At 1:30 a.m. on a Friday night this past May, curious viewers could open a YouTube stream hosted by Nike and see Eliud Kipchoge steadily clicking off the final miles of the fastest marathon ever run. Cheered on only by a smattering of spectators and Nike employees, Kipchoge crossed the finish line at an Italian Formula One track in an astounding time of two hours and 25 seconds, far in front of the only two other competitors in the race.
Kipchoge’s 2:00:25 is a spectacular time under any conditions, but it does not officially break the current men’s marathon world record of 2:02:57, set by Dennis Kimetto at the Berlin Marathon in 2014. This counterintuitive fact — that the marathon world record is more than two and a half minutes slower than the fastest known performance—speaks to an animated debate in the distance running community. Simple questions — what is the nature of competition; how often, and where, should elite runners race; what constitutes cheating, doping, and unfair advantage? — are completely unsettled, perhaps more so in distance running than in any other professional sport. Kipchoge’s run, branded by Nike and hyped for months in advance as #Breaking2, was a runner’s Rorschach test, revealing deeply divided beliefs about the nature of competitive marathoning itself.
The Berlin Marathon, like most major urban races, sets up its event for fast time. The course is tabletop flat, and the race organizers hire pacers to shepherd the field through the first three-quarters of the distance. Marathons at the Olympics and the World Track and Field Championships do not employ these aids, and are therefore usually both slower and less predictable. But there are still limits to what a race can do and still produce record-eligible performances.
The pacers must start with the main field, which means that they must be able to run, in the case of Kimetto’s world record race, 4:42 per mile for 20 to 30 kilometers at a relatively even clip. Such athletes are difficult to locate, and many record attempts are foiled by erratic or inadequate pacing.
The course must start and finish in the same area of the city, so that elevation changes and prevailing winds are neutralized — runners traveling downwind and downhill must eventually return upwind and uphill. The Boston Marathon, despite its reputation as a difficult course, is not record-eligible in part because a west wind will remain at runners’ back for the entire course, as it did in 2011 when Geoffrey Mutai ran 2:03:02, the fastest time in the world at that point but not an official world record.
Perhaps most importantly to the mythos of distance running, elite marathoners run on their own. The pacers are there to guide them, of course, but other than a minimal drafting benefit the pacers do not reduce the effort athletes expend. Just like the tens of thousands of casual runners behind them on the course, they grab their own fluids and rehydrate as they run. And for the final 10 to 20 kilometers, once the pacers drop out, they have no support — they run, at times, without any competitors in sight.
Nike’s Breaking2 event was contrived explicitly against these constraints. It was a moonshot attempt to see how fast a human could run for a marathon if given every sort of aid not usually permitted. Rather than rely on their runners’ deeply conditioned sense of pace, Nike had them follow a Tesla that drove exactly 13.1 miles per hour and projected a laser on the pavement indicating the desired pace. Multiple groups of pacers established a protective wedge around the competing athletes to break the wind and then rotated out every five kilometers, ensuring that fresh athletes would be available to pace the entire 26.2 miles. In cutaways during the broadcast, Nike hyped its innovations off the course, stressing the biomechanical advances they had made with each runner and promoting a new shoe that promised to return more energy to athletes after each stride.
In short, Nike took everything electrifying about major urban marathons — the daring (and at times foolish) pacing, the fierce competition, the vocal crowds, and the beautiful and often challenging courses — and exchanged it for 17 rigidly paced laps on an eerily quiet Formula One track.
As bizarre as the event seems out of context, Breaking2 was a logical next step in Nike’s marketing strategy for distance running. Their investment in coach Alberto Salazar — who trains world and Olympic champion Mo Farah, two-time Olympic medalist and Boston Marathon runner-up Galen Rupp, and Olympic 1500-meter champion Matthew Centrowitz — reveals a devout belief that technological innovation is an essential element of breakthrough performance.
The Nike Oregon Project, as Salazar’s group is called, was explicit in its methodology from its inception in 2001; the group’s website trumpets “Salazar the coach with Nike technology and resources as a catalyst for improving biomechanics and abilities of current American athletes.” (The “American athletes” designation has since been dropped, as the team includes British, Canadian, and Japanese runners.) Salazar makes a point of emphasizing his innovative approach to training; he has embraced legal training aids such as hypoxic altitude tents and computerized gait analysis while also allegedly encouraging his athletes to push the limits of anti-doping regulations through the use of prescription thyroid medication, infusions of nutritional supplement L-carnitine, and applications of undetectable amounts of testosterone gel.
Although Salazar was not substantially involved with Breaking2, the project seemed to be the ultimate expression of his techno-centric approach to training and coaching—an approach that has alienated many fans of the sport. Even the unprecedented success Rupp and Centrowitz — the first American athletes in decades to win Olympic medals in their events — has done little to boost the status of distance running in the popular consciousness.
Hardcore track fans often speak of their sport as being in a general state of decline, and while some of that sense is rooted in idealized nostalgia for the running boom of the 1970s, distance running clearly remains a marginal sport, at best, in American culture. When track and field breaks through at all, though, it’s through rivalries and personalities, nowhere more notably than in the sprinting battles between the U.S. and Jamaica and the electrifying performances and celebrations of Usain Bolt. (Bolt’s defeat by Justin Gatlin in the 100 meter dash and injury in the 4×100 meter relay were the only moments in the recent World Track and Field Championships to garner extensive coverage in mainstream American media.)
There are opportunities to foreground these types of stories in American distance running and the coverage of international events by American television: the friction between Salazar’s group, Jerry Schumacher’s Bowerman Track Club, and the numerous non-Nike affiliate elite training groups; the rivalry between Ethiopia and Kenya (and Team USA’s attempts to keep up); the battles over athlete restrictions and compensation waged by Nick Symmonds, Emma Coburn, and other elite runners against USA Track and Field. In that context, Nike’s Breaking2 project seems a profound miscalculation — a misdirected effort to grow the sport by emphasizing coaching, technological innovation, and an abstract time barrier rather than athlete personalities, rivalries, and competition.
It was easy, then, to be skeptical and suspicious of Nike’s attempt to create a sub two-hour marathon performance. Yes, the distance running community reliably celebrates record performances (although always with a bit of suspicion that the results are produced by new innovations in performance enhancing drugs), but Nike’s attempt to break two hours in the marathon by any means necessary seemed, to me at least, more like an extended commercial for the brand rather than an authentic athletic pursuit. So what was I doing at 1:30 in the morning watching Kipchoge click off miles like a metronome on a YouTube stream hosted by Craig Masback, Sal Masakela, and (for some odd reason) Kevin Hart? What made the event so riveting despite my best efforts to remain detached?
In his essay “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” David Foster Wallace considered the importance of beauty in competitive sports: “The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” So much of Breaking2’s in-house media coverage emphasized Nike’s attempt to help Kipchoge and fellow entrants Zersenay Tadese and Lelisa Desisa overcome their bodies—with newly designed shoes complete with customized carbon fiber midsole plates, with “a personalized race-day hydration strategy,” with a room of sports scientists standing around watching the athletes run on a treadmill during training. This footage of the athletes’ preparation—interspersed throughout the stream of the marathon itself — recalled the gloriously overwrought training montage of Rocky IV.
In this case, though, Nike seemed to be asking its viewers not to identify with Rocky Balboa as he runs through frozen Siberian streams and hauls his brother-in-law Paulie through the snow in a dogsled, but instead with Ivan Drago, who trains joylessly on machines provided by Soviet apparatchiks. So when Tadese and Desisa fell off the seemingly suicidal pace—Desisa first, about 11 miles in, and then Tadese, just before the halfway mark — it was a compelling reminder that these runners have bodies, and that like all human bodies, no matter how well-trained, they have finite capacities. Tadese, the half marathon world record holder at 58:23, is by any account one of the best distance runners in the world. But he had only run 2:10:41 in the marathon, and while he improved that mark to 2:06:51, there was no clear indication that the improvement was due to Nike’s much-hyped training and equipment innovations rather than the advantages of the course and race setup itself. Desisa, who entered with a best of 2:04:45, faded badly to a 2:14:10, a reminder, perhaps, that bad days in the marathon are inevitable and beyond the control of any training plan, no matter how well-customized and controlled.
Watching Tadese and Desisa fade was a reminder of how little margin for error there is in elite-level marathoning — that a 4:34 mile pace is profoundly uncomfortable even for the best runners in the world. As they dropped from the pack, then, only Kipchoge was left to continue the increasingly unbelievable pace. But again, my attention was drawn elsewhere — this time, to the pacers, elite athletes in their own right, who seemed unable to contain their amazement and elation at what was happening beside them. They turned back to Kipchoge as they might have done to younger teammates in their school days, congratulating him even as they exhorted him to keep the pace, beckoning at him with outstretched arms to quicken his stride if only by a fraction. Some of these same runners will doubtlessly square off against Kipchoge at this September’s Berlin Marathon, where he hopes to run a new world record on a ratified course.
This sense of amazement at what an ostensible opponent is achieving may be unique to distance running, and it can happen at any level. I remember my own sense of awe when I first saw someone from a nearby high school run 800 meters under 2:00 — a perfectly pedestrian time, in retrospect, but one that I could not wrap my head around given my own limitations at the time. Athletes marvel at their opponents in other sports, too, but in distance running, the performance is not dependent on anything external — the weakness of the opposition, the excellence of teammates, or the evaluation of a judge. And in distance running, unlike the field events or the sprints, these performances extend over a palpable sense of finite time. You can’t tell the difference between a 100-meter dash run under 10 seconds and another run just above it with the naked eye, but you can see the clock slowly tick up towards that next round number while the runner in front of you glides through the homestretch.
When the clock hit an hour and 59 minutes at Breaking2, Kipchoge’s stride, though a bit more strained than it had been thirty minutes ago, remained steady. His face was rigid with effort, but occasionally broke out into a wide smile. Anyone just tuning in might have fairly wondered whether this person had really just run 26 miles at 4:35 pace — there was no visible sign of that fact. Here was the beauty of distance running at its most abstract — no Olympic Stadium packed with cheering fans, no city skyline views, no discussion of the winner’s financial reward. Just a man running farther and faster than any man had run before on a semi-deserted racetrack built for Formula One cars.
At 1:59:10 the directors of the YouTube stream abruptly removed the clock graphic from the screen. It was clear at that point that Breaking2 would not, in fact, break two, and the removal of the clock seemed like an admission of failure. The coverage of the last 75 seconds of the race, then, deprived me of the only thing I had stayed up until two in the morning to see: not Kipchoge on a treadmill in Portland or an ad for the new Zoom Vaporfly Elite or the breathless explanation of the contents of a water bottle, but a man and a clock, traveling together towards the unknown, the unimaginable, and the unachievable.