My soundbite critique of Capitalism has always been the following..
“Within Capitalism, one can never have a good enough toothbrush.”
What I mean by that is, Capitalism is inherently a “grow or die” economy, and so it follows that the products created can never be good enough, never sufficient for our needs, and must always be adapted, bettered, or in some way changed so the consumer always has something NEW to buy and the profits will continue to flow towards the producers and corporations. Sure, you’ve got a toothbrush, and it has seemingly worked just fine for the many months you’ve had it…but this NEW toothbrush has RAISED BRISTLES specifically designed to brush parts of your teeth that have been apparently decaying and dying without you even knowing it! Or so you’re told. So you buy that toothbrush and suddenly there’s ANOTHER NEW BREAKTHROUGH TOOTHBRUSH DESIGN! This time the bristles are in a DIFFERENT raised pattern to get those OTHER teeth you’ve been missing, or it has a motor, or it has some vague ion blasting energy component that is sure to get your teeth cleaner and whiter than they ever have been! I mean, goodness, just imagine how nasty your mouth was with that first generation toothbrush you had been using the majority of your life. It’s amazing you even have teeth to chew with. Well, fear not, you’ve now got the best toothbrush and don’t need to buy another one or worry about dental hygiene anymore…well, at least until the next toothbrush adaptation comes out.
Oh Capitalism. You’re so funny.
Of course, this critique isn’t confined simply to the dental industry. This is about the premise of a grow or die economy and not one specific product, but I can’t help but address how this plays out within our own subculture of running, namely in relation to running shoes. Oh yes, the premise is very much the same.
NO SHOE IS EVER GOOD ENOUGH. SO BUY ANOTHER PAIR!!
What I find amusing about this premise in relation to running shoes is that every informed runner knows they’ll probably NEED to buy new running shoes, relatively frequently. The suggested window of overuse lies somewhere between 250 and 500 miles, necessitating a new pair of running shoes every handful of months (almost every month if you’re a high-mileage elite), so that drive for shoe companies to CREATE a need for the consumer is less pressing, however, each shoe company still needs to outsell their competition, and so the same drive to create “newness” and “betterness” with each shoe still remains.
What this means for the consumer is that you’ll always be buying a different shoe, which can be quite annoying at best and form compromising at worse. Each year, shoe companies “update” last year’s model. They make tweaks with the foam, the overlays, materials, toe box, tread, etc. until three years down the line, the same model seems like an entirely different shoe. This isn’t even addressing when they completely discontinue a shoe, no matter how much the consumers enjoyed it.
Ultimately, this isn’t that big of a problem, because the tweaks made to the shoe are usually pretty benign, and sometimes even helpful. But really, I would LOVE to see a company say,
“This is our shoe. It works. Runners really enjoy it. So here it is…why would we ever change it?”
Every year. Year after year. Just LEAVE IT ALONE. I know other runners feel the same. Some even go so far as buying multiple pairs when they find a shoe that works because they know it will be “updated” and changed in some way the next season, potentially affecting how the shoe feels or works for them. I don’t blame them. In hindsight, if I had the money, I’d have bought 20 pairs of the 2009 / 2010 model of the Adidas Adios. Boost foam be damned…the shoe worked just perfect. I’d do the same for the first version of the Saucony Peregrine. I still love that shoe to death, but no change they have made in the following 5 models have altered how the shoe feels or performs. It’s just marketing. It’s upholding the exaggerated value of “newness” and “progression”, when it’s really just about dollars. Don’t overlook that.
Those considerations really aren’t so problematic, however, sometimes the drive for “progression” and “newness” gets out of hand. Sometimes a story comes out (or is created) that EXPLAINS the newness, that draws on something beyond the abstract of “performance” and tries to draw correlations to our biology, our humanity, our history. Sometimes a book, and movie and bad science comes along to justify that story and an entire shift in shoe industry approach is created…and you end up with “silly socks”. You end up with Vibram five fingers, minimalist shoes, and a desperate hope that running with next to nothing on your feet will cure your nagging injuries, make you olympic fast, stop your child from wetting the bed, fix your failing marriage, and achieve world peace. Right? I mean, that was the story wasn’t it? Eh, seemed like it anyways.
And that story was great for awhile, convincing everyone there was a HUGE CONSPIRACY with the shoe industry, that they were trying to ruin us by putting a pad of foam between our feet and the ground, for decades! We were duped! Now burn your shoes like the women of the 70’s burned their bras! Raise your fist and revolt! Run barefoot! Get on the treadmill and stomp out 3 miles sounding like a herd of Clydesdales! Take photos of your bare feet and tell everyone how your marriage has been saved and how your child stopped wetting the bed!
Then quietly put your thick socks in the back of the closet after visiting your podiatrist for repeated stress fractures and new run stopping injuries. That story didn’t turn out to be so convincing after all. But boy did someone make a lot of money selling those minimalist shoes. And the running shoe industry was ALL OVER IT. They subtly, quietly and then more loudly made the transition to entire lines of shoes based on minimalism. They talked about running “free”, “pure”, “natural” and a lot of other buzzwords. Suddenly, without actually saying it, they were admitting that all their old shoes were founded on bad science and years of damaging support…yet still kept them in their lineup, just in case anyone wasn’t convinced of the minimalist trend.
And then the minimalist trend started to fall apart, along with the race goals of so many injured runners. The final nail in the coffin was a lawsuit brought against Five Fingers and all those injured despite pretty convincing claims that the opposite would happen.
Then before everyone could take a deep breath and go back to what has been working pretty damn well for quite some time – a general range of support and comfort – Hoka stepped in the game and did a 180 on the minimalist trend. Now, I don’t know if the creators of Hokas thought,
“You know, people will run off a cliff like lemmings to buy shoes of the minimalist trend, so why wouldn’t they do the same going the other way? They crave newness, extremes, and the next cure to their problems…so let’s get ahead of the game.”
And out came pontoons for your feet, at just the right time, when everyone was running away from minimalist shoes and, unsurprisingly, into the waiting, cushioned, wide-open arms of Hoka, welcoming everyone in a loving, supportive embrace of absurdly marshmallowy soled shoes. Interestingly, Hoka didn’t have a story to go with their “newness”, their adaptation to the standard running shoe, but they didn’t need one. Runners seemed to want to get as far away from minimalist shoes as possible, and Hoka gave them that option. Smart enough not to make claims that would afford them a potential lawsuit as Five Fingers received, Hoka relied on a different approach…celebrity status. They threw shoes at Sage Canaday, Leo Monzano, Dave Mackey, Magda Boulet, Michael Wardian, and many others. You don’t need a story when you’ve got runners at the top of their field wearing your shoes (and maybe a little desperate for support through sponsorships – that statement is entirely assumed). Still, I look at runner endorsements more from the perspective of the runner and not the product.
And here’s the thing…it worked. Ultra runners considered the feel of running 50 to 100 miles on a waterbed instead of the dirt underneath their feet, and when Leo Manzano – a 1500 TRACK RUNNER! – got on board, that really threw everyone for a loop. If hugely cushioned shoes work for Leo, then how could they not be good for everyone else?
Now, I’m not saying they DON’T work. Personally, I don’t like them. I tried them (and reviewed them on this blog) to help alleviate my chemo side effects, and they did help with that, but otherwise I didn’t feel they were any better than the standard shoes I’ve been wearing for the past 8 years. Whether they “work” or not, is irrelevant. What they do is SELL. And nothing proves that they sell more than the other shoe companies all jumping on the swinging pendulum of consumerism and adding a whole new offering of excessively padded shoes to their lineup. Every shoe company is abandoning their statements of their shoes helping you run “naturally” and now promising that you’ll run “comfortably, further”, etc.
So yeah…what is it? Minimal or maximal? If you ask me…it’s bullshit. It’s marketing. It’s just…stupid.
We all know the game, but it’s still worth pointing out. For instance, did you know the former CEO, Tony Post, of Vibram Five Fingers created the market for minimalist shoes on the premise that they would let you run naturally, how you’re supposed to, but after everything started going south, he made a NEW line of shoes, TOPO Athletic, on the premise that they would create “innate amplification”, which is to say, HELP you run naturally and get the most out of your workout. People…it’s bullshit. It’s various degrees of foam or a barrier between your foot and the ground. It’s not going to make you better, it’s not going to stop your kid from wetting the bed. It’s just going to cover your foot. But they’ll tell you anything to convince you to buy new shoes, different shoes, anything to keep the dollars flowing from your wallet into their bank accounts.
So let’s step back and take a deep breath, look at the wider image and retain some grounding here, pun intended. Although I appreciate the extremes in life, find value in trying alternatives, enjoy pushing for “betterness”, and like experimenting, sometimes it’s ok to just sit back and say, “This works. This is good enough.” These trends towards minimalist shoes and maximalist shoes will run their course. Hokas and Vibrams will both stick around, because for various reasons, people will stay with them, and that’s fine…but my guess is that the majority of us will all fall somewhere within the grey areas between them and be content with doing so. I can look at the spectrum of marketing with running shoes and say, “Yeah, I’ll just keep my middle ground trainers, simplified racing flats, and 4mm drop trail shoes”. They’ve all worked just fine for me for years and there is no reason to think we haven’t figured out the basics of running shoes over the decades. Anything new and updated to come is going to rely primarily on nothing but figuring out new ways to bring consumers to their brand, to convince consumers of their marketing strategy, to find new ways to sell bullshit.
I know this won’t change, but I also know that if everyone stops and things about it for a second, we’ll all admit that these drastic changes are just ways to get us to buy, to consume something new again and again, to keep demanding new product, new material, new resources. I only wish so many runners would stop buying into the hype and stop helping them promote and continue these fabricated stories and absurd premises. I just want us to all admit,
“They’re just shoes. They’re just a damn pair of shoes.”
For the record, in my runner consumer utopia, if anyone starts a company that makes a few models of shoes that fall within that basic grey area and says, “We made a shoe. It works. We’re not changing it.” I’ll sign on as a brand ambassador and drag all the running masses to your side.
Now let’s get back to focusing on what matters with running…running. Let’s run. Let’s train. Let’s enjoy the experience and stop pretending that our gear is what makes us better, makes us happier, makes our kids stop wetting the bed.
And manufacturers…stop messing with the shoes! That goes for toothbrushes too!