“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.

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