspect it will make us feel like shit in the long run.” The reason is simple. When everything is amazing, then soon enough nothing is amazing.

For a long time, the issue was confined to the roads, but similar technology arrived on the track at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, where a fellow journalist turned to me in the mixed zone, pointed to an athlete’s spikes, and asked: “What the f*** are they?”

He was referring to the Nike Air Zoom Victory, a shoe that contains a carbon fibre plate and hyper-responsive ZoomX foam, one of a generation of super-spikes whose effect has not yet been calculated, but which empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests is sizable.

The same is true for the Nike Dragonfly, a spike that contains a hard pebax plate and which Joshua Cheptegei and Letesenbet Gidey wore to set 5000m world records last summer. One Irish elite I know estimates they give a two-second benefit over 1500m, which would translate to seven seconds over 5000m.

The sprint events have so far avoided a similar transformation but the same thing will inevitably happen there.

Nike’s Viperfly spike, designed specifically for the 100m, was not considered eligible for release last year due to having a second external plate that was not fully attached to the shoe, but it’s understood to have had a startling effect on ground contact times in testing, with sources suggesting it carved 0.3 off athletes’ 100m times.

A modified, competition-legal version will likely find its way to market this year.

But it’s not just Nike. New Balance released a carbon-plated spike last year that is substantially more effective than what came before, and while Adidas athletes have so far been running in spikes that are suddenly considered ‘old tech’, the brand is understood to have something special in the works ahead of the Tokyo Games.

Some fans are enraged by the technology, suggesting that breakthrough performances are now irrelevant and barely worth mentioning. Many athletes, meanwhile, are indignant and loathe the suggestion that technology is aiding their performance. It’s hard to know which attitude is worse.

In truth, it’s an insult to athletes of the past to suggest new-age technology is not a factor in the times we’re seeing, given it has elevated very good athletes above great ones on the all-time lists, but it’s also an insult to athletes of the present to shout “shoes” in their face the very moment their years of hard work have come to fruition.

Technology is a factor, but it’s one of many, and while it’s fair to acknowledge the effect, it should be a necessary footnote when dissecting a big performance rather than the headline news. 

These super-spikes aren’t going away, and I believe every track world record will fall in the next five years as a result. And while they will completely distort the all-time lists and force us to re-calibrate what we once thought of as fast, the sooner we start doing that the better.

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