Back in March, Canada's fastest female marathoner, Malindi Elmore, wanted to know if any other shoe could deliver the results that the Nike Vaporfly Next% was producing for runners around the world. She didn't love wearing Nikes (we'll get into that later), but she knew that if she wasn't wearing the revolutionary shoe, she would be at a significant disadvantage. If you were a serious runner, and certainly an elite marathoner, and you wanted to run your fastest, you had to be in a pair of Vaporflys.
In 2017, Nike had an independent lab do some testing of the Next%'s first iteration, the Vaporfly 4%, which is how it earned its namesake. Wearing the shoe meant gaining around that much of a bump in running economy (the body's ability to effectively consume oxygen at a certain sustained pace), which could translate into minutes for an elite marathoner like Elmore. And minutes in the marathon could be the difference between being an Olympian and, well, not being an Olympian.
Listen to our podcast with Malindi Elmore:
Nike's controversial new design included a carbon plate and a big slab super light ZoomX foam that was helping runners lop minutes off their marathon times. Unsurprisingly, the Vaporfly dominated the start line (and the podium) of pretty much every marathon in the world. World records fell, eventually Eliud Kipchoge cracked the 2:00 barrier in a pair of experimental shoes called the Alphafly. Elmore said that when she lined up for her Canadian record-breaking 2:24 run at the Houston Marathon back in January that she stood among "a sea of pink and green" Vaporflys. Only noble fools and those trapped in contracts with lesser brands were stuck racing in old-fashioned racing flats. Under Armour, Adidas, On Running and New Balance athletes were spotted wearing painted-over Vaporflys at races, even though they risked voiding their contracts in doing so.
Nike's Frankenstein's monster of Hoka-style maximalist cushioning with technologies thought to be illegal in the sport triggered an existential crisis in elite distance running. The shoes were seen as being so good that it was worth losing thousands of dollars in guaranteed money just to run that faster time, and perhaps make an Olympic team. One elite runner told The XC last spring that wearing Nike's shoe was worth "more than $50,000 a year" in guaranteed contract money, and that they had turned down non-Nike brand sponsorships in order to pay to wear the Swoosh. After all, if you didn't run faster in the age of the Vaporfly and make a national team or break some sort of record (and, of course, build a big social media following in the process), you were bound to get dropped anyhow.
Call it the Next% Paradox.
Even after competing brands like New Balance, Hoka One One and Saucony finally started rolling out similarly designed carbon-plated shoes, runners of pretty much all ability levels were convinced that wearing anything other than the Nikes meant a lesser performance and slower time. It left Elmore wondering if Nike's shoes were really that much better than the smaller brands' carbon-plated offerings that were struggling to convert Vaporfly devotees.
Although Elmore wore the Vaporfly in her first two marathons (with great success — she ran 2:32, then 2:24 to smash the Canadian record), she says that she had no allegiance to the Swoosh, and as a free agent she wanted to know if other brands could actually compete, minus all the marketing noise surrounding the Vaporflys. In fact, she's been vocal about her discomfort with supporting Nike by wearing its shoes, due to what she defines as social justice failures on the part of the brand.
Even after setting a Canadian national record in the Vaporflys and qualifying for the Olympics in the process, Elmore wasn't expecting a Nike sponsorship offer, and was actually paying out of pocket for the shoes. After all, why would a company bother paying elite athletes to wear its shoes, when these very athletes were willing to remain unsponsored and spend their own money to gain the Nike advantage?
The catch in all of this was that no other shoe company dared to actually test their Vaporfly killers to see if they could actually take down Nike in a lab. Anything short of producing superior stats to the Nike shoes would have rendered the challenger inferior, and thus useless in the eyes of performance hungry consumers.
So, in mid-March, as COVID was shutting down the world around her, Elmore quietly did what no brand would dare do (at least not publicly) — she took her Nikes into an exercise physiology lab along with a new carbon plated competitor by Saucony, called the Endorphin Pro, in order to see if another shoe could even come close to the mighty Vaporfly.
The results will no doubt change many minds about which shoes to wear for that first post-pandemic breakthrough marathon.
Listen to Michael Doyle's podcast conversation with Elmore, as she explains how she went about running her shoe experiment, and what the results mean for her as an athlete.
Also, be sure to read Alex Hutchinson's story "Seeking the Fastest Shoe in the Post-Vaporfly Era," linked above, but it's worth mentioning here again, as it first revealed Elmore's intriguing experiment, instigated a lot of online chatter, and got us curious about talking with Elmore on the podcast.