After running for 16 hours, 43 minutes and 45 seconds, and finishing second in the last edition of the Western States 100, North American ultra-distance runner Katie Schide rested for five days and surprised the world by saying that her legs felt so rested that she could run again. the test again. With that, she pointed to her slippers. She assured that thanks to them the muscles in her legs had barely suffered, which favored an extraordinarily quick recovery. When the iconic Californian test was born at the end of the 70s of the last century, the shoes used by the participants were light years away from even resembling shoes for running on mountain trails.
Everyone knows that Schide belongs to The North Face team, the most emblematic brand in mountaineering that has been trying for years to expand its hegemony to other facets of the sport. outdoor. And one of the things that the American firm (and its competitors) most wants is to achieve the notoriety of the Hoka brand, the one preferred by the public that runs in the mountains. The world of trail running lives a race outside of racing, a technological dispute that aims to design shoes that really help you run faster and for longer. And, in turn, the discipline has entered fully into what cyclists (or at least their directors) call “marginal gains.”
The town of Annecy, just 100 kilometers from Chamonix, where the most iconic ultra-distance test is held (the UTMB), is the epicenter of this struggle: here, for example, all the footwear in The North collection is designed Face, from rigid mountaineering boots to mountain running shoes, in a small space called All Triangles and directed by Frenchman Julien Traverse. The place has two floors: reception, cafeteria with work tables and a climbing wall on the ground floor. Clothing and design workshop on the upper floor. Everything comes from this small setting, a true laboratory, and almost all of the company’s leading athletes pass through here, where their needs are attended to and custom footwear is made for them.
Creating a prototype from scratch takes them just two weeks. “Katie Schide ran the Western States 100 wearing a Summit Vectic Pro that combines a proprietary blend of Pebax foam with a trident-shaped carbon fiber plate. “This way we obtain a mix of shock absorption, energy return, protection and traction,” explains Julien Traverse, who clarifies that the use of carbon in the running shoes trail It still has a long way to go and will never be used in the same way as in asphalt running shoes because the scenario is radically different.
The Catalan Pau Capell, winner (without carbon shoes) of the 2019 UTMB, has passed through this laboratory. “My feelings with these shoes are ambiguous. On trails or flat tracks they make me go faster, but at the cost of lengthening my stride and suffering a little more from a muscular point of view. On the other hand, on descents I really appreciate its absorption, which results in less muscle fatigue,” he explains.
Capell has also visited another unique building in Annecy, an old and huge house lost among trees that hides a futuristic training center known as “3, 2, 1 Perform”. The North Face offers the services of this center to its patrons, a place where the elite of rally drivers, and other motor aces, such as the French Formula 1 driver Esteban Ocon, religiously pass through. Xavier Feuillée is at the head of the center and explains that they use tools that develop the skills of pilots “to go beyond physical or physiological preparation, and influence cognitive work.”
The place has three well-differentiated floors: one for carrying out medical and physiological tests, another dedicated to recovery and physical preparation, and the last one (where taking photos is prohibited) where incomprehensible-looking machines and tools coexist that will be the ones that improve the cognitive abilities of users, their reflexes and their ability to make decisions.
“The first thing they do is an in-depth physiological study, an interview to find out how we observe our strengths and weaknesses, if I am better at going up or down, as well as possible physical problems. But they also subject us to tests to determine our reaction capacity through the use of computers to study how we react while we run and are suddenly subjected to unexpected external stimuli. We also performed strength and stability exercises to see which leg works best and the resting capacity was measured. In general, it was like a battery of psychotechnical tests, but focused on high sports performance. It allows you to make progress in terms of marginal gains, but it also requires many trips to Annecy from Andorra and that would greatly alter my training and rest routine, which is why I decided not to get 100% involved,” says Xavier Feuillée.
The British athlete Elsey Davis is a regular in both laboratories and considers it “a real luxury” to have tools taken from Formula 1. “Although the specific shoes from trail running They have been on the market for a while, I think it is now that an exciting fight is being waged to make them tools worthy of the century we live in and I consider myself lucky to contribute something,” she says.
Davis is an athlete from the asphalt (2h 33m 24s in the Valencia marathon) who did not hesitate to move to Chamonix to grow as an ultra-distance runner and who prefers to run in the alpine town in winter, even if it is in the snow and wearing shoes with a built-in gaiter . On the other hand, the pioneers of the Western States 100 ran with flat shoes, without cushioning or studded soles: at the wheel of the phenomenon Kilian Jornet, the running industry trail running has found sufficient reasons to invest ruthlessly in the future of a discipline that continues to grow.
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