An Open Letter to the Running Shoe Companies (Only Half in Jest)

The recent migration of middle-distance Olympian Nick Symmonds from Nike to Brooks and the saga of where Olympic distance runner Kara Goucher would wind up after leaving Nike (She chose upstart women’s clothing manufacturer Oiselle http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/bodywork/in-stride/Kara-Goucher-Leaves-Nike.html?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=tweet) has gotten me thinking about marketing in the running industry. Here’s the thing: I’m all for companies such as Nike, New Balance, Adidas, Brooks, Oiselle, etc. supporting the livelihoods of professional runners even though when you look closely at the business model it doesn’t appear to make any sense. As a sport, running is like soccer in the United States during the 1970s and early 1980s: everyone was doing it, but nobody was watching it. Running faces a similar problem. Where I live in the capital region of upstate New York on any given weekend starting during early spring, there are multiple races in which to test one’s mettle. The Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club’s fall half-marathon was closed out in half a day (I missed the sign up because I was running…grrrrrr.). There are numerous clubs and many, many, group runs during the week. Only the most cynical or unobservant could possibly conclude that the sport of running is not amazingly vibrant and healthy at the participant level. At the professional level – the level that needs fans and followers – the rhetoric that surrounds the sport is one of crisis. The typical professional runner makes $16,000 a year. There is a labyrinthine bureaucracy supervising competition that makes it difficult for professionals to innovate. Ever notice that a professional runner’s shorts and singlet are almost completely free of advertising? Professionals such as Nick Symmonds would like that to change. What the elite branch of the sport needs is a league that fans could follow and that would have runners representing cities in a series of competitions that would lead up to some type of title match. Author and announcer Toni Reavis has written several times about this proposal, as well as other ways of growing a fanbase. I’m going to tackle some of these issues in subsequent posts (Why, for example, does every athlete sponsored by Nike or Adidas, etc., always wear the same design and color of uniform? It’s bizarre and it makes running even more difficult to follow for the inexperienced fan).

Today, however, I have a proposal that might actually undermine efforts to support professional runners – sorry. It’s more of an appeal to the pragmatic business acumen of the major running shoe companies, although there is really no legitimate reason why my proposal and continued support of professionals should not comfortably co-exist. OK, here it goes: I race more often than Galen Rupp and a lot more often than a professional marathoner such as Ryan Hall. Obviously, the quality is not the same (duh), but this is more about contact. The runners that you are trying to sell shoes to probably don’t even see the elites when they are featured in the same race. Regular, everyday, runners at races have little idea of what shoes the elites are wearing, and have even less information about how those shoes perform. Let me rectify that. I race frequently and would race even more frequently with your support. I often get into conversations at races with fellow runners about shoes, training, etc., and find that I can be quite the brand ambassador without really intending to. Even though Hoka One One has just signed a major sponsorship deal with Leo Manzano earlier this week, I think that I would also be a good fit. I can’t stop endorsing the Bondi 2 – it has allowed me to up my mileage without getting injured. I can go on a long run and then do it all again the next day. This is quite a revelation for the masters runner. I would be happy to talk up Hoka One One at the various races I attend. When I run races, I am not so far out in front that other runners can’t see my shoes or what I am wearing. You’ll get maximum brand exposure, because I spend more time on the course. I am fast enough, however, for some to wonder if “It must be the shoes.” (See what I did there, Nike?) I think this sponsorship deal would be fairly straightforward. I need some free shoes, kit, my entry fees, and travel expenses (Travel, at this point is not going to be too expensive. I am still completely local – I even run to some of my local races. I do, however, have aspirations of traveling to the National Cross Championships someday.). What you get in return is brand exposure that runners at local races will actually see and an enthusiastic advocate of your products. True, Hoka One One is going to have to get a racing flat out pronto, but since Leo joined that is something that is being fast tracked. (I have to admit that I am very excited about the prospect of Hoka One One making spikes. Hoka foam under the spike plate sounds wonderful…) OK, running shoe companies, if you are interested in my proposal, contact me on my blog and I will get right back to you.

Yes, I wore tights -- it was cold.

Yes, I wore tights — it was cold.

After having made the claim that my status as an average masters runner makes me a good candidate for a new model of sponsorship, I went out last weekend and blew my amateur status. I finished second in a local road race and was happy to discover a fifty-dollar Visa gift card in my award bag – sweet. I went out and treated the family to ice cream and there was actually some money left over (I live in New York…).

What Does The Wall Street Journal Have Against Running?

The Wall Street Journal is at it again. Almost a year ago, Kevin Helliker published “One Running Shoe in the Grave,” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323330604578145462264024472) which used some sketchy science and some odd anecdotal examples to argue that too much running could be a health risk. My conclusion at the time was that alarmists such as Helliker were too quick to settle on a very low threshold for what constitutes “over doing it.” I am willing to entertain the idea that ultrarunners could get themselves into trouble by never giving themselves time to recover from inflammation. I will also, however, not be surprised if we find out that ultrarunners’ bodies are able to more efficiently deal with inflammation – they would just about have to, wouldn’t they? Helliker followed up this inflammatory article with another later in the year, “The Slowest Generation,” The Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2013 (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324807704579085084130007974) which argued that today’s younger runners lack the competitiveness of previous generations. The recognition that the sport’s growing popularity has increased the number of beginning and inexperienced runners is quickly glossed over in favor of a more newsworthy “crisis of competitiveness” argument, which was taken up by subsequent commentators such as Toni Reavis, who argued that this is a general problem in the United States and not limited merely to running. With the publication of Chad Stafko’s opinion piece, “OK, You’re a Runner. Get Over It: Running a marathon is hard enough without also patting yourself on the back every step of the way” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304448204579186401818882202), The Wall Street Journal once again decided that poking fun at runners and stirring controversy is a good way to generate page traffic. I know that Stafko’s piece is meant to be funny in a snarky, undergraduate kind of way; but it is written – as are many of these WSJ opinion pieces – like a lazy blog entry and made me wonder if the WSJ still has a paper edition. Yes, we understand that you can’t fathom why people would choose to run, when you can drive. Yes, we get it that the 13.1 and 26.2 bumper stickers might be ostentatious and self-congratulatory (I, too, think they’re a bit silly. It’s like an excessive touchdown dance in the end zone – act like you’re going to be there again.) and that you think running is just about exhibitionism. Yes, we ultimately realize that this was an attempt to humorously rile runners in an effort to multiply page views. As expected, runners, as well as those who appear to really hate runners, all weighed in as evidenced by 871 comments (when I last looked) and still counting. I can guarantee that a similarly sophomoric opinion piece or badly researched article about the dangers of exercise will grace the pages of The Wall Street Journal every several months (This is probably more about page views and advertising revenue than anything else.) as long as readers continue to take the bait.

Stafko’s accusation that runners take up the sport to be seen – he questioned their “infatuation with running and the near-mandatory ritual of preening about it” – does raise the question about the meaning of running’s increasing visibility in our society. I think Stafko reaches the conclusion he does because he interprets all social interactions through the lens of capitalist self-interest – all of our actions (I don’t think many WSJ-enthusiasts would disagree) are shaped by money and the status conferred by money. With this type of “Wall Street Journal world view,” it does make sense that Stafko would interpret runners’ behavior and motivation as merely reflective of the worst aspects of the United States’ system of commercial capitalism: self-absorption and unchecked individualism. According to Stafko, runners run to be seen and subsequently the sport is more about conspicuous consumption than having fun, because how could it possibly be more fun to run ten miles than to drive?

Although Stafko’s piece was meant to rile runners, he does manage to indirectly raise some important considerations about why people run and running’s place in society as a cultural phenomenon. Since the 1880s (I’ll probably get more precise about this date range in the future.) there has been tension between the commercial attributes of the sport and running’s more metaphysical aspects. This tension and the struggle for balance was first manifest in the almost century-long debate between professionalism and amateurism and then, during the late 1970s with the rise of Nike, in the struggle between commercialism and running’s inherent radicalism. Running’s critique of societal norms, as well as its seeming promise to offer people a different way of giving their lives meaning has competed during the last thirty or so years with the recognition among various entrepreneurs and established athletics companies that given the right marketing running could be profitably “monetized.” At the same time that people such as George Sheehan and Bill Rodgers touted the simplicity of running and its essentially populist nature, companies like Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and Brooks (to name a few) were effectively arguing that running was not at all simple. In fact, to avoid injury and do it most effectively one needed protective, padded shoes, crammed with the latest in running shoe technology. This was an effective and profitable message that saw its corollary in all sorts of additional running gear. Running shoe companies, aided by a host of articles about training and injury prevention in books and magazines devoted to running, made a simple sport complicated. In making the complicated understandable (and in recent years, simple again) lay the avenue to profit.

I would argue that part of the commercialization of running was necessary to its coming of age as a professional sport. Sheehan and Rodgers, for example, were able to make their livings from the sport because of the popularity partially conferred through commercialization. I would argue, however, that they also professionalized the sport very much on their own terms. Rodgers often indicated that overthinking things could undercut one’s enjoyment of running, as well as training effectiveness, while Sheehan sold a lot of books by essentially arguing that running was appealing because it allowed for a very personal escape from the artificiality of the consumer capitalist system. It’s difficult to sum up Sheehan in one sentence and I have undoubtedly done an injustice; suffice to say that Sheehan was as surprised as anyone that he was selling books more about the metaphysics of running than the techniques of running. Without the growing marketing potential of the sport, however, it would have been unlikely that publishers would have taken risks on running books, or that Rodgers would have been able to open several stores devoted to running.

Stafko is right in recognizing that commercialization and the promise of profit has helped fuel the recent running boom. Weekends are filled with races, specialty running stores are popping up all over the place, and the shoe industry produces a dizzying number of models. Yet, after all is said and done, I would argue that people don’t take up running because effective marketing has convinced them that they should or that they feel consciously or subconsciously that this is a great way to fuel their exhibitionism, as Stafko would argue. For one thing, it takes too much effort – this isn’t a fad like collecting Beanie Babies, you still have to do the work (and it can be exhausting) – to become a runner. Thus, I would argue that running is still a transgressive act, even though it exists very comfortably in the world of business. Runners can’t help but to be seen. In fact, in this day and age, it’s an essential safety requirement. At its core, running constitutes a challenge to society. It is personal, yet communal. Perhaps most importantly, running provides a model of success that bears little resemblance to the money and status markers that typically define success in our capitalist society. It is a radical, empowering activity that has become mainstream and this must be scary for the Chad Stafkos of the world.

Hoka One One Bondi Bs –– Yes, the hype is real

When I started this blog, I didn’t really see myself doing a whole lot of shoe reviews. There are (better) sites devoted to that (see, for example, Runblogger) and I tend to stick with the several shoe models that work for me. Several years ago, while suffering from painful plantar fasciitis in both feet, I made the switch to minimalist shoes and completely revamped my running form. I now (well, until several weeks ago…I’ll explain) alternate between a pair of Nike Zoom Streak XC 3s and the original Nike Lunar Racers (harder and harder to find…grrrrr). The Streaks are almost zero drop, extremely light, and are almost always on sale somewhere, so they are inexpensive. The update that Nike recently made was improving the tongue of the shoe – it is now padded and doesn’t bunch up at the sides –– and changing the name of the shoe and the colors (although it looks like the most recent release has changed the mesh…hmmm). The essentials of the shoe, however, haven’t changed (yay!).  If I had a direct line to Nike, I would suggest removing the Zoom Air in the heel –– I would be surprised if there are any heel strikers who wear this shoe for more than several minutes –– for some additional weight saving. Of course, if they did that, they would have just about reinvented the best racing flat of all time, the Nike Eagle. Anyway, going minimal and becoming a forefoot and midfoot striker changed my running for the better: I got faster, my knees stopped hurting, that weird click in my left knee went away, my feet stopped hurting, and I didn’t have to take a day off of running every other day. I began to evangelize for minimalist running.

Now, I’m going to shock you. This blog entry is an enthusiastic endorsement of the Hoka One One Bondi Bs. Not exactly a minimal shoe. My family initially called them “the clown shoes,” as did I. Ultra marathoners and runners recovering from injuries have embraced the exaggeratedly cushioned Hokas. I had seen some very enthusiastic online reviews and was intrigued, although the price was initially off-putting. Why did I think I needed a pair? Well, despite the joys of minimalist running, my running had stalled of late. I was stuck in a rut and had convinced myself that the cure was more volume. Unfortunately, I was finding that when I increased my mileage my legs began to hurt and I would have to take several days off before I could run again. My overall mileage actually started to decrease. What to do?

Hoka One One Bondi Bs

Hoka One One Bondi Bs

I bought (into) the Hokas. I have had them for several weeks and I can unequivocally say at this point that the reviews are true and the hype is real. I am not an ultra marathoner, nor do I have seemingly unsolvable chronic injury problems. Yet, I find the Hokas extremely useful. I don’t find that they make running all that much easier, but they make recovery I whole lot faster, which allows for more and better running. After I go for an eight to ten mile run in my Hoka One One Bondi Bs, my legs feel noticeably better immediately after a run (much less fatigued), as well as the next day. They don’t feel sore and beat down. I was concerned that the super cushioning of the Hokas would alter my running form and start me back on the slippery slope of heel striking. In fact, the Bondi Bs are my first true zero drop shoes and I found that it only took several hundred meters to get used to them. Despite the cushioning, there is actually some road feel and I found that they seemed to firm up over the course of a run. As everyone reports, they are absolutely fantastic for running down hill. They have a wide base and the super cushioning does a great job of absorbing downhill impact. I found them less ideal for going up hill –– the super cushioning feels like it is adding to the work. Some runners have reported upper tears in the mesh by the toe box. I haven’t had this problem and I suspect that Hoka may have addressed this problem in this version of the shoe. The upper is made of a durable mesh and has few overlays, as well as plenty of room in the toe box. This is a very comfortable shoe. The sole durability could be an issue. I immediately saw some wear in the midfoot area that is not protected by more durable rubber on the bottom of the shoe. It is fairly clear that I am striking a bit further back while wearing the Hokas. I still feel, however, that my stride hasn’t changed too much. I don’t have any chronic injuries, so I can’t speak to those who have used the Hokas to restart their running after years of not being able to do it. There do seem to be plenty of remarkable stories out there. I can say, however, that if you are looking to increase your mileage without overly stressing your legs, going the “maxi-minimalist” route with the Hoka One One Bondi Bs could be the way to go.

The Mustard Report and other Topics to Anticipate

Some of my favorites, now obsolete

Some of my favorites, now obsolete

I had many ideas for this blog entry and it was difficult to seize upon one topic.  I was initially excited to try to jump on a recent trend of the last several weeks and name my top five running shoes of all time.  It appears that around the holidays, or maybe this is entirely coincidence, various bloggers decide to make lists of their favorite running shoes.  I started thinking about this and realized that my attitude towards running shoes has changed a lot as I have gotten older.  When I was in high school, I remember being excited about perusing the pages of Runner’s World for the latest shoe releases and religiously (and it was a religion) reading the annual “shoe issue.”  Back then, the idea of buying and wearing the same running shoe model twice was unthinkable.  Now, however, if I find something I like, I dread the inevitable update.  I recently had to scour eBay for a pair of Nike Lunaracers when I realized that Nike was again updating.  Why must they mess with a great pair of shoes?  Nike tried this with the Lunaracers once before and there was so much outcry that they had to re-release them in their original form.  You are now probably aware that the Lunaracers would make my top five list, although I seldom race in it – too heavy and cushy.  It’s a great shoe to rotate into the mix when I feel like I need some additional cushioning on a long run or when my legs feel beat.  Running shoes are definitely on the agenda for some future blog entries.  I have some specific ideas about what makes a good shoe.  I am also increasingly alarmed about the cost of running shoes and I am willing to call companies out when I see shoes that try to justify outlandish prices based on ridiculous technology.

Topics also on the horizon include the efficacy of compression sleeves.  Do they work, or not?  Short answer: I don’t know.  I have, however, become completely dependent on CEP compression calf sleeves.  I have convinced myself that they provided critical support when I was recovering from a tibia stress fracture and I continue to run in them, even when experts tell me that they are only useful during recovery after a run, because they “feel” like they are allowing me to go further, faster.  This, of course, could just be due to the fact that I am getting in better shape, although I do seem to be less sore after my long runs. Who knows? I’ll do some research and report.

Next, I am planning on writing about pre race meals.  Earlier this summer, when I finally went under 20 minutes for a 5K for the first time since high school, I managed to eat at Gene’s Fish Fry about two hours before the race.  I consumed a fried fish sandwich (of course), French fries, and a large strawberry milkshake.  I was not optimistic that this qualified as a responsible pre race meal.  I ended up taking twenty seconds off my PR.  Was it Gene’s, or would I have gotten under 19 minutes if I had not eaten like an idiot?  I know much has been written on what to eat before a race, but I am interested in people’s specific pre race meal routines. I hope that in the near future we can get a useful and entertaining discussion underway regarding what to eat (and what not to eat…).

This brief mention of food brings me back to what I intended to discuss in today’s blog entry.  Remember, that I earlier promised to report on the mustard gambit as a way of preventing leg cramps.  After having agreed to use myself as a guinea pig, I didn’t actually plan to race again for over a month.  This past Sunday was the first race in the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club Winter Series.  I had the choice of 3 miles or 15 K.  I went with 3 miles and that was probably a drawback in figuring out if mustard helps to prevent leg cramps. I have only once had cramps in a 5K race and these occurred at the very end in extremely hot and humid conditions.  Cramps are usually not a problem for me in shorter races.  Remember that one of the theories is that leg cramps can be caused by a deficiency in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates muscles to work.  Mustard contains acetic acid, which stimulates the body to produce more acetylcholine.

A spoon full of mustard keeps the leg cramps at bay...

A spoon full of mustard keeps the leg cramps at bay…

On Sunday, I woke up about three hours before the race and had a can of coconut water to help hydrate and then about an hour later consumed a banana, a slice of toasted cinnamon-raisin bread spread with Nutella (I couldn’t find the peanut butter, which led to a full-scale refrigerator cleaning later in the afternoon, including replacement of the fridge light!), several cups of coffee, and (wait for it) a spoon of mustard.  I was planning to have a packet of mustard shortly before I ran, but I completely forgot – great scientific method.  It was a good race.  My main issue was being slightly underdressed.  I need to remember that the thermometer on our back porch does not account for the wind on the SUNY-Albany campus where the races are held.  I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt during the race and I really could have gone with long sleeves.  I noticed about a mile into it that I was cold.  Ideally, you shouldn’t notice clothing problems during a race.  I also did a little bit of racing during the last mile, back and forth with a fellow runner, and managed to kick it into the downhill finish in 19:40 and 11th place overall.  I took 15 seconds off last year’s time – always a good sign – but finished just out of the bread.  The top two in each age group are awarded coupons for a free loaf of bread at a local bakery – awesome, but I finished third.

Anyway, I didn’t experience any leg cramps, but I didn’t really expect to.  My next opportunity to try out the mustard (that just sounds weird) will be on January 13, 2013.  I have the option to run a 10K, so I will have the mustard for breakfast and right before I race and then see what happens.  The last time I experienced leg cramps was about four miles into a 10K, so this should provide a good test.  I have to admit, however, that other variables have also been in flux.  I didn’t run in the various Thanksgiving turkey trots because I was concentrating on increasing my mileage.  Some steady training may also be increasing my leg strength and endurance, making me more resistant to cramps, perhaps.  After Sunday’s race, I will again be going for more than a month without racing and I have taken Running Times’  latest recommendation to run your easy runs easier to heart.  I am using the next month to do more mileage less intensely.  Again, this could have an effect on my cramp resistance.

Stay tuned for my upcoming report on mustard therapy, pre race meals, compression socks, and running shoes.  I also plan to write a blog entry on running goals for the upcoming year.  Putting them out in public might provide some additional impetus to realize them.