Nike’s Breaking2 campaign was unsuccessful.
Not because it failed to break the marathon’s two-hour barrier by 26 seconds. On the contrary, Eliud Kipchoge’s 2:00:25 marathon—the fastest ever run by a human being by over two-and-a-half minutes—was the most compelling non-race running I have ever seen. Kipchoge was mesmerizing.
No, the project was unsuccessful because it failed to show the limitless potential of humans, if you generously grant that was one of its goals. It failed to show how close we are to breaking the two-hour barrier. Quite the opposite: It demonstrated in no uncertain terms how far we are from it. If an athlete of Kipchoge’s caliber can’t do it under perfectly contrived conditions, it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
But the most unanticipated failure of the army of highly paid Nike folks—whose job it was to think of every possible eventuality—was that somehow Eliud Kipchoge managed to steal a show Nike set up to be about them. The multi-year, multi-million dollar Breaking2 project was supposed to be about Nike, for god’s sake—Nike’s innovations, Nike’s technology, Nike’s dominance of the sport, Nike’s triumph over human physiology, and Nike’s stuff you can buy. Kipchoge was supposed to be a mere part of the project, the platform on which Nike would build their great pyramid. Months of heavy hype attracted millions of eyeballs to an event that turned out to be an ode to Eliud Kipchoge, not Nike.
Nike announced their plan to breach the two-hour marathon six months ago, though they said they’d been working on it since 2014. They made soaring statements likening their mission to a moonshot, Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile quest, a dreamer’s starry-eyed push at the limits of human potential, but let’s face it—Nike is a retailer, first and last. The plan was to control external factors—weather, altitude, course—and apply the latest and greatest shoe and clothing design, hydration, fueling, training techniques, pacing strategies and physiological knowledge—all with marvelous retail potential—to already accomplished athletes. They chose Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa, and Eritrean Zersenay Tadese, in the same way they chose the Formula 1 racetrack in Monza, Italy, as the perfect parts for their marketing machine.
The actual go at the barrier was Saturday at 5:45 a.m. local time on the winding, flat racetrack in northern Italy. Nike rounded up 18 speedy 5k and 10k guys to act as pacers, six at a time running in a wedge formation in front of the three candidates, rotating out every 5k. The armada of runners followed a pace Tesla with a giant screen, that told them what pace they were on with respect to the end goal of 1:59:59. From the car, a laser-generated line on the track provided visual reference to the necessary pace, which was 4:34 per mile for 26.2 miles. Bikers rode next to the runners delivering custom-developed fuel and hydration (it’s not food and water, of course) every couple kilometers.
They brought in Nike royalty—Joan Benoit Samuelson, Carl Lewis, Allyson Felix, Paula Radcliffe—and comedian Kevin Hart. Not sure why they thought a never-before-attempted athletic feat would need added entertainment value, but Hart was funny. So that’s good. The broadcast was interspersed with numerous video vignettes of each technological stone Nike did not leave unturned, and visits to the athletes’ training camps.
From a half-marathon trial a month earlier, it was obvious that if any of the three was capable of the feat, it was Kipchoge, and that is how it played out. The pace looked tough for Desisa almost from the start, and 43 minutes in, he had dropped from the group. Tadese, too, appeared to struggle, though as the half-marathon world record holder, he should have felt comfortable with the pace at least through the halfway point, but he fell off the back about 55 minutes in.
The broadcast continued to show clips of Nike’s advanced tech—the shoes, the compression shorts, and the aerodynamic body tape that were going to get the job done—as Desisa and Tadese painfully demonstrated that science and techno-gimmicks do not actually do the running, people do. Desisa was clearly having a bad day—he finished in 2:14:10, a whopping 10 minutes slower than his best. Even Tadese’s 2:06:51, a nearly four-minute PR for him, is well within the wheelhouse of a runner of his pedigree, and has been achieved many times by runners using none of Nike’s highly engineered system.
From the first very fast strides, Kipchoge was calm, focused, controlled, and smooth—not an elbow, not a shoulder, not a millimeter off of fluid, fast efficiency. It was a thing of beauty. Though the commentators breathlessly credited the special shoes and the shorts and the well-oiled pacing strategy and the trees around the course that Nike had instructed to breath out extra oxygen just for this event (the amount of pseudoscience discussed was staggering), it was plain the only thing exceptional was Kipchoge. The only reason miles were flying by was that he is truly rare, a once-in-a-century, consummate athlete.
The video visit to Kipchoge’s rustic training camp in Kenya showcased Nike staging a first-world intervention. The Nike scientists noted, aghast, that Kipchoge had never run on a treadmill, had never had his max VO2 tested, and rarely ran with a heart rate monitor. And yet, somehow, he is a World and Olympic champion. My goodness, how could that be? The video showed Kipchoge circling a dirt track, and the 10 feet by 10 feet room he shared with another runner. He was given electronics with screens, data, and beeping signal, obviously better than padding around in the dirt, running. Kipchoge smiled, nodded, looked seriously at the data because Nike made it very worth his while financially to do so, and because he treats everyone with respect.
Kipchoge began competing internationally at age 16, and won the 5000 meter World Championships in 2003. Since then, he has won everything there is to win at distances from 1500 meters to the marathon. He is world class over an unprecedented range of distances, and has consistently been so for over 16 years. His long career at the top and gradual progression makes it unlikely—as sure as one can be these days—that he’s doping. He has achieved these feats without treadmills, heart rate monitors, custom shoes, teams of scientists, and frequently without running water. He has achieved these feats because he is a singular athlete—his mind, his determination, his commitment, his physiology, the unfathomable miles and hours he has run.
And so, Paula Radcliffe breathlessly declaring that the Zoom VaporFly Elite shoes were responsible for the beautiful thing we were watching was arrogant, disrespectful, and total bullshit.
It was the Kipchoge show. The commentators blathered endlessly about Nike science, but that all went out the window the minute the camera focused on Kipchoge. Nike’s gimmickry did little for the other two unfortunates, which was driven home like a knife with every velvet step Kipchoge took. Flying on after 30K, faster than any human had ever run, it was increasingly clear that this part, going over the wall where the strain on mind and body must have been excruciating, this was about one extraordinary athlete. The shoes, all that, had fallen away, useless, silly. What was happening was not Nike-made, and had very little retail potential. It cannot be reproduced on others. Though no doubt unintended, Nike produced a two-hour opus by Kipchoge, on Kipchoge.
It was lovely.