Dave Russell walked into Gold Country Run + Sport in El Dorado Hills this past winter looking to buy new running shoes. He left the store intending to sell a 47-year-old pair that launched the meteoric rise of the world’s most successful athletic footwear company.
Russell, 71, had been shopping with friend, Nick Bouris, when his running history came up. He mentioned he had run the marathon in the Olympic Trials in the 1970s and received a pair of handmade Nike shoes.
Bouris’ ears perked up, and he began fervently searching the web. A few minutes later, he pulled up a Facebook post discussing the recent $11,200 sale of a pair of the same shoes Russell was talking about.
Called the “moon shoe” for the tread it leaves behind, the handcrafted racing flat has a black Nike signature “swoosh” logo stitched onto each side and a rubber sole molded by a waffle iron.
The shoe was debuted — as was the Nike brand — at the July 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.
Russell, a Sacramento native living in Los Angeles at the time, had barely qualified for the trials the previous December, when he improved his marathon time by a whopping seven minutes. He, along with several other marathon athletes, was invited to an athletic store in Eugene to pick out free merchandise ahead of the race.
“They treated us like royalty,” recalled Russell, who was then 25.
He said he saw the moon shoes and was instantly mesmerized. He’d never seen anything like them before.
“They (the Nike shoes) were exotic,” Russell said. “They were something that was so different.”
So he chose them, as did about 10 other athletes. It’s unclear how many pairs were given out since it happened during Nike’s infancy and well before the internet age.
Previously, marathon runners had worn heavy shoes with metal spikes and insufficient arch support, causing their feet to bruise and bleed during the 26.2-mile race. Japanese brands like Onitsuka Tiger had dominated the shoe market.
But a wave of change was coming to the sport, and with it came the birth of Nike.
“Distance running was just starting to become more popular,” said Bruce Mortenson, who raced alongside Russell at the trials.
Bill Bowerman, shoe designer and Nike creator, was determined to make a racing flat that was light, comfortable and would last a long time for runners competing in endurance events.
Enter the moon shoe.
While they were a step up from what the athletes had been racing in, Mortenson doesn’t remember that the shoes were actually very comfortable. He raced in them and, for whatever reason, ran 17 minutes slower at the trials than his record.
“In all honesty, I didn’t think they were that great a shoe,” he said.
Mortenson’s shoes were the ones that had just been sold for over $10,000, completely worn out with the rubber soles falling off and missing both shoelaces entirely.
Russell didn’t race in the moon shoes in the trials, instead choosing to rely on the racing flats he already knew for the most important race of his life. He was seeded 98th of 102 runners, and finished 55th, which was certainly an improvement but not good enough to make the national team.
“People make a big deal about qualifying and going to the Olympic Trials. I try to be more realistic about it,” he said. “I was No. 98. But I was there. And I got to rub elbows with the most elite athletes in the world.”
Russell returned to Los Angeles and wore the moon shoes for about six months before permanently putting them in a box in his closet. He worked as a high school representative for Nike, trying to sell the shoes to teens for a year before returning to Sacramento.
Nearly five decades later at a shoe store in El Dorado County, all those memories came flooding back to Russell, whose shoes are in much better shape than Mortenson’s.
Bouris described the episode as “kinda comical,” explaining that Russell “didn’t have a clue” what his shoes were worth.
“I’ve just kept the shoes as memorabilia,” Russell said, “nestled inside this kind of a time capsule.”
But after learning their value, Russell intends to sell them and put the profits in a money market fund for his children.
The moon shoes will be auctioned off in a 10-day eBay sale, culminating on July 21 – the 50th anniversary of the day men first walked on the moon. Jordan Geller, a shoe collector in Oregon who used to run a shoe museum, will facilitate the sale, which starts July 11. His user ID is shoezeum.
Geller owns a pair of the moon shoes himself, but didn’t get them by racing at the trials. He outbid Nike for the shoes, which belonged to runner Mark Covert, who was the first athlete to cross a finish line wearing Nikes.
Geller also sold Mortenson’s shoes for him to a buyer in Malaysia, through an eBay auction.
“I imagine there will be even more interest in these (Russell’s shoes),” he said, explaining that Mortenson’s shoes were in “horrible condition.”
On a scale of one to 10, he said, Mortenson’s shoes were a 2. But since Russell didn’t run the 26-mile race in them, Geller said, they’re in much better shape about a 7.
Mortenson, now an assistant track coach at a high school in Minnesota, said he didn’t have any attachment to the shoes and was happy to sell them.
Russell feels differently, though. He already sent his shoes up to Geller, in what he called a difficult emotional process.
“It wasn’t easy to part with them because they’re a part of my history,” he said. “But I’d rather have them sold if it’s going to be a decent price.”
Despite losing his physical reminder of the race, Russell said he won’t forget the trials anytime soon.
“It was quite an experience,” he said, ”and it’s something I think about quite often.”