Early 2000s Running Shoes Are the Moment’s Hottest Sneakers. But Can You Actually Run In Them?

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GQ torture-tested the year’s best retro reissues in search of bigger fits for going fast. 

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Collage: Gabe Conte

For an aging athlete, there’s probably no more certain sign that you’re getting washed up than seeing your old performance gear—the stuff you sweated and suffered in as a younger man—getting a retro reissue for everyday wear. And while it’s not like I didn’t know I was getting older on some level, it was still a bit of a shock when I started to see cool guys at the GQ office and around downtown Manhattan looking ready for Heartbreak Hill from the ankles down.

Running shoes from the first decade of this century are suddenly red-hot. Avant-garde Bulgarian designer Kiko Kostantinov’s remixes of hardcore Asics are seeing Jordan-like resale action. Culty post-hypebeast label JJJound had an Asics runner of their own. The substack Blackbird Spyplane declared that “WACK silver sneakers are FIRE.” Balenciaga is charging $1,150 for some joints that look a lot like the sneakers that I brought to soccer tryouts in high school (and then mowed the lawn in). The idea that these were in any way fashionable was, for a moment, completely incomprehensible to me.

I am an enthusiastic mid-pack marathoner, and I run most days even when I’m not actively training for one. I am also fairly style-conscious in my everyday life. But I’ve never thought much about crossing the streams. Distance running had always seemed to me a shade too dorkily earnest for much fashion appropriation, setting aside the tired appreciations of Steve Prefontaine and his mustache or the odd moodboard picture of Diddy after the 2003 New York City marathon. I buy last year’s version of my favorite running sneakers on sale, in whatever color is cheapest. They’re almost orthopedic devices—tools that allow me to run as much as I would like without getting hurt. (Like most runners I know, I have a mixed record there. I’ve battled extensor tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, and a persistent mystery pain that a very expensive MRI revealed to not be a stress fracture but that still required a couple of weeks in a boot.) 

But maybe it is that exact utilitarian spirit drawing the fashion dudes. For a long time the worst thing you could say about shoes is that they looked orthopedic, but that’s changed a bit now that art school grads are spending their first ad-agency paychecks on $399 nurse-core Mephistos. But there are other plausible trend genealogies: Kostantinov spins plenty of ‘90s rave culture into his styles. And when I asked Jonah Weiner, the journalist who makes Blackbird Spyplane (with his partner Erin Wylie), why early-aughts sneakers were having a moment, he sugged that connoisseurs of “dad” style burned out on familiar models like the New Balance 990 were simply looking for an ever-harder fix by asking themselves “what do actual dads wear?”

However it happened, once GQ declared the Asics Gel-Kayano 14 the “It Sneaker of the Moment,” something snapped for me. I was just ramping up my training for the New York City Marathon in the Gel-Kayano 29, which I can assure you will not be the “it sneaker” of any moment. So I picked up a pair of 14s and New Balance 1096Rs and laced them up.

I wanted to know: Can you run in cool-guy running shoes? And could this be the thing that finally made me care about how I looked when I was getting my miles in?

The answer to the first question came easily: You can pound the pavement in these. The retro models are marketed only for everyday wear, and representatives from both New Balance and Asics seemed vaguely panicked when I asked about actual running, emphasizing that these were not for serious mileage. But of course, that is what they were designed for in the first place. And while the reissued models might be made with slightly heavier and less-breathable materials than the originals, the differences seemed pretty marginal in practice.

Introducing these new shoes while in the depths of marathon training was a potentially horrific variable in an always-fraught couple of months. But while there’s a lot of unscientific running-store bro-scicence out there about how running shoes are supposed to fit and affect your gait, the current best research indicates that the only thing that actually matters is simply how they feel to you when running. And so while my injury history made me very nervous on my first few jogs, I quickly got used to having the fashion-y reissues in my sneaker rotation. Your mileage may vary (sorry), but they felt like normal running sneakers to me.

On one level, this was a godsend: When your running shoes and non-running shoes are one and the same, you’ll never pack for a weekend trip the same way again.

However, I also discovered that my new shoes did not make me look particularly cool while running. Like any subculture, running has its own style diktats that would be hard to explain to an outsider. I put this dilemma to Weiner, who said he experiences a similar thing with road cycling. “If you’re into clothes on one hand, and part of a culty athletic community like that on the other,” he told me, ”It’s almost like you speak two different languages. It can be fun to try and find ways to merge them, but also pretty messy, because you realize that what reads as ‘cool’ in one language might be indecipherable or even verboten in the other.”

Along these lines, running in long tights and a short sleeve shirt tells me you’ve never sweat hard on a chilly day, and while Kipchoge-tier racing shoes are excellent for going fast, they’re a bit dorky on a relaxed group run.

This fall, I ran an easy seven miles most Friday mornings with a friend. When I showed up in my new shoes, she told me I looked like an old man who hadn’t bought new gear for 20 years. I looked, in other words, less committed than even the most shuffling “hobby-jogger.” And to a runner, there’s nothing cool about looking like you haven’t run enough in the last 15 years to need new shoes.

So I’m going to hang onto my silver sneakers, but I won’t be sad when five or six hundred miles from now, they’re ready for the recycling bin. As it turns out, the only way to achieve big running style is by running big miles.

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