More Sports / Track & Field

'Shoe wars' target Japan's endurance runners

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

As the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race has grown into one of Japan’s biggest sporting competitions, the event has increasingly become somewhat of a showcase event for running shoe manufacturers.

Tokai University captured its first-ever Hakone title, dethroning four-time reigning champion Aoyama Gakuin University with a tournament record time of 10 hours, 52 minutes, 9 seconds in the 95th edition of the New Year’s tradition last week.

The footwear sported by most of Tokai’s athletes also drew some attention. They were wearing Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly 4%, which has drawn global attention from long-distance runners in recent years.

Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya smashed the world marathon record in 2:01:39 wearing the shoes during last September’s Berlin Marathon. They were also worn by Yuta Shitara and Suguru Osako when they broke Japan’s national marathon record in February and October, respectively.

Eight out of Tokai’s 10 runners in the 10-section race were equipped with the Nike shoes.

Two years ago, usage of Nikes lagged fourth at the Hakone ekiden behind Asics, Adidas and Mizuno. But last year, the Beaverton, Oregon-based company took the lead with a 28 percent share following the Vaporfly 4%’s 2017 release.

On its website, Nike Japan announced that 95 out of the 230 participants in the two-day relay marathon wore the model in 2019, representing 41 percent — a considerable leap from the previous edition.

All 10 runners from Nike-sponsored Toyo University, which won the first day and finished third overall, wore the Vaporfly 4%.

One of the shoe’s key features is the sole’s embedded carbon plate, which is believed to increase propulsion. The soles are thicker yet still light, helping to reduce damage on runners’ legs over longer distances.

Ryohei Sakaguchi, who ran in the seventh section for Tokai wearing the Vaporfly 4% at Hakone this year, said ahead of the event that the shoes have relieved stress on his lower legs.

“I had often felt stiffness in my calves before, and had dealt with shin splints (pain along the inner edge of the shinbone),” said Sakaguchi, who had the second-fastest time in the section. “But it’s been a year since I began wearing these and I have been able to eliminate injuries below my knees.”

Nike has certainly gained momentum with the shoes, expanding its visibility at Japan’s most popular track and field competition, which in 2019 recorded its highest-ever average television ratings in the Kanto area (30.7 percent on the first day and 32.1 on the final day).

But the battle between shoe manufacturers will only intensify going forward.

New Balance has not been a player in the Hakone ekiden scene, but the Boston-based sporting apparel company has made a legitimate foray into competitive racing by producing kicks for professional-level runners.

Last year, New Balance entered into a partnership with notable shoe craftsman Hitoshi Mimura. The 70-year-old maestro had previously worked for Asics and Adidas and tailor-made shoes for several notable Japanese athletes, including Olympic marathon gold medalists Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi as well as baseball superstar Ichiro Suzuki.

Mimura has publicly stated his displeasure with the thick-sole shoes produced by Nike, insisting they could cause injuries to Japanese athletes, who he says have softer and more vulnerable ankles.

In November, New Balance revealed its new Mimura-crafted running shoe, the NB Hanzo V2, for serious hobbyists and professional-level runners. At the product’s introductory news conference, Mimura said that he placed importance on comfort, emphasizing the shoe’s fit on runners’ feet to avoid injury and facilitate extensive training ahead of competitions.

“Ever since I started making shoes, I’ve always wanted the athletes to practice well,” Mimura said. “So I’ve advised them to identify their weaknesses and improve them. When injuries are avoided, most athletes will get better.”

After expanding its footprint at Hakone, Nike will continue aiming for the feet of more student-athletes going forward. But neither New Balance nor other companies intend to back away from the challenge in the ongoing “shoe war.”

Nobuo Takeda, Senior Footwear Product Manager of New Balance Japan, said that his company is a fan of the competition because it aims a spotlight on the shoes, which are essential running gear.

“We’ve wanted to become the best brand for running, and that’s our ultimate goal,” Takeda said. “But when we say ‘the best,’ it doesn’t only refer to the amount of sales. We also want to be a brand which can support the feet of as many people as we can.”

Professional long-distance runner Daichi Kamino, who starred for Aoyama Gakuin when the school won two straight Hakone titles in 2015-16, switched to New Balance after Mimura’s move last year. The 25-year-old stressed that New Balance’s shoes are “very good shoes” and want to prove their quality with his results.

“Currently, those who wear Nike’s shoes have had good results and that’s why the shoes are drawing attention,” Kamino said. “But if I will do well, these Hanzo V2 will draw attention. I believe these are good shoes and hopefully by coming up with good results myself, I can show people that New Balance have good shoes like these.”