First outing for the Vaporflys

As I mentioned last week, for my birthday I received a pair of Nike Vaporfly Next% running shoes. They weren’t a surprise – they’d been sitting in a box in the spare bedroom since just after Christmas when a discount-on-a-discount meant that they’d been picked up for under £200 rather than the RRP of £240 – though still a very significant sum for a pair of shoes, 50% more than I’ve ever paid. And though these things are rather subjective (when is a shoe worn out?), the new shoe definitely has a shorter lifespan than my regular shoes, making the cost per kilometre that much higher.

It’s worth noting that running, despite it’s simple origins, has never been particularly cheap for me – regular new shoes, clothing, race entry fees, occasional overnight hotels before races, GPS watches, sports nutrition, hydration backpacks, running belts, dedicated headphones, petrol/diesel/trains to get to parkruns, races and weekend long runs in the various places I like to travel to (arguably aeroplanes too though the two overseas race holidays probably substituted for other holidays we would have had), physiotherapy, massages, water bottles, head torches, extra towels, running the washing machine and tumble drier more often, and more – it all adds up. In that context, a more expensive shoe that will largely be reserved for my occasional races on suitable terrain doesn’t make an enormous difference, though I would probably still have baulked at the cost, hence the pleasure at receiving them as a gift.

The shoes have proved somewhat controversial, or at least sparked a large amount of commentary, including from non-runners. I can see merit in a range of perspectives. Is wearing them cheating? Of course not, any more than wearing running shoes generally rather than flippers or wellingtons (neither of which I’ve run in) or hiking boots (which I have when I accidentally turned up to parkrun without a change of footwear). Nor are spikes, or fell-running shoes, both of which clearly convey an advantage in appropriate circumstances. Technology has always progressed, as has nutrition, coaching techniques, financial support, the quality of the surface of racing tracks, and all sorts of other things which together contribute to elite athletes today being faster than their peers of decades or generations before. Technology doesn’t replace the need to train – I’m training for my third marathon with more discipline and devoting more time to it than previously – the shoes are most definitely not a short-cut for me.

But equally I share a degree of nervousness about the “but where will it all end?” concern, and that the quality (and brand) of equipment could become disproportionately important in determining outcomes for the elites. For me, as a mid-pack amateur, I’m quite content to adopt a shoe that has been widely adopted, and declared legal for elite competition by World Athletics (formerly the IAAF) – though I admit that, as a mid-pack runner, I will feel self-conscious about wearing a conspicuous shoe that some might, wrongly, perceive as wasted on me – I will, in fact, quite probably gain more from it than those at the front who’ve adopted it in such large numbers.

A more interesting question could arise soon if Nike or other brands release shoes which are not allowed for elite competition – will amateur runners including me want to adopt them?

Anyway, with my new shoes’ first race coming up on 23 February, a flat if exposed and thus potentially windy half-marathon at Dorney Lake, I wanted to give them a little outing, just as an experiment – it’s not generally a good idea to do anything for the first time in a race. So on Tuesday I decided my intervals session would work nicely – just around the village, on dry pavements, and intended to include some fast running.

Although I’d very briefly tried them on, on carpet, when they arrived, this was my first really experience of their feel. The first impression (other than the vibrant pink) is of the oddness of the offset lacing, intended to reduce pressure on the top of the foot which can otherwise get sore, particularly as the upper of the shoe is so thin (to save weight) – by contrast my Brooks Adrenaline has a heavily padded tongue and upper generally. I found after a few hundred metres that I stopped to tie the right shoe more tightly, and with hindsight should probably have re-tied the left one too – they do need to be done up quite tight to stop the foot moving around, hence the need for the offset lacing. This was definitely one useful thing to emerge from this outing that will help me get things right for the race.

The next impression is the bounciness – it’s not quite like being on springs, but they are bouncy – the foam and internal plate combining in some way that should improve energy return and hopefully also reduce the impact effect on my legs.

Once I set off, I felt full of energy and really struggled to run slowly enough – my plan was for a 1.5km warm-up. Struggling to run slowly enough isn’t totally novel to me (few runners have mastered perfect pacing), but it did seem hard to get the pace down to my 6:59/km target, and the best I could manage without being ridiculous about it was 6:25/km for that 1.5km. Of course, I was mentally expecting to be going quite quickly after all the hype about the shoes, and Tuesdays should be easier as Monday is a rest day.

I then moved into my intervals – a fast 1km, then 200m recovery, then 8 times fast 400m with 200m recoveries. There was a 26 mph wind, mostly blowing from my side, but presumably occasionally giving a small helping hand and at others slightly in my face as I ran back and forth along the cycle path. I ran 4:42 for the kilometre and a variety of paces from 4:47/km to 4:15/km for the 400 metre intervals. The shoes definitely felt fast. I don’t have a direct comparator for those times, as I’ve not done that set of intervals recently, but I don’t believe I’ve run at those paces since 2018.

My 1.5km cool-down at the end was an uncontrolled 5:47/km which is far faster than a normal cool-down – my legs and my enthusiasm getting the better of the control of my head, but for that pace to be so easy is interesting.

All in all, an encouraging outing, and these 9km give me enough confidence to tackle 21km in a couple of weeks even if I don’t do another trial with the shoes. On the race day, I need to allow myself time to make sure the lacing is right, something I’ve never had to think about much, and to test it properly with some warm-ups before the start.

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