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Spring Spikegate

By: Brian Metzler

The coming of spring usually means the end of the indoor track season and the start of the outdoor season. This year there’s a postponed cross-country season thrown into the mix, forcing runners and teams at the college and elite levels to make a choice about where they’re going to spike up and race.

But when it comes to choosing their spikes, it seems clear that Nike’s Air Zoom Victory and Dragonfly spikes are all the rage from 800M to 10,000M. There have been a surprising number of fast times run on the track so far this year, given the limited number of high-level meets and that it’s only mid-March. In the U.S., the New Balance Grand Prix indoor meet on Feb. 13 on Staten Island in New York, the Trials of Miles outdoor event on Feb. 26-27 in Austin, Texas, and the Sound Running Invite outdoor races on March 6 in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., have sent dozens of runners under the U.S. Olympic Trials and 2021 Olympic standards and a few to new American records.

And that’s great news, but there’s also a growing tension in the ranks of athletes because the majority (but clearly not all) athletes have been wearing Nike spikes. That mostly means Nike-sponsored athletes, but it’s important to note that there are several fast, high-profile elite athletes sponsored by other brands who have apparently (and wisely) modified Nike spikes to make them look nondescript without any branding.

So, yes, ho-hum, Nike is leading the way with footwear technology once again. But this isn’t quite like the carbon-fiber marathon shoe situation that Nike dominated from 2016 to 2019 before other brands clued in and caught up and before World Athletics finally made a ruling about shoe specs in late January 2020. World Athletics also created specs for spikes in 2020, so at this point it should all be fair in love and racing. If shoe manufacturers didn’t see the writing on the wall when Nike’s innovative foam-and-plate spikes debuted before the 2019 World Championships in Doha or when Joshua Cheptegei shattered the world records in the 5,000M and 10,000M last year, it’s all on them now — especially because World Athletics gave every brand a reprieve last December when it announced that prototype shoes would be legal in competition if approved in advance.

To be clear, not everyone is fan of that ruling.

“Instead of coming down with good guidance, they kind of opened Pandora’s box for a new era in the sport that is now recalibrating the sport in a way we can’t keep up,” Mason Ferlic told FloTrack after he won the fast heat of the 5,000M in Texas on Feb. 27 in a pair of Nike Dragonfly spikes. “There’s a pair of spikes that can get you 10 [more seconds], but how is that fair to an athlete who is beholden to another brand?” Ferlic, a University of Michigan graduate who studied engineering, admitted that he appreciated the innovative technology.

A small part of the issue is that Nike has patented its spike designs using its ZoomX foam and rigid plates (carbon-fiber in the Air Zoom Victory and Pebax in the Dragonfly), but there are plenty of other Nike patents that the shoe industry has had to work around through the years. Plus, there are substitute materials and manufacturing techniques available, which is what helped competing brands make headway in the marathon shoe world. (What’s been more difficult for some brands during the Covid era has been to get final prototypes and production model shoes out of factories in East Asia.) And yes it took most brands three years to unveil their own marathon shoes with carbon-fiber plates in 2020, so understandably the timeline from idea to competition-ready model isn’t short.

No one said developing shoes that definitively increase energy return and forward propulsion is easy, but if brands didn’t think it would become a thing on the track — or if brands didn’t think track spikes were worthy of that kind of investment —well, then the joke is on them.

New Balance appears to be hot on Nike’s trail with its MD-x and LD-x spikes, the latter of which were worn by New Balance athlete Emily Sisson en route to winning the 5,000M in a new PR of 14:55.82 at the Sound meet. And one of those models was presumably worn by Elle Purrier as she smashed the U.S. indoor 2-mile record (9:10.28) on Feb. 13 and then dominated the hot and humid 5,000M (15:08.61) at the Texas Qualifier on Feb. 27.

HOKA appears game, too. Several of its athletes were wearing its Creamsicle-orange Cielo LDs prototype distance spikes at the Texas Qualifier meet and the Sound Running meet, including Sid Vaughn, who won the Olympic Trials Qualifier heat of the 10,000M (28:39.37) in Texas.

The bottom line? The foam-and-plate spikes help athletes run faster on the track.

Is this mechanical doping? No, this is about innovation that has helped athletes maximize their own energy without outside means of propulsion. If we were that bothered by innovation, then we’d insist that every race be run barefoot or perhaps in some kind of leather spikes on a cinder track. But that would be ludicrous, wouldn’t it? Athletes, brands, fans and retailers love innovation because it increases performance, helps set the bar higher with new records, makes for more compelling races and also sells more product.

Look, we all want to see a level playing field, no matter if it’s on the track, the roads or the cross-country course. (And in the field events, too, where innovative brands might be causing more of a rift. Recently, Thobias Montler set a new Swedish long jump record to win European Championships silver medal, while Belgium’s Nafi Thiam set an indoor pentathlon long jump personal best — and both were wearing experimental Nike spikes that feature a separate orange forefoot plate.) Clearly, the only way we can maintain fairness is if World Athletics uploads its regulations and inspects shoes before and after competitions.

The Nike spikes that seem to be having the biggest impact in the middle-distance and distance events in 2021 are production-model shoes. Or so it seems. Given that prototypes are legal, who really knows? But when World Athletics gave license to brands and athletes to use prototypes this season, this was the inevitable result. So we can’t point fingers at Nike without realizing that New Balance and Hoka, among others, have also been scurrying to bring out faster spikes. Hopefully this buzz inspires other brands to up their game like it did in road running shoes — even if there isn’t much time left this year. It took awhile, but HOKA, Brooks, Saucony, ASICS, Adidas and New Balance are among the many brands that have unveiled fast modern marathon shoes over the past 14 months. If you look at the list of approved prototypes, it appears there are many more potentially on the way.

Ultimately, this is more about the same old story of Nike dominating track and field the way it has for decades. And because it’s an Olympic year — when so many athletes and brands want to be competitive at the U.S. Olympic Trials and Olympics — it has become intensified. It’s easy to loathe Nike for their shoe innovations and subsequent athlete success, but they also deserve a lot of credit for leading the way in shoe design. But we also know that the faster the athlete, the greater the benefit. (Donavan Brazier’s 1:44.21 and Konstanze Klosterhalfen’s 31:01.71 should ring a bell here.) Whether that’s cause for celebration or criticism is your own personal choice, but, as they say, don’t hate the player, hate the shoe game.


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