Inside the Cult of the Vaporfly

Meet the obsessive runners who will do anything – and spend everything – to get their feet inside a pair of Nike’s most hyped and least available shoes.

Hector Espinal, a sneakerhead and soon-to-be marathoner, was equal parts nervous and giddy on Thursday, November 2, when he stepped into the Nike Store in New York’s Flatiron District. How could he not be? The 26-year-old would soon be one of a minuscule group of individuals to own the Vaporfly Elite – the shoe that Eliud Kipchoge of Nike’s Breaking2 experiment famously wore in May when he attempted to crack the two-hour barrier running 42K. Out of every item in Espinal’s 112-pair collection, which he splits between his Bronx apartment and his mother’s house, this A$780, size-9 shoe – tuned by Nike to precisely match Kipchoge’s foot mechanics – would be the most symbolic.

“It’s like owning a friends-and-family version of the most hype lifestyle shoe ever – just that this one means something to us runners,” he jokes. “It’s proof that nothing is impossible. It’s proof that with the proper training and the right technology we can do anything we want.”

Espinal went on to run 6:21 through the five boroughs in this year’s New York City Marathon, but not in his new Vaporfly Elites. He would have, he says, if he had gotten them earlier in the training cycle. Instead, he chose one of the two pairs he owns of Nike’s Zoom Vaporfly 4%, a A$320 shoe that is nearly identical to the Elite. The 4% uses the same lightweight Zoom X foam and carbon-fibre plate as the Elite, but with a slightly different upper, and it isn’t tuned to match the feet of Kipchoge (or his Breaking2 teammates Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese). The 4% can, however, potentially cut a runner’s marathon time by 4 per cent – just like the Elite.

“Other performance-based sneakers, such as LeBron’s line and the initial release of the Nike Flyknit, were big,” says Yu-Ming Wu, CMO at Stadium Goods and founder of Sneaker Con and SneakerNews. “But there’s extra hype around the Vaporfly Elite because they’re beyond limited.”

Hyped? Certainly. Every media outlet from Wired to GQ to, of course, Runner’s World has lavished attention on the Vaporfly in both its Elite and 4% incarnations. And with some justification: For many runners, the Vaporfly is the gamechanger they’ve been looking for. Kipchoge wore the Vaporfly when he won the Berlin Marathon this year; Galen Rupp and Tirunesh Dibaba wore the shoe when they won Chicago; so did four of the five top women at the NYC marathon, including the winner, Shalane Flanagan. According to a (Nike-funded) study published in November in the journal Sports Medicine, the Vaporfly really does lower the energy cost of running, suggesting that runners of all levels, not just elites, would be faster in the shoes. Runner’s World’s own Shoe Lab tested the Vaporfly and found it delivered 80 per cent energy return in the heel and 77 per cent in the forefoot – the highest values we’d ever recorded.

“It allows for me to be a more efficient runner,” says Iman Smith, 38, a former Army sergeant turned full-time runner, who ran a 3:10 in New York, shaving 40 minutes off his previous PB. Even though Smith acknowledges his intensive training had a lot to do with his performance – a low-mileage week for him is about 64km – he says he can’t imagine racing without the 4%. “You’re not thinking about the shoe. Typically when you’re running for an extended amount of time, at some point you’re always thinking about the shoes. You’re thinking, My feet are hurting. Am I getting blisters? I’m starting to feel the ground under my feet. [But in the Vaporfly 4%] I felt like I could literally run forever.”

Acquiring a pair of the Vaporfly 4% is not, however, as easy as walking into a store and plunking down your credit card. Running stores are perpetually sold out, and even Nike.com has for months shown a “coming soon” notice for the 4%.

Nike does have a third shoe in the series, the Zoom Fly, which is truly widely available, uses a more standard midsole foam, called Lunarlon, and retails for A$220 – a lot cheaper than the Elites, but without the Zoom X foam that could trim your race time.

“We wished we had more stock to fulfill demand, since we’re able to sell through our inventory pretty quickly,” says Wil Cramer, the general manager and footwear buyer for Brooklyn Running Co., in New York City. Cramer wouldn’t reveal just how many pairs of the Vaporfly 4% the shop had sold, but said requests for replenishment by Nike were based on availability. He also confirmed that Nike would be releasing a new colourway in 2018, and that his store was already booked to get some – although he wouldn’t say how many.

David Boutillier, CEO of the Fleet Feet Sports in New York, says he was in the same boat. His store, which stocked sizes 6 to 13 of the 4%, sold out of the core sizes almost immediately. They most recently scored a restock two weeks ago, which had sold out by the time this article was published.

Shawn Marlovits, owner of the Fleet Feet Sports branch in New Jersey, said he didn’t believe his store had the opportunity to bring in the 4% at all. “Regardless of hype around a specific shoe, there’s a lot of decisions that go into bringing the shoe into our store. Every single Fleet Feet is locally owned,” he says. “Nike generally picks the higher-profile stores, especially for a limited-distribution option like the 4%. But honestly, we didn’t have many requests for them.”

Still, Nike’s senior director for global running footwear product, Bret Schoolmeester, tells us the brand is “keen to get as many of these shoes to runners as possible” – a statement that left us pondering the meaning of “as many” and “as possible.”

That the Vaporflys are available at all was not necessarily foreordained. When Nike first announced the magical shoe that Kipchoge, Desisa, and Tadese would wear for the Breaking2 attempt in Monza, Italy, there was little indication it would be available to the general public. The company even joked via Instagram [25] about running ads for a shoe that was unavailable for purchase.

*But you can run for the Nike Vaporfly Elite. Learn how at Nike.com/justdoit

A post shared by NikeNYC (@nikenyc) on

“Even months later, guys were hitting me up to buy the cardboard box that they came in, no sneakers necessary,” says Knox Robinson, the founder of Black Roses NYC and a founding coach of Nike+ Run Club, who was on site in Monza, Italy, for Breaking2. “I laughed. I left that in the woods outside Monza.”

But in May, Nike did a limited release of the Elite in light blue. The non-Elite Vaporfly 4% had its commercial release in late July; by August, it was nearly impossible to find. In September, the crimson Elite hit Europe. The black Elite was released ahead of November’s NYC Marathon.

No one truly knows how many pairs of the Elite exist in private hands. The website Hypebeast claimed 99 pairs of the crimson Elite were made available in Europe in September. An email sent to an Elite-hunting sneakerhead offered exclusive access to buy one of 100 pairs. When asked, Nike would not confirm the number of Elites that have been sold.

“I think there’s only one factory that can make the Vaporfly to the quality-control standards of the swoosh,” says Robinson. “Due to challenges in fabrication, new materials, lays, quality controls, that’s why we won’t see as many available units.”

Nike did confirm that only one factory makes this shoe, adding that since the ZoomX foam and carbon-fiber plate are totally new and unique technologies, they’re complicated to get right. Even so, Nike wouldn’t reveal the size of production runs of either the Elite or the 4%.

There are many hypotheses about the marketing of the Vaporfly, says Greg Dutter, editorial director of Footwear Plus, a trade publication. While he believes that Nike wants to build this “hard to get” aura around the shoe, he doubts the company is concerned about what wider distribution would do for the shoe’s credibility.

“For decades, average Joes and Janes have been buying into all sorts of ‘breakthrough’ running technologies and elite runner endorsements in the hopes they will run faster,” Dutter says. “So what if the shoe doesn’t work as well for the average athlete? Did Air Jordans work as well for average basketball players? Absolutely not. But they ‘worked’ for M.J., and that’s what millions of people bought into.”

Which is why when the Vaporfly does occasionally come up for sale, runners across the globe troll this release closely. In the closed Facebook group Running Shoe Geeks, 8350-plus members truly geek out when small amounts are released, racing one another to snag their own. One user, for example, would post a buy link but note, “Sharing info only after I ordered another pair.” These are the folks who notice that, on November 6, Nike’s Australian website suddenly had Vaporfly in stock, with its details already updated to tout Shalane Flanagan’s NYC Marathon win the day before.

Most important for sneakerheads and shoe geeks, Nike has held limited releases, announced exclusively through the Nike+ Run Club app. Sometimes, you simply have to respond to an app notification, reserve a pair right away, and hurry over to a particular Nike shop to pick them up.

Note: These aren’t your typical sneaker launches. There aren’t hundreds of people lining up outside shoe stores, drooling at the opportunity to get their hands on fresh styles. No overenthusiastic hypebeasts. (No stabbings.) Just calm retail staff handing runners the shoe of their dreams. When I popped by a release in Flatiron, a few days after Espinal, there were three people waiting outside the double-doors – simply because the store wasn’t open yet.

Other times, the Nike app prompts you to log a run on a particular day for an access code. This doesn’t always work out smoothly. On December 6, members of the Running Shoe Geeks who had logged a Nike-prompted 5K a few days earlier were up in arms: the access codes didn’t work. Some reported app crashes, while others were told they weren’t authorised to purchase, prompting calls to a “jammed” phone line. In the words of one user, it was a “total disaster”.

However the shoe is offered to the public, limited availability means that it has an extremely high price point on the resale market. Brendan Dunne, news editor at Sole Collector, waited in line for his pair of Elites after getting a limited-release notification through his Nike app. Most pairs, he says, are reselling for between about A$2000 to A$3300. A lot of that resale is happening via Instagram DMs or popular sites like StockX and Kith’s online store. The least expensive pair I found online was $1500 for a men’s size 8 at Flight Club.

“Anytime something is this limited, a certain amount of people get dollar signs in their eyes,” Dunne says.“But I think this shoe means a lot to hardcore runners and people that were into Breaking2. Others, if they’re like me, want to feel like a part of the movement. Yeah, people sell special shoes all the time. This shoe is too special for me to ever give up.”

Dunne, Robinson, and Espinal all fall into a special category of sneakerheads who consider themselves runners. And that’s the exact type of person who’s willing to spend high for the sake of performance.

“As a runner, when you hear the term ‘4 per cent,’ you immediately do the calculations,” says Robinson, who ran his best marathon time of 2:33 – a three-and-a-half-minute PB – wearing the Elites in Berlin. “You think, if my marathon PB was 2 hours, 36 minutes, you bounce that to subtract 4 per cent, and that’s exactly right under this 2:30 barrier. That’s something I’ve been chasing for almost 25 years.”

When you’ve been chasing a time for years, $250 – or $500, or $1,000, or more – might not seem a heavy price to pay to achieve the dream. But still, a hefty price tag nonetheless. Especially for a shoe that some say can’t handle the same amount of mileage as others in the category. Wilbert Pena, a flight attendant and marathoner, is a huge fan of the 4% but admits they wear out faster than other running shoes he’s loved in the past.

“After I completed over 160 kilometres on my first pair, I felt like I needed a new one,” Pena says. “The bottom of the sneaker was showing some wear and tear. The great bounce I felt when the sneaker was brand new didn’t feel the same due to the foam wearing off.”

Which is exactly why Pena bought a new pair exclusively for race day – something experts would otherwise never recommend. His friend Espinal, on the other hand, will never have to worry about that.

“I’ve been collecting for eight years,” says Espinal. “Because of the crazy price tag, I’ll probably never go for a real run in them. Maybe a couple of kilometres, tops.”


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