(Photo: Courtesy Nike Running)
In Stride

How the World’s Most Famous Runner Promotes Nike’s Fastest Shoe 

Beyond setting a world record in the Alphafly, Eliud Kipchoge is credited with helping to create the supershoe


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When Nike was hyping the launch of its Vaporfly 4% running shoe in 2017, there was some skepticism about the company’s claims of having invented a product that would dramatically improve running economy. As it turned out, however, all the noise about the ur-super shoe was empirically validated; athletes of every level who wore it were suddenly running faster times. Clock don’t lie. Soon, every major running shoe company developed a premium racer whose design seemed to follow the blueprint of offsetting max cushioning with a stiff plate. For better or worse, it was impossible to deny that Nike had spawned an industry-wide shift in racing shoes.

The company makes a point of emphasizing how much this seismic innovation is indebted to input from elite athletes. The Vaporfly has a tweaked version of one of Nike’s slogans printed on its upper, informing us that it’s been “Engineered to the exact specifications of world-class runners.” On the one hand there’s nothing particularly new or unusual about this. Most shoe brands work with their sponsored elites for product testing, and at Nike the practice has its legacy in eventual co-founder Bill Bowerman making footwear for his athletes at the University of Oregon back in the fifties and sixties. A 2014 article in the New York Times on the Saucony Human Performance and Innovation Lab depicts elite runner Ben True (who was sponsored by the company at the time) ripping 4:20 miles on a $100,000 treadmill while covered in tiny lights for gait analysis. Under Armour recently published a press release about how it tested prototypes in in-race scenarios with its Dark Sky Distance team. In an episode of the Coffee Club podcast, On-sponsored runners Ollie Hoare and Geordie Beamish chatted with Jordan Donnelly, the brand’s head of product creation, about the process of creating track spikes for high-level competition.

Nonetheless, the degree to which Nike has leveraged Eliud Kipchoge’s celebrity to promote its most premium shoe feels like an outlier—unsurprising, perhaps, since there’s never been a distance running celebrity quite like him. The Alphafly, Nike’s self-described fastest shoe to date, is touted by the company as a “collaboration” with the man who is both the ultimate poster child for the shoe’s efficacy and a kind of talisman for all that is good and wholesome about the sport of distance running. The press release includes a video of Kipchoge at his spartan training camp in Kaptagat keeping a meticulous shoe journal, and pondering the minutiae of running shoe design. (“The upper: Is it scratchy? Is too elastic?”) Brett Holts, Nike’s senior director of North American running, told me that Kipchoge was “fully on board” with the first version of the Vaporfly, which at the time represented a radical departure from the minimalist, low-to-the-ground design that was the industry standard for racing flats. “He was the first to understand what we were trying to do and how it would benefit him as an athlete,” Holts told me. “It started with Eliud and now we’re seeing his teammates and other athletes also being open to trying new things early in the process.”

What does that process look like in practice? When we spoke, Holts had just returned from an annual trip to Kaptagat where he and other members of Nike’s product and marketing teams had visited Kipchoge’s camp with a vast arsenal of prototypes, the final versions of which are slated to be released before the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Runners tested in-development models––including during hard efforts like track sessions and a 25-mile long run––and shared their thoughts in same-day feedback sessions. According to Holts, Kipchoge took the initiative to make himself the unofficial brand liaison by creating a questionnaire for his teammates, asking them to weigh in on separate parts of the shoes, from the upper to the outsole. Holts says that responses ranged from aesthetic concerns about the “size and location of the Swoosh on the upper,” to comments about a shoe’s ability to “lock down” the foot and hold it in place––an understandable concern given the rugged terrain of the Kenyan Highlands where Kipchoge and his teammates often set off running five-minute-mile pace in the predawn darkness. (Holts also maintains that the higher stack height that has established itself as the new normal for racing shoes had literally changed the gait of some elite athletes. “We were at the track when they did 12×1000 meters, on a Tuesday morning,” Holts told me. “After the completion of each 1000, they would walk 200. It was amazing to see that their heels never touched the ground—even when they were walking. It’s just kind of this new gait that they have really adapted to with the product.”)

While there can be no doubt that it bolsters a brand’s credibility to have its products vetted by the best runners in the world, it’s worth asking to what extent the process is more about marketing and prestige than creating the ideal running shoe for the masses. It need hardly be said that Kipchoge and his teammates are extreme outliers in the global running population that Nike caters to. Considering that Nike makes its money by selling shoes to people who mostly don’t have perfect running form or single-digit body fat percentages, how useful is input from someone like Kipchoge?

When I put that question to Holts, he pointed out that the racing flats of yore were not necessarily an advisable choice for the mid-pack marathoner; if you’re going to be on your feet for four hours, you probably need more than a sliver of shoe. The upside of the super shoe revolution is that a product that was originally designed for performance enhancement also has tangible benefits on the recovery and comfort front—benefits that apply to everyone. This was always the best argument against claims from purists and old-timers that the sudden importance of shoe tech was ruining the beauty and simplicity of the sport.

As my colleague Alex Hutchinson has previously noted, the evidence that super shoes are a boon to recovery is still a little scant. But, anecdotally at least, there seems to be a consensus among both amateur and professional runners that these shoes make your legs feel less trashed after a hard effort. I recently spoke to Jos Hermens, Kipchoge’s longtime manager, who also believes that the new shoes make a dramatic difference here. He recalled how one of his former athletes, the great Haile Gebrselassie, could barely limp onto the podium after he broke the marathon world record in 2007. Kipchoge, meanwhile, looked like he could still be up for an evening of ballroom dancing after he ran 2:01:09 in Berlin last September in an updated version of the Alphafly.

That shoe is currently retailing for an immodest $275. The potential for super shoe inflation adds another dimension to the question of whether the recent design revolution is really in everyone’s best interest. Even Donnelly, On’s product lead and an integral part of that company’s top-of-the-line products, says on the podcast that “super shoe prices are ridiculous.” No argument here. Indeed, there’s an irony in the fact that Kipchoge, whose ascetic existence and simple approach to training is the stuff of legend, is now also being credited with playing a crucial role in bringing the most tricked out (and expensive) running shoe ever into existence. Eat your heart out purists. As Kipchoge says in the AlphaFly launch video: “I think this shoe will be part of my legacy.”

Lead Photo: Courtesy Nike Running