“Shoe Dog”—Phil Knight, Blue Ribbon Sports and Me

I recently read “Shoe Dog,” the story of the beginning of the company that would later become Nike. For those who don’t know, a “shoe dog” is someone “who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying or designing of shoes.” The company initially started out as Blue Ribbon Sports in 1962, when Phil Knight started selling imported Onitsuka Japanese running shoes out of the back of his green Plymouth Valiant, first on the west coast, and then later on the east coast. It is a candid story of a start up company filled with a cast of misfits and intrepid characters, who somehow managed to keep the company afloat as it sold shoes to generate enough cash to pay off the bankers, so they could buy another shipment of shoes, and so on. Somehow it all worked, but Knight details the struggles of the company and his own as the company changes from an exporter of Japanese shoes, to a designer and maker of shoes. It is an enjoyable book and I heartily recommend it to my running friends.

The book reminded me of some of my own encounters with running shoes, and my connection to Phil Knight, Blue Ribbon Sports, Onitsuka Tigers and Nike. Before there were running shoes and Tigers, there were the ubiquitous Chuck Taylor Converse All-Star gym shoes, worn by most basketball players in the 1960s and early 70s. I wore them too, on the basketball court, and when I began running, on my training jaunts through the neighborhood, and in races. In late 1969 while serving in the US Army at Fort Lee, Virginia, I wore them in my first marathon in Beltsville, Maryland, finishing a respectable 2:52, which prompted me to enter the 1970 Boston Marathon.

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Striking a pose in my Converse All Star Gym Shoes

I knew that my trusty gym shoes were not suitable for “The Boston Marathon,” but what to wear? I knew nothing about running shoes, and there wasn’t very much information available then either. We went home to Chicago on leave early in the spring, and my mission was to find a pair of real running shoes. I don’t remember where I found them, but it may have been Vertel’s Running Store, which is long gone. The shoes I found were Adidas Marathon shoes, perfect for Boston, I thought. I couldn’t find any others that were suitable, so I bought them, even though they were a half size too large, but they were light and had very little cushion. I wore those shoes to a 91st place finish in 2:41 in the rain, but with blistered toes and feet because they were slightly too large, but I didn’t care. I was elated.

Following my stint in the Army, we relocated to the Northeast and Somerville, Massachusetts, where I became a member of the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU), and that is where my connection to Blue Ribbon Sports began, because CSU bought their shoes from Jeff Johnson, who was the first employee in Phil Knight’s Blue Ribbon Sports enterprise. They bought their shoes from Onitsuka in Japan, and distributed them in the US. Jeff Johnson was their eastern representative. The first shoes I bought were blue Tigers with the familiar logo on the side. I wore them in my second Boston Marathon in 1971, finishing in a disappointing 44th place in 2:36. Disappointing, since many of the people I normally beat ran under 2:30.

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Slogging Up Heartbreak Hill in my Tigers

But those shoes were my steady companions, and were usually reliable in getting me a good race place and a fast time. One Christmas, or birthday, I can’t remember which, Johna had them bronzed and gave them to me as a gift, and they now stand as a memento of those days running against some of New England’s best runners.

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Bronzed Onitsuka Tigers

The year 1972 was an Olympic year, and several New England runners had qualified for the Marathon Trials in Eugene that year by meeting the 2:30 qualifying standard. I was not one of them, but among them were Rick Bayko, Peter Stipe, Paul Thompson and Tom Dederian, who were among my competitors in local and regional races. I was injured, plus I had not met the standard. That was also about the time that legendary Oregon coach Bill Bowerman was developing the Nike Waffle Shoe, using his wife’s waffle iron and all sorts or synthetic rubber concoctions to develop the unique sole for the shoe. Prior to the Olympic Marathon Trial race Nike gave out the shoes to some of the participants, and several elected to wear them in the race, ignoring common sense, and racing a full marathon in brand new shoes. Well, surprise, surprise, that didn’t work out well for some of them, including my friend and competitor Rick Bayko, who had to drop out after developing blisters. I asked him recently about that event, since I had heard about it, but didn’t know the details, or who had worn the new shoes. Here is what he said.

“Oh me, oh my. I was that idiot. Had to drop out halfway despite feeling great otherwise and moving well through the field. Deep blisters under both heel bones. Couldn’t walk right for nearly two weeks after. Dr. Paul Thompson once used the story as a cautionary tale while commenting on TV for the NYC Marathon. Said ‘one of his teammates’ used new shoes in the Olympic trials and it ruined his race. Was nice enough to not mention me by name.

Silver lining in that dark cloud though, in that as a dropout I was sitting in the steeplechase water pit with other dropouts cooling my blistered feet when the epic Prefontaine/George Young 5,000 race took place. Got to within 2 feet of them on each lap and went hoarse yelling for them.” Below is a link Rick’s full account of that event.

For me the Waffle Trainer story has a happy ending, because I wore them in 1977, in the first Mayor Daley Chicago Marathon and finished 10th in a time of 2:32, and as you can see by the picture below, I was elated.

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Finishing the First Chicago Marathon in Nike Waffle Trainers

Thank you Blue Ribbon Sports, Nike, Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman for putting wings on my feet and keeping me shod in those early years of your developing empire.

Thanksgiving-Seconds

When was the last time you ran a 3-mile race, or a 6-mile race? Those are distances from the old days, superseded by the metric equivalents of 5k (3.1 miles) and 10k (6.2 miles). But every year the City of Kirkwood, Missouri has their annual Kirkwood/Webster Turkey Day Runs on Thanksgiving morning with almost 5,000 runners participating in either a 3-mile or a 6-mile run. I ran it with my family and grandsons a few years ago, and this year our son invited us to celebrate Thanksgiving in St. Louis with his family, rather than go to Tacoma, Washington, which we usually do to be with our daughter, Gretchen VanMiller. This was a special year for the blended VanRosie family (a combination of Van Dyke and Rosenblatt), because our son, Garrett, and his significant other, Kelly, would each have their two boys for Thanksgiving, plus Kelly’s father passed away this summer and she had invited her mother and sister and her husband to join them from Pekin, Illinois so she could be with her family. Also joining us would be Gretchen, and our 15-month old granddaughter, Nola, from Tacoma, Washington.

The day begins with the race in the morning, followed by the annual Kirkwood/Webster high school football game, one of the oldest high school football rivalries in the country, dating to 1898. Followed later by Thanksgiving dinner. So the agenda was set. I was looking forward to running 3-miles instead of the 3.1 miles of a 5k for a change. Gretchen, grandsons Jack and Ben signed up for the 6-mile race, the rest of us signed up for the 3-mile race. Grammy Johna stayed home with Nola, while we ran. Prior to the race I looked up the previous year’s race results for my 70-74 age group, and based 2015’s winning time of 26:29, I figured I had a reasonable chance of running 24 to 25 minutes to win my age group, so I was quite confident of winning my age group.

The three-mile race started first at 7:30, followed by the six-mile at 8:15. The 7:30 start would not have been early, except that Gretchen’s plane arrived from Seattle just before midnight on Wednesday, so we didn’t get to sleep until about 1:30 a.m. after picking her and Nola up at the airport. So, somewhat groggy, we arrived at the race site hoping for the best. The gun went off and the five of us who opted for the shorter distance ran down hill on Argonne Drive, made a few turns and then proceeded home on a slight incline up Lockwood before turning a couple of times to finish on Argonne opposite the start. I had run the hillier 6-mile a few years prior and was grateful for the slight incline on the way to the finish. After pausing for a while to check in with the other members of our clan, I went to check the results. As predicted, I had run between 24 and 25 minutes, with a time of 24:54, but I was surprised to finish in second place in my age group. Another runner had run under 24 minutes, and had beaten me handily. But I was content with second, knowing I couldn’t have run any faster.

I missed seeing Garrett or Kelly finish, but did see Alex and Peter come in together. Alex is a very talented soccer player and runner, but has recently developed back pain, so he and Peter, affectionately dubbed, “brothers by another mother,” had walked the three miles together and finished together. Garrett was just glad to finish; because of knee pain he has been experiencing. Kelly ran a PR for the race and was pleased.

Ben, Jack and Gretchen started the 6-mile race soon after I finished. I expected all three to do well. All of us three milers lined up on the curb near the end of the race to watch them finish. Ben came in first, speeding around the corner on Taylor Street to the finish line on Argonne. He ran an excellent time of 38:35. We continued to watch and saw the first woman runner go by, but then a few minutes later Gretchen came by—the second woman in the race, with a time of 40:53. Next would be Jack. Suddenly he appeared, but he wasn’t just running; he was sprinting with a splendid kick, passing runners on his way to the finish line. I had expected him to come in sooner, but he said he developed a side stitch, and had to stop running for a bit during the middle of the race. Even so he finished 6th in his age group in a time of 44:15.

We later found out that Ben had finished second in his age group, so it was a total of three second place finishes and an overall good day of running and racing for the Van Rosie Miller clan, and a great way to start Thanksgiving.

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VanRosieMiller Clan Mostly Smiling After the Race