In late 2019, Trevor Hofbauer and Evan Esselink jogged the busy streets of downtown Toronto together, warming up for the Canadian marathon Olympic marathon trials.
The close friends shared a few things in common: they both had ambitions to make Canada's next Olympic team and, despite their collective reputation as nationally competitive athletes, they were both unsponsored. They also wore matching shoes — the "electric green" Nike Vaporfly Next%. It was an audacious display of just how wildly the elite distance running industry had shifted since the last Olympics.
Hofbauer's pair were a present from a friend. On that day they catapulted him into the pantheon of Canadian marathoning and to a 2:09:51, still the second-fastest marathon time in national history.
Esselink paid full price for his pair — a hefty $339 (plus tax) — all for a thankless 2:18:38 he later dubbed "not the race I knew I could run."
He couldn't blame it on the shoes — an earlier iteration of them had propelled him to the race of his life, a 62:17 half-marathon in Houston, earlier that year. In fact, for elites on the cusp of an Olympic berth like Esselink and Hofbauer, racing the 2019 Canadian marathon trials in anything other than Nikes would have been absurd.
In 2019, Nike had a stranglehold on the world's running shoe market. While companies like Saucony, Adidas, Hoka One One and New Balance were quietly testing new carbon-plated prototypes, Nike outfitted their athletes with the Next%, their masterpiece super-shoe, which had been tested and iterated since the 2016 Olympics. Nike's technological leg up on the competition helped their athletes claim 31 of the 36 available podium spots in that year's six major marathons.
In Canada, with the exception of Cam Levins' men's marathon mark (set an early version of Hoka carbon-plated shoe), all major road running records broken since the introduction of the Nike Vaporfly in 2017 have been run in them, despite no Canadian marathoner being formally paid by Nike to race in the shoes. In 2019, all 26 unsponsored marathoners inside Canada's top 40 (20 female, 20 male — based on Athletics Canada's marathon rankings) raced in Nikes — the other 14 held sponsorships with other brands.
Basically, runners either chose to drop their sponsorships to run in the better Nike shoes, or to keep their sponsorships with non-Nike brands and embrace the handicap. The result: 2019 Canadian marathon trials champion Dayna Pidhoresky, eventual Canadian record holder Malindi Elmore, and multiple time national champion Reid Coolsaet, among others, raced in Vaporflys they paid for themselves. Others were rumoured to keep their sponsorships, while secretly racing in painted-over Nike Vaporflys and Next%, in some cases with their brand's permission, and in other cases the athlete simply went rogue, sacrificing a breach of contract in search of a fast times.
But the iconic Swoosh's age of dominance now appears to be over — or at least, it's ending. Recently, Adidas's Adizero Adios Pro delivered Kibiwott Kandie to a half-marathon world record of 57:32 in November. In December, The Marathon Project — probably the most competitive North American race of 2020 — was won by Marty Hehir, who wore Adidas, and Sara Hall, who raced in Asics. Even Elmore, who broke the Canadian marathon record by more than two minutes in Nikes in early 2020, wrote months later that she preferred the Saucony Endorphin to the Next% after testing both in a lab.
The fact that other brands now have products that can compete with Nike's Next% is good news for runners in search of contracts, as well as those who have had difficulty getting their hands on the notoriously backordered Vaporflys and Alphaflys. Repping non-Nike doesn't necessarily feel like a punishment anymore, and as we finally build up to the Tokyo Olympics (I think), the sponsorship drought for many of North America's top distance runners may be about to end — for two reasons.
Top Runners Are Curious About Their Options
Now that Nike's rival products appear to be just as good, athletes like Esselink, who would not have dared to race Swoosh-less in 2019, are becoming more receptive to non-Nike brand deals.
"My thoughts are definitely starting to change," he said. "I would be open to other brands, but I would definitely try their carbon shoe before committing to anything."
Esselink, who is currently unsponsored, is most interested in the Adidas Adios Pro, largely due to the race in Valencia that saw three Adidas men dip under the previous world record of 58:01.
Elmore told us last month in a podcast that she didn't like giving Nike free advertising because she found the company's tactics and history of equity issues unsettling. So, it was all the better when when she discovered the Saucony Endorphin actually outperformed the Nike Vaporfly Next% in her lab face-off of the two super shoes, and that the Boston-based company was interested in offering her a contract as she prepares for the Tokyo Olympics.
Brands Need to Prove Their Shoes Are Fast
Athlete sponsorship volumes are bound to increase not only because athletes are becoming more open-minded about non-Nike sponsorships. The second reason for the end of drought is that brands ought to be eager to put shoes on the feet of athletes, to show they can contend with the Next% and Alphafly.
Most recently, Saucony signed Elmore and Hofbauer to multi-year deals. Hofbauer did not need much of an arm twist to join the team — the tall Calgarian had been training in the Endorphin months before signing a contract.
"Nike had a breakthrough before everyone else did, but as we move forward I'm convinced that other brands have caught up," he said. "This is good — it encourages runners to have conversations with more brands... and brands want to showcase their new product. It opens up doors."
When he ran with the Nikes, he balanced his training with time working at a running store. But thanks to his new two-year deal with Saucony, he said he can permit himself to train full-time without worrying about finances.
Only time will tell if Elmore and Hofbauer's contracts will be abnormal to 2021, or if they're the first few pebbles of an avalanche of new money. Either way, this new democratization of the carbon plated shoe wars can only be good news. The new relevance of old players like Saucony, New Balance and Hoka One One has already created more worthwhile sponsorships opportunities for athletes.
And as young players in the carbon shoe game — like On Running and new kid on the block Atreyu — hopefully improve their own prototypes, it will force top dogs like Nike and Adidas to continue improving their product to stay atop the mountain.
And that's good news for everybody — unless, of course, you're tired of seeing faster times.