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Following criticism for wearing Vaporflys, South African breaks record barefoot

Mbuleli Mathanga received a lot of flack for wearing Vaporflys in a recent track race, so he went shoeless at his next meet

Photo by: Cuan Walker

After a recent 5,000m race in Durban, South Africa, a runner named Mbuleli Mathanga faced criticism for wearing Nike Vaporflys in a win that saw him run a personal best of 13:47.23. Under World Athletics rules, Vaporflys aren’t permitted in track races, although this was a restriction Mathanga didn’t know about until after his run. At his next race, a 10,000m also held in Durban, Mathanga took the rules into consideration and opted not to wear any shoes. Running barefoot, he raced to a provincial 10,000m record of 28:24.93, silencing anyone who was still upset about his 5,000m result from a few weeks earlier.

Mathanga got into the Vaporfly controversy in the first place because spikes tend to hurt his legs, so he opted to wear the highly cushioned Nikes instead. After his inadvertently illegal 5,000m PB, he says he and his coach decided he should try wearing spikes again ahead of his next race, but as usual, he couldn’t make them work for him. With spikes ruled out and Vaporflys no longer an option, Mathanga’s coach suggested he go barefoot for the 10,000m.

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His switch to racing barefoot after the criticism he received for running in Vaporflys might seem like an “I’ll show you” kind of moment — a chance for Mathanga to silence the naysayers and prove he can run quickly with or without a pair of super shoes — but Mathanga says that didn’t even cross his mind.

Photo: Cuan Walker

“I was not proving any point,” he says. “It was a decision between myself and my coach. Whenever he wants me to perform to my best level, he asks me to run barefoot.” Mathanga adds that he understands the criticism, admitting that he feels Vaporflys definitely give runners an advantage.

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“Even when you’re walking, those shoes seem to push you forward,” he says. The Vaporflys marked a big change for Mathanga, as he says he used to run barefoot in “around 70 per cent of competitions,” adding that he has gone shoeless in cross-country races, on the track and on the road.

With the decision made to ditch his shoes for the 10,000m, Mathanga showed up on race day, taped his feet (which he does to protect his toes and the balls of his feet) and lined up to run. Despite poor weather, he had the race of his life and finished in second place. His 28:24.93 is a KwaZulu-Natal (one of South Africa’s nine provinces) record, beating the provincial best by 16 seconds.

Photo: Cuan Walker

“The previous record was listed at 28:40,” Mathanga says. “In 2019, I ran 28:37 barefoot, but it was not recognized in my province, which I still don’t understand.” Now, with an even quicker PB to his name, Mathanga will hopefully be named the official KwaZulu-Natal record holder in the 10,000m.

Up next, he says he will be racing another 5,000m on March 15. He’s waiting on a new pair of spikes to come in that he and his coach hope will be more comfortable than past shoes he has tried. If they don’t work out, though, Mathanga won’t stress too much, as he says he’s content to continue running barefoot, which seems to be quite effective for him.

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