Department

The Newtonian Method

How an upstart Boulder company is trying to remake the running shoe, one convert at a time.

April 2010

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.

Are these stilts? I feel like I've got pogo sticks attached to my feet! The shoes had looked normal enough while Abshire was describing how they worked—a technobabbly concoction of padding, treads, and air that distributes energy more efficiently. But now, wearing them and weaving like a drunken sailor, I try to focus on Abshire's gentle coaching: Lift your leg; don't push. Straighten your back, but propel forward. Think short strides, not leaps. "This shoe is different than anything you used before," he warns me, "so treat it that way."

I spend the next afternoon trolling Newton's Web site and studying the running-form videos like a grade-A nerd, all the while repeating Newton's footfall mantra— "Land, Lever, Lift"—as I practice lifting my legs mechanically in my office cubicle. As I lace up my shoes that evening and head out for a short test run, I'm concentrating on Newton's third law of motion—every action has an equal and opposite reaction—when I nearly slam into a stop sign; evidently, the studying hasn't improved my balance. I'm supposed to feel like a human spring, bounding forward effortlessly; instead, it's like the first time I tried on high heels. I'm teetering and swerving so much that I head for the sidewalk, hoping that the grass will act like bumper lanes at a bowling alley—or at least provide a soft landing when I topple over. I'm trying, desperately, to remember my cram session and that darn jingle. Lever, lift, what? Lift, land, huh?

One week and 12 miles later, it still feels like I'm running on the horizontal bars of a cattle guard; I'm the princess who can feel a pea through 40 mattresses, and I'm learning way too much about the irregularities in asphalt. This biofeedback is supposed to be reassuring, but right now it's more information than I want or need. As I'm trudging along—finally, in a straight line—plotting a return to my old shoes, I notice that my husband, Chris, is a stride behind me. OK, not a full stride, but I've never been faster than him. Maybe there's something about these shoes after all. Or maybe I'm simply running more efficiently because I'm finally paying attention to form. Even so, I'm still not convinced that running a tad faster is worth being so uncomfortable.

Another week and another dozen miles later, I'm stumbling less and reacting more quickly, but I still wonder if these shoes will be just a fad. My Lady Isaacs feel gimmicky, like that TV ad for knives that cut through metal, and I wonder how long it will be before the Newtons start gathering dust at the bottom of my closet. I need a comparison, so I pull on my old pair of sneakers for an early-morning run. The streets are dusted with a couple inches of fresh snow, unmarred by tracks, until my gaze suddenly falls upon a single pair of distinctive Newton prints dashing ahead of me down the street. For a moment I feel like an adulterer who's been caught red-handed—until the pain from my old, familiar shoes overwhelms the guilt. Four blocks in, my knees are screaming; eight blocks later, I'm limping like a wounded dog. I turn around, hobble home, tear off my old shoes, and slip into my Newtons. Finally, I'm sold.

Natasha Gardner is 5280's assistant editor. E-mail her at [email protected].