Old Reebok running shoes in a locker with trophies and medals
(Photo: Brad Kaminski)

Why I Still Hold On to My 29-Year-Old Racing Shoes

Hint: it’s certainly not for the smell

Old Reebok running shoes in a locker with trophies and medals
Brad Kaminski

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Something magical happens when runners transmit energy through their feet to the ground, and some of that magic rubs off on their shoes. Over time, as the runner becomes fitter, faster, and more confident, the shoes become associated with this transformation, and simple rubber, foam, and fabric take on a mystical glow.

So it is that a pair of 1994 Reebok Racer X’s sit on a shelf in the back of my closet—even though I haven’t worn them in more than 20 years. The uppers are stained from Gatorade spills, finish-line puke, and bloody toes. The outsoles are embedded with the dust of Central Park paths and European streets, and the forefoot tread is almost completely worn off. But these shoes are, to me, objects of reverence.

I found the svelte road racers on the closeout rack at Paragon Sports on Union Square in New York City the year I turned 30. I was living in Manhattan at the time, and working at NYU, but mostly running. I lapped Central Park each morning before work, coached speed workouts with Bob Glover and the New York Road Runners club, and spent weekends either going long or competing.

I’d been a runner since high school but always believed my strength was in endurance, not speed. Steady training amid talented running partners, however, revealed that I could go relatively fast as well as long. The Reeboks, pure racers suitable for distances no longer than ten kilometers, were an indicator of this newfound prowess.

Soon after I got them, I ran a 4:54 mile in a Fifth Avenue Mile citizen’s-heat qualifying event. It was the first time in my life I’d broken five minutes. The shoes, now associated with my success, acquired their first hint of magic. Over the next five years I wore them sparingly, reserving them for races when I was primed for peak performance, days that would redefine the paces I thought possible and alter my self-image.

When I first broke 17 minutes in the 5K, I wrote in my journal: “Running faster than I ever have before made me feel taller, stronger, less eager to please—it erased a little more of the small, weak, nerdy adolescent that always tried too hard.” A few weeks later, I ran a personal record of 35:02 in a New York 10K and placed an unprecedented sixth overall, including first in my age group. The Reeboks carried me through these transformative moments and retained those parts of my soul I’d poured into the efforts that created them.

The final race I recall running in the Reeboks was a 10K in Carvin, France, not far from Brussels, where I was living in 1999. I had set a goal of “sub-35 by 35,” and the race, two weeks before my 35th birthday, was the last chance I’d have. My magic shoes delivered: I scorched a 34:36 on a flat course through narrow, cobbled streets.

One year later, I accepted the job of editor in chief at Running Times, which took a sizable bite out of my training time, and then I became a father, which reduced it even more. Before I knew it, I was too old to threaten any of my PRs, and the Reeboks languished ever deeper in the back of the closet.

When I take them out now, they seem ridiculously retro. The upper has heavy suede overlays; the midsole is a surprisingly firm, thin layer of EVA. I try them on and feel the familiar pop in my stride, though I’m aware that no amount of residual alchemy could grant me the paces I used to run. Their power was always to reveal speed, not create it.

Still, I’ll hold on to my retro Reeboks to remind me of a time when I was young and fast. When I toe the line today, I happily wear a pair of modern racing shoes with a smoothly engineered mesh upper, lively superfoam underfoot, and an embedded plate. As ever it’s training that creates the magic, but technological wizardry never hurts.

From March/April 2023 Lead Photo: Brad Kaminski

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