Rebellious Optimists – A People Podcast
adidas running shoes have a long history of dominating the field. But in 2017, big changes in the world of performance footwear meant adidas had to innovate fast or get left behind. Enter Senior Director of Global Running Footwear Stephan Scholten who took on the challenge to deliver a new shoe that could smash records. In this episode, Stephan shares how biomechanical engineering, carbon rods, product development, and teamwork came together to create a new line of record-breaking running shoes the world hadn’t seen before.
Twiggy Jalloh 02:34
Hello, Stefan it is an absolute pleasure to have you on Rebellious Optimists today. I honestly cannot wait to find out more about you, your career, the innovations that you’ve helped create at adidas. Honestly, you seem like a very cool person as well. So it’s an absolute pleasure to speak to you today.
Stephan Scholten 02:54
Thank you, Twiggy. And thanks for having me. I’m super excited to be here today, to give you a little bit of an insight what we do in running and also more specifically, of what we have done with the Adizero range, and the Adios Pro back in the days.
Twiggy Jalloh 03:09
Stephan I know in the last couple of years you’ve been a part of a turbocharged innovation of high performance running shoes. I know there’s been ups and downs, but first can you give us some background on how this all got started?
Stephan Scholten 03:23
Yeah, sure. I think we have to go, we have to go back quite a bit to give full spectrum of the story. So when you think about starting in 2008, we really started to dominate the marathon or World Marathon majors across the, across the globe with Haile Gebrselassie in the Adios One. Back then we call it Neftenga, was something that had shocked the marathon racing scene. And since then, we have really dominated the field. Over the years, and I started, I started to work for adidas in 2014, it was just very common for us that we win or pretty much all the marathon races. But then in 2017, there was a paradigm shift in the industry, where everybody moved away from conventional racing flats into super shoes, or what we consider now super shoes, that are built on different biomechanical principles and give the athlete a competitive advantage.
Twiggy Jalloh 04:22
Stephan Scholten 04:23
And it took us a bit to actually acknowledge that we’re maybe losing our performance edge a little bit. And, in self-reflection, we probably had a little bit of too much of our own swag. So it took us until 2018, and then 2019 actually to realise – OK we got to do something.
Twiggy Jalloh 04:43
When was the moment you realised you needed to do things differently?
Stephan Scholten 04:47
The most pivotal moment for me was really the middle of 2019 when athlete service and sports marketing called a meeting together with our, with our boss. So Alberto, as I said, our our boss gave a very emotional speech. And I always remember this is a moment similar to Al Pacino, in Any Given Sunday, when he talks about inches, and the importance of that. And this was really for us the moment where we’re like, okay, he said, clearly, and I’m quoting, you guys go, and whatever it takes, create the best marathon racing shoe yet again, for our professional athletes. And with that, we went off and we did our job.
Twiggy Jalloh 05:32
Stephan, I am not a biomechanical engineer, so can you please break down this technical process for me? What do I need to know?
Stephan Scholten 05:39
You need to know that, in that, in that area of super shoes and engineering, there is a intellectual property associated to it. And from a patent perspective, this is a absolute minefield. So it’s not just that you need to come up with very smart engineering solutions. They also have to work within the science that goes in that shoe, but also within the patent landscape that is free for us to operate, which is a absolute masterpiece from the team. And what they have achieved there is absolutely amazing. And there is one particular innovation. And the science on this shoe is really around cushioning, maximise the cushioning, maximise the energy return and make it as stiff as possible. And the competition does it with carbon plates. But we said no, A: we can’t do it with carbon plates. And B: we want to find an adidas way of doing it. And the team came up with the idea of why do we not augment or why do we not augment the human foot and make it more stiff. So we developed the idea of mimicking the metatarsal bones and metatarsal joints through a carbon infused system that sits under your foot, that we now call energy rods, that has actually a better effect than just using a shaped carbon plate. So this is now what you find in the Adios Pro One and the Adios Pro Two. And what you will also find in the Adios Pro Three and other versions. And the great thing about this is also, about this innovation, we’re not just using it within one shoe, we’ve also managed to scale the innovation across different use cases. So it’s a marathon shoe, the best marathon shoe in the industry. And it’s also now the best 10 and 5K shoe with the Takumi, for instance. And we’ve now tweaked it for training purposes. So we have built an entire ecosystem around the innovation of energy rods, which I think you can hear that makes me and the team really, really proud.
Twiggy Jalloh 07:47
Can you paint a picture for people, of course, who are not in the business of how hard it is to develop a shoe in a timeframe of just six to eight months?
Stephan Scholten 07:57
It’s, it is very, very, very hard. If you think about the fact, like opening moulds to inject a foam in into it, and actually create a midsole takes more than eight weeks, theoretically. So we had to find new ways to prototype, to test, to really like we have reinvented, how we create shoes, and how we validate shoes. And I think this is something that is not just related now to this project. It’s also something that we’re looking into, and how can we leverage this across other shoes across the entire running range, and hopefully at some point across the brand. But we have already created a new team now focusing only on marathon racing shoes, and they’re driving this with immense speed. And what they’re doing is simply amazing.
Twiggy Jalloh 08:44
So not only were you having to come up with engineering innovations, but you also had to do it in a really fast timeframe. I can’t imagine the pressure of that process. Were there any moments you just felt like you weren’t gonna pull this off?
Stephan Scholten 08:59
At the beginning of 2020, the World Athletics, which is, or the World Athletics Federation, I should say, have released some regulations on how to construct and build a marathon racing shoe. And I’m oversimplifying now, for all the experts, apologise, but the higher the shoe, the more beneficial it is. The higher the shoe, the bigger the benefit, which then leads into a problem for us, because the threshold for the height of the heel stack – so from the bottom to where your heel sits in the shoe, had to be under 40 millimetres. And our shoe had 41. So we were about to press go. And then the regulations were released. So we had to, not start from scratch, but had to go back to the drawing board, and essentially lower the shoe by two millimetres to fit within those regulations, which is another example where we just, we were having this moment to hit the first World Marathon major of the season. That was like, our single-minded goal. And then it was clear that yeah, that’s gonna be really, really, really, really tight. And then eventually, we pulled it off. But that was a moment where we’re like, okay, let’s sit down. Let’s take a deep breath. Let’s roll up the sleeves again. And we did it anyway. So it’s all good. And we managed to do that. But I think it was also a very good moment to sit down with the team and say, okay, guys, we’ve done an amazing job. That’s the final stretch, now. We know what we got to do is a very predictable situation. So let’s just go the extra mile. And it worked out very well and everybody pulled in the same direction. And I think this is what, that’s one of those moments where you can really see what, what the team is made of. And that was just really, really, really amazing to see.
Twiggy Jalloh 10:49
This is why it’s so great to find out things like this and to interview people like you, just because I would never know that. Looking at the shoe, I would have thought, oh yeah, you can decide what height you want. Yeah, it can be this, this much above the ankle, and so on and so forth. To think that you would have to literally go back to the drawing board, because the regulation says, “No it’s just a little bit too high,” is, is so fascinating to me.
Stephan Scholten 11:14
So there was one, one moment where we were working towards the Tokyo Marathon in 2020. And then I was on a skiing trip. So that was in December right before Christmas, essentially. And then I had one person from the, I was on the ski slope like literally, I think it was ski mountaineering or something. So I was walking up the hill, sweating like crazy. And then my phone was ringing and I saw the name. I was like, Okay, I picked this up. I think I know what it is. And then I had this person on the phone saying, Stephan, we have to get this shoe out now. I’m like yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. So I rang up the guys, we did some stuff and at the end, we pulled it off, and then Covid hit anyway. So we bought ourselves a little bit more time, which, which didn’t really do anything, because even if it wouldn’t have hit, we would have been ready. And I think this is, this is really cool, but it also highlights a little bit, the mindset that everybody up to the senior leadership within running was, was feeling A: the pressure, I think, but was also supporting us and giving us full reign to do whatever it takes. And I think that was just, as I said, I think just a very amazing experience.
Twiggy Jalloh 12:30
You said previously that your shoes were falling out of favour with runners. What part did athletes play in the process of developing the shoes?
Stephan Scholten 12:40
That’s, that’s a really good story. So as I said, we really, for that brief, we really wanted to start with the athlete and end with the athlete. And to make sure that we’re building only the best for them. So we flew them in from Kenya and Ethiopia. And we tested downstairs in our lab. And we had a couple of prototypes there. Because we as I said, we were driving full force. So we have sampled up a couple of shoes and a couple of different constructions. And the first time, one of the one of the athletes stepped into the shoe, he looked at us and said, oh, that’s majambo. And we were like, what? What is that? Yeah, majambo. And then the agent told us that this means essentially something new, something out there, something that they haven’t felt before. And this was for us the moment like that still gives me goosebumps, which is like, okay, we’re onto something and we’re gonna make this work, which was just a fantastic moment. And for the entire team, I think the absolute game changer.
Twiggy Jalloh 13:39
Now, this story has a happy ending. Last year you held an event at the adidas HQ in Germany – the Road to Records races…
Race commentary 13:48
It’s been one of the great runs of all time, the final race of the day is gonna be a massive new world record, and it is going to Senberi Teferi of Ethiopia. What’s she gonna run? Previous world record 40:44, she’s going under 40:30, and we round out the racing with a second world record at the Adizero Road to Records. This is second place…
Twiggy Jalloh 14:13
Athletes started to break world records wearing the shoes you’d developed. That must have felt amazing.
Stephan Scholten 14:21
I can honestly say that was probably the most emotional moment for the entire team that has worked on that project, because it was not just like this one single shoe is also just seeing how this comes to life. And I think this is also why, why I speak very proudly about the project because just in ‘21 with the Adios Pro, but with the entire Adizero universe, as I referenced it earlier, we have won eight world records in ‘21. We have also been on top of 51% or 50%, if you will, of the top 50 marathons. And we have been part of the podium on 41% of the podium. So it’s been a fantastic ‘21 And all of the boxes that we wanted to check, we definitely checked and we actually over-exceeded which is which is a fantastic feeling for me personally, but also even more so I think for the entire team. With the athletes, during an event, breaking world records, it was just a moment of realisation for everyone that we’re part of a, of a history, we’re part of the majambo history, we’re part of the Adizero history now. And I think that is just something that will, that will remain and that will last if we’re gone. That, and that’s gonna be just, it’s just so amazing, I think for everyone to be part of that journey, to be part of that history. And to just also have a moment to celebrate that with Road to Records. To me is the absolute career high, and something that I will definitely keep in my memories for a very, very long time.
Twiggy Jalloh 16:04
You can see photos of the Adizero Pro, and from that record breaking Road to Records event on the episode page at gameplan-a.com. There’s a link in the show notes.
So you’ve managed to turn this shoe around in less than 9 months, and now it’s on marathon runners’ feet, breaking records. Can you, come on Stephan, can you let us into the secret of your success?
Stephan Scholten 16:34
I think the recipe to success is relatively easy. You really need to start with the greatest team, and you have set that I believe, and then you need to bring in all the elements that you need, which is – for this particular project – the athlete at the very start, the science team, and the engineering team. And then, as a last piece, you need to bring in the art, right, which ultimately, as a design team brings all of this together, the athlete inside, the sports science, the engineering aspect, and this then fuses the best marathon shoe in the industry, really, if you have the permission, from senior leadership to do whatever it takes, and that “no” doesn’t exist. And I think this was also one of the key elements for us in that project, that we had the permission to do whatever it takes. And we were a, A: fantastic team, with the most, the smartest people I could think of. There was no Friday afternoon was too long. So we were very focused and very driven. And we had a very clear goal in mind, which was simply to build the best marathon racing shoe in the industry again, and to ensure we live up to the principle of our founder, Adi Dassler, where we really say, only the best for the athlete. And we started with the athlete from the very beginning. And I think this was the recipe for us to win and to succeed.
Twiggy Jalloh 18:00
So I also want to know, this is just for me anyway, are these shoes going to make me an Olympic athlete? Because all the technology that you’re talking about, I am starting to think that maybe I should start to run some marathons as well. For everyone like me who isn’t necessarily a track runner, who isn’t an athlete, how can we benefit from the shoe?
Stephan Scholten 18:25
I think that is a very good question. And there’s a couple of angles to this I would say. So the first angle is yes you can put in a marathon shoe, or particularly the Adios Pro, It probably doesn’t make you faster. But it will definitely put a smile on your face. Because the experience when you start running is just truly amazing and something totally out there. And, if you will, it’s definitely the majambo feeling that you get under foot when you, when you run in that shoe. And it really doesn’t matter if you can run a four-minute mile, or you run an eight-minute mile, to be honest with you. I think that, that is one thing, which is I think of for everyone to understand. But then on the other side, there is also something really, really cool about this approach and the project in general, because it’s not just a one off. This project has actually changed how we work on, on racing shoes in general. And we’re also taking further best practices into the rest of the entire running range. So whatever we learn through, we call it now Formula One approach, whatever we learn through this, together with our Upstream colleagues, together with our Formula One team, we take into our entire running range to create the best experience for the athlete. And it doesn’t matter if the athlete is a coach to 5K, a marathon runner in four hours, or a marathon runner in two hours, 15, it really doesn’t matter. There are so many great learnings we took from this project and from this approach that now stretch into the entire creation and thinking process of us. Which is I think, for me, also one of the biggest achievements that we have coming out of this.
Twiggy Jalloh 20:09
So athletes are wearing these shoes, competing in these shoes, striving to win and break records. But what about you, Stephan? What about your competitive edge? How do you keep that fire lit within yourself?
Stephan Scholten 20:23
This relentless pursuit of being better is just something where I feel, or we feel as a team, we can really make a difference and, and always have an edge versus the competition, but always allow our athletes to have an edge versus their competitors. And I think that’s just something which makes us really, really proud. It’s also about like, creating experiences for people and allowing people to have fun through sport, and transform people’s lives through sport. And I think this is also something which can which is, in my opinion, very, very fulfilling. When you see the fun and the joy that people have through running, the community aspect of running and all of those elements – if you can enable this through a simple pair of running shoes, where people have fun, are more injury-free, I think that’s just truly amazing. And innovation per se, yes, is record breaking and is, allows people to perform at their best, but performing at their best can so many, can have so many nuances, and I think this is just especially around running something which I find very, very, very inspirational. That is not always about the world record. It is also about just making people feel better.
Twiggy Jalloh 21:39
So, Stephan, this series is all about rebellious optimists like yourself, who are making bold decisions that affect big change. What advice would you give to people who want to embody that competitive streak in their work?
Stephan Scholten 21:59
I think it’s very important for them to believe in themselves and believe in their team, and power their team. And make sure that you have a very simple, clear and tangible objective that, that you would want to achieve and get people on your journey. And I think that’s the most important part and that you need, you want people to be part of your journey. And that will really help you to share your optimism. That is not just about one being a rebellious optimist. It’s about your, your gang being rebellious optimists. And I think this is so much more important than me being positive about, loving what I do, everybody in your team needs, should and has to love what they, what they do in order to be successful as, as a BU, as a project, as a, as a as a brand at the end. And I think this is just really be brave, be bold, and be relentless, I think are the adjectives I can connect to, to this, but it’s really about how you approach things and with how you would want to drive it.
Twiggy Jalloh 23:13
Stephan, thank you so much for your time. You’ve really, really given us an insight, thank you so much.
Stephan Scholten 23:18
Thank you, Twiggy.
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