Running Shoes

Running Shoes, from Beginning to End

Pity the poor runner prior to 1917. True running shoes simple didn't exist back then; if you had to go running, you had to make do with whatever shoes you had. Back in the days of the Greeks, who gave us the idea of the marathon with the runner who ran from the Battle of Thermopylae to Marathon in record time (he died from exhaustion, by the way), you had to weal sandals. Things were better by the 19th century, when the flexible sap of the Hevea brasiliensis tree was used to make plimsolls, shoes with canvas uppers and rubber soles.

What happened in 1917? The U.S. Rubber Company invented Keds, the first real sneakers and the default running shoes for generations of American runners. The first running shoes as we know them were the brainchildren of two German brothers named Dassler, who ran a shoe factory called Gebruder Dassler Schuhfabrik. These shoes were designed with impact-absorbing rubber soles, heel and arch support, and uppers made of canvas or leather. Some had interchangeable cleats that could be used to encourage more secure footing. The Dasslers had a habit of giving free shoes to Olympic athletes, which caused a lot of grumbling, but turned out to be an incredibly effective marketing ploy.


The brothers Dassler continued churning out their unique running shoes until 1947, when they quarreled and Rudolph Dassler left to start his own company, PUMA AG Rudolf Dassler Sport (a.k.a. Puma). Brother Adolf "Adi" Dassler then renamed the original company after himself, christening it Adidas. (Any of this starting to sound familiar?). Adi's son Horst expanded into France in 1959. The Germans dominated the market for decent running shoes until the mid-1960s, when runner Phil Knight and his former coach at the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman, founded Nike. Named after the Greek goddess of victory, this company combined European-style footwear technology with American marketing, soon putting it at the top of the world's athletic shoe market.

...And then some

Nowadays, running shoes come with air-cushioned insoles, gel-filled shock absorbers, soles ridged in all kinds of odd patterns, and even lights that wink on every time your foot hits the ground, so people can see you in the dark. Care to guess how many running shoes are purchased every year? (No fair using Google to check.) It's 350 million -- enough to shod every foot in America, with enough left over for almost the entire U.K.

Where do old running shoes go to die? Many end up passed down from one family member to another until they finally implode in a little cloud of dust and rubber flakes. Many go to thrift stores, later to suffer the same fate; and some end up in landfills. A small portion of running shoes, however, are recycled: they're ground up and the resulting rubbery slurry is used to make running tracks and other sports surfaces -- a fitting fate, if there ever was one. According to the BBC, about 13 million pairs are recycled in this manner every year.

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