Monday, June 20, 2005 Updated: June 29, 11:59 AM ET
A shoe with a brain
By Jeff Merron Page 2
"Your adidas_1 shoes are sensing."
"Your adidas_1 shoes are understanding."
"Your adidas_1 shoes are adapting to your environment."
The adidas_1 features revolutionary new technology.
So goes the ultra-sleek and kind of creepy flash intro to the adidas_1's at the company's Web site.
My adidas_1's did not sense, though. And they did not understand.
Good thing I was wearing a hard-to-score review pair, and didn't plunk down $250 at Foot Locker. I was mighty tempted to when the high-tech shoes came out a few months ago, because I'm a runner on the downside, and I need understanding. I prefer the human kind, but if it comes from my shoes, I'll take it.
Adidas_1's are geek-sexy. Billed as the the "world's first intelligent shoe," they come with a tiny microprocessor that reads data from a magnetic sensor that monitors impact, pace and ground condition. The computer chip then sends instructions to a small motor that adjusts the cushioning level to "give you the optimal level of performance."
They're hard to get a hold of, with a limited factory run of 10,000. It took a month to get a test pair, and even then, I was offered just a three-day trial. I declined, because you can't judge a pair of shoes in three days. I asked for two weeks. Got it. The adidas reps made it very clear they wanted them back. No problem from an ethics viewpoint, that's the right thing for a journalist to do, anyway. But part of my brain, shaped by "The Daily Show," said, "Wha? You're going to pass on my used shoes to the next reviewer?"
The adidas marketing folks were nice, accommodating and understanding. But they made it clear that there weren't enough review pairs to go around.
And they probably didn't want to see them show up on eBay, where they'd fetch $300 or so.
I hung on to mine for as long as possible, as I put off writing this story. Finally, adidas lost its patience. Send 'em back, they said. So I did. Sent to the feet of a Runner's World tester, I heard.
Runner's World is the mag to market to the average runner, and that's who adidas is trying to hit. The magazine, which runs scores of shoe reviews a year, did get a review pair early enough to test them in its January issue.
"We did not do one of our standard reviews on it," said Warren Greene, the Runner's World reviews editor. "They didn't give us enough samples. Usually we put out 15 to 20 pairs on wear testers." Instead, Greene put about 200 miles on a pair himself, and also had them tested in a lab to see whether the cushioning is adjustable, as advertised.
"I can feel the difference," said Greene. "They hold up well. It does what they say it does." The machines confirmed that the adidas_1 cushioning machines work, as well. The cushioning does adjust.
My 25-mile wear test of the adidas_1's wasn't as pleasant. From the git-go, the shoes didn't feel right they simply didn't fit my feet correctly. Not the fault of adidas. If you're a runner, you know: a shoe can be great, highly rated, beloved by your closest friends, yet still feel lousy to you.
"Basically, what it boils down to is if adidas fits your foot," says Cregg Weinmann, who reviews shoes for Track & Field News and is an assistant track coach at California State University Bakersfield. "If you've been running in adidas Response or if you've been running in some of those types of shoes, you know you'll get a good fit out of the upper."
Adidas don't fit my feet, but I still tested the cushioning, letting the 20 MHz chip perform its million-calculation-per-second magic as I ran faster and slower, and moved from concrete to pavement to dirt to grass to a world-class outdoor track. The only time I could really feel the difference was when I manually switched the cushioning from firmest to softest. The in-between levels (there are five) didn't register.
You can look through the bottom of the shoe and see the motor.
The shoes work by measuring your foot-strike with the computer chip, which controls a cable in the heel that either limits or loosens the cushioning space. Less space, harder cushioning. More space, softer cushioning. Beyond the chip is simple technology you can see through a small window to the midsole: the rotors that move the cable.
The technology works so that even if you don't feel it in the short run, over the life of the shoes about 600 miles, same as any other running shoe the cushioning will hold up better. Ordinary shoes flatten out after repeated pounding. These shoes shouldn't. Same thing on a long run, say 10 miles or so, which I never got around to trying with these shoes. As the miles on an individual run build up, the cushioning compresses, and toward the end of a long run, you're getting less cushioning than at the start. The adidas_1's adjust for this, so the end of a long run should be easier on your feet.
But maybe not. In my old age, I don't mind heavy-ish running shoes. Heavy usually means more cushioning and support. I need both. But the adidas_1's are hefty; my size 8.5 weighed in at 15 ounces, about 3.5 more ounces than the Asics Gels I now run in. On my longest runs about six miles these days I'd be lugging around an extra 1,733 pounds. A better workout? Sure. A more comfy one? No.
A long, long time ago, back when I was a hard-core runner, I wanted to have the latest and greatest. I was putting in 50 to 80 miles a week in the offseason, and like most runners who put in this kind of mileage, I'd cycle between two or three pairs, never wearing the same shoes two runs in a row. Besides my trainers, I had a collection of racing spikes and lightweight racing shoes, and a bin of shoes that just didn't work. But my favorites in high school were the first major variation of the revolutionary Nike Waffle. The Nike shoe was called the LD-1000, and they were the ultimate in stability shoes, sporting soles that flared way out. Picture running in a pair of backwards flippers. We're talking solid foundation here.
When I bought them in the late 1970s, they were the most expensive mass-produced shoe on the market, costing $40. I loved them. They were very cool, and perfect for me. But they weren't perfect for everyone; within a year, Nike had shaved the flared heel way down, and the shoes no longer did
the trick for my dogs. The price remained the same. The cool factor wore off. I switched shoes.
For now, I'm sticking to my plan: $75 is my optimal price for a running shoe, and I won't pay more than $100. So for one pair of adidas_1's, I can score two or three pair of other shoes that I like. Maybe even one pair for road running, and one for trail running. And with the leftover dough? Maybe I'll save that to buy the next generation of adidas with chips probably in basketball shoes. Or I'll go the other way, toward the minimalist, lightweight Nike Free.
Or maybe I'll just enjoy lugging around a heavier wallet rather than heavier shoes.
Jeff Merron last wrote about running, and memories of his father, for Page 2.