THE FIRST SHOE I REALLY LOVED
The New Balance 1400 v3
“It’s an ‘N’ – for ‘New Balance’,” my grandmother responded.
My grandmother wore no other type of shoe that I can recall. My mom once told me that was because New Balance was the only brand that made shoes in double-E, to accommodate Gran’s wide feet. That may have been the case. But I wager that it was also because the shoes were no-nonsense, comfortable, functional. Gran didn’t have time for bullshit. (Like her, neither do I.)
A couple of times a year, Gran would go to the New Balance factory shop to load up on her double-E grey shoes, with an ‘N’, not a ‘Z’. On one of these pilgrimages, she took me with her. I can’t remember if I needed new shoes or just wanted them. When it comes to grandparents, it doesn’t really matter. They’ll spoil you either way.
We walked in, and there were rows and rows of tall metal filing cabinets filled with shoes. Gran let me pick out whatever my tomboy-self wanted: grey shoes with a rough texture; yellow and black laces; black, ridged soles – which, thinking back on it now, meant it must have been some sort of trail shoe – and a big black ‘N’.
To my 10-year-old self, wearing a shoe like Gran’s echoed all the other similarities we shared: we were hard workers with a neversay-die attitude, loyal and active.
And though on that initial shopping trip I could never have known it, just like Gran I would become a life-long New Balance user.
like running. That may seem hard to believe, because I’m now an editor at Runner’s World. But when I was convinced to join the track athletics team in my third year of high school, I found that I couldn’t think of anything much worse. Maybe that’s because I felt so slow, plodding. But the team’s culture played a large role, too.
I vividly remember a practice when we were asked to run 7km cross-country on a freezing mid-winter day. A group of a dozen or so teenage girls headed out. Clad in baggy tracksuit pants that read ‘Trackies’ on the butt – high school in the early Noughties was all about the butt text – I cued up the latest Harry Potter on my Walkman cassette player while trying to keep pace. I fell off. Fast.
The wind picked up, the sun went down, I got lost. Eventually, after trudging through calf-deep mud, I made it back to school – long after my teammates had gone home, had hot showers, and were sitting down to supper – where my mom was pacing up and down the parking lot, panicking. This moment represents high-school athletics for me.
For my first indoor event that year, I wore a pair of grey Nikes, picked at random from a department store. I was running the 1 500m. I sat by myself on the stands trying to do homework before my race to ease my nerves. It didn’t help. By the time I lined up at the start, I was nauseous and shaking, the harsh gym lighting heightening my anxiety. Pre-race nerves are normal. But when you’re woefully unprepared, it’s a different ball game. In a race that’s only 3.75 laps, I couldn’t count how many girls lapped me. My chest hurt. My mouth filled with spit. I came in dead last, in 8:38. I hated this sport.
“WHAT’S THE ‘Z’ FOR?” I ASKED MY GRAN, LOOKING AT THE LARGE WHITE LETTER SEWN ONTO THE WIDE GREY SHOE.
for more than 15 years now. I train four days a week, logging 30 to 50 kays over two speed sessions, a long run, and an easy day. I wear a Garmin GPS watch. When I get dressed for a run or race, I put on old race tops or long-sleeve shirts with shorts, and – depending on the workout – my flats (for speed) or trainers
(for everything else). I cringe thinking of my teenage self, donning tracksuit pants, a cheap cotton sports bra, and whatever supermarket shoes were on sale.
I don’t run like I used to, either. I got fast. And I attribute that to a decision I made at age 16.
I hadn’t been happy at my high school for a while; the feeling of being an outsider extended beyond the athletics team. A week before starting my next year, and with a push from my mom and Gran, I decided to change the scenery. I enrolled in a new high school 18km away – a number I know to be exact, because in 2011 I ran the distance for training – and to establish residency, I moved in with my grandmother.
On day one at the new school, two girls I’d met in PE period told me I should think about joining the cross-country team. But I hate running, I thought to myself. But you need to make new friends, a voice shot back.
When the bell rang, I found myself in the changing room getting ready for my first cross-country practice.
After 45 minutes of running and thundering up the hill that led back to the school in my grey Nikes, I found I didn’t like running much more than I did before, but I decided I was willing to tolerate it.
I finished high school in 2005, living with Gran all the while. In those two years, I fell in love with the sport. I went from 6:30 for the 1 600m to a 6:21 by the time I left, my woeful 8:38 in the 1 500m a distant memory. I even scored the winning point for my team at an indoor race event, placing third in the two-mile (eight laps of pure hell; I can still feel the chest burn).
I was getting better, but something bigger was happening, too: running was giving me an identity, a place in the world, and a tight-knit group of friends.
Gran, in her ever-present grey New Balance shoes, helped make this happen. She let me host team suppers and encouraged my teammates to drop by and use her pool to cool off during or after workouts.
In 2013, when I ran my first marathon – a race Gran’s brother ran well into his 70s – my grandmother wrote, “Good luck, Heather. Love, Gran” on my singlet. She was on dialysis, and couldn’t make it to the course; she missed me running the 2014 version of the same race for the same reason. But she told all of her friends that her granddaughter was running it. Boy, was she proud.
Gran passed away in January 2015, 11 months before I was offered a position at Runner’s World. She never knew that I landed my dream job, or that I’d soon run exclusively in her trademark shoe brand.
FOR ABOUT SEVEN YEARS, I’d worn Nike, adidas and Brooks running shoes, relying on fit recommendations from speciality-running-shop employees. None of the models felt ideal; but admittedly, I didn’t yet understand what ‘ideal’ really was. I wasn’t experienced enough to know that you don’t run in a shoe just because someone else says it would be good for you.
I was introduced to the now-discontinued New Balance Vazee Pace at a specialityshop’s group run. It was a lightweight, lowdrop, supportive-but-still-neutral trainer. Maybe it was pure coincidence that I stumbled across a New Balance shoe I loved. Subconsciously, though, it was also a way to keep Gran with me every kay I ran.
A COUPLE OF MONTHS into my job as food and nutrition editor, Runner’s World had its annual employee shoe sale: a purging of the gear storeroom in which all shoes the magazine had been given for testing were sold for low prices, the proceeds going to charity. By this point I was fully into running, seeking speedier and speedier times, and searching for the right gear to help make that happen.
Because I loved the New Balance Vazee Pace, when I spotted a pair of New Balance racing flats, I made a beeline for them.
They were purple with orange trim. They felt like nothingness in my hand. The drop looked low, and the toebox wide, perfect for the irritating bunion on my right foot (for more, see ‘The Geek Out’, on the right). I tried them on: spacious for a flat, light, comfortable. Sold! They were the New Balance 1400 v3.
My first run in the v3s was my last hard workout before my next marathon. Slipping them on, the fit was perfect, and I felt fast before I’d even stepped out of the door. I jogged to the oval and put in 10 kays at marathon pace (7:45), with 200m pick-ups in the last lap of each 1 600m. I felt like I could really push off with each stride. Now this is a fast shoe, I thought.
Two weeks after the marathon, I ran a 5-K PB in my v3s: 20:40. Then a month later, I pulled out the v3s for a half marathon and another PB: 1:34:50. Fuelled by new confidence, I set a goal of breaking 20 minutes in the 5-K at an event in four months’ time.
AT THIS POINT, I’d been running long enough to know that when you start to really like a shoe, you should buy more. Inevitably, the manufacturer will take what you think is perfect and change it in a way that’s no longer perfect for you. So that summer I ordered a new pair of the 1400 v3s in bright orange. Hitting the ‘buy’ button, I realised: if I’m buying shoes identical to the ones I already own, this is no fling. The v3s and I were in it for the long haul. Or about 500 kays, anyway.
Like any true love, the v3s supported my quest to be better. I got excited to put them on, line up on the track, and turn left until I wanted to puke (avoiding the shoes, of course). They also gave me something I only subconsciously knew I needed.
My husband asked me one night: “Why do you like running so much?”
No-one had asked me that before. I had to pause to really think about it.
“Because I can measure exactly how much better I’m getting,” I told him. Numbers don’t lie. I was putting in work and seeing exactly what the payoff was. I took my marathon time from 3:56:42 in April 2013 to 3:31:42 in October 2014. My halfmarathon time was 1:55 in May 2011 and 1:34 in May 2016. In September 2011 I ran a 1 600m – my first since high school – in 6:17, and by September 2016, it was 5:37. That doesn’t just happen. It takes dedication, focus, grit. It takes someone who isn’t afraid of hard work.
Which is why running faster and faster in the v3s wasn’t just about feeling completely awesome. They made me feel like I could do anything, even if it was difficult. And that made me feel like Gran, who raised four small children on her own after her husband died at just 39 years old.
At the 5-K in October, I laced up my second pair of v3s and ran 19:46.
I was in the best shape of my life. I ordered a third pair of v3s, in that same Hello! orange. The shoes arrived on 8 December 2016. Hours before that, I found out I was pregnant.
I put my brand-new shoes in the cupboard, still in their red and grey box. I knew that for at least the next year, my racing days would be on hold. In the back of my mind was a nagging fact I’d learned while working at a running-shoe shop: even if you keep shoes in a box, they will break down over time. To date, my third pair of v3s has been in the box, untouched, for 19 months.
As the months of my pregnancy stretched on, I watched my speed slip away. Gone were my 60km weeks. Like those boxed shoes, my peak fitness started to break down.
As I started running less and less, thanks to a growing belly and shin-splint pain, I felt less and less like a runner. Aside from a few runs – a 4 x 400m relay in which half the team was pregnant, and a couple of fun runs – I stopped wearing my flats. I told myself this was only temporary. Then I would wonder, what if it isn’t? What if I could no longer gauge success in running by steady progress? Would I love it less? Would I love me less? Could I still be proud of non-runner me?
I couldn’t wear flats if I couldn’t run fast. That’d be like people who wear fuel belts
for 5-Ks. You just… don’t. And look, I know that becoming a parent is supposed to trump everything, that you’re supposed to selflessly put aside your needs for your kid’s. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up running hard. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to give up my v3s.
With this mindset (and my doctor’s permission), I started the long haul to get back into shape after my son, Finn, was born in August 2017. Maybe it wouldn’t be prebaby shape, but I wasn’t going to just give in. But after four months off running, the once simple, natural act took some getting used to. Eventually, my muscle memory kicked in. And my v3s were there, ready to go fast again.
This past March, I ran a 20:05 5-K in my second pair of v3s, coming in second for all women in the race. Finn and my husband were there, cheering me on. The result was far better than I’d ever imagined I’d be capable of just seven months after childbirth. It gave me a renewed sense of hope that once I slip on my boxed-up pair, I may be able to push faster than ever.
I’ve got a lot riding on that third pair of v3s. I’m gearing up for a 1 600m in a few months, a race I love. I didn’t run it in 2017, just three weeks after Finn’s birthday. So I thought it would be fitting to target this one as my first post-partum goal race, almost exactly a year after he was born. And what better time to unveil my third-time’s-the-charm v3s.
Here’s the rub: once I open that box, that will be it. New Balance discontinued the v3s in 2016. Yep. They no longer exist. Well, there are a few pairs out there, but only in miniature or gargantuan foot sizes, versus my down-the-middle 7.5. Trust me – I’ve spent hours trolling the internet looking for them on discount sites.
It’s a funny thing about love: you can be so loyal, so committed, giving your all. And then – poof! – it’s over. New Balance has my whole heart, and it stomped on it with its 1400 v4s and v5s. The updates – nearly 30g heavier, tighter toeboxes, the shoes now run a little small – felt like seismic changes to me.
So, as I eagerly count down the days to my 1 600m, I also dread beginning the last hurrah with my favourite flats. On race morning, I’ll slip on my third and final pair of New Balance 1400 v3s and toe the line, to see just how much more never-say-die this mom can be.
After that, I’ll have 500km to see how far my v3s can take me before it’s time to hang them up for good.
A lot can happen in 500 kays. I’ll start the journey with 1.6 of them.
above: The author on her wedding day, 1 October 2011, with her grandmother. Two weeks later Irvine would run her second half marathon.left: The author hits her watch as she breaks 20 minutes in the 5-K on 14 October 2016.