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Running Shoes: A Historical Perspective

          Sandals thought to be about 10,000 years old were found by archaeologist Luther Cressman in 1932 in an Oregon cave under a 5 ton rock. They were made of sagebrush bark that had been knotted together to form a tight material.  Ridges had been added on the outside to improve traction. The sandals had a covering where the forefoot would be and had straps that probably went around the back of the heel. A secondary source projected that these sandals may have been used for running, because one of the main preoccupations at that time was hunting for food- or else avoiding becoming someone else's food.  To hunt successfully without being hunted, one must have had to be an accomplished runner.

            In the first Olympics, when running was a form of recreation and sport rather than a necessity, shoes were not worn. This was in the 8th century B.C. The starting line for the longest race of the Olympics ( the dolichos which was 3846 meters) was made of two narrow grooves in stone. The athletes ran barefoot and probably put their toes into the grooves, which served as a type of starting block. Etchings in vases from this time also depict runners without footwear.

As the Roman Empire emerged and later dominated, running footwear came into being ( and by 393 A.D., the Olympics had been outlawed by a Roman decree). The Roman armies appear to have used runners to send messages, and at least one emperor issued an edict that specified single-soled shoes , or gallicas for the runners.  Although gallicas were a far cry from today's shoes, this appears to be one of the earlier acknowledgments of specific requirements for runners.  Fast forward to 1839: A man by the name of Charles Goodyear was heating up some crude rubber from trees and mixing it with sulfur. He created a pliable substance that is rubber as we know it. One of the ultimate applications of this product was in running shoes. This undoubtedly made the sport much more comfortable than with hard-soled shoes.

             By 1865, specialized running shoes were being made. Spalding catalogs and later Sears catalogs began showing running shoes that could be ordered at prices of $3.00 to $6.00, which amounted to approximately a quarter to half of an average weekly salary.  Adi Dassler advanced the development of running shoes when he formed Adidas in 1948 and began manufacturing running shoes in Germany. His brother, Rudi, formed a rival company called the Puma Company. The brothers' heated competition most surely furthered the innovation of running shoes.  Tiger Marathon shoes came into existence in 1951 as the Japanese entered the marketplace. Their first running shoes separated the big toe from the four lateral toes. They were modeled after traditional Japanese shoes, the Geta.  New Balance had been making orthopedic shoes in the Boston area since 1906, and in the early 1960's, the owners began to transfer their knowledge to running shoes to make use of their spare production capacity.  Nike came into existence a decade later (1972) as the founders decided to cease distributing Tiger shoes and to develop their own company. The year 1972 was also the year Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon. The shoes he wore were made from a pair of track spikes. The bottoms have been removed, and a layer of midsole material had been glued onto the shoes. The outsole was then glued to the midsole. As running for sport increased in the United States, so did competition for the percent of market share for running shoes. Shoe testing and biochemical testing of shoes became popular. Companies attempted to distinguish themselves by demonstrating sound knowledge of the mechanics of running and running shoes. In the 1990s, most of us wouldn't think of going for a run without donning some high tech running shoes; however, let's think for a moment about running in other cultures. In a recent Olympic marathon, we saw Abebe Bikila from Ethiopia run barefoot.  Having not trained in shoes as we know them, he chose not to compete in them for his Olympic marathon. (He did, however, wear them in his second Olympic appearance.) Think also of the Tarahumara Indians, who live in Copper Canyon, Mexico. They run their rarjiparo, which continues for several days and covers 100 to 200 miles of rocky mule track. These Indians also hunt deer by running them down until they (the deer) collapse from exhaustion. They accomplish these amazing feats while wearing truck tire sandals. As we now continue with a description of the components of running shoes as we know them, let us remember that humans from the end of the ice age may already have had functional running shoes, just as do the Indians currently living in Copper Canyon.


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