Nike Unveils What It Hopes is the Fastest Shoe in the World

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The Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite

This past December, when Nike announced the launch of its Breaking2 initiative, wherein three elite athletes would attempt to break not only the world record for the marathon, but the ever elusive two-hour mark — thought by many to be outside the realm of human capabilities — there were quite a few questions. Today Nike provided some key answers.

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For starters, there’s the issue of location. Interested parties around the internet seemed to think much of the project’s merit was dependent on where the race would be run. If Nike simply let the runners loose on some super-springy surface or a long, leisurely downhill, they’d be met with the dismissive eye-rolls of an already skeptical — if also deeply engaged — running community. And while the attempts won’t come at one of the official major marathons or anything, the setting, though certainly unorthodox, should satisfy at least some critics.

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Chosen “based on a unique set of environmental characteristics, with consideration of altitude, temperature, and vapor pressure,” the Breaking2 attempts will be made on a fixed 2.4km loop on a grand prix track at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza complex outside Monza, Italy. According to Nike, the roughly 1.5-mile loop allows for perfect management of pacing, hydration, nutrition, and support team transition.”

Surely, some will go all sour-grapes and point out that these are not luxuries available to the rest of us, thus taking some of the shine off whatever does or does not happen there, but this has never been the point of the project — rather, the point is to determine whether, under a perfect set of circumstances and with all the relevant data and technology at their disposal, the most finely tuned athletes on the planet can achieve this exceedingly lofty goal, with the expectation that said data and technology would then be passed down to the rest of us so that we may better our chances at making our own breakthroughs: going sub-4 in a marathon, breaking 20 minutes in a 5k, etc. 

And what’s the most obvious piece of technology that could be passed down to the mere mortals among us? Well, it’s the shoes. It’s gotta be the shoes. 

Each of the three runners — Eliud Kipchoge, Zersenay Tadese, Lelisa Desisa — will wear versions of the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite, a freshly designed shoe that utilizes a staggering number of seemingly small but potentially game-changing technological advancements. The shoe utilizes a new ZoomX foam technology that offers an impressive amount of ultralightweight cushioning that’s not usually found in the racing shoes usually worn by elites, because energy return is far more important than cushion to these guys — the last thing they want is to feel like they’re sinking into some plush bed of foam like a 200-pound weekend warrior. 

With the Vaporfly Elite, though, Nike managed to give them the best of both worlds. The shoe will boast a 30mm stack height, with a 9mm offset — specs you’d normally find in highly cushioned trainers meant for the aforementioned casual runners. But even with that luxurious base, the shoe reportedly offers unprecedented energy return. According to Runner’s World, Nike claims it returns 85 percent of the energy put into it — the highest performing foam to date was Adidas’s groundbreaking Boost foam, which Runner’s World tested at 70 percent. 

Also present in the Vaporfly Elite is a “scooped-shape” carbon fiber plate that aids in that energy return while also helping to reduce fatigue in the calves. The plate also makes the shoe surprisingly stiff — like, stiffer than you could possibly imagine. I got the chance to handle the shoe at Nike HQ in New York last week, and I found this to be the single most striking element of a shoe that’s pretty damn striking on the whole. According to Nike, the shape and stiffness of the plate encourages propulsion. Bret Schoolmeester, Senior Director of Global Running Footwear for Nike, said it makes you feel as if you’re tumbling forward. 

The final, and most visually striking feature of the shoe is its aerodynamic heel, which takes the shape of a pronounced point on the back of the midsole, like a shark fin. 

Now, the bad news: you will never own a pair, as they’re not being released commercially. But some slightly scaled-back versions of it are available. 

The Vaporfly 4% is the closest you’ll get to the Elite, and it’s certainly nothing to sneeze at. It comes equipped with the same ZoomX foam technology and carbon-fiber plate, plus a less severe point on the back of the heel. 

Though it’s been under tight wraps until today, the Vaporfly Elite has actually been making the rounds, covertly, on the international marathon stage for some time now. Elide Kipchoge won last year’s London Marathon in an early version of the shoe, in a time of 2:03:05 — just eight seconds behind the world record. And Kipchoge isn’t the only one who’s been putting them through their paces.

“We swept the podium in Rio,” said Schoolmeester. “Men’s gold, silver, and bronze. Chicago Marathon, New York Marathon… we’re making it very, very hard to win a major marathon without these.” 

The Vaporfly 4% will be released on June 8 with a price tag of $250. 

Those looking for a more affordable option can turn to the Nike Zoom Fly, which uses the more traditional Lunarlon foam and a nylon plate that’s merely carbon-infused. The Zoom Fly will also hit shelves on June 8th, for an easier to swallow $150. On that same day, Nike will also release the Pegasus 34, which will be available in the same colorway — “the color of speed,” according to Nike. 

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