Athletes, Innovation, Run

Good Content from: Saucony Athlete, Jared Ward

Nine days ahead of New York 2018, I received a phone call from Spencer White, Saucony’s head of innovation. “We have some carbon fiber-plated shoe prototypes for you,” he said, then his tone became slightly more hesitant. “…are you interested in considering them for the race next weekend?” He seemed hopeful, yet cautious to the reality that not many professional athletes are willing to experiment with something as drastic as shoes without meticulous testing. Especially elite marathon athletes. “I’ll try them, sure,” I said. “Oh… OK. Sweet,” Spencer replied, this time sounding relieved and excitedly hopeful. “We have three pairs in the mail for you. They’re a bit different, each one, so try them and let me know what you think.”

I was excited. I hadn’t committed to wearing them and had no idea what to expect, but at BYU I had done the statistics for the performance study on the recent Nike shoes and the results had me surprised. Athletes on average were 2.7 percent more efficient. This wasn’t the 4 percent as advertised, but a significant number. Footwear has always been part of the discussion for marathoning in this era, but for the first time I was beginning to believe that there was something to the commanding headlines regarding racing shoes. They’re getting better. Drastically better. And almost overnight. So, a chance for a shoe that could compete? I was excited to try.

The shoes arrived on my doorstep Monday afternoon, six days ahead of the marathon. Lime green … at least they matched the kit. And they had my name on them. I began to wonder, if I run fast enough, if they’ll leave that there permanently.

I called Doc, assuming he’d know what to do. Dr. Iain Hunter, Ph.D, is a professor of Exercise Sciences at BYU who researches running mechanics. He also runs marathons as a masters athlete, still keeping up with the college guys. He’s a friend, researcher, and athlete; he’s the right guy.

Doc’s plan was to put me on a treadmill at marathon pace, and measure my oxygen uptake in each of the three shoes and, additionally, in the shoes I had planned to wear for the race. Coach agreed that this will be my last workout. “One test in each shoe isn’t going to constitute science,” Doc reminded me. “I know that,” I think to myself. I’m the stats guy. But I’m excited to see if there might be something here.

I walked into Doc’s lab Tuesday morning with a Saucony duffle bag full of shoes. While I warmed up, Doc randomized the test order for the shoes and prepped the half-century outdated machine that would record how efficient I am with oxygen. I complained about wearing a nose clamp, which forced me to only breathe through the old, awkward plastic piece hooked to a hose and jammed into my mouth. Doc reminded me this is the most accurate machine they have. “We only have one run in each shoe, and so we can’t afford much error,” he said. I nod, jam the piece into my mouth, and immediately began to drool into it. I hope it was clean …

First shoe: GJHP16. One 5 min/mile in each shoe, in which we recorded the oxygen for the final three minutes. Marathon pace felt smooth enough, as smooth as 5 min/mile pace can feel on a treadmill with a hose hooked to my face. Then I took 2 mins and switched to the next shoes, I welcomed the mouthpiece break more than the rest from running. Up next: GJHP19. Same drill. Then the Kinvara 9. That one felt familiar. I’d logged 100s of miles over the past few months in this model. Finally: GJXT16. This one felt different. It felt easier. I finished the repeat and ripped off the mask.

I looked over at Doc, “Those are the ones.” “We’ll see,” he replied, spoken like a true scientist.

We moved the data over to Excel and ran some summary statistics. My efforts in the first two pair were essentially the same as the Kinvara 9. But the last pair, the GJXT16, were an impressive 4.4 percent more economical! I’m racing in them.

New York went well. I finished sixth place, as the top American. And, owing to a hamstring injury 11 weeks prior that cost me a month of training, I hadn’t been too optimistic. One big takeaway: the shoes didn’t hurt. I had noticed that I loved the shoes particularly on the downhill; I felt like I could fly. The eccentric muscle-loading of downhill running is something to be cautious of, for fear of excessive damage leg muscles. But during this race I didn’t feel like I needed to worry about it.

I talked with Spencer after the race, reporting that I felt liberated on the downhill. I confess, I did notice the heavier shoe on the uphills, an issue both Doc and Spencer were already thinking about.

Over the coming months, Saucony took the shoes that I liked, made variations and sent back boxes of shoes. Different plates, new foam, etc. Then Doc and I would test them the same way.

A few weeks ahead of Boston 2019, I traveled to Boston to train on the course. As part of my agreement with John Hancock, I could fly in with one support person for a two-night trip to train on the course. As Saucony is headquartered in Boston, I took Doc as my support person.

Tony, my Saucony rep, took Doc and I over to HQ for our meeting with Spencer, Andrea (Director of Product Engineering), Alec (Performance Engineer) and Darby (Performance Engineer). It was during this meeting in which it seemed every question from Doc and I had were answered with an experience-backed reason. I began to realize how long Saucony had been thinking about these shoes. Spencer and team had been working on these for a while, they were far from a thrown-together response to the Nike shoes.

“It’s not so much about the plate as it’s about the foam,” Spencer would say. “I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Doc would reply. These two guys were cut from the same block. I knew I had the best scientists working on my shoes, and that gave me confidence.

And then Andrea rolled out with some new shoes. They had found a lighter-beaded foam, 20 percent lighter than what I had run NYC in. “Why don’t you take these for a test ride on the course?” she offered. I smiled.

I had a fantastic training run with Saucony teammate Brian Shrader. Twenty-five miles on the course, from the start line in Hopkinton to Mile 25, with 6 miles averaging under 5 min/mile through the Heartbreak Hill section. And this time, the uphill felt good, too.

Boston went fantastic. I had a healthy, strong, training block and ran a personal best of 2:09:25. I was happy with the shoes where they were, but Spencer still had a couple of tweaks to make.

More iterations of multiple shoes on my porch, but the shoes were becoming increasingly similar to each other, minor variations. Oh, yea, and might I mention that the name was now the Endorphin Pro.

As race day approached for my next marathon, New York 2019, Saucony invited me back to HQ to film in the final version of the Pro. I was excited. I hadn’t seen the final version, but I had been ready for the world to have these shoes. Four weeks ahead of the marathon, I hopped on a plane to Boston.

I always love seeing the team at HQ. It makes the brand behind me seem so real. In the laugh of catching up, Andrea came over holding some shoes. Things got quiet as she gets closer. “Are these them?” I asked, excited and nervous. “These are them,” she said, and is echoed by Spencer’s, “Like them or not,” comment. But I immediately liked them. The upper had been trimmed down for a sleeker look. The contours in the base of the shoe looked smooth and felt fast in my hands. “They’re not that much different from the last ones you had,” Spencer added.

I tried on the Endorphin Pro. Spencer noted that they put me forward more and had a slightly wider base, adding better stability. I felt the forward tilt. And I loved the lightness. Then we proceeded to film in short marathon-pace segments on the treadmill for the next 5 hours.

I got home late, and ate dinner at 10:30 pm. I had a 5:30 am call time for some more filming on the track. I’ve always thought filming is interesting. A full work day of filming and we’ll probably make a 60 second video.

After the “press work” was done, it was time for a test drive in the shoes for real. Coach wrote up a 12-mile marathon pace tempo as the workout for the day. I was not super optimistic that I’d feel great, owing to my short night of sleep and the 8-10 hours of filming over the last 18 hours, but I was ready to test the shoes.

Tony took me to Minuteman Trail. After a brief warm-up, I changed shoes and walked out onto the trail. I paused for my Timex GPS watch to get satellite reading, and then I took off.

Running felt smooth, but there were a few road crossings in the first mile so I had to pause a couple times. I clicked 5:07. It’s a tad slow, but there were breaks in the road. Next mile, 5:12, and my shoes untied. Not seeming like a perfect start, I started to wish I was home with more sleep for this workout. I stop and tie my shoe, then take off again, with more resolve. 4:57. That’s better. Then 4:53, and that one came easy. Then 4:49, too fast I thought, but I’m liking the shoes. When I found my rhythm, it was hard to sit back in my stride at what used to be my marathon form. I felt like the shoes are pushing me forward into more of a half-marathon cadence. I slow, but still click 4:51. I felt great. No sleep, lots of standing and strides, didn’t matter. I’m cruising and I feel good.

I rationalize that the first 2 miles of the workout were more of a warm-up, and resolved to go 12 miles in addition to the first 2. This is something that might not happen if coach was there next to me, but I felt good. It’s an out and back and I commited to the extra distance out. But the way back felt easier. Coach Broe (Saucony Freedom Track coach, not my coach but a great consultant) later told me that he should have mentioned that it’s uphill on the way out, and downhill back. Back felt good. In the final miles, I was running in the 4:40s, then low 4:40s. I liked the sea level, I liked the seemingly flat path, and I liked the shoes. I figured I might as well go an even 13, so I added one more mile. Then I cooled down.

I got back to the car all smiles. Tony mentioned that I seemed happy. “Might have been the best tempo of my life,” I said.

I just ran 4:54 average, for 15 miles. That counted a couple slower miles at the start, and I felt great.

I had set a goal to finish on the podium at New York. A goal I was excited to share with the whole Saucony team after this workout. On race day, I woke up with my stomach not feeling great and couldn’t drink much throughout the race. I estimate I consumed only 150 calories in contrast to the 500 I typically consume in a marathon, and in the final miles I felt it. I ran 2:10:45, good enough for 6th. It was a solid performance and, given how my stomach felt, I was happy with it.

Now, I’ve logged another 100 miles in these shoes. They are staying the same this time, and I’m OK with that. Next stop, the Trials in Atlanta. And when I look down at my feet on the start line, it’s going to be hard not to smile.

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