Last week’s Boston Marathon sparked yet another debate about shoe tech in professional running. This time, the question wasn’t whether super shoes were undermining cherished notions of competitive fairness, but whether pro runners are being forced to choose between getting the best possible sponsorship deal and maximizing their chances of success by retaining the freedom to race in their preferred shoe. This has been framed as a choice between financial security and “betting on yourself.”
In Boston, Scott Fauble and Nell Rojas were the fastest Americans in the men’s and women’s races, running PRs of 2:08:52 and 2:25:57, respectively. Both athletes had recently opted out of their sponsorship contracts and were running unattached; Fauble decided not to renew his relationship with Hoka late last year, while Rojas had ended her contract with Adidas prior to Boston after only a few months with the brand. Fauble maintained that his decision was based on the fact that he had hit a plateau and wanted to take his training in a new direction, but Rojas said that Adidas’s racing shoes were not a good fit for her. In Boston, both athletes ended up running their fastest marathons to date in Nike’s Alphafly racer, despite not having deals with the company. Viewed from a certain angle, their success seemed to be an unintentional endorsement for Nike, a brand whose product was so good that the best American runners had chosen to race in it without being paid to do so.
At least that was how some people saw it. The 2018 Boston champ and longtime Brooks athlete Des Linden weighed in on Twitter: “Some of the fastest times in American history are currently being run for free,” Linden wrote. “If the best are willing to take $0 from a shoe sponsor because they feel they need VF [i.e. the Vaporfly, the Alphafly’s predecessor] to be competitive, why would Nike pay them? And what can the next tier possibly ask for?” Hoka-sponsored runner Kellyn Taylor responded: “This is 100% what is happening. Not to mention that the company with the most competitive shoe is also known to under value/pay athletes + extremely corrupt. This shoe tech era has created quite a mess.”
The shoe tech era has also exposed a paradox from those innocent days before people started fretting about super foams and carbon fiber plates: Brands used to pay runners to demonstrate the efficacy of their product even though everyone kind of knew that the shoes didn’t really matter that much. (Friendly reminder that in 2014 Meb won Boston in Skechers.) After Nike secretly equipped its athletes with proto Vaporflys during the 2016 Olympics and subsequent evidence proved that the performance benefits of the shoes were real, an athlete’s choice in footwear suddenly became essential. To make things even more complex, the advantages of Vaporflys were more pronounced for some runners than for others. Once rival companies came out with their own models, some runners wondered whether they responded better to certain brands. Rojas is a case in point.
In an email, the two-time Olympian Kara Goucher told me that she thinks pro runners are at a disadvantage when everyone knows they have a strong performance-based preference for a certain shoe. Echoing Linden’s point, Goucher told me that it creates a dynamic where shoe companies have too much leverage. “I think this is destroying the athlete sponsorship model,” she says. “It’s actually taking away opportunity, because unless the one company that works best for you thinks you are a perfect match you may never be sponsored.”
Goucher was adamant that none of this was the athletes’ fault. She also pointed out that the issue wasn’t just about Nike wielding too much power, since both winners in Boston this year were wearing Adidas. In theory, any company that develops a superior shoe design could hold athletes hostage.
But is this really an issue now that most major shoe companies have their own plushly cushioned racer and there’s no clear evidence that any single model provides an indisputable edge? Molly Seidel, the recent Olympic bronze medalist and arguably the most successful U.S. marathoner at the moment, competes in Puma—a company that only recently made a push to boost its presence in the running shoe market. Meanwhile, Aliphine Tuliamuk won the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials in Hokas, vanquishing a vast armada of athletes decked out in the newly launched Alphafly. (Of course, if Seidel or Tuliamuk had a secret preference for Nike we wouldn’t know.)
Professional runner Ben True was sponsored by Saucony for years, but the company didn’t renew his contract after the 2020 season. He spent a good part of last year testing various super shoes before running his marathon debut in New York City. He told me that he absolutely felt that the sponsorship game had changed in that brands with superior shoe tech were realizing that they didn’t need to pay athletes as much, especially with more marketing dollars being directed towards social media influencers. In his opinion Adidas, Nike, and Asics had products that were “far superior” to the competition, at least while he was testing last summer. True eventually signed with Asics, although he hinted that it may not have been his most lucrative option. He was, in effect, “betting on himself” and on what he felt was the best-performing brand. “What you are seeing is that companies that don’t have shoes that are on the same level are really the only ones that are offering a lot of money for athletes because they basically have to bribe the athlete,” True told me. “They are saying: ‘We know we’re giving you an inferior product, but we still want you to run for us.’”
Understandably, some runners have been frustrated with the excessive focus on footwear. Perhaps no one more so than Fauble, who last year wrote an essay titled “Let’s All Take a Chill Pill, Super Shoes Edition,” in which he argued that all the esoteric yammering about stack heights and Pebax foam alienates would-be fans, diverts attention from the race itself, and diminishes remarkable performances. While I actually think that talking about magic shoes is not such a bad way to get the layman interested in watching people run around for two hours, I agree that it shouldn’t be the principal narrative. Goucher, who works as a race commentator for NBC, has also said that she prefers to deemphasize the shoes when calling a race on TV.
But if there is an upside to the footwear debate, it might be that it has occasionally inspired speculation about what pro running would look like if more athletes weren’t dependent on a shoe contract as their primary source of income. Maybe the current sponsorship model needs to be “destroyed,” as Goucher put it, in order to find a more sustainable alternative. Keira D’Amato, who earlier this year broke Deena Kastor’s long-standing American record in the marathon, was already a real estate professional when she signed a sponsorship deal with Nike last year. For most of her remarkable ascent to the pinnacle of U.S. marathoning in her mid-thirties (D’Amato just turned 38), she was not financially tethered to any shoe contract obligations; make of that what you will. This isn’t to suggest that the solution is that all pro runners should just get full-time jobs, but it proves that traditional sponsorships aren’t mandatory to achieve success at the highest level.
After Fauble’s big day in Boston, the sports business journalist Darren Rovell made an appeal to Chipotle on Twitter, stating that the company should offer Fauble a contract. (Fauble is a known burrito enthusiast.) The prospect of the behemoth of “fast casual” Mexican cuisine taking a pro runner under its wing felt a little absurd, but also intriguing. Could a marriage between Fauble and Chipotle become the distance running equivalent of the famed collaboration between Michael Phelps and Subway? Phelps may have had the advantage of being one of the most recognizable athletes in the world, but Fauble and Chipotle were both born in the Denver Metro area in the early nineties. The story writes itself.