This past September, Jenny Simpson headed out in the rain to the start of the 5th Avenue Mile road race with two pairs of running shoes in her bag. One was trusted and familiar: a pair of New Balance Hanzo S‘s that she’d worn while winning on this course before. They fit her; they worked. The race is one of the most prestigious in the country, and she’d triumphed in it an astonishing five times in a row. In elite racing—as in much else in life—the gear on your feet always matters less than the buzzards in your mind. Why wear something new that might create stress?
Her sponsors at New Balance, though, were rooting for a different choice. They wanted her to go with Rick and abandon Victor Laszlo. Because the second pair in her bag was a strange test shoe. It weighed just five ounces, which is 20 percent lighter than the Hanzo S, and included a new special kind of responsive foam stretching from heel to forefoot. It also had a small carbon-fiber plate running from the front of the heel to the big toe. When Simpson had first put them on, she’d felt wobbly and bizarre, like the middle of her heels weren’t touching the ground. She remembers thinking, when she tried it, that she’d end up fighting the designers. “They are going to engineer this to the moon, and it’s going to not be something I’m comfortable with.”
Kirby Lee/USA Today/Reuters
But the new shoe had some advantages. New Balance had strapped oxygen masks to Simpson’s face while she ran on the treadmill, measured her blood lactate level, attached motion-capture sensors to her body, photographed the angle with which her feet landed, and assured her the new shoe would make her faster. Simpson is perhaps the best female American miler ever, with an Olympic medal and all sorts of records to her name. But the engineers swore the shoe would give her a little extra acceleration at the very end.
The race begins at East 80th Street and heads south, ending at East 60th Street. The winner is almost always decided around two blocks before the finish, at East 62nd Street. That’s where Simpson would inevitably be matching strides across the avenue with several other scorchingly fast women. The shoe, according to the designers at least, was created to help the most there. It also had a special outsole with a bit of grip that would help Simpson tackle the potholes and the puddles. Running on slippery roads isn’t always smooth.
Simpson had every reason to be conservative about which shoes to use. In the finals of the 1,500-meter race at the 2015 World Championships, she’d lost a shoe while in second place and then struggled across the line barefoot, fishing 11th. On the day of the 5th Avenue Mile race this past September, the roads were wet, which added an element of risk to anything new. But when it was time to lace up, she reached for the unknown pair, slid the shoes on, and began to warm up.
We’re in a, perhaps brief, golden age of running shoes. A decade ago, spurred on by the best-selling book Born to Run, Americans started heading out barefoot, fighting back against Big Shoe and communing with the Tarahumara Indians. That craze lasted just long enough for most early adherents to step on a nail or wreck their Achilles tendons. More recently, Nike released its Vaporfly, a shoe that, through crafty engineering and crafty marketing, became an object of lust for distance runners. Getting a pair has been roughly as easy, and cheap, as getting Broadway tickets to Hamilton.
The shoe feels odd when you put it on, and odder when you start to run.
New Balance is wagering that competitive runners are shifting their eyes, at least somewhat, from marathons to one-mile races. And so it’s designed a new shoe, aptly named the 5280, designed to work best for that particular distance. It’s light, since every gram of a shoe slows fast runners down, but insulated just enough to help reduce impact while pounding down on asphalt—which doesn’t just make your legs ache less, it helps your form.
The shoes are also designed to maximize rebound, and, like the Vaporfly, the 5280 has a carbon-fiber plate. This makes the shoe stiffer than normal, a trait the company thinks helps with acceleration. The idea is to make a shoe that has some of the virtues of track spikes or football cleats, without actually having to attach spikes or cleats.
Elite athletes are given shoes with the plates mapped exactly to their stride and stiffness needs; the more standard version is based on data that’s been averaged out. It’s the shoe Simpson had in her bag at the start of the 5th Avenue Mile race, and it goes on sale today as part of the company’s FuelCell line. In fact, today the company is releasing four new shoes: the 5280, which costs $200; the FuelCell Rebel, which costs $130 and is much like the 5280 without the plate; the FuelCell Propel, which is a more standard running shoe; and the FuelCell Echo, a running shoe also designed for you to look cool in afterward, which costs $100.
I got a test pair of the 5280s two weeks ago and, like Simpson, was baffled at first. The shoe feels odd when you put it on, and odder when you start to run. When I first wore a Nike Vaporfly, I felt like I was putting on ice skates. With the 5280, I felt like I was wearing ice skates again, but this time trying to go around a curve. That initial feeling disappeared though as soon as I started to run fast. In fact, the faster you go, the better the shoes feel. “If you’re going slower than five and a half minutes a mile, you’ll hate them,” says Danny Orr, strategic business unit manager for innovation at New Balance.
I ran a series of experiments in the shoe. The most useful was a workout in Prospect Park where I ran a hard mile, recovered for two minutes, and then ran another hard mile. I repeated this cycle until I had run four hard miles, and then I jogged home. I also tested the shoes on an indoor track and then on an outdoor track, where I ran eight hard quarter miles in familiar shoes and then eight hard quarter miles in the 5280s. Each time, I wore sensors that measured my form and numerous elements of my gait. (Here is a story about the gear I wear while running; all the workouts mentioned can also be seen on Strava.)
After the workouts, I sent all my data to Steve Magness, head cross country running coach at the University of Houston, a well-known running analyst, and an adviser to RunScribe, which made the sensors I wore on my shoes. Specifically, I sent him all the training data for the 4-by-1-mile workout, as well as similar workouts run in Nike’s Vaporfly (which I had just worn to set an ironic personal best in the Boston Marathon) and in the company’s even newer Next%, which Eliud Kipchoge wore to win the London Marathon two weeks later. I blinded the data so Magness didn’t know what shoes I had been wearing in any of the workouts.
My verdict: The shoes are pretty good! I don’t like them on indoor tracks, where the angle of the plate felt awkward. And I’m a touch skeptical of them on outdoor tracks. Though they worked better than my regular training shoes, I suspect that, for a real outdoor track race, I’d be much happier in spikes. But they felt smooth and quick on the roads that they were designed for. My times and level of effort, as measured by heart rate, were roughly similar between the 5280s and the Nikes.
Magness’ dive into the data matched my instincts. His first comment was that the 5280s, which I had labeled Shoe A, caused me to spend a little more time in the air than the Nikes. “Shoe A caused you to bounce a bit more,” Magness wrote in an email. “Vertical oscillation isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s a bad thing if it’s excessive, but some vertical oscillation is needed to cover ground (i.e. if you are too flat, it’s like shooting a cannon straight level with the ground versus slightly angled up, which would go further) and it allows you to put a little more force into the ground in some circumstances.”
You can see a full chart of all the data Magness analyzed here. “Shoe A” is the 5280s; “Shoe B” is the Vaporfly Next%; “Shoe C” is the Vaporfly 4%.
In addition to the difference in how much I bounced, Magness noted that I spent slightly less time on the ground while wearing the 5280s. I also seemed to land more heavily on my right foot in the New Balance shoes, but slightly more heavily on my left foot in the Nikes. In general, he noted that I had lower numbers in the 5280s for a measure called “braking Gs,” a measure of how much horizontal force there is when my foot hits the ground, and higher numbers for “impact Gs,” a measure of the vertical force.
What does this all mean? At least in this small experiment, the 5280s matched up reasonably well against two of the highest-rated shoes in the market. In short distances, they certainly don’t seem to be working any worse, at least for me. And the differences are exactly the ones the designers were aiming for: more bounce and less time on the ground.
It will take a lot more testing for the 5280s to reach the status of the Vaporflys, where athletes sponsored by different shoe companies dye their shoes to conceal what they are actually running in. Still, the shoes, it seems, worked pretty darn well for this runner.
But don’t trust me, trust Simpson. She laced up her 5280s and then headed out onto the wet roads of Fifth Avenue. Road miles are a strange kind of race. Unlike a track mile, you can’t be precisely sure where you are at any given point. And you’re not quite as packed in as on the track, meaning you can’t hear how your competitors are breathing quite as well, so you’re less able to pick up on cues that could tell you whether or not they’re struggling. The finish line in the New York race is visible from about 600 meters away, an eternity in a race that lasts just over four minutes.
Simpson started out fast, but, as expected, with a few hundred meters to go, she was in a tight pack of women blaring down the road. At about 62nd Street, Simpson made her move and appeared to break free. But then, at about 61st Street, Colleen Quigley, another Olympian, caught her. In running, once you’re caught you’re usually cooked. It seemed, for a second at least, that there would finally be a new winner to the race. But then Simpson surged back and pulled away from Quigley. Soon she was crossing the finish line, arms up and smiling, for the sixth consecutive time.
Was it the shoes? Of course not. At least not completely. I’d still bet on her even if she stopped by the Barney’s near the finish line and put on a pair of Chuck Taylors. But she’s convinced that the 5280s gave her at least a bit of an edge.
“The faster you go, the better you feel,” she says. She notes too that she hadn’t loved the shoes during workouts prior to the event, but she’s glad she pulled them out of her bag. “The best day I had with them was race day.”
Disclosure: The author sometimes competes for The Central Park Track Club, which is supported in part by New Balance, but he has never received anything of value from the company through the club.