From Bare­foot To Fit­bit

Ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy have shaped our run­ning

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

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.

Boom time

‘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

THE PACE OF PROGRESS (clock­wise from top left) the ipod; Ato Boldon goes Over The Top; the Garmin Fore­run­ner 101; the Hoka One One; the Fit­bit Ac­tiv­ity Tracker; and Joseph Tame’s Ap­ple logo

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