How an upstart Boulder company is trying to remake the running shoe, one convert at a time.
He's been staring at my lower legs for all of 10 seconds like some foot-reading psychic, yet he's managed to diagnose what I've spent years trying to explain to doctors. "Do you have knee problems?" asks Danny Abshire, the cofounder and chief technical officer of Boulder's Newton Running. "The second metatarsal on your right foot is a little short." Crouching on his toes, Abshire relaxes into a lecture on foot-body harmony, steadily churning his words out until he realizes I'm lost. He stops, sighs gently, and spreads his arms into a wide shrug. "I know this sounds very Boulder—and it is."
Yes, it is. For two hours, we discuss things like "re-finding my center" and "letting my feet talk to me." In the Newton Running Lab, a basement space in downtown Boulder that's part store, part testing center, I run: barefoot, in slow motion, and in place. At Abshire's urging, I contemplate the laws of motion conceived by Sir Isaac Newton (the company's namesake). Finally, I lace up a pair of Lady Isaac Guidance Trainers, one of the company's new transitional shoes, which Newton designed for those who don't make a habit of running 100-mile races. I stand up—and nearly fall over. They really expect me to shell out $150 for this?
About a dozen years ago, three entrepreneurs began to rethink the way running shoes are made. For more than three decades, the multibillion-dollar sneaker industry has been telling us to land on our heels and let their cushy shoes cradle us. Traditional running shoes are engineered to protect our fragile feet from harsh, manmade surfaces like concrete, but the resulting injuries, from sore backs and knees to tight Achilles tendons, became the runner's chronic complaint.
That's why the partners settled on a design that forced runners to land on the forefoot instead of the heel, the way someone wearing little or no padding would. The concept is both revolutionary (because it upends 30-plus years of conventional wisdom about running) and old school (because eons of evolution dictate that humans run more efficiently on our footpads, which better distribute the impact from hitting the ground). As of September 2006, Abshire and one cofounder, Boulder real estate magnate Jerry Lee, were still tinkering with the prototype and had hired shoe designers to marry their motion ideas with an appealing look. "Most companies might give up after 14 years of R&D," Lee says, "but we never did."
Using themselves as test dummies, the two finally found the right combination of science and style. The Newton model sliced millimeters off the heel of a typical shoe and added stiltlike projections on the sole to encourage a forefoot strike. Newton hit the gear-obsessed triathlon market in 2007 with some funky, neon-colored shoes. Abshire preached, coaxed, and cajoled athletes to test out—or just try on—the odd sneakers. Soon Newton boasted an arsenal of pro athlete endorsements from such luminaries as reigning Ironman champ Craig Alexander and Josh Cox, the U.S. record holder in the 50K run, who liked how the shoes made them run faster while reducing injuries.
By 2009, barefoot running had transitioned from harebrained pastime to legitimate movement, and suddenly Newton wasn't just selling shoes; it was promoting a lifestyle. After retailing its kicks exclusively on the Internet for two years with a staff of just five people, the company now employs 30 people and sells its shoes in 25 countries. And while the privately held company is mum on sales figures, Lee claims they have doubled each year since 2007. Last May, to coincide with the Bolder Boulder race, Newton opened its first storefront, the Lab, and at the 2009 Ironman World Championship, Newton was the third-most-popular shoe brand, behind Asics and Brooks.
As the new-look Newton's prototypical customer, it was time for me to test the company's mass-market appeal. A casual runner for more than a decade, I've always been fighting injury. I once spent three months scooting down stairs on my rear end because of bad knees. One doctor prescribed a pair of torture devices—er, orthotics—and said I would never run again. Two years later, I completed a marathon—without the ultra-stiff insoles. Yet since crossing that finish line in 2001, I'd never run more than 11 miles in one stretch. (And I did that only once.) It just hurt too much, and even though Newton's shoes seemed like an expensive ($150) experiment, I figured they were worth a try.