Nike’s Breaking2 project—an attempt to lower the marathon world record by almost three minutes, to under two hours—makes its debut this weekend. Lelisa Desisa, Eliud Kipchoge, Zersenay Tadese, and an army of pacers will take a little over 17.5 laps around the Autodromo Nazionale Formula One race track in Monza, Italy, at 11:45 p.m. eastern tonight. And while it is easy to dismiss the Breaking2 project as just another Nike advertisement—ever the opportunists, Nike scheduled it as close as possible to the anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile—it is legitimately interesting. There are plenty of reasons to loathe Nike’s high-octane marketing machine, but there are also plenty of reasons to love the cause.
Nike has made the quest to break two hours about the swoosh, not the runners or the type of competition that fosters faster times. That’s the problem.
When Bannister ran 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954, he had been trying to break the four-minute mile in earnest for over a year. But he wasn’t some lone wolf. He had competition. After the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Bannister, American Wes Santee, and Australian John Landy publicly began their personal quests to be the first man under four minutes.
Running was different then. Olympians were amateurs. There was no running boom. No big shoe contracts. No masseuses or dietitians or gait analysis. It was like a halcyon black-and-white Nike ad: the loneliness of the long distance runner, three men on three different continents pushing up against the limits of the human body.
The number of media outlets was obviously much smaller in the early 1950s. But newspapers and radio helped fuel the drama and spark interest in the race to break four. And, as the trio inched closer to four minutes—a 4:03 mile here, 4:02 mile there—the headlines became bulletin board material.
“It was constant headlines,” said Neal Bascomb, author of The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It. “Each time they chipped away at it there was an article. Every time they were about to make an attempt or if the conditions were right there was a headline. Not only the track and field publications, but pretty mainstream general newspapers.”
It was a true global competition to break the four-minute barrier. “It was the three of them pushing and pushing each other and wanting to be the first,” Bascomb says. “And in part you could argue that was media infused. It was through the media how these guys were learning that Bannister went lower or Landy went lower.”
Now, it’s worth mentioning here that a two-hour marathon and a four-minute mile are very different feats. But the way in which the four-minute barrier was broken is instructive. In the early 1950s it was about three dudes trying to shatter this mythical barrier. Nowadays it’s not about, say, Eliud Kipchoge—an otherworldly and historically dominant marathoner—running 1:59:59. It’s about Nike. Can Nike break the two-hour marathon?
“Is This the Shoe That Will Break 2 Hours in the Marathon?” Runner’s World asked. “Nike Says This Shoe Will Propel Runners to a Sub-Two-Hour Marathon” a Wired headline screamed. Even Business Insider joined the Breaking 2 content mill: “Nike created a brand-new running shoe to break a huge marathon record.”
The mainstream running press has to play ball with the big shoe companies for business reasons, and so they have turned an otherwise interesting and dramatic project—three dudes with a shitload of pacers trying to run a 4:35 mile pace for 26.2 miles on a Formula One racetrack is objectively wild!—into a glorified ad for the Nike Zoom VaporFly Elite. It’s about the shoes, when it should be about the runners wearing them.
Nike, despite multiple requests, did not make any of the runners or coaches available for interviews.
Since well before Nike unveiled Breaking2 in December, what they billed at the time as “an innovation moonshot designed to unlock human potential,” the scientific capabilities of the human body have been hotly debated in the running community. Is it possible? Can they do it? But much of the science—which is riveting and pushing boundaries and integral to the runner’s success—has been overshadowed by a chorus of boos writing off the entire project as nothing more than an ad campaign for the most dominant shoe company in the world.
To which I say: Bullshit! This is more than an ad campaign. Nike has invested a lot of money in trying to break an elusive barrier, and forced the hand of others to do the same. Money talks. Shortly after Nike announced Breaking2, the Wall Street Journal reported that Adidas was joining the sub-two sweepstakes. Say what you will about capitalism, the running boom, and the ability of ad execs to turn everything into a sweat-drenched soft focus commercial to get bucket list marathoners to buy their shoes. Gains are incremental. And this is what a legitimate push towards eventually breaking two hours in the marathon looks like—whether it happens this weekend (it won’t) or in 2034.
“Looking at the history of distance running, records tend to be set incrementally, runners edge towards what may be seen by the media as a barrier,” Andy Milroy, coordinator for Association of Road Running Statisticians, wrote in an email. “Of course the Two Hour Marathon is possible, but there is a very common pattern to record setting. Before 2:03 was broken there were an increasing number of runners running sub 2:05 and the occasional sub 2:04. Before 2:02 is broken we need more 2:03 and more 2:02 runs. So the incremental development in record setting reflects the way the human body learns to deal with the increasing load.”
Yannis Pitsiladis, the lovably nutty professor of sports science at the University of Brighton in England who spearheaded the march towards two hours, agrees. Pitsiladis launched his Sub2 project in 2014, but still hasn’t been able to secure the $30 million in funding—for travel, nutrition, science, research and development—he thinks is necessary to break two hours. Pitsiladis has been both excoriated and celebrated by the running industry, but when Nike came onto the scene and stole Pitsiladis’s thunder, he welcomed the competition. In fact, Pitsiladis feels that two hours will not be broken until there is more competition.
“I would welcome 20 teams that were going to, let’s say, use innovation in a way that is not trying to sell a product,” Pitsiladis told me. “But Nike’s project, Breaking2, has focused so much on developing something that’s external to the human—the shoe.”
And this overwhelming focus on the shoe—as opposed to, say, breakthroughs in nutrition or the proper running economy for 26.2 miles—has taken the focus away from the runners wearing it, diminishing the excitement of real competition. In the 50s, Bannister and Santee and Landy were pushing each other towards 3:59. Even diehard running fans couldn’t tell you what shoes they were wearing. Now, as the Journal put it, “for sportswear makers, producing the world’s first sub-2-hour marathon is becoming the ultimate arms race.”
So rather than speculating about whether Kipchoge can shave 30 seconds off of Dennis Kimetto’s 2014 world record of 2:02:57—which would be a huge accomplishment and another step closer to someone running 1:59:59—we’re talking about the goddamn shoes.
“When Roger Bannister broke four minutes for the mile, he was in basically a global race to be the first,” Milroy wrote. “John Landy in Australia and Wes Santee in the USA were building up to be the first. Both were capable, neither had the right conditions or support. There is not that sort of competitive pressure on the two-hour marathon.”
What Pitsiladis, who was lively and candid over a 90-minute Skype call, waving his arms in the darkness of his office, craves is for all these various squads—Nike, Adidas, his own Sub2 project—to push each other to the brink. He likened it to the Tour de France, where there are teams competing against each other, instead of in the pursuit of some larger corporate goal.
“We’ve lost the human here. It’s about the athlete,” Pitsiladis continued. “And let’s make it about that. But don’t launch a thing saying, ‘These are going to be the running tights you need to wear to run a two-hour marathon.’”
American marathon legend and four-time Boston Marathon champ Bill Rodgers agrees. “I like records, but pure unrehearsed competition is the highest level of achievement,” he wrote in an email. “There is a business component to record setting.”
And so Saturday’s race exists in a strange in-between place. The entire exercise is undoubtedly one big campaign by Nike to promote a line of shoes—based on what the runners will be wearing—that launches next month. But the attempt at breaking the two hour barrier will be a fascinating spectacle, and the focus has given rise to legitimately interesting biological and physiological findings, which will only help inform the future of distance running—from the marathon to the mile.
When Bannister broke the four-minute barrier, he improved the world record by 0.83 percent. If any of the runners are to break the two-hour barrier on Saturday, they’ll have to improve upon the world record by an unfathomable 2.41 percent. Projections suggest that we are at least a decade away. (Pitsiladis thinks it can be done in five years.) But even if they don’t sniff 1:59:59 tomorrow, what has been learned throughout this process—and the competition Nike has spurred—will go a long ways towards seeing the two-hour barrier eventually fall.
And that’s worth celebrating.