Engineered down to the angle at which the tread is positioned, the New Balance FuelCell 5280 has been designed to be the fastest shoes at the one-mile distance
Photos by RG Medestomas | Shot at Vermosa Sports Hub
Eliud Kipchoge, with a time of 1:59:40.2, tore through 26.2 miles of road in Vienna this year. Choking in the sea of headlines the public has received over the last 11 months, many were fixated, stunned, and even a little jealous of Kipchoge’s sub two-hour marathon. This sort of news stiffens my back and picks me up with a start: “How, for heaven’s sake, can I be faster?”
Juggling priorities in a life that simply cannot orbit around running, I quickly abandon Kipchoge’s 33-kilometer Mondays, decide that I’m no match for the “Greatest Marathoner, Ever” as reads a New York Times headline, and clock in my usual five to 10 kilometer slogs, complete with celebratory ice creams.
The tech-inclined shoe engineers behind the New Balance FuelCell 5280, however, don’t give up so easily. Working alongside a select group of Team NB’s world-class athletes, the company has taken the concept of a shoe and engineered their way through the tiniest details of breathable mesh, snappy soles, and precisely angled tread to manufacture a serious running shoe for bloody serious athletes.
Space Oddity, a look
Like an alien found roaming casually around Makati, the Fuel Cell 5280 looks a bit strange. The soles aren’t flat; the lasts of the shoes are so curved the sides stick outward away from your body; and the mesh on the upper looks more like cobweb than serious running material. I look at the shoes and ponder the aptness of a promotional video shot to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”
Fresh out of the box, the shoes have the look of a project put together by geeks that looks strange but works with ferocious results, the first of which you feel the moment you feel the shoes dangling off your fingers. With a men’s size 9.5 weighing in at 142 grams, the shoes are lighter than the box they come in, or so it feels.
Holding the shoes up, the primarily white and black color scheme begins to sparkle with the same sort of iridescence folks born before 1997 would remember from the shiny side of CDs. This is the only color released by the company thus far, but for the runner willing to pay $199.99 a pair, color rarely factors in the purchase.
The first factor: Unbelievably light upper, skyscraper heel counter
How did the scientists in the vault create a pair of shoes lighter than the 100 percent recycled material box they come in? Bringing your arm down after a good session of examining, you will see straight through the upper and find the blue-to-pink fade of the insole. Pulling the shoe on is akin to pulling a pair of socks onto your feet, the lightweight and surprisingly rigid Hypoknit upper engulfing your foot in a web of incredibly breathable material.
Every nook, cranny, and vein on my foot pops out in the fabric—never has a shoe been quite so molded to the shape of my foot. The “engineered zonal properties” of the upper allow for incredible stretch and flexibility while remaining stiff around the edges to prevent any slipping and toe box jamming at the front of the shoe. Though I peer down at my feet and marvel at what looks to be a pair of cycling shoes, I can hardly feel their weight.
At the back of the shoe along my Achilles tendon, I feel the highest heel counter I’ve seen on a shoe holding my foot in place. Rising around the heel of my foot and then jutting inward as it rises up my foot, the unusually soft and stretchy mesh counter is comfortable and remains so fixed in place that you can run comfortably without socks on—a massive benefit for those scraping every possible gram off their feet in the name of speed.
Need for speed: Carbon plate
The car-enthusiastic, Playstation- and Xbox-playing readers of the ’90s will see what I did there. But the point here is what you won’t see on the shoe.
Though the exact material, be it rubber or ethel vinyl acetate, is not immediately discernible, whatever makes up the latest New Balance FuelCell 5280 formulation filling the midsole area of the shoe provides an amazing amount of response to runners as they plotter away on the pavement. This is not a shoe that cushions your steps. As the midsole is bent, dipping deeply towards the front of the foot, your heel never hits the pavement. With each step, most will find the middle-to-front of their feet (and slightly towards the outer side) hitting the pavement with an audible slap.
Clopping along, baffling pedestrians in the distance with a clip-clop reminiscent of the kalesas in Intramuros, you experience not just a unique forefoot run but a boosted one. As the sole curves up steeply toward the front of the shoe, you can feel a sizeable push in each stride. But, “surely the shape alone isn’t giving me this much boost,” you might think.
You’re right. Just above the midsole, from heel to toe, is a multidirectional carbon plate designed to “flex and accept the runner at initial contact, and stiffen for superior propulsion at toe-off.”
Standing or walking around in the shoes feels strange. What with the shoes keeping you on your toes, it’s frankly uncomfortable. At speed however, around 80 to 100 percent of your capacity, the shoes are like rockets, each step rolling you off with an extra boost from the slightly bent plate that makes a real task out of slowing down.
The outsole: They even measure the degree of the tread
The heel of the shoe bears no tread, almost instructing you, “Don’t let your heel hit the pavement.” The front of the shoe however bears a combination of EVA and injected Dynaride rubber arranged in a “data-driven lug configuration,” which has been aligned at a six-degree angle. This was done to improve traction at toe-off. In addition to that, New Balance reports that the lateral edge is beveled at 17 degrees, supposedly the correct angle for its athletes on touchdown.
Angles aside, the shoes provide enough traction to get runners around corners effectively. Though examining the heel portion, you might quickly wonder how long your $200 investment is going to last as the cushy foam at the heel doesn’t look as though it will appreciate the unkempt asphalt of Gil Puyat Avenue.
It’s a serious $200 investment with vermicelli laces
Five-two-eighty (5280) is the number of feet in a mile and so the name alone provides you with the ideal distance for running in the shoes. In fact, both the male and female winners of 2019’s prestigious 5th Avenue Mile in New York City wore prototypes of the shoe. So there you now have the folks typically lacing up the shoes.
Many of these folks are sponsored and needn’t blink at the neat price tag attached to the shoes (which could very well weigh as much as the pair). For the good lot of us though, the price begs the question: “If these are built for a one mile run, do I care that much about that distance to buy them?” It’s best that I leave the marginal utility to peso cost-per-unit up to the individual to weigh.
Perhaps, with the little note in the box, the marketing team at New Balance is telling us these shoes are for the very serious runners intent on winning their next mile-long run. I gesture that these shoes are great for an 80 percent capacity, five- to 10-kilometer run but are a poor choice for anything longer.
With your forefoot slamming the concrete, you’re bound for one lactic acid-filled calf trip to injury at longer distances. Additionally, those seeking the “Space Oddity” look of the shoe sans the carbon plate and the hefty price might find a neat match in the FuelCell Rebel, which retails at a milder $130.
In the same way I would be if I indeed saw a Martian swaggering around Makati, I am in awe of the shoes—a remarkably detailed feat of shoe engineering for a niche distance. We may not all be Eliud Kipchoges, but for those seriously intent on being at least asymptotic to the greatest runner of our day (at least at the one-mile distance), these shoes are a rocketing start.
With or without the shoes, I’m getting that ice cream.