Friday, June 13, 2008
Ready to run in Beijing with rice on her feet
TOKYO -- First, the commotion was about high-tech swimsuits and the latest Speedo. Now, as the Olympics approach, it's about the shoes.
Japanese marathoner Mizuki Noguchi won the Olympic gold medal four years ago in Athens. She credits her victory to a rigorous training regimen, single-minded dedication and a staple that has less to do with track and field and more to do with agriculture: rice.
The state-of-the-art track shoes derive their superior absorption and traction not from the latest combination of fabrics and synthetics but from the lowly husk of rice.
With the Summer Games less than two months away, she and the rest of Japan's marathon squad are ready to turn their rice-clad feet loose on Beijing.
"The shoes are easy to run in," Noguchi told The Associated Press. "The Beijing course is hard on the feet and legs. It's flat and the surface of the roads is very hard."
Noguchi, the second Japanese woman to win the marathon gold, will head to Beijing with an updated version of the rice-tech shoes that helped her win in Athens.
Developed by Japanese sportswear maker Asics, the soles of the shoes are made of polyester and ground-up rice husks that absorb water faster. According to the company, they provide up to 10 percent better traction than the competition.
Shoe creator Hitoshi Mimura, a former marathon runner, has been making running shoes since 1974. He believes the footwear will be a potent tool on what is expected to be a very problematic course.
"We've made significant improvements to the shoes for Beijing," Mimura said Friday. "I think my experience as a marathoner helped me greatly in designing these shoes. I know what long-distance runners have to go through. I know about the pain they go through."
The shoes weigh only 3.85 ounces and quickly release heat, which should prove valuable in Beijing, where temperatures are expected to soar under the August sun.
Mimura also noted that the streets on the Beijing course include wide avenues designed to support the weight of tanks and other military vehicles, meaning they are less spongy and likely to cause more strain on runners' legs and feet.
Mimura said the idea of using rice husks was first developed by Asics in the 1990s based on technology used by Japanese tire makers to prevent cars from sliding on wet roads.
Largely because of Noguchi's success in Athens, athletes from Europe, Southeast Asia and the United States are in the process of testing the shoes. American runners Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor are to begin their tests this month, Mimura said.
Noguchi, the 2003 world championship silver medalist, surged to victory in Athens, beating Catherine Ndereba of Kenya and favorite Paula Radcliffe of Britain, who failed to finish the race because she cramped.
The success of the rice-husk racing shoes has been a godsend for Asics, which also makes swimwear and has taken a beating lately for not coming up with a swimsuit to match the hype and records in the pool of Speedo's LZR Racer for the Japanese Olympic team.
"This is good news for Asics," Mimura said. "We're all hoping an athlete wearing the shoes wins in Beijing."
Of course, shoes aren't everything.
Noguchi attributes much of her success to a training program put together by herself and coach Hidekazu Hirose. Her secret?
"I run as much as possible," she said.
She has gone to such high-altitude sites as Kunming, China, and St. Moritz, Switzerland. She will return to China this month to further test the new shoes.
Reiko Tosa, the bronze medalist at the world championships in September, and Yurika Nakamura round out Japan's women's marathon team. They will be wearing the shoes in Beijing as well, Mimura said.
The marathon has a huge following in Japan. While always popular, the sport got a major boost when Naoko Takahashi won the women's marathon at the Sydney Games.
Noguchi, who won the Tokyo International Marathon in November, now faces the challenge of winning consecutive Olympic marathons, a feat yet to be accomplished.
"I don't really feel pressure," Noguchi said. "To the contrary, it makes me happy that I'm getting this much attention."