Business Unusual

A record breaking shoe may also break the sport

Disruption, innovation, progress and unintended consequences.

This is the challenge that Clayton Christensen addressed in his 1990s book The Innovator's Dilemma and it comes in the same month as his untimely death at 67.

One of the issues he identified is that the same reasons that might give some companies a disruptive advantage might also result in the death of another similar company.

Might Nike’s incredible world record-shattering shoes be a innovators dream or dilemma?

This is the story of the Nike ZoomX Alphafly Next% long-distance world-record-setting shoe. Will it be Nike’s crowning glory or the kiss of death for the sport?

Let me see if I can make the case for and against and leave you and time to decide.

A statue of the Greek goddess of victory - Nike

It all starts in Marathon

The marathon was introduced as a new event in the 1896 modern Olympics. It was inspired by the poem of a Greek messenger that ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens to announce the Athenian victory over the Persians, no sooner had the message been delivered over a distance of about 40km that the valiant messenger dropped dead of exhaustion. Historians dispute the contents of the poem and it appears the truth is even more impressive, however as the old saying goes the rest is history.

Initially, the distance was approximated based on where it was run, but from 1924 its distance was fixed at 42.196 kilometres. The first event was won with a time of 2 hours 58 minutes and 50 seconds. The current Olympic record is 52 minutes faster and the fastest ever was 59 minutes and 10 seconds faster.

Now a century later as athletes prepare to tackle the marathon in the June 2020 Olympics in Japan questions about the historical end of the marathon are being raised as we reach the biological limit of a human's ability to cover the distance any faster than we have already seen.

The current world record set in 2018 by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge is 2:01:39 but thanks to a remarkable pair of shoes and the perfect course prepared just for him in 2019, he managed to break the “impossible” two-hour barrier with a time of 1:59:40.2

It is unlikely that the two-hour barrier will be beaten at this Olympics, but as one reporter described it, Roger Bannister’s sub-four-minute mile was like the moon landing, a sub-two-hour marathon is like a Mars landing and that once someone has done it, it opens the way for others to do it too.

For a discipline, a little over a century old, the bulk of its history may already be written, the sport destined to terminal decline as future athletes can only hope to equal the current records rather than surpass it without resorting to banned substances.

It would not be the first, the 100m sprint has long seen heroes fail after it was found they had taken banned substances and the only athlete who holds all the records, Usain Bolt, has retired in 2017. How much have you heard about the 100 m in the last few years since his retirement that was not about Bolt’s achievements? A summary of news coverage about the event is likely to return a story about Nike’s adapted Alphafly shoe called the Viperfly that may see an exceptional athlete replace Bolt once last time before the records are effectively closed at the 9.5-second mark about .8 seconds faster than the current World Record set by Bolt in 2009.

Athletic bodies have not missed the potential for new records nor the risk of harm to the sport with this innovation.

An independent committee was tasked to determine if the shoes used in the sub-two-hour record should be cleared for use in official competition and at the end of January, they found they should and so will be used in Japan 2020. But they do agree that a limit should be set and that limit has either already been reached or even exceeded.

How Kipchoge's 1st attempt nearly broke the record

And how his second succeed

What makes the shoes so special

A marathon runner will use over 50 000 steps to complete the 42 km course. Each step uses energy to support the weight of your body and propel it forward. The more you can convert the energy to keep your body upright into energy that propels you forward, the faster and further you can travel for the same energy consumption.

These running shoes draw on the innovation of decades of improvement to both sprinting and long-distance to give an energy boost of at least 4%. Not much you might say, but at this level, a 1% improvement over 42km is the difference between a great performance and a world record.

These shoes have a built-up and super absorbent heel which when standing will tip you forward by about 10 degrees. This means each time you put your foot down the heel hits earlier, keeping you on your feet while also pushing you forward.

The special foam has evolved over time and uses a registered Pebax foam that is now used in almost every professional sport.

It is combined with a stiff carbon fibre midsole that takes a leaf out of a running spike which is very stiff and also angles to keep a runner on their toes. It provides the same compression energy that created the debate around the blades used by Oscar Pistorius which effectively could work better than legs.

The latest version which is due to go on sale at the end of the month includes a deep cut in the sole for added flexibility and an air-filled pocket to cushion and push the athlete forward.

The combination of comfort, propulsion and ultra-lightweight ensure a runner can run further and faster before feeling as tired using any other shoe.

Once upon a time, the optimum was to replicate the effect of a barefoot, but that has long been surpassed and athletes like Zola Budd would no longer be competitive unless they used the new form of running shoe.

This is the dilemma

When Kipchoge broke the record his pace was about 2:50 to the kilometre. The Telegraph calculated that for all the over 51 million completed park runs only five have been completed at a pace greater than his, and he did not run one park run but over eight of them back to back!

How could any athlete hope to compete unless they use the new shoe? Even weekend runners might feel that without the high tech shoe they are not reaching their true potential. Running shoes are already a premium cost item, these shoes are super-premium priced. IN South Africa you can expect to pay at least R4500 and probably over R5000 for the soon to be released Alphaflys.

Does this make the sport uncompetitive by excluding runners that can afford the best shoes? An aspect of their performance is that they will wear faster than traditional shoes and so there is a potential for disruption or even potential injury when training in high performance and regular shoes.

But the real concern which brings us back to the story of Pheidippides is that for all the heroic success of making it to the finish line, he still died. Might these shoes consign the marathon to a historical end game where once all the records have been set, never to be challenged or broken that interest in the sport will fade and a century after it began will expire like the glorious messenger who exclaimed “Nike, Nike, we are victorious” and then fell down dead.

For a deep dive on the issues and the impact for allowing shoes that offer such an advantage, read Prof Ross Tucker's column.

Running was a sport where a limit was set at physiology, not revolutionary equipment.

Prof. Ross Tucker, science and research consultant for World Rugby

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