Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman was having breakfast with his wife one morning in 1971 when it dawned on him that the grooves in the waffle iron she was using would be an excellent mould for a running shoe.
Bowerman, who was a track and field coach at the time, had been searching for a way to make shoes lighter and faster and was inspired by his waffles! Several ruined waffle irons later, and after much experimentation, the Nike Waffle Trainer launched in 1974.
Nike was on the way to becoming the multi billion dollar company that it is today.
When one looks back at the history of the brand there are various signposts along the way when it comes to product development.
The Waffle Trainer indeed sits in the category, however it is perhaps the Nike Air that is the true legacy product. Back in March 1977 a former NASA engineer, Frank Ruddy, and his business partner Bob Bogert sat in the Nike conference room presenting their new idea – to inject air into a running shoe.
Phil Knight recounts the story in his autobiography – Shoe Dog - “I set down the shoes and gave Rudy a closer look, a full head-to-toe. Six-three, lanky, with unruly dark hair, bottle-bottom glasses, a lopsided grin, and a severe vitamin D deficiency, I thought. Not enough sunshine. Or else a long-lost member of the Addams Family.”
Perhaps not the image one thinks of behind one of the world’s best-known shoe technologies, but nevertheless in 1978 the Nike Air Tailwind was launched. As the 1980’s progressed and the global trainer market gained momentum, so Nike continued to develop new technologies and, combined with shrewd athlete endorsements, grew to the force it is today. Many of you, of course, already know this. So what? I hear you say. Well maybe, just maybe, the next major chapter in this story is upon us.
As a part-time runner, I was intrigued by the news that Nike had embraced the challenge to break the two hour marathon mark – “Breaking2”.
A huge barrier that The world record, currently standing at 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya in 2014, is no easy task to break.
To put this into perspective, to break the magic mark would mean running at an average of 4:34 per mile for 26.2 miles. The athletes have been chosen - after more than two years of research, preparation and testing: three top distance runners—Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea. The track has been chosen – the Autodromo Nazionale Monza complex, a racetrack outside Monza in northern Italy, where the surface is asphalt and speed is certainly king. But what about the shoes?
There were rumours about a Nike shoe being created for the event, with suggestions that its sole would contain a special spring, which would circumvent the rules of the athletics governing body, the IAAF.
However, having now been unveiled, it’s now clear that the new Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite will instead have an internal gently curved carbon-fibre plate to minimise energy loss without causing cramping in the athlete. Along with Flyknit, Flywire and other established Nike design features, the major advance comes from a patented carbon fibre insert that is reported to dramatically change the performance and profile of the shoe.
The plate acts as a ‘stiffening element’ according to Nike’s design team, yet its impact on the shoe as a whole is perhaps more important. The curve of the plate changes the foot shape in the shoe, placing it more in the toe-off position and this does a couple of key thing; it helps improve on running economy due to reducing the strain on the lower leg thus delaying the onset of fatigue and it allows for increased cushioning in the shoe without a loss of performance. The foam that covers this increased cushioning in the midsole has been improved too, as Nike’s Zoom foam becomes ZoomX. What does this mean? Well, apparently an 85 per cent energy return compared to the typical 60-70 per cent. This makes a big difference over 26.2 miles.
And then there’s the heel shape. This is the result of aerodynamic testing where a design driven by data has shown the tapered heel is there to improve the way the shoe cuts through the air. All these elements, Nike believe, will give the athletes maximum assistance in the record breaking quest.
It remains to be seen whether the goal is finally achieved – it looks like the first weekend in May is the anticipated target date – and it also remains to be seen whether the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite will join the Waffle Trainer and Nike Air as an iconic shoe..
One thing’s for sure: technology will continue to evolve and records will continue to be broken…all thanks to a waffle iron!