THE FIRST SHOE I RE­ALLY LOVED

The New Bal­ance 1400 v3

Runner's World South Africa - - FRONT PAGE - By Heather Mayer Irvine Photography by Trevor Raab

“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.

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