Runner's World (USA) Interview

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Jan-2009: A telephone interview with Dan Koeppel from Runner's World magazine (and a runner himself) resulted in a five-page article mainly about tying running shoes securely.

Interview Details

  • Runner's World logo Interviewed for: Runner's World (USA)
  • Interviewed by: Dan Koeppel
  • Interviewed via: Telephone
  • Interviewed on: 05-May-2008

Interview Transcript

(Interview not recorded by me – transcript not available)

Published Article

“Knot Perfect”

By Dan Koeppel, Runner's World, Jan-2009

(Article seems to be no longer available on the Runner's World website.)

Article Transcript

Knot Perfect

This is one of those seemingly trivial stories that could actually change your life. It's about a man who has a noble quest: to revolutionize how the world laces its shoes. Go ahead, laugh – but there's a good chance you're tying them wrong.

Stare down at your shoes. Do it now. Are your laces twisted in ugly double-knots? Maybe your bows are uneven; perhaps they bunch, or tangle. Do your laces come undone while you're out on a run?

Ian Fieggen knows why, and if you meet him, he'll probably tell you. “I used to stand around in malls and look at shoelaces,” Fieggen says. “l'd count how many people had them tied wrong. Occasionally I'd walk up to them, and explain what they were doing wrong.”

This often did not go well.

Some people would just walk away. A few would get angry. But a surprising number would actually seem wounded by the critique, and Fieggen wasn't prepared for that. All he was really trying to do was send out a message: It isn't your fault. “The problem is the way you were taught,” he would say.

Think back to when you were little, in the midst of learning to secure your footwear. First you were shown how to take one lace and pass it under the other. And then you were instructed to loop one lace and make a bow. Pretty straightforward stuff.

Only it's not that simple. In fact, there's more than one way to tie a standard shoelace knot, and Fieggen says the odds that you're screwing it up are pretty much 50-50. Almost all shoe closures start with a knot, and finish with a bow. Unfortunately, if you tie the bows in the same direction as the starting knot, you'll end up with a final product that won't stay in place. This is called a granny knot. If circumstances put you in the granny camp, you are doomed to looseness, stooping, and retying. To keep your laces nice and snug, you need to fashion a reef knot, where you tie the starting knot in one direction, and the finishing bow in the other. The difference between a granny and reef knot is a matter of tension: Lace tautness generated as your foot moves actually tightens a reef knot, while that same strain in the bottom part of a granny knot will work the top part loose.

But you hardly need to understand the physics of lacing to recognize one knot from the other. Crooked bows are the visual giveaway for all this, which Fieggen used for his mall interventions (he has wisely retired from this practice). Reef loops fall gracefully to the left and right sides of the shoe. Nonreefers are forever left with uneven, perpendicular bunny ears.

I look down at my shoes. Ugly. I think about all the times during a run that my reverie has been broken by an awareness that my knots are coming untied, the moments I must stop because my laces are slapping the pavement. There's no doubt that untied laces are a minor frustration for the general public, yet for runners the impact can be irritating, tiring, even risky. This is why so many runners tie double-knots – an option that's secure but tough to untie (and ugly, a knot-obsessed expert might add). I am worse than a double-knotter; I am a lifelong granny knotter.

Of course, far more experienced, better runners than I have struggled with lacing issues. John Kagwe of Kenya stopped twice to lace up during the 1997 New York City Marathon – and still won in 2:08:12. Ethiopia's Kenenisa Bekele captured the 2008 World Cross-Country Championship despite having to stop to retie his laces. And in Beijing, Jamaica's Usain Bolt won Olympic gold in world record time with golden laces flailing. Even some elites, it seems, are granny knotters.

Fieggen is sympathetic. “The habit can be hard to break,” he says. For one thing, granny and reef knots are vexingly similar. Still, granny-knotters can mend their ways with a little work (see “Fit to Be Tied?” below). Fieggen offers a more radical fix: an entirely new knot. He calls it the Ian Knot and dreams that it could change the way the world ties its shoes.

Fieggen has thought about shoelaces for 25 years. He invented his namesake tying method in 1982. The Australian initially wasn't looking for a way to keep shoes from coming undone; he was trying to make his laces last longer. “The problem with traditional tying is that it favors one side of the lace,” the 45-year-old computer programmer and graphic designer told me during a phone conversation from his home in Melbourne. “So that side wears out faster. I'm very concerned with efficiency.”

The knot he came up with pulls evenly from both sides, so that the laces are handled evenly. At first, Fieggen's fascination with knotting was limited to creating variations on his own design – a more secure version, a doubled version, and so on.

Then the Internet came along, and the whole thing exploded. Suddenly, Fieggen could discover many more knotting methods, collect them, share his own knot, and evaluate them all. In 2002, he launched a Web site devoted to knotting. Ian's Shoelace Site (overwhelm yourself at fieggen.com/shoelace) is a guide designed to help visitors – runners, hikers, skaters, basketball players, and those who simply want to look cool – find an appropriate knot and lacing style.

Every knot and lacing method on Fieggen's site includes a step-by-step, color-coded diagram. Each lacing technique is cross-referenced to diagnostic questions to help users find a lacing scheme that's right for them. Runners, for instance, can learn patterns that keep heels snug, reduce pressure on the upper foot, even relieve hot spots that emerge in a race.

Teaching the masses how to tie their shoes online, though, isn't easy. The movies and animations are well-produced, but they can still be confusing. Three years ago, Fieggen decided that he needed to do more. He left his full-time job in 2007 to devote his life to teaching people how to tie their shoes, and specifically to create a shoelace handbook that he published later that year. The manual's cover looks like a Converse high-top sneaker, and comes complete with real eyelets and laces for practice. The book is pretty helpful, but it's more oriented toward making your shoes look cool (market forces at work, Fieggen sighs).

I like the Web site better. Using my own shoes, I play with inventions like the FreedomKnot and the Turquoise Turtle. I really like the Surgeon's Knot, which Fieggen praises as very secure, and easy to learn for those with loosening problems. It doesn't take long to get good at it, but the problem, as Fieggen points out, is that the Surgeon's Knot is prone to asymmetry. It gets the job done, but it doesn't look good. And that's not good enough.

Not when you can tie an Ian Knot, which is genuinely a lovely thing. On Fieggen's Web site, an animated flip-book walks neophytes through the six-step process (see “Extra Credit,” page 84). The color-coded laces help. Still, the best way to learn this perfectly symmetrical knot is to follow a video tutorial. With practice, you should be able to tie an Ian's Knot in a few eye blinks. Some get there quicker than others.

“After three tries, I could do it in less than a second,” wrote Charlie, from New Mexico, on Fieggen's site.

For me, it becomes an exercise in frustration. I'm not a great knotter to begin with, and as Fieggen explains, breaking your lacing habits can be especially difficult. Part of it is physical. Even after Fieggen devised his knot, he had problems: “Many mornings, I'd revert to the previous way, because I was so used to it.” But relearning knotting challenges more than just muscle memory. There's something deeper.

The answer emerges as Fieggen discusses his old habit of correcting people in public: “I used to alarm people when l'd offer to tell them why their laces were coming undone. They'd get very defensive.” But why? “People have recollections of how difficult it was to learn to tie their laces,” he says. “It was traumatic. To suddenly be told that they're going to have to learn it all over again, fear builds up. They feel incompetent.”

Eventually, I overcome my incompetence and learn the Ian Knot. And though a few weeks later I still can't say that I've made it my go-to everyday knot, news of my accomplishment makes Fieggen happy, and that makes me feel good. What I find most lovely is how his pleasure seems disconnected from ego. Yes, his knot is eponymous, but I never get the sense that his world of laces has anything to do with his name being trumpeted.

Over and over, Fieggen talks about symmetry. There's beauty in the way your shoes appear when your laces drape perfectly, and there's grace in the way each hand moves in unison with the other. But Fieggen insists that his knot represents something bigger than aesthetic harmony. The Ian Knot, he asserts, can heal: “You can't do it wrong,” he says, “so you can't teach it wrong.”

Fieggen begins to get excited. “Teach lacing the way it is taught today, and you will always have kids failing,” he says. “There are always going to be right-handed parents teaching left-handed kids, and vice versa.” Fieggen pauses to make sure I understand. “Those kids,” he continues, “are the ones who are going to look at shoelaces as something to worry about.”

I visualize learning to tie my shoes for the first time. My grandfather was instructing me, but I couldn't get it right. Finally, we resorted to bunny ears. Even then, things kept coming undone. He was right-handed; I'm a lefty.

Suddenly, I can taste a bit of Fieggen's fervor. “So if you can eradicate the granny knot for just one generation,” I say, “then you've fixed it all!” It could end untied shoes as we know them.

Fieggen gently corrects me. A world of safe and secure laces depends upon people understanding the mechanics behind his creation: symmetry itself. “You can't just show them how to tie the knot,” he says. “You have to let people know why the knot is secure. If they don't know that and they can't inform the next generation, it will be lost again.”

To that end, the man who used to intercept granny-knotters in local malls wants to go to schools and spread the gospel. Fieggen wants to develop curriculums. “In a previous life,” he says, “I must have been a teacher. I think that's what I was born for.”

Fieggen tells me that after working exclusively on laces for three years, soon he'll be returning to his day job. But his site now gets thousands of visits a day, and the Ian Knot seems to be catching on: At least a dozen knock-off videos are cropping up on YouTube. In some cases, the knot and the creator are not named. In others, credit is taken by somebody else. Fieggen remains gracious. “I gave a name to something I invented,” he says. “And there are some other people who appear to have invented it themselves. Maybe we all invented our own knots.”

There is no sorrow, no anger over provenance. Because it isn't about where the knot came from. It is about, Fieggen believes, where his knot is going.

For diagrams and video that differentiate reef knots from granny knots, a video of the Ian Knot, and even shoelace comedy (seriously), visit runnersworld.com/shoelaces.

Fit to be Tied?

Learn the right way (and the wrong way) to lace your shoes.

Step 1: What kind of starting knot?

You can tie the starting knot by passing the left lace over the right (shown at left), or by wrapping right over left. Either method can yield a balanced knot or a granny knot – it depends on what you do afterward.

Step 2: How do you make a loop?

Next you make a loop with the right lace (shown at left) or the left. Either choice can yield a balanced knot or a granny knot – independent of which starting knot you made. It comes down to what you do next.

Step 3: How do you circle your loop?

Then you circle the other lace around the loop you just made – either in front or in back of the loop. The right choice depends upon how you did steps 1 and 2. (In the knot shown at left, back is correct.) To see the proper last step that matches your technique, consult the chart at right.

Right and Wrong

Balanced Knot – If properly tied with a reef knot, your shoelace bow should sit sideways across the shoe.

Unbalanced Knot – If you instead tie a granny knot, your shoelace bow will probably twist to become angled or perpendicular.

Extra Credit

The lan Knot is elegant, fast, and secure – if you can tie it. Here's how.

1. Tie a starting knot holding the right lace between your right thumb and forefinger, and the left lace around your left thumb and forefinger. Try to hold the left lace taut.

2. Cross the two loops over each other. Use your left thumb to push its loose end to the right, as your right middle finger pushes its loose end to wind up inside the left loop.

3. Each hand releases its own loop and pulls the loose end of the opposite loop through its own. Don't pull the ends all the way through, as this would form a knot instead of a bow.

4. Make one loop with the loose end behind, and one in front. Use your right middle finger to push the end of the right lace behind, and turn your left hand to swing its loop to the right.

5. This move requires each hand to use the two fingers inside its own loop to grab the other loop. Use your left thumb and forefinger, and your right thumb and middle finger.

6. This final step simply completes the knot by pulling the loops tight. With practice, you can tie your laces faster and more symmetrically than with a conventional knot.

Want New Laces?

It's hard to get good replacements. Here's why.

Specialty running stores aren't just full of cool-looking shoes - they're full of cool-looking laces, too. There's something for everyone: sausage-link laces, lightweight linguine laces, elastic spaghetti laces, and speed-lacing systems that obviate knots. But if you're partial to a style of laces that don't come with your preferred shoes, you're likely out of luck. That's because most shoemakers and lace manufacturers don't sell identical replacement laces. lf overseas suppliers sold duplicate laces separately, they'd have to pay higher duties and taxes. Still, don't despair if you're determined to upgrade your laces (or if you suffer a rare broken lace): You can turn to a lace specialist like shoeaceexpress.com, or buy replacements from New Balance, which manufactures its laces stateside.

– Dan Koeppel

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This page last updated: 01-Oct-2021. Copyright © 2021 by Ian W. Fieggen. All rights reserved.

Website created by Ian Fieggen (aka. “Professor Shoelace”), inventor of the Ian Knot.

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