Whatever Nike is paying Kenyan star Eliud Kipchoge to crack the two-hour barrier in the marathon, it isn’t enough.
Try as they might, the sporting goods salesmen from Beaverton, Ore., with their IV drips and scientifically snipped singlets and masks and medicines mailed in hollowed out books and tippity-top of the heap technology, cannot help looking a little silly. Or shady. Or both.
Now that Nike’s flagship training group, the Nike Oregon Project, finds itself in hot water for alleged doping violations, well, Nike Global Director of Athletics John Capriotti should be down on his hands and knees, kissing Eliud Kipchoge’s abundantly capillaried feet.
By simply running—old school scissoring of the legs, albeit very quickly for a very long time—and saying thanks but no thanks to most of his kit sponsor’s goofy gimmicks and visits to Dr. Jeffrey Brown, Kipchoge lends the Breaking2 project the credibility that so eludes Nike.
Their sponsorship dollars have not only obtained the most consistently unbeatable marathoner competing today—the only one of his eight marathons slower than 2:05:30 was the Rio Olympic marathon, which Kipchoge won—but also an unfailingly polite guy, articulate spokesperson, and that rare elite athlete whose long career and textbook progression from track to roads puts him squarely above most doping suspicions. Or, at least, the least suspicious 2:04 marathoner there is.
Kipchoge is so highly thought of that some fans—okay, maybe just one basement-dwelling Letsrun message boarder using multiple pseudonyms—begged Kipchoge not to sully his impeccable reputation by getting involved in Nike’s “circus.”
Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa, and Zersenay Tades—Nike’s other candidates for breaking two hours—went to Beaverton in December for the Breaking2 unveiling, and tried out every piece of fancy lab equipment Nike’s got. Then they dispersed to their respective training camps with their own coaches, training partners, and familiar—if distressingly low-tech—methods. In late January, Nike, no doubt worried the lads had shoved the fancy watches, nasal strips, potions, and lotions in the junk drawer, sent an entourage to check up on them, stopping first in Kipchoge’s very basic camp in rural Kaptagat, Kenya.
It’s fun to compare how that visit was reported in Runner’s World, a publication that was favored with exclusive backstage access, to a similar visit to the training camp by a reporter for Kenya’s Daily Nation a few weeks later.
According to Runner’s World, the Nike team pulled into town with a mobile Cape Canaveral, bristling with technology and thick with experts. Kipchoge’s vitals had been remotely monitored daily, and scientists were there to apply their craft. Complex, technical topics were discussed in hushed, life-and-death tones. Things like optimal pacing strategy—“Nike’s modeling suggests that getting the early pace wrong by as little as 0.05 kilometers per hour (which works out to a difference of less than a second per mile) can slow you down by tens of seconds later in the race”—to various models of “human thermoregulation,” the drafting effect of different group running formations as measured by body-mounted wind speed monitors, and nutrition (glycogen stores were discussed, grocery stores were not) and hydration strategies.
Runner’s World said the Nike team was there to offer insights and feedback to support the training Kipchoge was already doing, and also to build trust and confidence in their strategies. Assuming, of course, that data, computer models, and beeping electronic devices would naturally build trust and confidence.
The Daily Nation’s writer, Peter Njenga, introduced the “Breaking 2 Mission To Mars” by writing, “the Americans have the sole purpose of breaching the two-hour marathon barrier this year.” Njenga jauntily pins the stunt on Americans, and specifically sportswear retailer Nike, correctly assessing the party that stands to gain the most from this mission. Of course, the Americans had to look to a Kenyan to achieve this dream, he pointed out.
Njenga tells about team Nike’s visit in terms that bring to mind the circus coming to town. “Last month, Nike sent a Hollywood filming crew to Kipchoge’s training base in Kaptagat, Elgeyo-Marakwet County, along with more than 20 sports scientists and medical equipment to monitor Kipchoge and produce a docu-drama that tells a gripping story of endurance.”
Oxygen intake, carbon dioxide exhaust, VO2 capacity, efficiency—Kipchoge described for the Daily Nation the scope and precision of the metrics the team of experts were able to gather. After all that, Kipchoge told the Daily Nation, “The verdict was that I’m ready to attempt the unknown through faith by believing in myself.” The article makes no mention of the most draft-efficient group configuration.
The subtext of the Daily Nation‘s story is that Kipchoge let the Americans play with their toys, and after they left, resumed the real training.
Njenga described life at Kipchoge’s training camp, including the “millionaire” runner taking his turn at fetching bath water, cleaning toilets, and chopping vegetables. “This is a training camp, not a holiday resort,” Kipchoge said of the dorm-style camp with pit toilets where he and other runners live, apart from their families, for five months of marathon training.
There is no state-of-the-art equipment, no masseuses, executive chefs, or team of doctors at this camp. Kipchoge said he will follow his long-time coach’s plan centering around two 30 kilometer runs per week, a 40K run, and some speed work. He runs hard on one day, and easy the next. “I will go to the gym and improvise in between,” Kipchoge told the Daily Nation, demonstrating the camp’s on-site equipment, a metal bar with chunks of concrete on each end, that he lifts “for fun.”
Not to worry, the man who will attempt to do what many physiologists believe impossible goes into Eldoret to a real gym once a week. Kipchoge reported that he is up at 5 a.m., running by 6, and usually in bed by 7:30 p.m. Aside from twice daily workouts, he spends his time doing chores, reading, and napping. He trains six days a week, and goes to church and visits his family on Sundays.
His training table, too, is notably low-tech. “We are just like a school here. We shall eat rice and beans for lunch, ugali and sukumawiki [collard greens] for dinner and a lot of tea,” Kipchoge told the Daily Nation. He did cop to using an energy drink from Etixx, a Dutch company that sponsors him.
The cornerstones of Kipchoge’s preparation, the hard work and discipline and belief, give Nike’s Breaking2 campaign the kind of credibility you just can’t produce in a lab. And credibility, Nike well knows, is priceless.