Cool running: buying a pair of fancy trainers isn’t what it used to be | Joel Priestland

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Marketing hype, limited release, legit checks, and cloak and dagger carpark deals. Buying sneakers today? Its a steep learning curve

I find myself standing in the middle of an empty car park with a Chinese man I have never met before discussing a box of running shoes over the boot of a black Mercedes AMG.

This story begins a long, long time ago, so long ago, the internet wasnt really invented. Back when there were maybe five websites.

Before the internet it used to be that finding a cool pair of trainers, or runners, sneakers, kicks, creps or whatever you want to call them, went something along these lines:

  • See trainers on someone cooler than you.
  • Stump up the courage to approach said person and ask them where they purchased them.
  • Prepare yourself for the name of a shop in a city at least one long-haul flight away
  • Succumb to the fact you wont be obtaining cool trainers


  • Luckily have a trip planned to the named city in the near future

This exact scenario happened to me one summer in 1997 while living in my home town of London, and just having happened to be going on a trip to the response city of New York in the near future.

The shoe in question was the Nike Air Rift, or split-toe inspired by Kenyan barefoot distance runners allowing extra toe movement. Or at least that was the marketing story, the truth was they were the weirdest, loudest Nikes you could buy and I would never be running in them. I had to have them.

After dragging my then girlfriend around at least 10 NYC Nike stores I eventually found them. My grails. I tried them on. They were amazing. I asked my girlfriend what she thought. The response was that that were disgusting. Perfection. I made the purchase and took the shoes back to the UK where I was repeatedly asked by people in the street where I had got them. The desired outcome achieved, I was happy in my purchase and wore these harborers of many live cultures for a long long time, as most of my friends will attest. I actually still have the shoes today, as my wife will attest.

Nike Air Rift trainers

Fast forward to last week. The 21st century. The internet, online shopping, sneaker customisation websites and brilliant limited-release marketing ploys that mean only the diehard sneaker fans willing to queue for days or pay inflated trade fees can get hold of the rarest shoes.

I was informed by a young colleague of mine (as I asked him where he got his cool trainers the shame) about a new Adidas shoe that has a sole made out of some magical expanded foam usually found in car safety manufacturing. At first I instantly thought it was marketing hype but slowly the story intrigued me and I began searching online.

Boost or Ultraboost is an expanded thermoplastic polyurethane discovered by the scientists at BASF (remember audio tapes? #ShowingMyAge) in 2009. By 2010 in collaboration with Adidas, they had refined it to be soft, light and bouncy. Sneaker manufacturing gold. The last time a sneaker brand owned intellectual rights like this was in 1979 when M Frank Rudy, a former Nasa engineer, discovered he could encapsulate gas in polyurethane pouches. Something that would make Nike a market leader for more than 30 years.

I was hooked. I started trying to find out where these shoes sold. My youthful colleague informed me that I didnt want any old GR (general release) versions of the NMD or Ultraboost, but that limited-release options were dropped in stores with ticketed ballots where only one pair were to be sold to each customer in their exact size and had to be worn out of the store, such was the appetite for reselling or flipping.

I even filled my wifes phone with saved pictures of various models as she left for a work trip to Hong Kong. Sadly they are even more popular with Asian mainlanders shopping in the major cities, and the ballot/queue system was in full effect there too. Gutted.

As an almost-40-year-old (I know, I know, I should have better things to do with my time) and father of twin four-year-olds, queueing was out of the question. My wife would never approve a kids camping trip to the CBD.

So, I found myself invited (thanks young, cool colleague) to one of many closed Facebook groups with Adidas in the title.

It was a steep learning curve with a plethora of acronyms to describe various materials and colour ways which were reflected by many over-retail price tags, from $250 to $1000.

Lots of the activity on the groups is around LCs or legit checks to ascertain if a shoe is real or a badly made fake from China, some of which are hilarious in their anagrammatical spellings of the technology. Altru sboot anyone? And some of which are almost identical to the originals but lack the comfort and quality.

Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

Other facets of the groups only highlight the demand for these shoes, from sale posts working as raffles where potential buyers take a slot for a fraction of the value of the shoes but the seller opens up many more slots than what they are worth, netting a tidy profit in the process, to stories about rogue sellers who take funds and never deliver the shoes, sometimes pairs that they never actually had possession of in the first place.

So potent was my addiction, I even found myself lying in one of my daughters beds after a bout of night-time crying, checking the Adidas US site during the release of the Adidas x Parley collaboration. You may have heard of this shoe online. Its the one made from recycled marine waste and is highly limited and therefore highly desirable. At one point I even had a pair in my shopping cart (in the wrong size, but I could always trade them or resell!) but I took too long to checkout and the site admins assumed I was a bot and cancelled my cart. I had copped my first L, or copped a loss. A usual occurrence in Boost land.

So with my online research under my belt, I decided the pair I wanted were the Adidas NMD Winter Wool Prime Knits in black. I finally came across a post with a pair in my size and with a seller willing to meet in person.

My deal was on.

I packed the wife and kids into the car and arrived at the carpark the seller had directed me to. I walked around texting him trying to find his car, but as my battery was dangerously close to zero, I told him to find me with a description of what I was wearing. Sadly I had no red carnation. Finally he pulled up in his AMG. The young Chinese guy told me that according to rules I wasnt allowed to try them on, but that as I had sized down by half a size (NMD law) I should be ok. I took his word for it.

The whole process was slightly cloak and dagger but the non-retail nature only added to the allure of the sale. I paid $295 and, with prices ranging from $260 to $320 for various sizes of this model, I was pretty happy.

To this day the shoes remain DS (deadstock, or unworn) in my cupboard. Like driving a new car off a dealership forecourt, I just cant bear to devalue them. But the process has made me realise how retail has changed owing to the internet, and how I am no longer 25.

Im going to leave the Yeezys and the Pharrell collaborations to the kids, and put my slippers on in a comfy armchair as my children spill yoghurt all over me. Its probably for the best.

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