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Mason Ferlic on the ‘Honest Conversation’ Needed in the Great Shoe Technology Discussion

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Mason Ferlic is currently an unsponsored professional runner but trains alongside Nick Willis and Hobbs Kessler in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was an NCAA champion at the University of Michigan in the steeplechase. He also teaches a statistics class there and works as a research engineer and lab manager at Michigan’s Exercise & Sports Science Initiative. He’s a super-smart guy so it’s no surprise when he was asked by Flotrack’s Kevin Sully about his thoughts in the great spike debate that’s engrossed the sport that Mason delivered a great answer so I wanted to get him on the pod to talk a bit more about it, where he views the inequities are within the sport and how we move forward now that this arms race is in full swing.

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Photos by Kevin Morris.

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SHOW NOTES AND QUOTES

The accessibility to prototypes between Nike athletes

“The access to tech is probably more of an issue. I think the closer you are to the Portland center, I think you have access to perks and technology that athletes even wearing the Nike kit (I’m here in Ann Arbor) didn’t have first access to. Whether that’s intentional or not, it’s kind of creating a concentration of the rich gets richer. I remember watching the 2019 U.S. Champs in Des Moines and seeing some footwear on other Nike athletes’ feet and being like, ‘Hmm…What are those spikes? Can I get a pair?’ ‘Oh sorry we don’t have any more models’ or ‘We’re only making them in size 10 for a couple of people.’ You look at how some of those athletes finished at the championships and obviously, there’s some bias. The best athletes are going to get access to the best tech but I think that was the first time people were using them in competition and I think the results showed. I have to wonder if I had gotten the super shoes in 2019, maybe I would’ve made a spot on the team for Doha that year? It’s totally reasonable knowing now that they are great. Who knows? That’s a big if. I’m not salty about it in any way. I just think it’s a question that now we’re looking at and these shoes are prying open this pandora’s box of who had them when. Is there being controlled access or priority access to some athletes or groups?”

What He Thinks He Needs To Do To Attract A Sponsor and How To Weigh That Decision-Making Process

“Maybe the benefit of this footwear era is that we’ll see a decoupling between apparel sponsors and footwear sponsors and that it will actually open up more avenues because athletes will demand to be in the best footwear. Maybe that means they don’t sign with a footwear company instead they pursue external clothing sponsorships, nutritional sponsorships, corporate sponsorships and those that don’t tie them to one specific footwear. If there’s this inequitable playing field and it persists, yeah athletes are going to pay attention more to what’s on their feet and strategically try to sign with companies or be in a position where they can be in the best footwear…I am open to sponsorships. Yes, I am in Ann Arbor and it’s great going but the one thing I’ve enjoyed throughout my career is working with people in a group. As much as Ann Arbor is a group, it’s still a loose affiliation. It’s not professionalized in the same way that other groups are and I think I would thrive in that environment. My options are certainly open in terms of companies and joining groups but going into the trials, you don’t mess with anything that’s not broken but at the same time, if we’re being honest and professional in the sport that includes being compensated. It’s a tough question. I’m not sure. There would be the right opportunity and I would know it when I saw it.”

“I think everything will work its way out in terms of sponsorship especially when I run as well as I think I’m going to this spring and going into the trials – that’s where the media attention is. 2020 was a really tough year for athletics in general and every sport. A lot of really robust leagues like the MLB and NBA had to deal with revenue hits. Track and field was not exempt from that. A lot of athletes did not get re-signed because of that and budgets were slashed but the buzz of the Olympic trials and the Olympics will kind of get us back to normal. Companies are probably being a little cautious with their wallets right now but the closer we get I’m confident there will be money back out there.”

How We Got to This Point

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we were focusing on the road shoes four years ago and we’re focusing on the track shoes now four years later. Personally, I think that makes total sense in the evolution of technology and a very carefully, controlled planned release of this technology. Let’s not kid ourselves. This isn’t something that we magically stumbled upon last year and is hitting the market. It was perfectly well-timed. This gets back to the equitable aspect of access to technology. These shoes were not originally planned to be released until after the Olympics. There were only going to be certain athletes that were wearing them at the Tokyo Olympics. Only because of the pandemic is it now that everyone is wearing them. Now people are peeling the labels off of them from other shoe companies and wearing them. I think we almost avoided a greater disaster by having only certain athletes wearing them at the Olympics. We saw it in Doha certainly. I think the manufacturing machinery was already rolling and they had a planned release for fall 2020 and they couldn’t delay them a whole other year. I think hopefully now going into the 2021 Olympics there will be broader access and it’s given a year for other companies to catch up.”

“I won’t say there’s a broader conspiracy because I’m not a conspiracy guy. If you look at when the athlete biological passport was released in 2012, I think it became a lot harder to find marginal gains in the top level of the sport. If you can’t look pharmaceutically or whatever and maybe you need to start technologically to ensure your athletes’ superiority, you start looking at how you can make them faster. That begs the question of ‘Can we make the shoes faster?’ You kind of have this incremental rollout to specific athletes at specific times to ensure that they stay winning. That’s always been the name of the game. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that these shoes were designed to be better. That was the whole purpose of developing them.”

Athletes Are Speaking Out Aligned to Whatever Brand They’re Signed By

“See that doesn’t make sense to me because I think there are two things going on here. If you’re a Nike athlete and your company spends millions of dollars developing the best piece of technology and it makes you faster, wouldn’t the company want you to preach from the top of the mountain that: ‘We have the best technology. These shoes are great. I’m wearing them. I won. Buy Nike shoes.’ You hear crickets. That seems backward to me. You know a piece of technology is really great and athletes are wearing them yet they don’t want to promote the shoe in any way. It’s almost like the worst-kept secret is that the shoes help.”

What You Feel When You Put On The Super Spikes

“I’m not a technology hater in sport at all. As an engineer and as an elite athlete, I have no problem with the technology advancing. However, there are parameters under which that needs to be advanced and rolled out if we want to ensure fair competition because that is the purpose of the sport. You can get DQ’d for stepping on a white line on a turn so if we’re so concerned about inches and seconds here, we should be paying attention to what advantages athletes are getting. 

The shoes themselves – I can only speak for the DragonFlys because that’s what I’ve been training and racing in currently – to me looking at them, they aren’t novel in any way. They’re just an iteration of spikes from the past 20 years. I think previously shoe companies, and rightfully so, thought that the name of the game was lighter is better. So you try to make the lightest and slimmest footwear possible because that was a local optimum. Heavier shoes were going to make you less efficient. You had synthetic tracks and new Mondo surfaces that were getting you faster and faster. At the same time, the shoe companies thought we can make the spikes lighter and lighter. But with advances in material science, they realized there’s this global optimum and ‘Hey, we can make the shoe a little bit heavier and put a plate in it, if we use this better foam that actually gives you more rebound and energy return than the lighter spikes.’ So it might weigh more but you’re getting more ground contact return. 

Knowing that wearing the DragonFly spikes is almost like you just have a faster reaction on the ground. It puts you on your toes in a way that saves your calf muscles. Think of the old, really light spikes and if you ran a 10K in them, your calves and ankles would be shredded, right? You would not be able to walk the next day because you’re so tight because there’s no cushioning. Your tendons and your ligaments are absorbing all that contact energy. It’s kind of brutal on your feet. Now, these new spikes are stiffer so it saves your foot. The foam gives you this rebound. I can do 10K volume in a session hard and not be sore the next day, which is amazing. That’s a huge benefit of the spike technology and the foam especially. It feels like a little bit more of a roll-off from the foot. 

That’s the DragonFly so anyone who has worn the old Matumbos – it’s kind of a little bit more foam than that guy and stiffer. Take every element you’d want in a good spike and just put them in the DragonFly. To me, that’s totally normal technology. We finally got away from stupid EVA (foam) which companies have been using for like 20+ years and nobody likes. It breaks down after like 100 miles. We have better foam. We can marry it with a stiff plate and we’ll have a faster and more biomechanically efficient, robust shoe. Awesome. 

The problem is when you have something like the Zoom Victory which has the air pod in the forefoot. Anyone who has seen those knows that distinctly doesn’t look like any other shoe that you’ve ever seen. It has more of a relationship to those moon shoes that you’d see on TV when you’re five years old than a piece of footwear. It’s got a very distinct shape and it’s got this forefoot with a pronounced, sandwiched stack of foam, air pod, foam and a spike plate. To me, that’s taking the concept of a shoe and trying to say: Can we make a shoe but actually make it a spring? I think that crosses the line where now the technology is providing a benefit that hasn’t existed before. Nike has patents on this so you don’t see other companies with an air pod because Nike holds the intellectual property rights to that and that creates a barrier for other companies to match that. 

When you talk about performances on the track, it’s no longer milliseconds, it’s tens of seconds potentially and that’s something we have to have an honest conversation about. Are we willing to allow something that gives you that much superiority over your competitors? As a sport, running, in general, is one of the few sports that we are very diverse because the technological barriers are so low. Other sports like cycling and swimming are very homogeneous because the cost of bike equipment runs in the tens of thousands of dollars. Swimming is a very homogeneous sport because not everyone has access to a swimming pool. In running, we can kind of toss off those shackles and you only really need a pair of shoes and an opportunity to race and train, which is more accessible than any other sport that exists. But when you start adding the technological constraint that says if you want to be good in this sport you have to have the sponsorship or the money just think about what this is going to do at the high school level with kids that are racing in your $60 Eastbay spikes vs. being able to afford a $250 shoe that gives them 10 seconds to win the state championship or run a time that gets them a college scholarship. That is all of a sudden way different than the sport we knew and creates inequitability that is not just at the pro level but across the entire spectrum.”

Acknowledging How Much Fitness vs. Spikes Plays a Role In Performance

“You mention the fact that you don’t know whether to thank the spikes or not. It’s a very common psychological trait of self-serving bias. For any positive event, you attribute to your own character and hard work ethic. But, you blame any outside factors for any negative events or failures. ‘Oh, that test was too hard! The questions were dumb vs. I didn’t study enough’ or when everyone else fails you think ‘Haha! I’m smarter than everyone else.’ We’re seeing the exact same things with the spikes. Of course, every athlete wants to think they’re training at their best. I admitted it! I legitimately think I’m the fittest I’ve ever been, which is also true but we have to have an honest conversation. These spikes are also contributing to on average great times and improvement on the track. They both can be true. It’s a little puzzling when people shy away from that because they’re not mutually exclusive. Yeah, if I wasn’t wearing the spikes I actually think I would’ve still won that race down in Texas. I’m in great shape. I felt amazing. I was ready to go. The spikes aided that and they contributed to the win but the problem is that we don’t know to what degree that is…I would love to just take pride in knowing I won based on my fitness and race tactics and not just because I was wearing the best footwear. In time, everything will stabilize and every company will have its competing spike and we can equate races on the same level. We’ll still have to deal with the shift in times too. 

How Will We Look Back On This Time Period for the Sport

“I think we will eventually see a recalibration and eventually a lot of the other major shoe sponsors come out with competing products that will be on the similar playing field but I do have to ask the question of why as a sport we have to accept these huge seismic shifts that are again inequitable. People use the argument, “Oh I used to race on a cinder track and now we’re racing on a synthetic track.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah but everyone was racing on a cinder track and now everyone is racing on a synthetic track.’ It’s not like I give you Lane 1 that’s cinder and Lane 2 is Mondo. How would you feel if I smoked you? You’d be like ‘I was running on cinders!’ That’s exactly what’s happening right now. There are improvements in the sport. We have to recalibrate to historical averages. That happens all the time in every sport. I don’t care if it’s basketball, baseball or track and field. We’re always getting faster. Everyone’s getting stronger so you have to calibrate for different eras.”

The shoe technology debate vs. honest conversation

“As a debate, it’s not acknowledging that some sides have a stake in the outcome of that. The outcome is money or win-loss records. We’re at the point where the World Athletics governing body has opened pandora’s box. We’re past the point to do anything about it. We’re not going to downregulate things coming out. The only way to move forward as fans and athletes is just to talk about the issues and be honest about what this means. The sooner we can do that, the sooner we can come to grips with it and learn to enjoy the sport. Maybe we have to enjoy it for different aspects now. Maybe running 13:05 means nothing these days or doesn’t mean the same thing. As fans and athletes, we should just have the debate whether 13:05 is worth a celebration or is it 13:15 and winning – ‘OK, we care about racing now. We care about head-to-head competition.’ We just have to learn to take our expectations of times and move them faster. 

I was thinking about this…this goes back to the exclusive access to technology, why some athletes have them before others, is that really fair and why they don’t talk about the shoes. I don’t want to label everyone like this. There might be a little bit of shame or guilt in knowing that you’re getting a benefit that your competitors don’t have. You don’t see athletes talking about their use of altitude tents or asthma inhalers or L-Carnitine or thyroid medication. These are all things that are legal and the sport is allowing under some parameters but is not everyone is using them. You’re not thinking those things. Again, you’re doing the same thing you’re saying the strongest or fittest I’ve ever been or it’s my race tactics or my training group because you don’t want to acknowledge the possibility you might be getting an advantage that other people aren’t getting. I think that’s the same thing with the spikes. I think people are afraid to acknowledge the advantage that they’re getting because that means they’re in some way having an unfair advantage and that’s frowned upon in our sport.”


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