From the time I started running in the early ’80s, my running shoes were limited to only two brands, New Balance & ASICS. However, a few months back, I donated my remaining New Balance shoes (NB 902 & NB Trail Shoes) through my “Project Donate A Shoe” to other runners who are in need of better and more reliable running shoes. Since then, all my running shoes are from the ASICS brand.
I came across this news article from the International Herald Tribune about the new technology and advancement in the running shoe industry as revealed by research & development people of ASICS shoes. The man behind this new technology is Hitoshi Mimura, 59 years old, a former marathon runner who became a master craftsman for ASICS, the Japanese sporting goods manufacturer.
Hereunder is the news article. For the elite athletes, anything that could make them faster and have a better finish time is the way of the future.
Seeking marathon edge, can rice lead to gold?
Published: June 11, 2008
Olympic marathon runners are no less obsessed about shoes than the gal pals in “Sex and the City.”
Later this month, Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor of the United States plan to begin testing the latest design from the distance-running equivalent of Manolo Blahnik. Their shoemaker is a Japanese master craftsman whose soles are renowned not for space-age gels or air bladders but for the gripping properties of rice husks.
The husks, which are ground and imbedded in the rubber soles of racing flats, are designed to absorb water and to provide up to 10 percent better traction along the 26.2-mile marathon course at the Beijing Olympics in August.
Marathon running does not exactly produce the same kind of skidding as Nascar racing. Still, the Beijing course could become slippery from rain, slick with humidity, slithery at water stops and misting stations, and glassy along a four-mile stretch of stones that have a feel similar to marble.
And no elite marathoner will soon forget the 2006 Chicago Marathon, where Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya — a favorite in Beijing — slipped as he crossed the finish line in first place, hit his head and sustained a concussion.
The rice-husk shoes are custom made for a handful of elite runners by Hitoshi Mimura, 59, a former marathon runner who is a master craftsman for Asics, the Japanese sporting goods manufacturer.
Various shoes made by Mimura have been worn by three recent Olympic marathon champions. His footwear is known for its minimal weight, cushioning and efficiency at dissipating heat, which could play a vital role in the expected hot, humid and polluted conditions of Beijing.
“The Olympics are the epitome of running,” said Kastor, a bronze medalist in the women’s marathon at the 2004 Athens Olympics who, like Hall, is sponsored by Asics. “There is a very small margin of error in preparing and racing. You try not to leave any stone unturned. Those fractions of a second add up.”
Asics first developed the rice-husk concept in the mid-1990s, for use at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. It was based on technology used by Japanese tire makers to prevent sliding during winter driving, a company spokesman said.
Less than a handful of ground husks are used in each shoe. If a husk becomes dislodged, the resulting tiny crater is meant to suction water and to provide a reliable grip on the road surface. Kastor said she liked the fact that the shoes were also eco-friendly.
Shoes designed by Mimura, officially known as wet-grip soles, were on the feet of Mizuki Noguchi of Japan when she ran through the sometimes marbled and wet streets of Athens to win the women’s marathon at the 2004 Summer Olympics. He also made the footwear for Stefano Baldini of Italy, the 2004 men’s Olympic marathon champion, and the racing shoes — without rice husks — for Naoko Takahashi of Japan, who won the women’s marathon at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Noguchi was quoted in a Japanese news report as saying that she slept with the rice-husk shoes next to her pillow the night before the 2004 Olympic victory. At the finish line in Athens, she took off one of her racing flats and kissed it. Later, she called Mimura the “god of shoes.”
Last fall, Noguchi said that she would wear an updated version of her “magic shoes” to defend her title in Beijing. Hall, the American, read a news-agency account of her remarks and became intrigued. This spring, running in a different model of Asics shoes, he finished fifth at the London Marathon and joined the list of marathon medal contenders at the Summer Games.
“I’m looking for a shoe to get excited about,” Hall said. “If you’ve got a shoe that somebody wants to sleep in the bed with, that’s a pretty good shoe.”
(Actually, Noguchi kept the shoes in her bedroom, but not next to her pillow, Mimura said with a laugh by telephone, speaking through an interpreter from Asics’s headquarters in Kobe, Japan.)
Hall and Kastor said they planned to give the rice-husk shoes a thorough test drive to measure cushioning and stability. If they are not satisfied, they will run the Olympic marathon in more generic Asics models. Even under the best of circumstances, marathon runners face sore and swollen feet, blisters and the occasional wandering toenail. Nike and Adidas say they have their own grip technologies involving the use and placement of certain rubber compounds on the soles of shoes.
“It’s kind of like when you’re dating a girl,” Hall said. “For some, it takes two days for them to know that’s the person they’re going to marry. For some, it takes four years. You’ve got to believe in your shoes. I’m as curious as everyone else about what makes this shoe so special.
Mimura, the shoemaker, is a something of a legend in running circles in Japan, a marathon-mad country. A former marathoner whose best time was 2 hours 28 minutes, he went to work for Asics 41 years ago, as an 18-year-old, gluing together the upper and lower portions of running shoes.
In the mid-1990s, as a member of the company’s research and development department, Mimura helped refine the use of rice-husk soles to provide reliable gripping in the rain. Mimura said he first experimented with river sand, plastics and even powdered iron in an attempt to improve traction in racing shoes.
“I found that rice husks are lighter, cheap and have a good grip,” he said.
The Japanese marathoner Reiko Tosa, who finished third in the women’s race at the 2007 world championships, has worn the rice husk shoes in the past but will not in Beijing. She said she does not need the spongy cushioning because her stride is shuffling, not pounding.
Another Japanese runner, Yuko Arimori, won a bronze medal in the marathon at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but she complained that the rice-husk shoes wore out too quickly, Mimura said. So he did not use the technique in making shoes for Takahashi, the 2000 Olympic champion. Still, he risked his reputation, not to mention his job security.
Surreptitiously, Mimura made soles of two slightly different thicknesses, to compensate for the fact that Takahashi’s left leg was eight millimeters — about a third of an inch — longer than her right leg. She had tried a pair of the uneven soles before the Sydney Olympics, but felt uncomfortable.
Still, Mimura felt Takahashi needed such shoes to win and to avoid a recurrence of pain caused by the disparity in her legs. Without Takahashi’s knowledge, Mimura gave her the uneven soles, then wrote a letter of resignation, in case she failed to win gold.
“I decided to take full responsibility because I made this pair against her wishes,” Mimura said of the letter. “I didn’t have to hand it over. It’s still in my desk.”
A year later, Kastor got a first-hand look at the precision of Mimura’s work. She met him for a fitting during the 2001 world track championships in Edmonton, Alberta. Using a tape measure, Mimura spent 20 minutes measuring her feet, Kastor said, including the length and circumference of each toe, the width of her heel, the length of her Achilles’ tendon and the width of her foot at six or seven spots.
“I didn’t know you could get that many measurements for a foot,” Kastor said. “But the shoes he made fit like a glove.”
At his office in Japan, Mimura uses a more high-tech method — three-dimensional computer models — to measure the feet of Noguchi, the reigning women’s Olympic marathon champion. Four or five times a year, he measures her feet at 13 various points. For Beijing, Mimura has made racing shoes for Noguchi that weigh a scant 3.85 ounces — compared with 11 or 12 ounces for an off-the-rack jogging shoe.
“The size of a small Japanese hamburger,” Mimura said of Noguchi’s shoes. “Not a big American hamburger.”
To view the Olympic course, Mimura went to China in April for the Beijing Marathon. He found the course to be flat but composed of various surfaces, including stone (that could cause slipping); newly paved asphalt (which will increase the heat); and concrete that appeared harder than Japanese concrete (perhaps because Beijing’s main roads are meant to accommodate tanks and other military vehicles).
“And the air — I couldn’t see 150 meters away,” Mimura said.
To combat these conditions, Mimura said he had designed the rice-husk soles with a polyester upper layer meant to aid ventilation while resisting dust or sand that could irritate a runner’s feet. He hopes to reduce the temperature inside the shoes from about 109 degrees to 99 degrees.
For cushioning, Mimura has installed a sponge mid-sole that he calls “light and bouncy.” He has also engineered an innersole made of cotton and polyester that is intended to wick moisture produced by sweating and by dripping water poured on the runner’s heads.
“Samurai cannot fight without their swords,” Mimura said. “It is the same for runners and their shoes.”