This is the first of two book reviews of Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture & Cool of Running Shoes, by Brian Metzler. Velo Press, 2019. Reviewed by trail runner Laura Clark. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian. Tayte Pollmann will publish a second review of Kicksology soon.
As a kid, I anticipated the moment every summer when I would open a new box of Keds, smell the freshly glued rubber and close my eyes, envisioning outracing my friends in a game of Capture the Flag. Comparable to the similarly addictive thrill of inhaling a freshly opened box of September crayons, both landmark events offered the promise of unlimited possibilities.
As an adult, nothing has changed. Feeling rather smug that my chosen primary sport requires no mechanical fix-it skill, no entourage of complicated equipment, my motto has always been “Have sneakers will travel.” Sure, heart rate monitors, cell phones and GPS devices have intruded somewhat, but they can still remain a matter of choice, not necessity. With the exception of the barefoot advocates, all you really need is a pair of sneakers. Is it any wonder then, that our craving for perfection fixates on this truth?
Brian Metzler, founding editor of Trail Runner Magazine, is a confirmed shoe addict who has wear-tested hundreds of pairs of sneakers in his quest to discover the magic bullet that will propel him to fame and injury-free glory. Now we too can run in his shoes and gain access to his hard-earned insights. The result is a fascinating journey from the early Boston Marathon’s leather uppers, to Bill Bowerman’s long-suffering wife’s waffle iron, on to Phil McKnight’s Just Do It! marketing brilliance and then a fast-forward to Hokas, Altras and hi-tech unaffordable models.
Basically, Metzler is on a quest to coax a PR run from a middle-aged, increasingly injury-prone body. Along the way he rediscovered the truth of Dr. George Sheehan’s “We are each an experiment of one.” Which explains in part why we get so attached to the perfect pair of shoes when we are lucky enough to find a brand and model that seems “made for us.” And once that happens, do we, like Metzler, bombard the shoe company when seemingly minor tweaks are added to a favorite model, or do we simply hoard a supply for the inevitable rainy day? For as Metzler explains, companies are, in fact, out to make a buck and are therefore compelled to market “new and improved” tweaks. Ironically, it is from the originally small start-up brands, like Phil Knight’s Nike, or Hoka or Altra with seemingly less at stake, where game-changing innovation usually occurs.
And so on to expensive tech with Nike’s Vaporfly. For folks budgeting for the Boston Marathon entry fee a mere $250 for a magic bullet sneaker with a guaranteed qualifier built in would seem a small price to pay for living the dream. But as Metzler discovered, shoes like that are designed for elite bodies sporting elite speed, folks who are capable of running not a few, but 26, 5-minute miles strung together in rapid succession.
Never one to give up, Metzler then turns his sights to the latest trends in custom-made shoes. After all, in a sport where 50 to 70 percent of recreational runners are sidelined by injuries every year, the most obvious fix would be the shoe. Similar to the design-your-own-bear studios, runners can, for a price, select colors and basic components. On the horizon, however, are shoes with mechanical propulsion feedback, designed to sense the particular way in which your “experiment of one” interfaces with the ground. And I totally get the appeal. With my left foot slightly larger than my right, I am forced to suffer through compromised toenails or a floppy fit.
Although Metzler barely mentions it, more worrisome to me is the fact that this expensive equipment may trend toward an upwardly mobile population, leaving talented but less wealthy individuals unable to compete on an equal footing. And what about internationally? Remember those elite carbon fiber compression swimsuits that created such controversy at the last Summer Olympics? How much success is due to the athlete and how much to his sponsors?
Either way, though, as Metzler concludes, us ordinary athletes could most likely gain more from strengthening our bodies than by seeking a special magic bullet. But it is not nearly as much fun!
If you read and enjoyed Kicksology, consider the following:
Bowerman and the Men of Oregon, by Kenny Moore. There is more to this complex Renaissance Man than a mere waffle iron.
The Boys of Winter, by Charles Sanders. Learn about the 22 young men from Adams, MA who lived for nothing more than a perfect black diamond Thunderbolt run down Mt. Greylock. Upon hearing their country’s call, they formed the core of World War II’s famed 10th Mountain Division. Those who returned included Bill Bowerman and the developers of Sugarbush, Vail and Jackson Hole.
Even today folks of all ages skin or snowshoe up the Thunderbolt Ski Run as a winter rite of passage. It is worth a trip!
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE, by Phil Knight. Trace the journey of the original start-up shoe company that revamped brand marketing. Disney move over.