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FITNESS | FIRST PERSON

She Felt Betrayed, but Then Came a New Sole Mate

January 19, 1998|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Buying a new pair of running shoes never took me longer than five minutes.

It hadn't for the past 12 years, anyway.

That's because after much trial and error--lacing and unlacing Reebok, Saucony and other big names--I had discovered Nike's Air Pegasus. For me, the perfect fit. Comfortable. Bouncy. And way under a hundred bucks.

Every six months, I dutifully replaced them with a new pair.

I think they're the reason my doggies haven't barked nor my toes cramped nor my arches fallen during the thousands of miles I've worn them.

And I would have gone on buying them, Nike.

But then you went and changed them.

They don't look the same. They don't fit the same. They don't feel the same.

And you thought I wouldn't notice? After 24 pairs?

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Life was good until that ill-fated trip to buy pair No. 25. Tipped off that a cut-rate shoe store in the West Valley has Nikes for less, I arrived there on my usual autopilot: "Nike Air Pegasus, please? In a 9 1/2?"

When I saw the shoe, my mouth dropped open. This was not my winged horse. Sure, there had been little style changes over the years that I'd grudgingly accepted. But the shoe in front of me had a cutesy heart on the top of the toe. Inside was the familiar swoosh. A heart with a swoosh? I wanted to look at

that every morning for the next six months?

There were other, uh, improvements. The sole was different--more grooves in the heel, a different look and feel up front.

"They changed it a little," said the saleswoman.

Yeah, and we had a little earthquake back in '94.

I tried it on.

It fit differently.

It felt different.

It wasn't the same shoe. Maybe it wasn't a Nike. I left quickly, debating whether to turn in these no-good counterfeiters or not.

I headed to a classier sporting goods store and repeated my replacement mantra.

I got the same cutesy heart with a swoosh.

"They've changed it," said the teenage salesman.

"The Asics Gel GT 2020 is pretty close," he said, gesturing to the wall display.

One look at my forlorn face and he could see this was a bigger deal than he thought. That I needed a little time here, please.

He offered another option: "You might try the Eastbay catalog," he said in a low voice, out of earshot of his manager. Sometimes they have, well, leftover shoes.

But I needed replacements now. So I tried on the Asics.

"You can bring them back if they don't work out," the empathetic entrepreneur assured me. But he thought I'd like them.

I bought them.

On the way home, I felt bummed out.

Betrayed.

Angry.

Totally normal, said Tom Brunick, director of the Athlete's Foot Stores R&D Center at North Central College in Naperville, Ill. He has spent 23 years testing and reviewing shoes. "Anyone who's run for a number of years will understand," he told me in a soothing voice.

Psychologist Robert Maurer, on staff at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, was both understanding and supportive of my distress, though he emphasized he'd never addressed this trauma in therapy sessions. A longtime runner, he has witnessed changes in his favorite New Balance running shoes that are, he said tongue in cheek, "too painful to talk about."

What's the deal? "There's a real tendency to stay with what works," Maurer said, "and we do tend to be creatures of routine."

Longtime Pegasus wearers have been grumbling a bit, admitted Damon Ritchie, a runner who manages my local Lady Foot Locker store. But here's the bright spot: The Pegasus has had a relatively long life (it was introduced in 1982) in the fickle running-shoe world. "And this is a moderate change," Ritchie said gently.

The athletic-shoe market, said Brunick, is all about marketing and materials. Always evolving as newer, better, lighter materials come along and marketers do their thing. Change is constant.

Changes such as the Pegasus redesign are driven largely by consumer research, said Kirk Richardson of Nike.

So, does a redesigned shoe ever make a comeback? "Not very often," Richardson admitted. But he recalled an instance. The Air Max '95 version was reintroduced in 1997, he said, "due to popular demand."

But I could have shinsplints before the popular-demand vote is collected. So the morning after the great betrayal--tempted as I was to wear the old broken-down winged horses--I laced up the Asics.

Then, a few blocks later: For me, it was a perfect fit. Comfortable. Bouncy. And way under a hundred bucks.

I'm an Asics Gel woman now.

I'm not looking back.

OK, I did glance back briefly. I thought about driving to an outlet store, a haven for discontinued models. And I did call Eastbay catalog. They carry older models, confirmed a customer service rep, but no Pegasus. The chances of finding old shoe models decline drastically within a few months, she said.

So these days I am praying a lot at the Asics altar of shoe design: Please, keep the deep forest green and silver colors. A much jazzier combo than you-know-who's navy, marine and silver.

Please, no hearts on the toe.

And don't do anything with that gray speckled sole. I'm positive it adds speed.

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