Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman was having breakfast with his wife one morning in 1971 when it dawned on him that the grooves in the waffle iron she was using would be an excellent mould for a running shoe.
Bowerman, who was a track and field coach at the time, had been searching for a way to make shoes lighter and faster and was inspired by his waffles!
Several ruined waffle irons later, and after much experimentation, the Nike Waffle Trainer launched in 1974.
Nike was on the way to becoming the multi billion dollar company that it is today.
When one looks back at the history of the brand there are various sign posts along the way when it comes to product development.
The Waffle Trainer indeed sits in the category, however it is perhaps the Nike Air that is the true legacy product.
Back in March 1977 a former NASA engineer, Frank Ruddy, and his business partner Bob Bogert sat in the Nike conference room presenting their new idea – to inject air into a running shoe.
Phil Knight recounts the story in his autobiography – Shoe Dog – “I set down the shoes and gave Rudy a closer look, a full head-to-toe. Six-three, lanky, with unruly dark hair, bottle-bottom glasses, a lopsided grin, and a severe vitamin D deficiency, I thought. Not enough sunshine. Or else a long-lost member of the Addams Family”
Perhaps not the image one thinks of behind one of the worlds best known shoe technologies, but nevertheless in 1978 the Nike Air Tailwind was launched.
As the 1980’s progressed and the global trainer market gained momentum so Nike continued to develop new technologies and, combined with shrewd athlete endorsements, grew to the force it is today.
Many of you, of course, already know this.
So what? I hear you say.
Well maybe, just maybe, the next major chapter in this story is upon us.
As a part time runner I became intrigued recently by the news coming from Nike HQ that they had embraced the challenge to break the 2 hour marathon mark – “Breaking2”.
A huge barrier that, with the world record currently standing at 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya in 2014, is no easy task to break.
To put this into perspective, to break the magic mark would mean running at an average of 4:34 per mile for 26.2 miles!
The athletes have been chosen – after more than two years of research, preparation and testing, three top distance runners—Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea—have officially started their Nike-backed build-up.
The track has been chosen – the Autodromo Nazionale Monza complex, a racetrack outside Monza in northern Italy, where the surface is asphalt and speed is certainly king.
But what about the shoes?
For months there have been rumours about a Nike shoe being created for the event, with suggestions that its sole would contain a special spring, which would circumvent the rules of the athletics governing body, the IAAF.
However, having now been unveiled, its now clear that the new Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite will instead have an internal gently curved carbon-fibre plate to minimise energy loss without causing cramping in the athlete.
Along with Flyknit, Flywire and other established Nike design features, the major advance comes from a patented carbon fibre insert that is reported to dramatically change the performance and profile of the shoe. The plate acts as a ‘stiffening element’ according to Nike’s design team, yet its impact on the shoe as a whole is perhaps more important. The curve of the plate changes the foot shape in the shoe, placing it more in the toe-off position and this does a couple of key thing; it helps improve on running economy due to reducing the strain on the lower leg thus delaying the onset of fatigue and it allows for increased cushioning in the shoe without a loss of performance.
The foam that covers this increased cushioning in the midsole has been improved too, as Nike’s Zoom foam becomes ZoomX. What does this mean? Well, apparently an 85% energy return compared to the typical 60-70%. This makes a big difference over 26.2 miles.
And then there’s the heel shape. This is the result of aerodynamic testing where a design driven by data has shown the tapered heel is there to improve the way the shoe cuts through the air.
All these elements, Nike believe, will give the athletes maximum assistance in the record breaking quest.
Of course, if this barrier is to be broken it wont just be the shoe technology that makes the difference.
Other factors have to be taken into account:
- Athlete selection:
No matter how perfectly everything else is planned, there are probably only a few people on earth who have a chance of breaking two hours.
The team started with a pool of the hundreds of distance runners that Nike sponsors—a large group, but one that notably omits the three most recent marathon record-setters, Kimetto who are all sponsored by Adidas. The final selections were then based on a huge variety of parameters following extensive trials and testing.
- Course and environment
The Monza race track is relatively flat, relatively sheltered and relatively dry.
There are suggestions that a “drafting” approach where runners are constantly changing positions (much like a peleton within cycling) will also be an approach that could yield rewards.
- Training and 4. Nutrition/hydration:
These are the basic areas that most of us worry about when preparing for a marathon. Nike has a huge scientific staff ready to offer every possible support in these areas; still, over the coming months, each of the three athletes will continue to train with his own coach and in his own environment. Getting this balance right, so that the athletes benefit from extra support without disrupting what has worked so well for them in the past, will be a delicate task.
It remains to be seen whether the goal is finally achieved – it looks like Spring 2017 is the anticipated target date – and it also remains to be seen whether the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite will join the Waffle Trainer and Nike Air as an iconic shoe.
One things for sure technology will continue to evolve and records will continue to be broken…all thanks to a waffle iron!