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Asics Fizzles, Nike Sizzles at Major Tokyo Marathon

Nike is running circles around Asics—and a Tokyo relay marathon casts their lopsided battle for racing dominance into stark relief.

Though Asics footwear usually puts in a good showing with the runners competing in Tokyo’s Hakone Ekiden relay marathon, the starting gun on Jan. 2 signaled that Nike’s newest long-distance running shoe has officially taken over, relegating the Japanese brand and its peers to second-tier status.

More than one-fifth (22 percent) of 2019’s participants donned Asics sneakers, for the second-strongest rate among shoe brands. But this year, Asics’s share of shoes plunged to just 3 percent of the runners, as counted by Ekiden News and as reported by Bunshun Online, a local news organization.

Of the 210 participants in the Hakone Ekiden in 2020, just seven wore Asics footwear, down from 51 runners the year before.

Nike, the global athletic powerhouse, takes the credit for beating the Japanese footwear brand on its home turf, as the Oregon brand’s Vaporfly Next% marathon running shoe took the lion’s share of Asics’ missing market share. Although Nike also dominated last year’s race with about 43 percent penetration, more than 84 percent of the runners participating in 2020 did so in the “Just Do It” brand’s sneakers. Not only that, every one of the 177 runners that represented Nike wore the Vaporfly Next%, according to Ekiden News.

Even the Aoyama Gakuin University relay team—frequent winners of the two-day, 200-kilometer race—switched from their traditional Adidas running shoes to Nike’s marathon runner this year.

There may be a practical reason for this shift.

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The Nike Vaporfly Next% pulled its reputation as the ultimate marathon running footwear from the highly specialized features that give the shoe its name. Built with an embedded carbon fiber plate and off-set aerodynamics, the Vaporfly Next% is said to help long-distance runners achieve times even more improved than the 4 percent promised by the line’s previous model.

Asics and other performance running brands may be able to claw back some of their position in the future with running shoes that can offer comparable improvements in competition times. However, until that point, brands may struggle to compete with the Vaporfly Next%, no matter where the competition is held.

During the 2020 race, fellow Japanese shoemaker Mizuno and American brand New Balance also garnered better representation than Asics—but not by much. The running rivals both claimed nine runners to Asics’ seven.

Considering it was second only to Nike in the previous year, Asics’ 2020 Hakone Ekiden showing was enough to rattle some investors. On the Monday following the race, Asics’ shares fell by nearly 4 percent on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, its largest loss in two months.