Behind Nike’s Moonshot: Breaking the Sacred 2 Hour Marathon Mark

Over at Monza’s F1 racetrack in Milan this weekend, something extraordinary happened, the likes of which we will probably not see for some time. Kenyan athlete Eliud Kipchoge dramatically smashed the marathon world record, finishing in a spectacular time of 2 hours and 25 seconds, a result that shaves off 2 minutes and 35 seconds from the previous record set by Dennis Kimetto in 2014 at the Berlin marathon.

With the race track converted into a makeshift runners’ paradise, this was no ordinary meet. Supported by the iconic sportswear brand Nike, the purpose was for three world class athletes – Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese – to achieve what almost everyone believed was impossible, to take the marathon world record time and whittle it down to under 2 hours.

Nike pulled out all the stops to usher in this new era of athletics, with everyone from sporting icon Carl Lewis and women’s marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe, to comedian Kevin Hart on hand to witness it.

It took 16 years for the marathon record to drop around three minutes from 2:06:05 to 2:02:57, so you can imagine the skepticism we witnessed from experts we spoke to before the race. German marathon record holder Arne Gabius told us he didn’t think it would happen, expecting a time in the low 2:01’s; “scientists I’ve spoken to have said the record can only go down to 1.56-1.57 and that itself will take decades”. But Eliud certainly quashed any such reservations on the day.

The Olympic gold medalist set a blistering pace of 13.1 miles an hour to get the record, breaking away from the two other runners half way through the 17 laps. The excitement over the weekend was comparable to that at the time Roger Bannister broke the first 4-minute mile in 1954, with many attendees making links between the two remarkable efforts. Even though Kipchoge didn’t break the 2-hour mark, there was no sense of disappointment from anyone, with Nike CEO Mark Parker sending out a jubilated statement; “Today, millions of people around the world watched as running history was written. At Breaking2, Eliud Kipchoge ran 26.2 miles faster than any human ever. I’ve never seen anything like what we saw today.
This great feat was not by pure chance; this was a multimillion dollar project, two years in the making, where the culture, science and design of sport was suspended for 48 hours. However this was really a story about pushing human performance to its absolute limit, a place where science meets man, testing the capacity of the body with no assisted machinery other than the scientists around them.

Indeed Nike assembled a multi-disciplinary group of world-class experts across fields as diverse as physiology, bioengineering, design, and biomechanics to help these runners accomplish the impossible. Cutting edge science was used to investigate the minute elements of the runners’ performance, from conducting athlete endurance tests to crunching lab data and identifying the optimal race strategy, to muscle oxygen uptake and efficiency. Nike even partnered up with an artificial intelligence company Winning Algorithms, using predictive analytics to maximise the athletes’ performance.  Dr. Brad Wilkins, a physiologist and the director of Nike Explore Team Generation Research in the Nike Sport Research Lab said, “We’ve been collecting data since we started, and we continue to learn a tonne from the athletes to get us in the best place possible for race day. Most runners don’t have this level of personalisation and access to this kind of testing and coaching.”

While Breaking2 is making history, it won’t be counted by IAFF as an official record due to some of the conditions that Nike experimented with. Namely, the use of 30 pacers employed to break the impact of the wind around the athletes, and the hydration intake of the runners. Nike were well aware of this and intended to play with these elements in order to achieve optimum results around the certified race track.

The star of this event was Nike’s new and somewhat controversial Zoom VaporFly Elite shoe, said to be 4% more efficient than the brand’s previous marathon running shoe. Its carbon fibre base allows for huge propulsion and agility in movement, which was evident on the track.
It’s unusual for a globally renowned brand to get behind a world record, and it is yet to be seen that a precedent has been set in that respect. Will this usher in a new era of sportswear brands getting behind various individual records, in an organic marketing campaign of sorts? We’ll have to wait and see, but what Nike has shown is that they are committed to their reputation of taking sports to new heights, with the technology and science to do it. Tony Bignell, the VP of Footwear Innovation at Nike, told us, “I’m hoping that we will see it more from all brands. We have a history of taking sport to new levels so this is just another example of that. Sometimes I think you need a collective push to get out of a vicious cycle and I think that’s what we did.”

We asked Dr. Brett Kirby, a Nike Sport Research Lab Researcher, what was whispered into Eliud’s ear on the final lap heading down record history and he said, “Eliud, it’s time to go to the moon. This is what you wanted”. Well it’s clear the moon shot just landed, almost.