The Seductive Appeal of Adidas’s “Illegal” Running Shoe 

Two years after hosting Eliud Kipchoge’s successful bid to run 26.2 miles in under two hours, the Austrian capital of Vienna once again made global running headlines. This time, the news was less auspicious. The winner of last weekend’s Vienna City Marathon, a 24-year-old Ethiopian named Derara Hurisa, had been retroactively disqualified for wearing shoes that violated a World Athletics rule limiting sole thickness to 40 millimeters for road race events. According to a press release from the race organizers, Hurisa competed in the Adizero Prime X model from Adidas, which boasts a stack height of 50 millimeters. In the era of headline-driven online media, the fact that a marathoner could be DQed for wearing shoes that were one centimeter above the allowable limit was irresistible. The story was picked up by mainstream outlets around the world, from the Taipei Times to Fox News. In Die Presse, Austria’s paper of record, there was talk of “Schuh-Gate.”

Schuh Gate may have garnered the Vienna City Marathon an impressive amount of media coverage for an event that doesn’t typically feature distance running royalty, but it’s safe to assume that this is the kind of publicity the race could have done without. Vienna is a World Athletics “Gold Label” marathon, which means that, in addition to a world class elite field, it’s supposed to adhere to rigorous organizational standards. Having to disqualify the winner of your men’s race on what seems like an easily detectable technicality is not a good look.

So how could this happen? According to the press release, all elite runners had to fill out a form before the race indicating which shoe they intended to compete in. Apparently, the shoe that Hurisa (or his manager) submitted on the form was street legal, but he opted to race in a different shoe on the day—the Prime X, which Hurisa had been using in training and which he didn’t realize was prohibited by World Athletics rules.

In an email, Andreas Maier, who handles media communications for the Vienna City Marathon, told me that what occurred was an “unpleasant situation for everyone involved,” but that all athletes and their managers had been specifically informed of the World Athletics shoe rule during the pre-race technical meeting. “We feel for Derara Hurisa, who put in all the effort and crossed the finish line first, only to learn later that he was disqualified,” Maier added. “We don’t think there was any kind of intention behind using these shoes.”

This seems to be the first major instance of an athlete getting disqualified for violating the World Athletics stack height rule, which went into effect in January 2020. There is some irony that it happened to a runner competing in Adidas, since it was Nike who pried open the super shoe Pandora’s box in 2017 by introducing a new paradigm that combined stiff plates with lavish amounts of foam. When World Athletics came out with its regulations, the shoe many thought would be deemed illegal was Nike’s ballyhooed new Alphafly—a version of which Kipchoge had worn to break the two-hour barrier the previous year. As it turned out, the mass market version of the Alphafly just so happened to have a stack height of exactly 40 millimeters, prompting conspiracy theories of a deep state lurking beneath running’s global governing body, one where Nike had disproportionate levels of influence and power. (Or maybe it was all just a coincidence.)

As for Adidas, their official line is that the Prime X’s “illegal” status was an intentional choice. Responding to a request for comment, a public relations official for the company told me that the shoe was “consciously created outside of the World Athletics guidelines,” and that it was intended as a training shoe for elite athletes. On the Adidas website, the Prime X is touted as a “boundary breaking” shoe that shows what’s possible “when you throw the rule book away.” On a message board thread, one of the editors of Letsrun even posited that, since Adidas is the main shoe sponsor for the Vienna City Marathon, Hurisa’s disqualification might have been an elaborate publicity stunt.

Now that would be a conspiracy theory, especially since it would presumably have to have been done without the knowledge of the race organizers. This seems like a bit of a stretch, as does the notion that it is in Adidas’s interest to advertise the fact that wearing its product in a major race can result in disqualification.

Of course, the vast majority of the company’s customer base are not pro runners, but athletes who fall somewhere on the hobbyjogger spectrum and who don’t have to worry about race officials scrutinizing their footwear as they cross the finish line.

“Why would they even be making a shoe that doesn’t conform to the rules?” a message board poster asked in the aforementioned thread, before answering their own question: “I guess for the masses? Like ‘This shoe is so good it’s banned.’”

That might be the real genius in Adidas’s new product. Typically, it’s professional athletes who get first dibs on design innovations and advances in shoe tech. The Prime X, on the other hand, is perhaps the first super shoe that is exclusively available for regular joe runners, at least in a race setting. When asked about amateur runners wearing “illegal” footwear, a representative from the Boston Athletic Association gave me the following official statement: “The Boston Marathon follows rules and guidance established by World Athletics and USA Track & Field. All professional athletes will undergo uniform and shoe review to ensure compliance with all rules.” An official at another well-known marathon told me that runners in the non-professional fields do not need to abide by the regulations set forth by World Athletics, but asked not to be quoted on the record.

Whether its gargantuan proportions actually confer performance benefits that exceed those of legal shoes is another question (as sport scientist and ultrarunner Geoffrey Burns elucidates in this article), but that is unlikely to tarnish the Prime X’s illicit appeal.

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