If I hadn’t tried them myself, I never would have believed it. Though I guess with the advent of e-assist bicycles, scooters, skateboards and even stand up paddleboards, it was just a matter of time until someone adapted the technology for running shoes. And just as the waffle sole shoe design forever changed the way we run, e-assist shoes will have an even more profound and revolutionary impact.
Code name: Rocket Pods. The development and refinement of these e-assist running shoes have been taking place for several years. Still, everything surrounding the project was kept highly secretive, including the way a group of carefully curated reporters was introduced to the technology. I received a nondescript invitation and, once I accepted, received instructions to meet at a large parking lot at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Once there, we were loaded into a large van that had the windows blackened and a curtain across the front that prevented viewing out the windshield. There were eight of us total.
We drove for approximately half an hour and were let out inside a massive building. Knowing the Bay Area, Silicon Valley is about that distance. Coincidentally, in doing my research for this story I uncovered that Google recently acquired Moffett Field Airbase, including a large airplane hangar. The location is about half an hour from SFO. Could that be where we were?
Once unloaded from the van, what awaited us was a group of scientists and developers who introduced us to Rocket Pods. They looked not so different from any other pair of running shoes, with a circular disk on the back (similar to a BOA lacing system). However, this was no lacing system; it was a cadence accelerator dial.
We were each given a pair to try on, and they felt like lacing up a normal pair of running shoes. Then, we were told to switch the dial to the lowest setting. When I turned it on, nothing happened—the shoe was still just a shoe. But what came next absolutely blew my mind.
One of the scientists told us to spread apart and slowly start jogging. Suddenly, it felt like my feet were being propelled upward by some invisible force. Each step down was countered by an equal push up. I felt like Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk in a forward direction. The impact of running was essentially neutralized.
After each of us collectively came to our senses and our pupils stopped dilating, we were instructed to adjust the setting to the midway point and attempt to run. Now it felt as though my feet were being thrust upward, like tiny firecrackers igniting with every footfall. My stride length naturally lengthened, and my pace accelerated to about twice the speed a similar amount of exertion would normally produce. It felt a bit strange at first, but my body quickly adapted to the new dynamics and my running assumed its usual gait.
What happened next is something I will never forget. The scientist told us to go ahead and adjust the dial to full capacity. I watched one of the other reporters start jogging and his feet exploded upward so forcefully it induced a sprint. He held on for perhaps 25 feet before the forward momentum was too much for his foot turnover to match and he splattered on the ground with both hands outstretched. Ouch.
Then it was my turn. I started running and the same thing happened to me. My feet came out from under me so quickly my legs couldn’t keep up. I held on for maybe 50 meters and was gasping for air when I crashed. Had I been able to hold on, I estimate that I’d cover 100 meters in about seven or eight seconds. My legs simply couldn’t keep up with the speed.
As you may well imagine, we weren’t allowed to keep the shoes. We were put back in the van, dropped off and given no additional information. Why would someone do such a thing?
Additional digging revealed that a mobility device startup had recently begun patenting electronic-assisted footwear. Sometimes companies preview their technology to outside parties to help protect their patents. Interestingly, this company has received funding from Google, and other investors include the notorious Silicon Valley VC, Y Combinator (who has taken a leading investment role in several e-bike and e-scooter startups), Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
What does the future hold with e-assist running technology? Traditional running records will easily be shattered. I see the potential of a sub-3 minute-mile and cracking a 2-hour marathon will now be possible for anyone other than Eliud Kipchoge. As for the ultramarathon, running a 100K could become as effortless as running a 10K. The prototype I tested was still a bit crude and will need some refinement. But that will happen quickly. I’ve also heard rumors Nike is developing its own version of e-assist footwear (Nike declined our requests for an interview).
All I can say for now is, prepare to start running.