The latest racing shoes offer more than just a speed boost to ambitious high-schoolers

Thoughts on what already resilient young legs can do given an ever-more-cushioned journey, especially those in the competitive hinterlands

Unusually fast high-school runners, especially from less-competitive areas, often have to make compromises during track season between their school-team schedules and meets set aside specifically for runners of their blossoming caliber. They may have to run a league or conference meet the day before or after an out-of-state invitational offering them the chance to race the best in the region or even the country. Merely “good” kids who never take part in these invitationals often receive accordingly less notice from on high, and may not ultimately achieve the same prep PRs; truly great kids may never find themselves with serious competition throughout much of high school unless they travel a good distance to find it.

A good example is how Leya Salis of Bedford (N.H.) High School spent the weekend of June 2 through June 4, 2017, her senior track season. On Friday night, Salis raced an elite high-school mile at the adidas Boston Boost Games, placing seventh in 4:45.16. (Despite this converting to about 4:43.5 for 1,600 meters, the official New Hampshire state record in that event remains in the possession of Manchester Central’s Arianna Vailas, who ran 4:47.48 in 2010.)

The next afternoon, Salis lined up at the New Hampshire State Meet of Champions in Londonderry for the 800 meters in perhaps the most anticipated three-way distance battle in the history of Granite State prep running. The previous weekend, Salis had notched cruise-control victories in the 800 meters (2:13) and 1,600 meters (4:55) at the Division 1 State Championships. Having already run 2:08.59 three weeks earlier for second place at the Glenn D. Loucks Games in New York, Salis, in a typical year, would have been ranked a solid few seconds ahead of any in-state competition. But in 2017, fellow senior Kristie Schoffield of Division 2 Merrimack Valley in Concord came into the Meet of Champions with a season’s best of 2:08.46—also at the Loucks Games, where she had edged Salis for the win by 0.13 seconds.

Just as improbably, Schoffield had lost the 800 meters at the D-2 Championships the previous week, to Lebanon’s Corinne Kennedy. While Schoffield had already taken the 1,600 meters and won the 400 meters almost immediately afterward, and was plainly trying to rack up points for the Pride on the day as she could, Kennedy was no mere opportunist. A multi-sport type who had taken up the 800 meters only that spring after dominating the indoor 600 meters all winter—and who had won the 300-meter intermediate hurdles at the New England Championships the previous spring—Kennedy came into the Meet of Champs with a 2:09.97 best from a race she had won by over ten seconds two weeks earlier on the same track. (Kennedy’s father Norm was a 1:53 800-meter runner for Stevens High School in Claremont, a state legend in his time and technically someone I raced against once.)

All three runners normally did yeo(wo)man duty for their respective teams, but each was fresh for this no-team-scores contest—on the day, anyway. And girl, did this race ever live up to expectations.

Spoiler alert concerning the video you just watched: After Salis took the field through a sedate-in-context 66.65 lap, she pushed the pace a little, but not actionably, and held the lead at 600 meters (about 1:38.5). She wound up leading for all but about 50 meters before winding up third.

Did Salis sacrifice any of her reserves by racing the night before? Bedford, Londonderry and Boston are all mutually close together, so travel per se wasn’t a big deal. And when the first of a pair of back-to-back track races is a personal mile/1,600-meter best by around eight seconds and a jump into national-class territory, well, it’s the kind of thing that helps legs put aside feelings of fatigue. Salis probably did the right thing by trying to gradually suck the sting from her rivals’ presumptively superior kicks, rather than blast out of the gate not knowing how her legs would respond; she just got outrun on the day by a pair of outstanding athletes.

Between advances in shoe technology—and not just the quantum ones seen in recent years—and COVID-19-related disruptions to track-and-field schedules that have a lot of good high-school runners scrambling for suitable venues to run fast in the spring of 2021, I’ve been thinking about the intersection of youth, footwear and scheduling conflicts, and how this picture has changed since my own high-school career ended just 33 short years ago.

PERSONAL DIGRESSION BEGINS

In June 1985, as a freshman, I ran my first-ever road 5K, the inaugural running of the Concord Coach and Carriage Festival 5K. Despite having run 4:55 for 1,600 meters that spring (in trainers, on an asphalt track boasting frost heaves), I only managed a 19:27 on a fairly fast course, also in trainers. I’m tempted to blame dancing my ass off at the Rundlett Junior High School Semi-Formal the night before for a subpar showing, but such madcap boogying, which you can and should believe I was renowned for, had never proven a hindrance before. But despite being a disappointing effort—flapping along at steady 6:15-6:20 pace in a small and sweaty sea of old-man laggards wearing terrycloth shorts and beeping pacer-watches and regularly emitting loud, moist, face-flapping horse-breaths and ass-rending farts to match, habits male hobbyjoggers manifest to the present day—the time was a personal best, eclipsing a 19:31 from cross-country season.

The CC&C Festival 5K was held for five years on a Sunday in early June before folding, always the day after the Meet of Champions and eight days after the divisional state meets. As a sophomore at Concord High, and now armed with Nike Waffle Racers from the previous fall, I qualified for the D-1 Champs in the 1,600 meters with a 4:43, duplicating that time at the championship meet and placing second in the slower heat to a kid who smelled like weed shortly after the race ended (more on that general subject soon).

Eight days later, with my track season over, I returned to the CC&C race and logged another then-lifetime best with a 17:05 (5:30, 5:40, 5:50, 0:35). Part of my 2-minute, 23-second improvement over the previous spring was probably attributable to the waffle racers, but I had no idea how wed to those bastards I would eventually become.

My junior year, I became almost exclusively a 3,200-meter runner. Going into the D-1 State Champs, and still shod in the same pair of Nikes, I had run 10:01 (5:04/4:57) and was seeded eighth or ninth, although in those pre-Internet days coaches were known to fudge seed times. On what had to be the hardest non-asphalt track in the state at Manchester Memorial High School, I wound up taking second place.

The only reason this was allowed to happen was the weather. It was at least 95 degrees on the track—one of those swampy days it’s so goddamn hot people shimmer and you want to squint even while standing in the shade—and the same kid from Nashua who always went out in 65 seconds regardless of the conditions did exactly that, dragging a whole chain of bozos along with him. I went through the 400 in around 73 in or near the back, thinking that there was no way I was possibly going to feel any hotter or more taxed as the race went on. I was right; I just kept squinting and moving and panting and ran 5:02/5:02 splits. The kid who won in 9:52 had run 9:20 the weekend earlier. and the Nashua kid held on for third in 10:15.

This performance, by putting me among the top five D-1 finishers, obligated me to run the Meet of Champions the next weekend. After taking the SAT in the morning, I rode to Keene determined to establish that my D-1 race had been a total fluke, a quirk of circumstance. Instead, on a far more favorable day, I used the same general strategy to work my way from last after two laps to third at the end. My time was 9:50.1, an eleven-second best. Now I had gone and extended my season by another week, as the top six qualified for the New England Championships.

I still wanted to run the CC&C 5K the next morning; just getting to the New Englands, where I knew I would have no impact, was enough for me that spring and I saw no downside in running a 5K about sixteen hours after a 3,200 meters. My coach, who was also the football coach, was fine with this plan, and I wound up running the equivalent of 16:17, another personal best (a course marshal’s error cut off about 120 yards and my actual time was 15:54). At the way-beyond-anticlimactic New Englands, held the following Saturday two days after a prom I should have skipped in another extreme steam bath on a since-demolished Boston College track that was around 430-440 meters long, I mailed in a race in the 10-teens and was glad I’d made the trip to watch the other events.

The next year, still using the Waffle Racers for cross-country but equipped with a pair of Saucony spikes for indoor and track season, I lost some of my focus in the second part of the season. I went into the D-1 Champs seeded third in the 3,200 meters and wound up fourth in 10:13—it was really warm, again—then took an uninspired fifth in 9:49 at the Meet of Champions, again qualifying for the New Englands and this time with an active case senioritis. The next morning, I broke sixteen minutes for the first time with a 15:57 (4:58, 5:10, 5:21, 28), running my fourth-straight lifetime personal 5K best at an event then in its fourth year.

At the New Englands, once more at a huge, hot track at Boston College after a Thursday night prom (different girl, same misspent time). This time I ran 9:43 or 9:44, matching or approximating my personal best, and finished eleventh. I had no idea how fast I was running until it was over because I never heard a split—they were all in different spots anyway. (Part of the track actually went under some bleachers, leading to transient blindness thanks to everyone’s pupils having accommodated to bright sunshine upon entry to this tunnel; the facility was an eyesore and an abomination, and I’m glad it has since been destroyed.)

Not only did my legs tolerate these and similar low-grade abuses throughout my prep years—although I’ll omit reviewing how running the Penacook Winter Challenge 5-Miler in 10-degree weather probably did cost me some time at the 1988 Indoor State Meet six days later—but that pair of Waffle Racers themselves proved supernaturally durable. I didn’t use them much in college—for maybe I did; those years, running-wise, were by far the most forgettable and worthless of any stretch in the sport I’ve had—but, despite being the opposite hoarder then and now, I kept them around until I was 27. By then I used them mostly for trail runs, and there was no longer a way to keep them smelling pleasant enough to keep them indoors despite their low mass and attendant low capacity to trap stank or anything else.

Finally, one 1997 summer morning when I was running through the woods near Wilson Road in Canterbury, N.H., a piece of root or maybe a gopher caught the sole of one of those Waffle Racers and tore it clean off. Maybe I could have rushed them home and stitched them up and given them a minimal quality of life, but by then they had long been spending nights outside on the porch, and it was simply time to let go and let nature take its course.

PERSONAL DIGRESSION ENDS

While ample focus has been dedicated to the direct speed boost of various new roads and track models—and these can be used by some athletes somewhat interchangeably—less has been devoted to how these can help high-school runners who are getting better with every race navigate a competitive season. (I’ve seen some comments in this area concerning pros.) As it is, young runners can get away with a lot of things that most people over 30, even those considerably faster, would consider a likely mistake or at least not worth the overall risk.

In the above video of the Meet of Champions 800 meters, New Hampshire Track and Field commentator Jim MacKenzie, who captained the University of New Hampshire men’s cross-country team in the mid-1980s and is someone I should consult more often and vigorously so as to enhance the guidance I dispense to children, notes that it’s not only possible but likely for kids to race at peak level even having raced the day before—and, if coming off a successful effort, often because of it.

All of this is especially worth considering in the pandemic-affected spring of 2021, when athletes even now are not quite certain what will be available to them come June. But in any case, if what I’m hearing about the almost startling difference in next-day soreness between using older and newer racing shoes is true—and when runners lie about what’s on their feet, it’s usually to complain, not offer praise—then this could prove invaluable in both injury prevention and end-of-season freshness for a whole generation of up-and-comers. It’s likely that girls with their different and sometimes more volatile androgen and estrogen levels will always need to be considerably more cautious in this area, though, as their muscles typically don’t repair themselves as eagerly.,

I think this effect is already evident across both high-school and more advanced realms, and I’m just starting to catch on. Either way, it’s exciting to anticipate the pleasant cascading effects this might have on a teenager forced to “over-race” to attain his or her goal marks—and also invites questions about when Nike will release a training model for the masses with a nylon-carbon-fiber plate to achieve much of the same effect (and make a surreal amount of money). After all, the main reason elite runners don’t put in nearly the same amount of time as cyclists and swimmers is muscle damage. Or maybe it’s boredom, which is also primarily why I rarely run more than an hour at a time anymore myself.