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Last year, as Sebastian Kienle was on the verge of winning the Ironman World Championship in Kona, triathletes, runners and shoe geeks from around the world wondered which gray and orange New Balance shoe he was wearing.
Turns out, it was a wear-test sample of the 1500v1 stability racing flat he helped develop, although it wouldn’t become available in stores until January 2015.
The fact that he chose to wear a not-yet-final prototype shoe in such a big race—and was able to win in it—was amazing, but so is the back story of how it happened. Plus, his input from how the shoe performed during his 2014 Ironman win started the development process for the second edition that shoe, which that he’ll be wearing Saturday at the 2015 Ironman World Championship.
The new 1500v2, which will hit stores in January ($110, 7.9 oz. for a men’s size 9.5, 6.7 oz. for a women’s size 8) retains the 6mm heel-toe offset of the original, but is about a half ounce heavier than the original version. However, the tradeoffs of more support, a better fit and a longer-lasting outsole made perfect sense to the New Balance team and especially to Kienle.
“I have to say the 1500v2 is even better than the first one,” Kienle says. “The slight adjustments have improved it. I love that the tongue is now fixed. It offers more support and a better fit. I don’t know what else I could have asked for.”
Kienle has been a New Balance-sponsored athlete for several years, but he primarily focused on the 70.3 distance until 2012. Although the Boston-based shoe company had sent him loads of shoes, when he placed fourth in the 2012 Ironman World Championship in Kona he was wearing the long-outdated New Balance RC760—a lightweight stability model that was developed five years ago for the Japanese running market.
Not only was that shoe never sold in the U.S. or Germany, New Balance had discontinued it several years ago. But he liked the way it fit his foot and appreciated the slight bit of support as he fatigued deep into a race.
“Sebi was buying these shoes on eBay by himself for like $25 a pair and we couldn’t get him out of them,” says Danny Orr, New Balance’s senior product manager for international markets. “He was willing to run in a modern New Balance shoe for the half Ironman races and shorter, but he wasn’t willing to change out of the RC760 for racing Ironman races.”
Orr and the New Balance footwear team first reached out to Kienle in early 2013 to see how they could create a modern shoe that would work for his specific needs and, of course, simultaneously make a model that could be a hit for consumers, too. While he tested out many current models and raced in several newer models for 70.3 races—including the neutral-oriented 1400 racing flat—he once again ran in the RC760 when he placed third in the 2013 Ironman World Championships.
In the meantime, Orr asked Kienle to list the things he liked most about the RC760 and what he wanted most out of a race. Kienle said his ideal shoe would have a smooth, comfortable interior that he could wear barefoot, have just enough material to protect and support his feet and have the ability to provide a snug but adaptable fit.
Starting from the neutral-oriented New Balance 1400 silhouette, Orr and his colleagues began building a new lightweight, stability shoe with a 6mm heel-toe offset and Kienle’s specific requests. At each step of the way, they sent him wear-test prototypes and asked for his feedback. It would eventually become the 1500v1 stability racer ($110, 7.1 oz. for men’s size 9.5, 6.2 oz. for women’s size 8), but the process of designing, building and fine-tuning a shoe usually takes at least a year to complete.
“From a product creation standpoint, we always go out with more materials than we would in the final version and have subtle variations from one prototype to the next as we refine it to get to the final product,” Orr says. “For example, in each prototype, we used three or four different mesh materials, we experimented with three or four different tongue constructions and we looked at different elements related to getting the shoe on and off the foot.”
At some point, the New Balance footwear team knew Kienle liked the shoe, but they didn’t think he’d be racing in it because it was a not-yet-final wear-test sample. When Kienle headed to Hawaii last year, the New Balance team assumed he was going to once again run in his old standby model that he acquired on his own.
“At Kona last year, it was a total fluke because we thought he was going to race in the RC760 and we were still having a conversation about it,” Orr says. “I was in Chicago preparing to run the Chicago Marathon the next day and watching the race online. When I saw he was wearing the 1500, I was bouncing on my bed watching the last couple of miles.”
The rest is history. Kienle ran a 2:54:37 marathon to add his first Ironman World Championship to go with his two 70.3 world titles.
“I think it was a testament to the fact that we created a good product with the input of one of our top athletes,” Orr says. “But because it was a sample, it was never intended to have that orange and gray colorway in the European market. So for the next six weeks, we were trying to get enough pairs to sell in Germany.”
From there, the New Balance team worked with Kienle to make additional improvements for what would become the 1500v2 that would launch in 2016. He suggested increasing the support by 10 to 15 percent and creating a more secure fit with a barefoot-friendly interior.
The new version has a more supportive upper and a semi-gusseted tongue that helps cinch down the middle of the foot and the upper onto the midsole chassis. The outsole rubber pattern was also adjusted a bit to add more durability.
Kienle is not the only athlete who loves the 1500. The 1500v1 has become a go-to fast training model for several New Balance track athletes, including 3,000-meter steeplechase runner Emma Coburn and 1,500-meter specialist Jenny Simpson. However, Mirinda Carfrae is not one of the converts. She’ll be once again running in the neutral-oriented New Balance 1600v2 ($110, 5.5 oz men’s size 9.5, 4.6 oz women’s size 8), albeit in a special colorway.
“It’s almost hard to describe how important the input from our athletes is.” Orr says. “It’s inspiring for the entire product team to work with our athletes and the feedback that we get and the knowledge that we get are important because you get a far truer understanding of what you need to build a performance shoe.”
Brian Metzler is the editor-in-chief of Competitor magazine. He has run more than 60,000 miles in his life, tested more than 1,200 pairs of running shoes, raced every distance from 50 yards to 100 miles and completed two Ironman triathlons.