1981 – Robert De Castella

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6-Dec-1981 – Fukuoka Marathon – 2:08:18 – Adidas LA Competition
Date of birth: 22-Feb-1957
Nationality: Australian
World Record Duration: 2 years, 10 months, 15 days

The athlete:                
Rob De Castella quickly established himself as the top Australian marathon talent, winning the national title in 1978, his first year competing at that distance. It would lead to his first visit to the Olympics in 1980, where he would finish 10th. His year would finish with the Fukuoka Marathon, which netted him a personal best of 2:10:44 on the way to 8th place.

Come 1981 De Castella would continue competing in shorter distances, but he was primarily focussed on another attempt at the Fukuoka Marathon. De Castella ran at a leisurely pace for the first 25 kilometres of his second attempt, at which point the Australian took the lead. At 30 kilometres he put in a burst of speed reinforce his lead and was not challenged again, entering the final stretch alone and winning in a time of 2:08:18. He was more than one minute ahead of Kunimitsu Ito and another minute ahead of former world record holder Shigeru So.

It was at the time the second fastest marathon ever, only five seconds off the benchmark set by Alberto Salazar at the 1981 New York City Marathon. This was until 1984 when the New York City Marathon course used in 1981 was remeasured. You can read more about it here, but the route was found to be short and Salazar lost his marathon world record. Although Steve Jones had taken the world record since, De Castella was retrospectively acknowledged for having held the honour for those years.

De Castella would continue to build his legend by winning the gold medal at the 1982 Commonwealth Games. In a race you can and should read more about here, De Castella chased down the leaders in incredibly humid conditions while suffering through stomach problems, the final sprint seeing the lead change several times over the last few kilometres. For 1983, the management company that had both De Castella and Salazar on their books pitted the two against each other at the Rotterdam Marathon. Joining them would be future world record holder and Olympic gold medallist Carlos Lopes. It would be De Castella who would be triumphant, edging out Lopes in a sprint finish.

Despite going on to win the Commonwealth Games again in 1986 as well as the Boston Marathon in 2:07:51, setting the new course record which stood until 1994, Olympic glory would elude him. De Castella competed in no less than four Olympics, his closest chance at gold slipping through his fingers in 1984 due to slowing down momentarily to drink water with the Australian fading to finish 5th. The 1992 Olympics would be a swan song for De Castella, who would retire from competing in professional athletics in 1993.

He had already started the next phase of his career while competing, as the Director of the Australian Institute of Sport between 1990 until 1995. In 2009 he went on to found the Indigenous Marathon Project, a health promotion charity which uses running to celebrate the resilience and achievements of Indigenous Australians.

The shoes:                   

De Castella had the Adidas LA Competition on his feet the day he set the new world record. They were the racing version of the iconic LA Trainer, with the same overlays for the midfoot and rear of the shoe, but as you can see the overlays around the toebox are different. In the pictures we have, you can see the Vario Shock Absorption System near the heel.

Both the Competition and Trainer were actually introduced in 1981, but it was only until 1984 that Adidas started heavily promoting the shoes in the lead up to the Olympics. The Competition featured nylon and gazelle-velour to reduce weight, coming in at around 200 grams, but that wasn’t what made the shoe unique.

Encased in what Adidas called polyair foam was the Vario Shock Absorption System. These pins were designed to provide various levels of resistance for heavier runners and softer surfaces. The white pins were the softest, then the red, and finally blue which were the hardest. Although Adidas would move to other midsole technologies, the Vario Shock Absorption System would live on for its casual appeal.

While the LA Trainer has been almost constantly available, coming in all kinds of colorways including the original, the LA Competition is somewhat harder to find. It seems to have last surfaced in 2003, so pairs should be out there. The specific colourway De Castella wore appears, however, to have been made just for him. Adidas also released an updated sneaker in 2012 called the ZX Comp. Inspired by many of ZX series models, it most interestingly uses the LA Competition midsole and outsole unit. Whether it uses foam suitable for running is another question, but the option at least exists.