Water used to be banned from races under 16 kilometres. Showing knees was once considered taboo. What else have we softened our stance on?
Science has spoken, and Nike’s controversial Zoom Vaporfly Elite racing shoe does exactly what it was purported to – decrease runners’ energy expenditures by about four per cent over the course of a race. So now the conversation has veered from “do these shoes make you run faster?” to “should they be allowed?”
The shoes burst into worldwide prominence when they carried Eliud Kipchoge to an unprecedented 2:00:25 in May, during Nike’s Breaking2 experiment. The shoes have performed well in regulation racing situations this year, too. Since the Vaporfly Elites were unveiled, 19 of the 36 athletes who placed in the top three at each of the World Marathon Majors – the six most competitive marathons on the planet – were wearing them.
For some – Nike-heads, technocrats, those simply wanting to see faster times – this is further validation that we’re at the vanguard of expanding human performance’s realm of possibility. For others – Vaporfly dissenters, old-school runners, purists – it’s one more reason to mumble about unfair advantages and the rich getting richer. (You pretty much can’t get the Vaporfly Elite unless you’re a Nike-sponsored athlete; the rest of us can purchase a slightly watered down iteration – the Zoom Vaporfly 4%.)
But if the sport’s reactions to past advancements are any indication of what’s to come, it won’t matter what we all decide is right. In 20 years, all shoes will contain Vaporfly-esque performance-improving materials, and the runners propelled by them will look back at 2017’s contentious debate and laugh.
It’s not the first time in the sport’s history that an advancement has caused controversy. Here are six advancements through the last 150 years that were once thought to be immoral, unfair, or just baselessly unacceptable, but are now commonplace.
Up until the 1960s, water was strictly prohibited from races shorter than 16 kilometres, at least in the United Kingdom and much of Europe. “The belief among top Brits into the early 1960s was that water made you weak. It was an almost medieval concept, parallel to steak making you strong,” said Roger Robinson, Runner’s World contributor and historian of the sport, in an email.
The performance benefits of a carbon-plated shoe surely pale in comparison to proper hydration. The human body is capable of amazing things, but running a two-hour marathon with a sandpaper mouth and failing organs probably isn’t one of them.
Today, experts suggest drinking 380 to 800ml of fluids every hour while running a marathon. Unless you’re cosplaying as an extra from Chariots of Fire, prancing along in starched running attire to an ambient soundtrack by Vangelis, it’s advice you might as well heed.
Men’s Running Shorts
Before drinking water was even in the discussion, folks harped on more conceptual issues, like modesty. And at some point in the 1870s, the visibility of the male knee caused a stir.
At a late-19th-century iteration of the Wenlock Olympics, a predecessor to the modern Games in Much Wenlock, England, a competitor was forced to run in an overcoat because his shorts didn’t cover his knees.
“Today’s women’s outfits would have caused horrors to the women’s federations up to the 1970s,” Robinson said.
Today, you’d be hard pressed to spot a person – regardless of gender – racing in an overcoat, unless he was vying for some odd world record. That said, the occasional flareup of prudish sensibilities still prevails in the realm of running attire, but it’s usually focused on women.
But there was a time when women in the sport were rarely told what to wear – because they weren’t permitted to run.
“It was not necessarily stated or printed anywhere, but at one point, women couldn’t run more than 2.5km, had to run with a chaperone, and couldn’t run with the men in races,” said Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with an official bib;, when she entered under the name K.V. Switzer so officials would not automatically identify her as a female entrant.
Back then, ‘experts’ thought women who ran long or intense mileage would not be able to have children.
“People thought it unfeminine to sweat or do anything arduous, and highly inappropriate to break into an all-male domain,” Switzer said.
The Boston Marathon didn’t officially allow female competitors until 1972, the same year the six women entered in the New York City Marathon staged a sit-down at the starting line to protest Amateur Athletic Union rules mandating men and women start separately.
“That photo of the sit-down got a lot of attention and was regarded rather humorously by the public, who by 1972 didn’t understand why women couldn’t run with men, because already we had run the Boston Marathon starting at the same time,” Switzer said.
Prize money was a major no-no in the running world up until the early 1970s, at which point the rules prohibiting it were slowly relaxed.
“The official justification was that prize money in the 19th century had led to gambling and race-fixing,” Robinson said. “But really it was a matter of the federations’ power, and lingering class prejudice, since ‘gentlemen’ didn’t need to get paid.”
Today, winners of major international marathons routinely walk away from the course carrying a novelty cheque made out to six-figure sums. When Shalane Flanagan won the New York City Marathon in November, for example, her take-home pay was US$100,000 for first place, plus another US$25,000 for finishing as the top American, then US$10,000 more for breaking 2:27:00.
Ahead of the 1968 Olympic Games, the sport was parting ways with cinder tracks and embracing new, springy, all-weather surface ovals. This was great for performance, but bad news for the nail-like spiked shoes most athletes used. Spikes had to be long enough generate traction on the cinders, which could become a swampy morass in inclement weather, but on the new rubber tracks, they simply got stuck.
Puma was the first shoe company to figure out a solution: ‘brush spikes’. These were shoes outfitted with more than 60 tiny, needle-like spikes jutting out of the bottom, which provided grip without nailing themselves into the track. The shoes were a hit. And John Carlos set a never-ratified world record in the 200m dash while wearing them at the 1968 Olympic Trials.
Allegedly, one of Puma’s biggest rivals at the time was none too pleased with this development, and, unable to conjure up a competing model in time for the Games, the company – allegedly – lobbied the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to ban brush spikes, claiming they would damage tracks.
Per this claim, the IAAF complied with the brand’s plea, and to this day, brush spikes are still banned. If true, this isn’t an example of an arbiter banning a shoe on the grounds of fairness, it’s a textbook case of one capitalist entity seeking (allegedly!) to better its ability to profit. Those opposed to the Vaporfly must continue their search for a precedent of banning a shoe based on a moral argument based strictly on competitive fairness.
It’s generally accepted that living and training at high elevations can be beneficial for endurance athletes. The higher you go, the lower the concentration of oxygen that exists in the air. Your body responds by producing more red blood cells that stick around once you drop back down to sea level – and normal-density air – leaving you theoretically more efficient at moving oxygen.
Accordingly, elite runners flock to mountainous locales around the world in preparation for racing season.
But some runners opt to stay home, at sea level, instead. They reap the same benefits of living in the mountains by sleeping in an altitude tent, which pumps low-oxygen air into a tarp that fits over a bed. When athletes – most notably those coached by Alberto Salazar, based in Portland, Oregon, US – began using them, some cried foul.
In 2006, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) weighed in on the issue, sort of. Officials did not ban the tents, but did express vague concerns over athlete well-being and potential dangers associated with altitude tents. There is limited research on the long-term effects of their use, and some worry about a risk of high blood pressure and all the pitfalls that accompany it. The result? Altitude tents are frequently the butt of jokes about pampered runners, because they are so pricey. And that’s about it.
It’s difficult today to imagine the sport of running without water, without shorts, without women and without money. But it’s also humorous to imagine a tweed-clad, 1880s man of noble lineage stomping on his pork pie hat in disgust over Flanagan winning the New York City Marathon. She slept in an altitude tent to prepare, wore shorts, is a woman, consumed liquids mid-race, and took home a US$135,000 paycheque.
Oh yeah, and she wore the Zoom Vaporfly Elite.