From Barefoot To Fitbit
Advances in technology have shaped our running
We celebrate the running gear and gadgetry that have taken us from the Stone Age to the Internet Age (and occasionally back again)
Back in 1960, the world’s grainy, black-and-white TV screens showed a thin man running the Olympic Marathon on the cobblestones of the Appian Way and a thick man running joyously from his job in a slate quarry. They were two heroes (Abebe Bikila and Fred Flintstone) in ancient cities (Rome and Bedrock), but what really united these runners was what they wore on their feet: absolutely nothing.
Humans had run barefoot for millennia, some still preferred doing so and the handful of people running for exercise or fun in the mid-20th century often wore whatever they happened to have on their feet and the rest of their bodies at the moment of inspiration. (For example, Marilyn Monroe was photographed in 1951 running in Los Angeles while wearing a halter top, jeans and high heels. On another occasion, she wore a dress that reached below the knee.)
All runners still enter the world in the same way that Bikila triumphed in the Eternal City: barefoot and devoid of technical gear and gadgetry. But the sport now performs a slow seduction on us – a reverse striptease that has been evolving in complexity over the last 50 years: with each new pair of shoes, each new watch, Walkman/ ipod or moisture-wicking wonder-material we put on, the sport becomes more alluring.
So we now run in compression sleeves and anti-chafe balm, in blizzard-blocking fleece gloves, orthotic inserts and polarised sunglasses, in wicking shorts and technical T-shirts, Fitbits synced to iphone apps, taking our first step only when our satellites are located, and with our recovery drink and deep-tissue massage ball waiting at home. We are mobile technological wonders, but it wasn’t always thus…
Back in 1966, the year when Kansas schoolboy Bob Anderson first published a newsletter called Distancerunning News, the runner’s world looked very different: a 23-year-old woman named Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb sneaked into the starting chute at the Boston Marathon, a race that wasn’t yet open to women, given the delicate sensibilities of the fairer sex. So Gibb – in a world bereft of sports bras – concealed her gender with a one-piece swimsuit worn beneath a baggy blue hoodie, and borrowed her brother’s Bermuda shorts. On training runs she wore a pair of white nurse’s shoes. In spite of all this, Gibb ran 3:21:40, finishing 126th in a field of 415.
The runner of that age had few clothing options. Training kit came in heavy cotton, which held sweat like a reservoir when things got hot, and with no wind-blocking properties it induced in men what they called ‘dreaded penis frostbite’ in winter.
‘I believe it’s jogging or yogging,’ says Ron Burgundy, exemplar of the 1970s newsreader played by (runner) Will Ferrell in Anchorman. ‘It might be a soft “j”. I’m not sure.’ And while the first running boom of the time is ripe for comedic hindsight, there’s no doubt that the growing appeal of the sport began to drive innovation in products aimed at the needs and desires of the masses in question.
Every religion needs its creation myth and gospel tells us that running and tech were first truly conjoined when Bill Bowerman poured rubber into his wife Barbara’s waffle iron in their Oregon kitchen. That was in 1970 and Bowerman’s urethane batter was the primordial ooze from which an empire arose: the waffle sole and with it, the Waffle Trainer.
That same year, Ron Hill became the first Brit to win the Boston Marathon, but the research chemist also had his sights set on redefining running apparel, which he began to do in 1972 when he designed and launched the first iteration of the classic Trackster tight. The iconic marathon vest and Union Jack short would follow in 1978.
There were stirrings in the realm of gadgetry, too – in 1979, new Finnish company Polar filed its first patent for wireless heartrate measurement. By 1982, it had launched the first ever wire-free wearable heart-rate monitor, sparking a revolution in the way athletes trained.
When Welshman Steve Jones set a new world record at the Chicago Marathon in 1984, he wasn’t sporting a chest strap and the numbers on the finish clock – 2:08:05 – weren’t just a revelation to those watching: ‘I never wore a watch in races,’ Jones told Runner’s World 30 years later. For most people, however, time was running out on the idea of running watchless, for in that Orwellian year –
The growing appeal of the sport began to drive innovation in products’
1984, when the clocks were striking 13 – Timex introduced the Timex Triathlon, with the Timex Ironman following two years later. ‘ We took the clock off the finish line and put it on your wrist,’ says the company in its official history.
Casio had come out with the Casiotron, the first digital watch, in 1974, and it was worn by many runners in the 1970s. But the Timex was also a water-resistant stopwatch that could time laps and intervals, and its eventual Indiglo feature – a miracle of electroluminescent technology – marked the passage of time on night runs and in dark cinemas, glowing with the light of a thousand fireflies during bad, overlong movies. ‘I still don’t know what all the Timex buttons do,’ says RW editor-at-large and 1968 Boston Marathon Winner Amby Burfoot. Nobody does – but by strapping an Ironman to one’s wrist, the wearer told the world: I’m a runner.
Another epic tech story also saw its first chapter written in 1984, as Sony’s Walkman series debuted its first ‘Sports’ model. The WM-F5 was rugged, splash-proof and, most importantly, it was yellow (to clearly differentiate it from non-sporting models). Powered by the likes of Nik Kershaw and OMD, runners raced into a future where technology would bond music and running as eternal sole mates, though we’ll wager that ‘ Wouldn’t It Be Good’ doesn’t feature on too many power-playlists these days.
The empirical new clothes
Some, of course, eschewed the Walkman, preferring to talk to running partners or simply absorb those dreamlike thoughts and profound insights we all have on runs but forget by the time we take off our soggy kit. Only back then, that kit was seriously soaked. Throughout the 1970s most of the running world was seemingly content with a combination of cotton, Velour and, all too often, partial nudity as the pinnacle of performance attire, and the 1980s and early 1990s merely seemed to add dubious styling – and possible flammability. But with the new millennium looming, things finally started to smarten up in the world of sports fabrics.
In 1995, Kevin Plank, a US college football player, became so sick of wearing sweat-soaked cotton that he drove to New York’s Garment District, began to sample fabrics and eventually fashioned a T-shirt from seemingly space-age ‘wicking’ microfibres. He gave them to his friends to try and later formed the globe-conquering company Under Armour, spawning today’s moisturewicking-industrial complex.
It wasn’t just Plank who was getting smart with fabrics. In 1997 a brand synonymous with fabric innovation, Gore, launched a running-specific sub-brand, Concurve. This brand would evolve into Gore Running Wear, bringing us increasingly advanced weather-protection. In 2004 its running apparel featuring Windstopper technology won RW’S Innovation of the Year Award. Then, in 2010, came
Gore-tex Active, its first fabric with breathability qualities designed for aerobic activities such as running. Soaked to the skin or boiled-in-the-bag were no longer our only options when our training diaries and the meteorological conditions were at cross-purposes.
Others were rethinking the boundaries of the role that could be played by what runners wear. In the late 1990s, Australian physiologist Brad Duffy was working on the idea of a garment that would aid postexercise recovery; in 1998 he founded Skins. By 2004 patents were filed and products launched; by 2008 they had reached the UK and our love affair with compression blossomed.
Meanwhile, research at Edinburgh University led to the development of the original Shock Absorber sports bras, which launched in 1995. The range, designed for different impact levels, ushered in a new era of comfort for female runners. A decade later, pioneering research at the University of Portsmouth used infrared cameras to track threedimensional breast movement on the run, and the results led to the design and 2009 launch of Shock Absorber’s Ultimate Run bra.
Every inch of runners’ bodies seemed to be benefitting from technological innovation. At one end, 1995 saw Ron Hill debut the Twin Skin, two-layer anti-blister sock; at the other, performance sports optics pace-setter Oakley launched its first running-specific model. The classic M Frame arrived in 1990 and a decade of innovation and experimentation culminated in the arm-free Over The Top concept frame, as sported by Trinidad and Tobago sprinter Ato Boldon in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. If you were taking silver in the 100m, as he did, you could probably just about get away with them. The odd design indulgence aside, lens and frame tech has continually evolved since then and Oakley’s latest model – the Radar Pace – epitomises just how far running tech has come, with in-run coaching technology delivered via frame-integrated headphones.
Data with destiny
We now live and run in the data age. Long gone are the days when we measured mileage by driving the route, and intervals by looking down through sweat-stung eyes at the sweep of a second hand. It’s hard to say precisely when it all started, but the 2003 launch of Garmin’s original Forerunner, the 101, was certainly a seminal moment. Battery-powered and, by today’s standards, colossal, it began the era of wearable GPS tech for the everyday runner. For many of us, running without precision data now seems almost unthinkable and while the watches have shrunk, the metrics they deliver have grown to include the likes of cadence, ground contact time and vertical oscillation.
While the GPS revolution was making the Timex Ironman look as old as Big Ben, the first decade of the 21st century also saw the Walkman consigned to history by a product designed by a Brit, Jonathan Ive, and brought to life by an American, Steve Jobs. The first ipod appeared in October 2001 and by June 2003 sales had topped one million. Then came the mini (2004) and the shuffle (2005) before the game changed again with the iphone in 2007.
The iphone’s impact went beyond music, bringing the advent of apps to power the next phase of running’s data age. Strava launched in 2009, initially for cyclists, but adding running functionality in the same year. As with other activity trackers, the platform has seen huge growth in those keen to record and share the minutiae of their running data.
Interestingly, Chris Mcdougall’s bestselling book Borntorun also arrived in 2009 and it sparked a flirtation with a return to the simplicity of the Flintstone era; however, the barefoot craze has already given way to a maximalist backlash, the pendulum swinging towards heavily cushioned shoes such as the Hoka One One.
Romantic as it may be to think of humans fulfilling their evolutionary destiny with little or no help from modern technology, we have fallen hard for gadgetry, a development exemplified by the image of techno symbolism created by digital media producer and runner Joseph Tame, who in 2011 ‘drew’ an outline of the Apple logo on a 21km run through Tokyo, using Runkeeper, Google Earth and two iphones.
Perhaps the real beauty of modern running technology is that it actually offers you both ideals, that you can have your cake (or should it be apple, these days?) and eat it. You can choose to engage with the gear and gadgets that divert your mind and fine-tune your training every step of the way, or forget about them entirely once you’ve locked in to a satellite. As with a good tailwind, you tend not to notice what’s helping you run; and while you’re sweat-wicked and weather-protected on the outside, underneath the gear you can still indulge the ancient desire that remains at the heart of our sport, from Fred Flintstone and Abebe Bikila to the runners of today; that yearning to do something elemental, something pure and unadorned: to move ever forward, freely and without encumbrance.
For many of us, running without data now seems almost unthinkable’
BARING HIS SOLE Abebe Bikila in the 1960 Rome Olympics
*Ron Burgundy does not run (he’s a jazz flute man), but he understands the appeal of ‘yogging’.
OLD SCHOOL (clockwise, from top) the Sony Walkman WM-F5, RW US watch reviews, 1986; a PF Flyers ad; and Ron Hill (no. 519) with fellow Ron Hill runners
LINKED BY RUNNING Fred Flintstone, Bill Bowerman’s Waffle Trainer; Marilyn Monroe; Ron Hill apparel; Tiger ‘training shoes’; Ron Burgundy*; and Gore’s Concurve brand