How did you get involved in the sport of running?
– My path to running was quite roundabout.
My favorite sport while growing up was basketball—I was never any good at it, but I enjoyed playing the game. I did make a few attempts to take up running with the idea that it might improve my overall fitness, but, back in those days, I knew nothing about the importance of choosing the right footwear and would invariably develop pain in my shins and knees, which would lead me to stop running within a couple of weeks.
It wasn't until I reached my early 30s that I became a runner and, in all honesty, what made that possible was Nike Free. This was several years before I joined Nike, so the way I learned about the shoes was through a newspaper article covering the launch of the original Nike Free 5.0 in 2004. My first reaction was that it was a preposterous idea. Nike wanted people to pay money for a shoe called "Free" that was meant to mimic running barefoot on grass—if I wanted to run barefoot, I could just take my shoes off and save a lot of money!
But, still, I was intrigued, and couldn't resist the opportunity to try a pair on at my local running shoe store. I had expected a very minimal shoe that felt hard underfoot, but the Nike Free 5.0 actually felt well cushioned. And its ultra-flexible midsole and highly compliant upper offered an experience that was unlike any other running shoe I'd ever tried up to that point—the shoe felt like a sock on my foot, yet still offered enough support that I felt I could run in it.
I bought a pair and followed the guide that came in the box, which suggested a slow, steady build-up in the amount and intensity of time spent in the shoe. For the first week I only walked in them, then I worked up to very short runs. Eventually, to my great surprise, I found that I could run in the Nike Free 5.0 consistently without experiencing the shin and knee pains that had always cut short my previous attempts to run. Within a few months I had run my first 5K race and, by that point, I was hooked.
I've since run one—very slow—marathon, but nowadays, I'm focused more on shorter runs at higher intensities, primarily because I've found it difficult to make time for longer runs.
How do you get involved in developing running shoes?
– Here, again, my path was rather roundabout.
I went to University in New York for music, specifically jazz performance. While there, I discovered what was then called multimedia design. It was also while I was in University that I was introduced to the World Wide Web, which was still in its early days back then. I was so taken with this new world of digital design that I left school to pursue a full-time career as a Web designer.
Luckily for me, no one really knew what they were doing back then, so I fit right in. My career path eventually took me to Chicago, where I was crazy enough to co-found a Web design start-up called 37signals. This was after Michael Jordan had retired from the Bulls, but Chicago still had a great love for basketball, which rekindled my own love for the sport. And, to play basketball, of course, one needs basketball shoes! So I visited what was then called Niketown Chicago—it's now simply called Nike Chicago—where I saw a shoe called the Nike Air Flightposite.
If you've never seen the Air Flightposite, it's a very difficult shoe to describe because it looks nothing like a conventional basketball shoe—even by today's standards, it's remarkably futuristic in appearance. I tried it on and was amazed by its unique fit and feel, but wasn't quite ready to drop $160 USD (and this was back in 1999!) to buy it. So I held off, assuming that I'd be able to find reviews for the shoe online—after all, it seemed like there were review Web sites for every kind of product under the sun. But when I searched, I couldn't find any reviews for basketball footwear from people who had actually played in the shoes. There were plenty of opinions about the appearance of the latest-and-greatest hoops offerings, but none focused on their functionality. So I went ahead and bought a pair of the Air Flightposite and created a Web site called Kicksology.net where I rated their on-court performance (spoiler alert: I loved them).
I continued to review any new pairs of basketball shoes I purchased—as much as anything, to give me an excuse to buy more shoes—and, to my great surprise, Kickology.net quickly developed a large and loyal following. This eventually brought me to the attention of the footwear teams at Nike and ultimately led to my first job with Nike as a Product Line Manager on the Global Running Footwear team.
What do you think of the running culture nowadays?
– I love how rich and diverse the running culture has become. Not too long ago, running was a fairly homogenous sport, with local races dominated by male runners in short-shorts and tank tops. But, today, go to any race—from a 5K to a marathon—and you'll see people of all genders, all ages, all shapes and all sizes participating.
Given the great degree to which physical activity contributes to quality of life, I think this expansion of the running culture is fantastic and I hope to see it continue. I also think that Nike's co-founder, Bill Bowerman, who literally wrote the book on Jogging in 1966, would have been incredibly happy to see the growth of the sport.
How often do you run?
– Nowadays, I'm lucky if I can find time for three runs in a week.
I cross train with workouts on an elliptical machine and rock climbing to try to balance endurance with strength, and to avoid overuse injuries, which are a common problem for runners.
It's the eleventh year (!) of the Nike free shoe. What's the difference from last year?
– For 2015, our Running Footwear product teams absolutely obsessed over fit and feel across the entire Nike Free collection.
The biggest change is in the Nike Free 5.0, where our design and development teams were able to eliminate an entire layer of material to deliver a much more comfortable, conforming fit around the foot, without compromising the support runners need. Our teams also completely re-engineered the tongue in the Nike Free 5.0, moving to a sandwich mesh construction that eliminates lace pressure and simply feels great against the foot. As a side benefit, this reduction in materials has also contributed to a significant reduction in weight for the 2015 Nike Free 5.0.
In the case of the Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit, our design and development teams tuned fit across the entirety of the shoe. That's because, while our wear testers loved the overall fit and feel of last year's model, many found it to be both a bit too roomy across the ball of the foot and a bit too tight over the instep. So our Running Footwear team engineered the upper of our 2015 Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit with less volume around the forefoot and slightly more volume around the midfoot, making a shoe that was already widely lauded for its overall performance even better. The team was also able to eliminate one of the two seams that linked the rearfoot portion of last year's upper to the body of the shoe, resulting in a one-piece construction that delivers a more consistent fit around the heel. So, from forefoot, to midfoot, to heel, the Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit fits beautifully around the foot.
Finally, in the case of the Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit, our designers and developers received feedback from a number of our wear testers indicating that last year's model offered an overly compressive fit. The design intent for the Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit was and still is to deliver our most natural running experience, including an upper that fits like a second skin. But testers told us that the 2014 edition fit too closely to the foot, limiting their ability to wear the shoe for extended runs. So our product teams took that feedback on board and engineered less elasticity into the yarns that comprise this year's upper, while also introducing a deceptively simple notch at the front of the new 3.0's ankle collar. The result is a new Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit that's easier to put on and take off, and feels incredible around the foot—even after a long run or long day of wear.
Tell us more about The Nike free shoe? What's the best thing about it?
– I could go on for hours about this, but I'd say the best thing about Nike Free is that it lets you run the way you were meant to—the way that millions of years of evolution have shaped us to move.
This may sound strange, but many runners get quite emotional when they talk to us about their experience running in Nike Free. The freedom to move as we were meant to seems to touch something inside of us that goes beyond the physical.
In my case, Nike Free remains the only shoe that I can run in consistently, so I'm very attached to it!
What's the first thing you think about when designing a shoe?
– My role in the product creation process is not design, but in the uncovering of opportunities that have not yet been pursued. So, for me, the first thing I think about is, what problems are athletes having that have not yet been solved? What opportunities exist to improve performance that have not yet been tapped? Sometimes this leads us to a new shoe solution, such as Nike Free; sometimes this leads us to a new apparel solution, such as the Nike Revolution Training Jacket for footballers that was introduced earlier this year; and sometimes this leads to new experiences, such as the incredible runner services that are rolling out across Europe.
But, ultimately, it all starts with listening to the voice of the athlete and being committed to serving their needs.
What keeps you motivated and inspired to continue designing The Nike Free shoes?
– Nike Free has been an incredible success over its eleven year lifespan, but we know that there's more to explore and enable.
This might seem surprising, but we're still learning new things about the body and the movement of the body on a daily basis. In fact, the more we learn about the body, the more it inspires us because it shows us that we've only just scratched the surface of our potential as athletes (and, as we say, if you have a body, you're an athlete).
At the same time, our innovation teams are also constantly developing new enabling technologies and methods-of-making that allow us to create products that would have been impossible to manufacture just a few years ago. For example, Flyknit technology is an incredible tool that's enabling our product teams to deliver performance with a precision that was never before attainable—providing stretch, support and breathability exactly where athletes need it, and with far less weight and far less waste than conventional manufacturing methods.
As far as we've come already, I truly feel that we're just getting started, and that makes me very excited to come into work every morning.