At the Start
For anyone who has ever run track, the sound of metal spikes on concrete or asphalt can bring on a flood of memories about nervous anticipation, the smell of sweat, the burn of muscles and the thrill of coming down the stretch with the crowding roaring in your ears.
That sound, feet shod in track spikes crossing concrete to the rubber track, is unique and to some, beautiful.
So what is the history of the track and field spike shoe? How did the idea come about that runners who have sharp points on their feet would go faster? In a chicken and egg kind of way, running shoes and running companies grew together, with the great barons of running taking the lead in creating faster shoes for faster runners.
Track spikes actually have their beginnings in rubber. In 1832, the process for putting rubber soles on shoes was patented and the sneaker, so named for its noiseless quality, was born. Sneakers became athletic shoes for children at first, and then for cyclists, thus beginning specialized shoes. Experts agree the first track spikes made their appearance around 1850 and began to be sold commercially in the late 1800’s by a man named Joseph Williams Foster, who is famous for beginning the company that eventually became Reebox.
These first shoes were rather dull, heavy and hot compared to today’s brightly colored, light-weight footwear. In fact, they looked much like men’s dress shoes, with metal spikes stuck in the bottom. Make of leather, cow-hide at first, with six spikes in the fore-foot, these shoes were a major transition for the sport of track. Very quickly, runners wanted even lighter shoes, so soft, light-weight kangaroo hide replaced the cow leather. Those first track spikes were priced at $6 a pair, pretty hefty for that time period.
Other improvements included adding a leather strap around the forefoot that helped reduce stretching as well as running the laces all the way down to the toe area so the shoe could be tighten around the whole foot.
Race for Improvement
In the 1900’s, improvements to track spikes hit their stride. A German cobbler named Adolf Dassler began experimenting with the spiked running shoes to see if he could improve them with lighter materials and better spikes. He tinkered with canvas and rubber; hand forged the spikes and created a range of shoes to match the event they were to be used in. For instance, sprinting spikes had very little heels and only spikes in the front, while high jumper track spikes had spikes in both the back and front and looked as lethal as lions’ claws.
Dassler’s company, first named Addas, became Adidas. His brother, Rudi, who originally started with him, broke off and formed Puma. Puma and Adidas had a fierce rivalry in Germany trying to get their shoes on national athletes. It wasn’t until 2009 that the anger softened after the employees of now international companies came together for a friendly soccer game.
Athletes in the 1928 Olympics wore the shoes Adidas would become famous for, but it was the 1936 Olympics when they were seen on Jesse Owens fleet feet that Dassler’s track spikes really took the lead. Emil Zatopek, the great distance runner, donned Adidas spikes in Helesinki in 1952. The trademark three stripes were removed so he wouldn’t get in trouble with his Czech’s Communist government. By then, the shoes were leather with crepe soles and narrow laces.
Rounding the Turn
Sprint forward to the late 1960’s and track spikes take on a new material that would once again revolutionize the shoe and sport. Plastic bottom plates were added to toe area where the spikes were screwed in and not long after, the leather material for the uppers transitioned to synthetic and mesh materials, making the spikes even more lightweight.
Today, several companies have joined Adidas and Puma in selling track and field shoes. Nike is the largest, but others such as New Balance, Saucony, Brooks and Asics have joined the pack as well. In addition, track spikes come in all types and shapes, a far cry from the hand-forged spikes of old. Depending on the event, from cross country to track to field events, an athlete will chose one of several kinds of the actual spike in the shoe:
- Christmas Tree: common size is 1/4″ and these offer both bounce and traction for runners;
- Needle: these are usually 3/16″ and are used on all-weather tracks because of the traction they offer;
- Pyramid: these offer bounce to the runner and are commonly used in both track and cross country, although on really grassy cross country courses, sometimes longer spikes are used;
- Tartan: dull needle spikes that are around 1/4″, these are most used on certain rubber tracks
These spikes are screwed in the holes at the bottom of the shoes so they can be replaced as they wear down, or as conditions change from racing venue to racing venue. As for the shoes, sprinters track spikes are ultra-lightweight with very little heel protection since sprinters run on their toes. Long distance runners, however, need a little more protection, so their spikes have studier heels. In addition, track spikes can vary in fit, flexibility and even the number of spikes in the bottom depending on which event an athlete competes in. Of course, just as with all gear elite athletes now wear, the shoes and spikes are scientifically honed to help the runner gain fractions of seconds.
Athletic shoes are a $75 billion market with American consumers responsible for $14 billion of that. What part track spikes play in that is hard to pinpoint, but with millions of athletes from young to old competing in the sport, there seems to be a lot of gold in those silver tips.
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