In a brilliant height-of-the-Christmas-sales-season marketing move, Nike announced via two breathless press releases, in Runner’s World and Wired, that they are entering the sub two-hour marathon game.
Just so I knew this is legitimately Nike and not some knock-off company trying to sell a bunch o’ merch while the jingle is still jangling, Rodale (the publisher of Runner’s World) public relations associate manager Lauren Gann let me in on this insider bit: “Note: RW and only one other media outlet were extended this exclusive offer and have both agreed to keep certain details confidential.” A tightly controlled message lacking in certain details—that’s Nike alright!
Lately I’ve been flapping my trap about Yannis Pitsiladis and his Sub2 Project, which also seeks to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon. Nike, who cleverly named their project Breaking2, one-upped the other guys by fielding a 20-person team (to Pitsiladis’s 10-scientist team) and declaring they’ll make some guy cover 26.2 miles in less than two hours in 2017 rather than the 2019 deadline Pitsiladis had set. And just in case anyone thinks Nike is a johnny-come-lately to the sub-two-hour quest, Wired reports, “the company has been working on this project in earnest since June 2014,” which is also when Pitsiladis and company embarked. Nike just didn’t want to tell anyone about it, until now.
From what little has been released publicly, both projects seem to be going about this in much the same way. They’ve identified East African talent upon whom they’re going to thickly apply advanced science, including nutrition, hydration, and shoes (strong retail potential amongst sub six-hour marathoners!), and set them loose on a cool, windless, sea level course with speedy pacers galore. Both teams have indicated they just want to see the clock read 1:59 first, and they’ll worry about satisfying all those nitpicky record-eligible rules at some later time. With details lacking and IAAF standards out the window, a downhill, wind-aided course, genetic manipulation, spring-loaded shoes and other such time-saving factors have been posited to get the job done.
Both projects smell strongly of vanity, of Sub2 leading man Yannis Pitsiladis, and the entirety of Nike. Crowning a barrier-breaking runner? Nope. Roger Bannister was the passion, the recruiter, the scientist, and the runner behind the sub four-minute mile. That’s why we associate his name with that achievement. The sub two-hour marathon, if it happens, will not be about the runner—interchangeable in these schemes—but rather about the puppet master.
Nike has chosen three Breaking2 candidates so far: Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who is without a doubt the most consistently fast marathoner in the world right now, with a 2:03:05 PB; Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa, a 2:04:45 guy who has one Boston twice; and Eritrean Zersenay Tadese, who has not been able to translate his world record 58:23 half-marathon into a similarly scorching performance in the full distance. His best full marathon is 2:10:41.
The Nike project differs from its Sub2 competitor in a few important ways. Sub2 has had to raise their own funds for the project and, unsuccessful in attracting the $30 million they felt they needed, have admittedly been working on a shoestring budget. In my interview with Sub2 recruiter Jos Hermens, he said they would not be paying the athletes a salary, but would arrange for them to get a shoe contract with stipend.
Though the amount Nike is paying its athletes is unknown—the company wouldn’t disclose it to the two publications hand-picked to cover Breaking2—the three athletes are skipping the spring marathon season to participate in the project, so the reimbursement will more than make up for that sacrifice. And Nike’s offer will certainly exceed Sub2's shoe contract and stipend offer. Nike’s deep pockets have bought many things over the years, which brings us to the other difference in the projects: transparency about PEDs.
Pitsiladis has long been involved in developing anti-doping protocols, and achieving the sub-two goal without doping is an oft-repeated cornerstone of the Sub2 project. (Given how easily anti-doping protocols were avoided in maybe the biggest doping scandal in the history of sport, that may not carry the weight it once did.) But according to Runner’s World, Nike “has not yet announced a plan for drug testing the athletes, but has acknowledged the need to be transparent about its monitoring program.”
Nike has needed to be transparent numerous times in the past—like when a Nike marketing exec allegedly told a coach “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you,” or when the coach of Nike’s premier long-distance running group was accused of overseeing doping—and usually failed to reach that goal. And as a company that has already worked secretively on this project for more than two years, using their own funds, accountable to no one, it seems unlikely they will try out transparency now.
The whole idea of striving for a sub two-hour marathon has plenty of critics, and Nike’s involvement has been met with a mountain of skepticism. Sports scientist Ross Tucker:
Sports marketer Peter Abraham:
Pro Publica writer and the author of The Sports Gene David Epstein:
And LetsRun founder Robert Johnson:
While we really should wait for more details to come out. My initial thoughts are
1) This is totally stupid and pisses me off beyond belief. We are nowhere close to a legitimate sub-2 attempt. You don’t just take 3 minutes off a marathon world record legitimately. We are more than 6 seconds per mile off pace.
So if it’s done, it’s either because of an a) illegal course (downhill/downwind) 2) illegal aid (wind machine pushes the runner) .
The sport should be about competition - not gimmicks.
And this is a gimmick. Based on the current progression of the marathon world record, it won’t be run under two hours in IAAF-certified conditions for another two decades, or maybe more. This isn’t Roger Bannister and John Landy competing to break the four-minute mile; that record was within reach, and attained on a normal track during a relatively normal meet. Nike entering the race only confirms what we already knew: it’s about ego and the tremendous things money can buy, rather than athletic competition.
Correction: This article originally stated that Lelisa Desisa is living in exile in the United States. He’s not; marathoner Feyisa Lilesa is.