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Split-Toe Running Shoe Won the 1951 Boston Marathon

A victory for the young Japanese winner but not one for the "tabi" or split-toe shoe design.

Take a super close look in the photo of the footwear of 1951 Boston Marathon winner Shigeki Tanaka, 19, of Japan, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, who crossed the finish line in 2:27:45. He was running in "tabi" or split-toe shoes made by the Kobe footwear company called Onitsuka, named after its founder and which is best known today as Asics. Tabi running shoes were modeled after the traditional Japanese sandal which had a strap between the big and second toe. For some reason, the tabi running shoes were discontinued several years later, and when Phil Knight's Blue Ribbon Sports started importing Asics, they featured a standard shoe design. Many years after its break with Asics, when Blue Ribbon Sports was now called Nike, it created a split-toe running shoe called the Air Rift, but it never caught on. And in January 2006, Asics came out with two new split-toe collections, Tai Chi Tigress and Marathon Tabi, which sported colorful Japanese spring motifs. Only a limited edition of 4,400 pairs were produced, and they rapidly sold out. Today, one American footwear company, Zem makes a split-toe aquatic sock that it's trying to market to the barefoot running crowd. Looking back, however, at Tanaka's marathon victory just six years after the close of World War Two, one is curious about several things. Why didn't the split-toe running shoe become an instant hit? Were Americans still too uncertain or untrusting when it came to "made-in-Japan" imports? Obviously, the shoe appeared odd and unfamiliar. But the tabis were much less weird-looking than the Vibram FiveFingers that surfaced some fifty years later.  With VFF's continued runaway success, will tabis see renewed consumer interest, especially among  American runners?  What is it like to run in them? And perhaps instead of calling them split-toe, why not call them "Tabi TwoFingers?" Oddly enough, the new Fila Skeletoes have  only four pockets for the toes, doubling up on the two smallest toes. Then again a few years back, Nike had once played around with a split-toe design, but sales weren't all that great.

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  1. I started running in my split-toe O’Neill Superfreak tropical weight aqua shoes. I got this great idea from several runners online. A barefoot ultra runner, author, and instructor Jason Robillard, who ran hundreds of miles in Wal-Mart Aqua shoes, suggested getting a taste of running in minimalist shoes by running in aqua shoes before spending a wad of money on new ones. Unlike the cheapo Wal-Mart aqua shoes mentioned on the site, my aqua shoes had a roomier toe area for comfort. I bought these shoes for learning how to surf in Bali in 2008. They have an articulated big toe compartment, a wide toe area, and just one layer of rubber under the feet (designed to maximize one’s foot grip on the surfboard). I now run in VFFs. Photo of shoes:

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