Here, we look at the history and development of these carbon plates at Fila, a now long forgotten running brand, and how this pioneering tech could have altered the history of sport 25 years before Kipchoge and the Vaporfly.
The First Secret Super Shoe
In the spring of 1996, Kenya’s Paul Tergat shocked the running world, winning Milan’s Stramilano International Half-Marathon in under 59 minutes, nearly a minute faster than anyone in history. Until one traffic cone spoiled the celebrations. It was incorrectly placed, resulting in the course being short by 49 meters.
But perhaps more significantly, the invalidated result in Milan helped maintain the secrecy of a powerful new technology hidden inside the midsoles of the Tergat’s blue and white Fila racing shoes.
Tergat’s experimental flats were the brainchild of Enzo Simonetti at Fila, the Italian brand known today for its nostalgic lineup of bygone-era basketball and tennis apparel. But in the 1990s, it was an aggressive player at the bleeding edge of the running shoe industry.
The idea for Tergat’s shoe arose from Simonetti’s work with high-performance skiing equipment. He employed carbon and Kevlar, which was extremely lightweight and highly durable, to make shin guards.
If world-class skiers could push carbon-Kevlar at extreme speeds, Simonetti thought this super material might translate well to an even higher impact sport: running.
Simonetti worked with Marino Giacometti, Athlete Manager at Fila, and Rui Parracho, Product Chief at Fila USA. They made racing flat prototypes with a curved carbon-Kevlar plate, which Fila had manufactured by the composite material supplier of the Ferrari Formula One team, folding the plate into running shoes.
At that first test at the half-marathon in Milan, the shoes’ success was snatched away by an errant traffic cone, but the Fila designers were already thinking ahead to the next big test, which awaited across the Atlantic Ocean and on the biggest stage.
The 100th running of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 1996 featured nearly 40,000 entrants, the largest field in history at the time. As the race that effectively invented the modern idea of the marathon, the centennial of the event was an opportunity to rival the Olympics as the single biggest platform for showcasing the fastest athletes and shoes in the world.
Fila athlete Moses Tanui, the reigning world half-marathon champion and a 10,000m Olympic gold medalist, was a top contender but found himself in a loaded field in Boston. But Tanui knew he had an edge others did not. He wore the latest carbon-Kevlar plated prototype from Fila.
The design team was confident that the technology would deliver superlative results but worried about the 26.2-mile distance and the overall time Tanui would be on his feet, as they estimated that they used only enough glue to hold the prototypes together for a single race, and perhaps not even long enough to cover a full marathon. The plated design was so stiff the athlete complained it was painful to wear by the finish line on Boylston Street.
Luckily, Tanui ran quickly, finishing in 2:09:15 (fast for the era), and he won the race.
Despite the victory, Fila kept its prototype and technological advantage a secret, and instead focused on dominating the biggest stage of all in the biggest marketplace in the world: the 1996 Summer Olympics.
In Atlanta, Fila fine-tuned its carbon-Kevlar prototype for Mexico’s Germán Silva, a dominant marathon runner and winner of the 1994 and 1995 New York City Marathons. Designer Kevin Crowley gave the shoe its distinctive design, now named the Fila Silva Racer.
The shoes stood out at the start line in Atlanta. At the time, most running shoe uppers were still a monotone white. By contrast, the Silva Racer was an unmistakeable neon yellow with black flames racing across the upper.
Silva’s race almost ended before it began. He was late getting to the start line, scrambling to get his bib from his team. Rushing to make the start, he grabbed new racing flats instead of his broken-in pair.
As any serious runner will tell you, this was going to hurt. Silva fought hard, contending for the lead until the closing stages.
Although fading to sixth place, he had put the mysterious new Fila shoe before a worldwide audience. It was enough to encourage long-time Fila CEO, Enrico Frachey, to throw resources behind the concept. It had potential but many literal and figurative rough edges.
Enter Filippo Pavesi
Fila Research and Development Manager Filippo Pavesi always took an unorthodox approach to running. As a teen in the 1970’s, he entered the Torino-Saint Vincent 100-kilometer ultramarathon to impress girls at his high school.
His body gave up halfway, but he tried again the next year and got further, fuelled by candy and parmesan cheese.
On his third try, he finished, and in the process developed a nuanced understanding the importance of appropriate running shoes. He brought this same determination and out-of-the-box thinking first to Italian brand Superga. There, he joined a sort of skunkworks — a small, dedicated team of designers bent on returning Superga to the forefront of elite competition.
Following an unauthorized tour of Nike production facilities in South Korea, Pavesi was inspired to create something better.
The result was High-Performance Suspension (HPS for short), wave-shaped asymmetric plates made from particularly tough and pliable plastic called Hytrel. This biomechanical approach to cushioning made HPS adaptable to many different kinds of runners.
One such runner was Moses Tanui who, previous to joining Fila, ran for Superga. Tanui had success with the HPS Racer, running a world record at the 1993 edition of the Stramilano Half-Marathon.
But little was done to promote HPS, and the project was eventually shut down. In 1995, Superga was sold to an investment bank.
Fila scooped up some of Superga’s talent, including Tanui and his shoe’s designer, Pavesi.
“vada e lo faccia!”
Before departing, Pavesi had experimented with replacing part of the midsole with carbon-fiber plates, and the results were promising.
Many had taken notice of Superga and their HPS technology, including Frachey. On hiring Pavesi as their new research and development manager, the Fila boss told him in no uncertain terms that he wanted to beat Nike at their own game.
Pavesi still recalls what he was regularly told by Frachey, vada e lo faccia or “let’s go and do that!”
Fila began investing wildly in running shoe innovations, setting up a research hub in Boston. Pavesi and his team then set up another lab in Biella, in the foothills of the Italian Alps, to test the running economy for the commercial version of the Silva Racer.
Unlike the thin slab of carbon-Kevlar previously employed, Pavesi combined two layers of carbon fiber with Kevlar epoxy pre-preg resin, cutting carefully shaped holes in the rear and forefoot of the plate.
The lab results were significant: on modified treadmills tuned to mimic roads, this new shoe improved running efficiency by a shocking 2.4 percent.
They were onto something big.
Throughout 1997, Fila and its elite athletes won some of the biggest marathons in the world in some of the fastest ever times.
Alongside the Silva Racer were two confusingly similar training shoes, the Tanui (named after its other top athlete), and the Visionary, both featuring Fila 2A Cushioning beneath the carbon-Kevlar plate at the rear.
If this sounds familiar, these are the same ingredients Nike used 20 years later in the Alphafly in order to help Eliud Kipchoge run the first-ever sub-two hour marathon.
Even more extreme concepts were tried, including spoon-shaped plates — just like the Vaporfly design.
Fila kept expanding, with two highly paid former Nike staffers setting up another research center in Portland, Oregon, as if to challenge the mighty swoosh on its home turf. But just as Fila seemed on the precipice of a major technological and commercial breakthrough, the company began to experience internal disfunction.
By April 1998, the Silva Racer claimed its biggest victories yet. Moses Tanui won his second Boston Marathon in three years, while Paul Tergat again won the Stramilano Half-Marathon in world record time, and this time it counted. He wore the latest prototype Silva Racer, now featuring a loud red and blue upper, losing the flame design and crucial weight.
A Trail Super Shoe
According to Pavesi, the Portland team failed to understand the significance of the carbon-Kevlar plate concept. The team’s next design concept for the newly proposed Fila Racer dropped the plate entirely.
When Frachey found out, he moved Pavesi on the project. The unhappy marriage between the Italian team and the former Nike designers stationed in Portland resulted in a self-defeating compromise: two smaller disconnected carbon-Kevlar plates in the forefoot and mid-foot, missing the point of the original concept.
The updated Racer Plus compounded this design misstep, adding significant weight to the upper. But the shoe was nevertheless successful, and Fila’s executive wanted this magic dust sprinkled elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the carbon-Kevlar plated Silva Racer was proving itself in the Fila-backed Skyrunning ultramarathon series. Mountaineer, runner and Skyrunning co-founder Marino Giacometti, among others, worked to create something revolutionary: the Skyracer.
Although using the same plate and midsole as the Racer to save costs, it was the first trail-running shoe made with such technology.
Despite opening the Fila Outdoor Base in Colorado in 1997, management was uninterested in taking carbon-Kevlar plates off-road.
Pavesi saw that a plate delivered big performance gains on the road and also on uneven conditions in the mountains, so it seemed obvious that Fila incorporate this approach to different types of spikes.
First, Fila developed a carbon-Kevlar distance spike for Paul Tergat, who promptly won the 1997 World Cross Country Championships in the prototype.
The question was now what carbon-Kevlar could do for Fila at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
The Fila carbon-Kevlar plated track spikes were lighter, stronger, and more propulsive than their competition. Countless variations were made with impressive results, including for decathlete Erki Nool, who won gold in Sydney, showing the versatility and range of the design for various performance applications.
Fila management, however, lost interest once the closing ceremony had finished, never commercializing the spikes.
Two decades later at the Tokyo Games, virtually every track event was won in carbon plated track shoes.
At the close of 2000, Fila began a seduction that would ultimately lead to its demise as a major running shoe contender when it re-engaged with the world of F1 racing.
As one of the world’s most famous and flashy brands, Ferrari has an irresistible pull, even for a shoe company. Fila already had ties to the race car manufacturer, both because it had first sourced carbon materials from the same supplier as the F1 team, and also because it hired away Ferrari’s marketing and commercial director, Michele Scannavini, to become its CEO in late 1998.
Three years later, Fila found itself drawn ever closer into Ferrari’s orbit, courting sponsorship rights. This included providing racing boots for Michael Schumacher, who was emerging as perhaps the greatest F1 driver of all time.
Driving four hours to Fiorano, Filippo Pavesi was left waiting in the former office of the company’s founder, Enzo Ferrari. Pavesi recalls being first met by Jean Todt, general manager of Ferrari’s Formula One division, who led by saying, “Are you from Fila? I wouldn’t wear a Fila shoe.”
Schumacher was more genial, and after Pavesi promised that the Fila shoe would be 80 grams per boot lighter, Schumacher allowed him to take plaster molds and pressure maps of the best driver on Earth’s feet.
Months later, Pavesi finally arrived at the Madonna Di Campiglio ski resort where Ferrari held its traditional pre-season event, finding Schumacher.
Pavesi, carrying his laptop loaded with his Powerpoint presentation and Rosso Corsa colored one-of-a-kind boots, made using carbon-Kevlar and flame-resistant Nomex. Schumacher told Pavesi not to bother with the presentation, and went straight for the prototypes.
Pulling out scales, Pavesi tried the right boot, which weighed 78 grams less than the Nike shoe Schumacher wore. Frowning, the German told Pavesi that he was promised 80 grams less. Pavesi swapped the right for the left on the scale. The second boot was 84 grams lighter.
Schumacher smiled, liking them so much that he asked if he could keep them. Pavesi couldn’t refuse, only asking that he not wear them to drive as they were not approved.
Weeks later, Pavesi panicked at the image of Schumacher climbing out of his wrecked Ferrari during testing. On his feet were the red racing boots.
Fearing the sponsorship deal may be jeopardized, he called Schumacher’s manager, who confirmed the crash was not footwear-related. The sponsorship deal was signed, and while Fila took opportunities this time, it missed many.
Faced with a dwindling market share, Gelindo Bordin, a former Olympic gold medalist in the marathon and Fila product manager, pinned his hopes and company resources on competent and distinctive daily trainers, but stuck on an automotive bent, naming the shoe the F1 High Speed, before pivoting to what it dubbed the Ferrari series. Fila had already experimented with the motorsports-running crossover with its Pininfarina shoe of 2001.
Fila failed to stand out in an overcrowded trainer market.
The designs were more form over function, with the F2004 dropping the plate. Pavesi didn’t design these models, but he led the development of the red soccer boots his team made for avid player Schumacher.
With its full carbon-Kevlar soleplate, it was revolutionary and represented another marketing opportunity. Fila fumbled, and no boots were ever released for general sale.
The Two-Euro Rule
With resources stretched even thinner, Fila shut down the Portland office. Pavesi and his team focused on the Racer K1, the proper sequel to the Silva Racer. Fila also hired designer Stefano Favaro, who worked with Pavesi to evolve the plate.
Budgetary pressures strangled the final version, Pavesi recalling that Bordin pushed to make the plate smaller. Co-molded with the midsole, it saved manufacturing costs but sacrificed performance.
Early in his career, Pavesi learned about the two-euro rule: nothing in the shoe could cost more than that amount per piece if the whole were to be profitable. The plate in the Silva Racer cost 15 euros alone just to manufacture.
The battle between economics and innovation impacted other elements of the Racer K1. Favaro had originally sketched the upper without traditional laces, and another prototype was made, saving 40 grams through its lightweight upper.
For context, Adidas engineers later determined that saving 100 grams improved running efficiency by one per cent.
This equation became particularly painful at the 2003 Berlin Marathon, where Fila watched as Paul Tergat wore Nike shoes to set the new marathon world record. One of the pacers, Sammy Korir, wore the Fila Racer K1, finishing one second behind. That same year, Fila released the technically identical Racer K4, which could have been revolutionary.
Fila’s designers were testing uppers made from carbon-Kevlar, having already made Kevlar uppers for the Tornado football boot series. The idea showed promise until Fila was sold to an American hedge fund, and then again to its former Korean subsidiary in 2007. Fila brought back the Silva Racer as the Fiamma in 2009, curiously without plates.
Back to the Future
Pavesi would go on to work with EA7, the sport brand of Emporio Armani to combine his two biggest ideas in the Prima. Featuring Carbon Cushion Control, or C-Cube, it used carbon-aramid (making the carbon fiber tougher and more flexible) to give adaptive and propulsive cushioning.
Sharing showroom space with evening gowns and tailored suits, salespeople had no idea what they had, and runners never found out what they were missing out on.
As for the future? Recall that Pavesi was taken off other projects to work on the Racer. One of those projects was nicknamed the Road Rocket, and promised to be as significant as the Silva Racer.
That design has seen some updates in the decades since, and Pavesi is hoping to bring it to life soon. Just like that ultramarathon in his youth, he is not one to give up.
Vada E Lo Faccia: Let’s go and do it.
Thanks to: Oscar Bem (@marathonshoenrd) and Filippo Pavesi
Images: Filippo Pavesi and Paul Freary