Skip to main content
Original Issue


Though I own nothing comparable to Paavo Nurmi's gilded spiked running shoes, which are enshrined in a glass case in Helsinki's Suomen Urheilumuseo (Sports Museum of Finland), I do have a collection of vintage running shoes.

Mine are arrayed under and around my bed, 19 pairs in all, gray and red and gold and white and blue, branded with the Nike swoosh, the New Balance "N" and the three stripes of Adidas. There is even a solitary pair of French-made blue and white Patricks, which gave me nothing but blisters and grief.

I only wear three pairs or so and have never won a race in any of them, but for reasons which passeth understanding, I am unable to discard the rest of the worn-out, sweat-stained shoes that bore me faithfully, if foolishly, on long training runs and races from a mile to my usual run-and-walk marathon.

All the heels are worn down on the outside. The shoes are streaked by the tidal salt stains of ancient runs in foul weather. The leather is sweat-stiffened and shabby. Some are holed through where a left big toe was wont to protrude.

The nostalgia elicited by these raggedy shoes overwhelms me with a spell at once satisfying and melancholy. I am in thrall to a moribund assemblage of Nike Waffle Trainers, LDVs, Elites, and a pair each of Bostons, Internationalists and Cortezes; New Balance 420s and 730s; and a pair each of Adidas SL-72s, Roms and TRX Trainers.

They conjure up memories of runs on sandy Florida loops and along fields of six-foot-high raspberry canes overlooking a Norwegian fjord, through the morning misty green of Hyde Park, up rocky Vermont hills and around and around the asphalt parking lots of airport hotels. They carried me over hard-packed island beaches off the Georgia coast, through the birch and pine forests of Finland, tilting over the wood chips of Pre's Trail in Eugene, Ore., through the familiar streets and parks of my hometown, New York, and over the fantasy resilience of Tartan and Chevron tracks, red and green and full of daydreams.

I even wish I had saved my first pair of running shoes. They were circa 1949, no-nonsense soft black leather—kangaroo skin, said the advertisement, which I must admit gave me a twinge—with long irreplaceable spikes.

Ever since, I have been on a part-time quest for the grail of the perfect shoe: something at once so comfortable and light and durable and magical that it would confer the speed of a Tommie Smith and the endurance of a Ron Clarke on an ordinary runner. Such as yours truly. I have always been partial to the fond illusion that running shoes maketh the man.

My spiked-shoe days, such as they were, are long gone. Now I'm a training-shoe runner (though training for what, I'm not sure), caring more for shock absorption than miracles.

But my high school daughter and son keep me up with the state of the art, racing in colorful contrasting spikes. Sal's pair is a garish display of forest- and mint-green and orange, titled the Nike Vainqueur; Frankie's is a pair of yellow Tiger Spartans or a feather-light white and pale-blue creation known as the Nike Zoom Tasman.

Equipped with a toylike red-handled wrench, my children change the size of their spikes, depending on whether the track is cinder or synthetic, like skilled mechanics. These are only shoes, of course, but the kids and I regard them almost as talismans for an arduous and rewarding adventure.

Never underestimate the beauty of ordinary objects in a resonance of remembered effort and landscape. "At the sight of blackbirds," wrote the poet Wallace Stevens, "Flying in a green light/Even the bawds of euphony/Would cry out sharply."

My running shoes evoke the poignant esthetics of a plain old New England cemetery. There is also the sense of fable: A runner ages along with his shoes, which he constantly renews as though he could halt the loss of wind, the slowing cadence of his legs.

Someday I'll break the spell and put the whole collection out with the garbage. Even then, I know, the shoes won't be consumed in some great final incinerator fire but will eternally appear and reappear in my neighborhood on the tired, shuffling feet of drifters and derelicts, who sample each house's garbage as though it were the best bargain counter in town. I'll stand on high, at the top of my stoop, stretching for a run but really blessing my running shoes as they start another journey.