Had he been born several decades later, delivery-boy-turned-marathoner Johnny Miles certainly would have received a shoe contract. How could anyone pass up a name with so much marketing potential? But instead, Miles won the Boston Marathon in 1926 and 1929 with unsophisticated, unadorned footwear. The canvas tennis shoes Miles wore in his first Boston victory cost 99 cents. Miles said his simple shoes helped him sneak up on the competition.
A quarter-century later, Japanese runner Shigeki Tanaka stood out with his uncomfortable-looking, split-toe shoes, which he thought would give him better traction on the roads from Hopkinton to Boston. He won the race in 1951.
Since then, shoes have gone through all sorts of design transformations thanks to waffle irons, Velcro, gel-filled padding, and air pockets. There are shoes created specifically for women, for high arches, for heel-strikers, for overpronators. And let’s not forget the cost of such design enhancements. Today, shoes durable enough to last through marathon training and race day can cost $150 or more.
Running clothes used to be as simple. The individual was often the innovator, creating gear that would provide greater warmth, more comfort, or more speed. Now, there are socks that promise to keep feet blister-free, arm warmers that wick away sweat, form-fitting outfits for women that resemble a modest bikini.
The latest shoe trend simulates running barefoot. Think of gloves for your feet. No heavy-duty cushioning. No high-tech design to correct bad mechanics. Maybe simulated barefoot running will become popular among marathoners. As Miles, Tanaka, and other runners of their respective eras proved, sometimes nothing beats simplicity.