The Latest Sorry Sordid Secret Saga of Marathon Running Shoes

Disclaimer: As apposed to my brother Dean, I should be the long distance runner in the family.  I, in my callow youth, was short, wiry and ornery (but mostly just went my own way).  Suddenly one day in standard 9 the ugly duckling became a ‘swan’.  From always being on the ground in the annual class photographs I suddenly found myself in the second row – heady times.  In Matric, I proudly took my place alongside all those guys in the back row who had played rugby lock their whole lives – traditionally reserved for the tallest while the coach struggled to find a position where he could hide me.  I might have got tallish, but I never got broad, let alone broadish.  I left Varsity a tad under 6 ft and weighing in at 73kg.  By the age of 55 I had put on weight – I weighed 75kg.  I was long distance material – rangy and still a bit ornery.  Dean, my elder brother by 4 years, was not the archetypal long distance runner.  He was an inch or two shorter than me and struggled with his extra poundage for his whole life.  In addition, a very, very septic burst appendix (caused by our sister Cheryl, a tough little shit of note, giving him a voltruis skop in the right side when he was 10 or 11) ensured that his 6- pack, if he could get one, was ripped to pieces by the aggressive surgery resulting in a recurrent stitch when running.

The upshot of all this was not according to the form book.  By now, with both of us in our sixties, Dean has run around the Earth and is presently on course to reach the moon.  I, on the other hand, since leaving the army, have never run more than 5km (a sponsored school project) in one go. 

Dean had two advantages over me.  For one, he didn’t smoke, although like Clinton, when he was young he did a few times, but he didn’t inhale.  That’s as much as I know about his smoking.  About his girlfriends, even less although I was sure that there was a Monica who made a cameo appearance, so to speak.  The other huge advantage was that where I was a dilletante on most things, Dean could develop a focussed passion similar to a Jesuit priest applying that final immaculate torture to an innocent heretic.  Like Forrest Gump, he ran and he ran and even when he didn’t know why he ran, he ran.  I ran?  No!  I was too busy designing missiles to deal with countries like Iran to run – that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

The above disclaimer obviously hints at that I am not an expert on running shoes.  I proudly admit to the fact that I never, ever wore a Dunlop, let alone a Slazenger Tackie, but rather a Bata tackie (note – without the capitalisation).  This is what us working class folk wore.  When I was called up for National Service, I was happy to find that this was not an aberration – the omnipotent Army agreed that the Bata tackie or its tendered equivalent was sufficient – indeed, fit for purpose as long as it was Nutria Brown.  Actually, throughout my 2 years in the Army, I never once actually used my issued tackies in anger except for inspection purposes.  They were just like my school tackies – the were as plat as the pannekoek that granma made.  All the way through basics, Corporal’s course and Officer’s course my official tackies retained their as issued sheen for inspection purposes.  When I klaared out, the tread would have put my car’s tyres to shame and the polish on the soles was still shining.   My tough as old boere oxen biltong Army boots were considered fit for purpose, no matter what the exercise.  (As an aside, they became my motocross boots when I pretended to be an ace with my Honda 500XLS street scrambler in civvy street, until the boots were stolen.) 

Sometime in my later life, having only bought Hitech hi-tops for fashion purposes, their cheapness and their ankle support, I decided that I needed a pair of tackies for running and general exercise purposes.  When I eventually found the ‘tackie’ section in Sportsmans Warehouse I nearly had a panic attack on reviewing rack upon rack of athletic shoes in a bewildering variety of brands and gouging prices.  Where were the Dunlops and Slazengers?  I sullenly stalked down rows of infinitesimal variations of the basic theme at prices that would require me to take a short term loan from my Bolshy bank.  In the heights of my athletic youth at varsity I had noted that squash needed a special tackie that didn’t mark the floor and that was that.  Since I couldn’t discern the minor advantages of design, I decided that I would approach the problem like I would when buying wine – I would buy on price.  Fuck the taste.  Too low would be socially embarrassing and too high would be financially embarrassing.  In between there’s a Goldilocks price – I just had to find it.  And if I got lucky, it would taste good too.  (NO! This does not constitute an admission that I chose my girlfriends on that basis.)

Whilst pondering this important existential question, an obsequious assistant sidled over and gently enquired as to my requirements.  After listening to my rambling and old school explanation as to my requirements, he understood.  “You mean, you need cross trainers.”  Well I had had many coaches in my hockey career (after I eschewed exertion and chose the more laid back position of goalkeeper), but I had never met a cross trainer – they were all actually quite nice guys, particularly in the pub after practice.  After bit of confusion and quick mental gymnastics, I equated the newfandangled cross trainer to the common or garden tackie, just with a new appellation, a bit more padding and a few Zorro stripes for style, and still another few for fun.  The price, however, did not correlate to my silent mental calculation of the inflation rate since I was a kid.  But, it was what it was.  Tackies were so last year – actually, so last decade – so it was either some cross trainer or mortgage my house to buy a pair of Nike something or other.

Having got that off my chest (Jeez, I ‘ve waited 30 years to find a forum where I could mouth off on this topic), let’s get down to brass tacks, invoke my engineering knowledge and apply this to where others fear to tread, so to speak. 

Its all about the Coefficient of Restitution. 

NO, NO, NO!,  I am not getting political.  It’s not about Radical Economic Transformation or Expropriation Without Compensation, it’s the simple engineering principle of conservation.  (Please, all you Twitterati, before you manufacture anymore outrage and expire this planet with your excessive internet usage, this is not about non-woke conservative politics, but about the scientific principle of conservation of energy.)   

If you hold a tennis ball 1m off the ground and drop it, it will probably only bounce 0.5m up, giving it a Coefficient of Restitution, CoR, of 0,5 or 50%.  At some stage in our youth, someone discovered that Polyurethane could be fun and Superballs (down boy!) were invented to the amazement of us boys and the stupefaction of Mickey, our foxy, who loved chasing balls, including his own when he was bored or neglected.  Superballs had a CoR of 0,8 to 0,9 which meant that Mickey was never going to catch them much to our amusement and his bemusement.

But I digress again.  If you scientifically observe runners, you will notice that they bob up and down.  But more to the point is how their Centre of Gravity, CoG, bobs up and down.  1968 was a watershed year when the Black Power salute made history as a political statement in the Olympics in Mexico City and Bob Beamon jumped a record long jump with the help of the high altitude that stood for 23 years.  While I was still doing the scissors high jump with moderate success in Standard 4, Dick Fosbury introduced a radical method of clearing the bar.   It became known as the Fosbury Flop and it is the ultimate cheat without cheating.  He would approach the bar and, at the point of take-off, twist and arch his body so that although his body cleared the bar, his CoG passed under the bar.  It was a scientific skulduggery but not illegal!

What has this to do with Marathon running?  Well, a runner’s CoG bounces up and down but the muscles and tendons are non-conservative.  An ideal spring is conservative, in that if you depress it, it will return to where it started, much like the Superballs that surprised Mickey.  If you add some damping, it becomes non-conservative (energy is dissipated in the cycle) and it does not return to where it started.  To do that, some external source has to supply that lost energy.  In a marathon runner, that is you and the pizza that you carbo-loaded with the previous night.  It is not surprising therefore that some of the successful marathon runners are shufflers.  Much like Fosbury, they keep their CoG as low (and as even) as possible. 

In the old days when there was no Youtube let alone Netflix, I watched a fair amount of the Comrades (jeez, times were slow back then) and apart from the freakish Bruce Fordyce, I recall a John Robb who was a bit of a shuffler.  There was also a woman that I seem to remember as a Tilda and a Tsababalala who were all non-athletic looking but supreme shufflers and they did well.  Tilda whoever won and Tsababalala kept Fordyce honest.

Now it seems as if Nike has outdone Neil Simon with the Diamonds in the Soles of His Shoes and has upped the game by introducing carbon springs into the soles of their shoes.  These have a CoR of close to 100% and enable the athletic non-shufflers who bounce a lot in their running, not to lose energy along the way.

I believe that the rules regarding the ‘tackies’ should be that the horizontal projected area of the ‘tackie’ should be less than 10% greater than the projected area of the foot and no part of it shall thicker than 1.5cm.  Within that restriction, anything goes as long as it doesn’t create energy.

And if you get foot or knee or back problems because of the thinness, suck it up.  After all that’s what Pheidippides had to do when he had to run 25 miles in 490 BC without the benefit of seconds or ululating crowds and only had a 0.5cm sole with a CoR of no better than a piece of biltong. 


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