Running Shoes & First World Infrastructure

Cross Country
In blue, sprinting past one more runner in the finishing stretch.

Each year I use birthday money to buy a fresh pair of running shoes. It’s a favorite ritual of mine. I’ve been a runner since I can remember. At age two, during my aunt’s wedding reception, I ran straight into a cement outdoor planter, initiating my running career with two black eyes. At nine in Kajiji, DRC, I hurdled bamboo fences barefooted; at 16, back in the States, I ran the 300M hurdles in spikes. From 7th grade to senior year in high school, I competed on the track and cross-country teams, squeezed into size 10 Nikes. But in my early 20s (when I started awakening to a LOT of things, most more important than the following) I realized, while contemplating sore feet, that my pair of Nike Airs weren’t shaped well for my flat arches. Also, my feet were truly size 11, not 10, but stores weren’t stocking women’s size 11. Adding insult to injury, the air packets squeaked—always just one shoe of any pair. (I ran with a Walkman, but without it I heard a constant: squeak… step… squeak.) First-world problems, I know, but still.

Fast-forward a few years, and a solution manifested: size 11 Asics Gels, stocked by the Rack. Ahhh. Pure running love and satisfaction. No squeak, just smooooth.

Fast-forward some more, and I found myself moving from downtown Portland, Oregon to a Portland suburb across the street from Nike headquarters. Nike’s situated on a beautiful, sprawling campus, closed off to public access. The grounds are complete with wetlands and white egrets, and employee-only forested running trails. I’m a runner and a writer… so naturally, I applied for one of their short-term contract positions for content writers. In the back of my mind I was thinking, “Maybe I can finally find out if they have an affordable running shoe for women with large, flat feet? And get to run on those awesome-looking trails?”

I’m getting to the infrastructure part, hang on…

What a freelance writer does best is write to find stuff out. Write to learn. Write to discover. Writing what we don’t yet know can be some of our most persuasive writing, because very often we’re writing to educate and persuade ourselves. Sometimes this happens outside a formal contract or project, on the fly. With Nike already on my mind, a week of coincidences led me to write and discover more about the company, the suburb it’s situated in, and its neighbors’ quality of life than I’d expected to as Nike’s potential employee.

First, a sidewalk-less neighborhood where I happened to jog one afternoon around 5PM was jam-packed with cars emerging one after the other, all coming from a Nike exit. They zoomed by as I jogged precariously and nervously between them and a ditch on a thin dirt shoulder. (Nothing they needed to worry about on their company forest trails.) The drivers sped, en route, I presumed, to the congested rush-hour freeway, refusing to let me cross. Two days later, a cyclist was killed while riding in the bike lane on another street I’d just run; an inattentive driver right-hooked him. First-world problems again? Yes, more serious and universal now. The day after that, I learned it was the last day for the county to receive public comments about Nike’s plans to build an enormous new parking garage.

Yellow Bike, Kajiji
No cars in Kajiji back then, except for the one Land Rover that was shared by all.

I was suddenly forced to consider the serious effects of Nike’s growth on the infrastructure used by their athletic and active-commuter neighbors.

Impassioned to protect bike lanes and pedestrian routes to nearby transit connections, I wrote to the county. And wrote. It all came spilling out: The din of many cars; the stink of exhaust; the rudeness of drivers who wouldn’t let me cross; the dangers posed by drivers piloting cars as they looked down at cell phones; and my sadness that neighbors’ efforts to live actively (running, cycling, walking), were being thwarted by the dense auto traffic generated—ironically—by a company that made athletic apparel, whose swoosh I once donned in high school cross-country races.

In the process of writing, I learned construction plans included a parking garage and road widening. I learned of a new berm coming, and of a public road closure that would further eliminate public passage through the campus, but at the time I didn’t find an indication improvements would be made to sidewalks or bike lanes,* which were piled hazardously with leaves and branches most of the winter on the west side of campus. There was no mention of creating a passage through campus for people who don’t use cars and who need to access the MAX stop and lot where Zipcars are located, on the opposite side of campus from their homes.

People rarely use cars to get to transit, yet planners seemed to have neglected the reality they’d be making neighbors walk or bike all the way around campus to get to the train/car-share (an extra mile or so, adding 15-20 minutes to the walking journey).

In my writing, I tried to offer what I saw as solutions. My goal: To protect and acquire more public travel space that athletic neighbors and car-free households can use to safely and comfortably run, walk, and bike on. And to lower speed limits in the area to 35mph,** cutting down on tire noise and danger.

Last but not least, I realized that “sustainable running shoe” has a more complex definition than I’d once been satisfied with. A company’s treatment of roads, and its advocacy for and protection of active commuters around its own address became an important characteristic in my running shoe of choice. My feet love the feel of the Asics Gel, but I’m also interested in giving companies like Newton Running a try. Newton is a B-Corp company (according to its website, it’s the first running shoe company with that certification!) that diverted over 78% (7500 pounds) of waste from their distribution center to recycling. I brought up a street view map of their headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, and, while I didn’t see bike lanes, I saw lots and lots of bikes! Very nice:

Newton Running, street view
Newton Running World Headquarters: 1375 Walnut St., Boulder, CO

It would be great if all companies—especially those with a large number of employees (a good thing) who en masse create an exceedingly high volume of single-occupant car traffic (not so good)—would consider their proximity to the people living nearby who walk, jog, bike, skate and play ball in neighboring yards and parks. It’d be fantastic if companies encouraged non-car trips to work (like frequent transit and bikes). It makes sense for the sports industry to lead the way, since its customers are predisposed to athletic lifestyles.

These are changing times, and consumers’ priorities are shifting. For example, I’m already a big user of wool athletic apparel—like Icebreaker or Smartwool—rather than synthetic fabrics. Wool lasts forever, and get this: You can sweat in it and still the material will not smell bad! Sometimes that which is sustainable is also most practical.

My muse is whispering to me, “See now? You just wrote and learned all you really needed to know about Running Shoes.”

*The county will eventually install new bike infrastructure around part of the Nike campus, but these plans are still in development. A speed counter was briefly placed in the cut-through neighborhood across the street to calm the traffic. Also, an eighth of a mile of mature trees on Nike’s side of the sidewalk were cut down, so leaves in the bike lane there can no longer be a problem.

**Non-car traveling space is at a minimum in the area, and it’s often adjacent to 45/50mph traffic. Anyone who runs, bikes or pushes a stroller alongside traffic going that speed knows it is painfully loud—perhaps 80-90 decibels at that proximity.