It’s easy to think about Nike’s audacious Breaking2 or sub-2 hour Marathon in hindsight and assume that it was always going to end up unsuccessful. An uphill climb – metaphorically speaking – from the beginning, Breaking2 was a near success, but Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge’s thrilling 2:00:25 finish fell short. As marathon timings go, that’s not a huge margin, but those 25 seconds put paid to years of work.
Nearly three years of preparation and planning went into this run that lasted mere seconds over 2 hours. Three of the world’s top distance runners—Kipchoge of Kenya, Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa, the half marathon world record holder Zersenay Tadese from Eritrea – trained together, backed by Nike in everything from the course, their shoes, their apparel, their workouts to their nutrition. Great pacers and innovative pacing techniques were added into the mix. Very few world-record marathon attempts looked so dead-set to be successful – even though, ultimately, it wasn’t. Here’s the story behind Breaking2, and the many parts that came together to make it happen.
Nike announced its plans to embark on this ambitious mission in December 2016. It revealed Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese as the three marathoners that would attempt to break the barrier, and said that this run was two years in the making. Naturally, with those names and the full force of one of the most cutting-edge sports technology teams in the world, the expectations were high.
The World Record at the time of the announcement was 2:02:57 by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya. Set in 2014, it had stood the test of champions for over 2 years. The pace of Kimetto’s world-beating run was 4:41 minutes per mile or 1.6km. The Breaking2 runners would have to maintain an astonishing pace of 4:34 per mile or faster for 26.2 miles or the full 42.1 km of the marathon, if they were to run it in 1:59:59 or faster.
At the time, the Nike team were circumspect, if quietly confident, about the potential success. One thing was evident: everyone realized they were on the cusp of something historic: “The sub-two-hour marathon is one of those epic barriers that people bust through,” Nike’s VP of Footwear Innovation, Tony Bignell, told Runner’s World. “It’s like breaking 10 seconds for the 100 meters or 4 minutes for the mile. At the end of the day, we just want to show it can be done. We want to show that it’s within the capability of human physiology.”
“I know one day [two hours] will be broken. I want to be part of it,” the Eritrean Tadese told the website.
A month after the announcement, the Breaking2 team embarked on a tour of Kenya, Ethiopia and Spain. The goal of these brief trips to the training HQs of each of the three athletes was to find a Breaking2 Plan. The goal was to not create one plan that would be prescribed to all three, but finding a way of training and gathering insights that would allow Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese to continue their particular style of training each quite different from the other, but with a laser-sharp focus on breaking the 2-hour barrier.
The experienced Nike team studied muscle glycogen stores before and after workouts, and the athletes wore sensors and devices that measured muscle oxygenation in real time during the workout, which consisted a progressive workout of 1200-meter reps and a long run a few days later. They gained insights on their lactate threshold and lactate turnpoint, and used it to specifically customize sections of the plan for each of them. The effort required was huge and Nike’s team followed runners through parks, mud-laden rural terrain, and around sprawling cities, recording the data by chasing the world’s best runners on vans, bikes and cars.
Of course, the trips were the starting point. Based on the insights gained from them, a whole lot of work went into creating the perfect shoes for this run, based on each runner’s individual foot profile. And then ensuring the total immersion of the athletes in details such as the course, their pacers and their nutrition, as we will find out.
Nike claims Breaking2 had been years in making, yet only announced the runners in December, 6 months before the marathon. After that came the painstaking process of integrating each runner into the Breaking2 fold.
Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese were chosen after reviewing over 100 distance runners. According to Runner’s World, Nike narrowed the field by looking for sub-2:05 marathoners and sub-60-minute half-marathoners, and then examining their recent performance profiles. It also compared the standard metrics among each of the runners to come up with a top 3.
Even if the final three were islands in terms of styles, their bodies were at peak physical condition and suited for this record attempt.
- Eliud Kipchoge
Best times: 12:46 (5K), 26:49 (10K), 59:25 (half marathon), 2:03:05 (marathon)
Few doubt that Kipchoge is the best marathoner in the world right now – even though he doesn’t hold any world records at the half-marathon or marathon levels. But ever since the win in the 5,000m in the World Championship as an 18-year-old, he has been on the radar as one to look out for. After a stunning win in Rio 2016, Kipchoge showed that he can indeed generate serious pace with a 59:44 half-marathon finish at the 2016 Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. The question was whether he could sustain the pace for twice the distance.
- Lelisa Desisa
Best times: 27:11 (10K), 59:30 (half marathon), 2:04:45 (marathon)
The 2013 Boston Marathon winner’s victory parade was marred by the horrific bombings that year, but he repeated his feat in 2015 under happier circumstances.With a marathon best of 2:04:45, he had caught Nike’s eye for being able to set a high pace!
But shaving 4:45 seconds off a 42.1km run is no joke and Desisa – the youngest among the three Breaking2 contenders – was held in high regard by Nike. The Nike team is believed to have called Desisa “a gifted racer whose competitive fire, combined with his impressive physiology, might propel him to a sub-two”About his Breaking2 partners, Desisa said, “We see each other as brothers, as friends. But when it comes to running, we’re competitors.” So the Nike team sure were right about the competitive fire.
- Zersenay Tadese
Best times: 12:59 (5K), 26:37 (10K), 58:23 (half marathon), 2:10:41 (marathon)
Tadese was the oldest of the lot but had a great track record coming into Breaking2. He’s the world record holder at the half marathon, and four-time world champion at that distance. He’s also an Olympic bronze medalist and a World Cross Country champion. Tadese was second to cross the finish line at Breaking2, improving his personal best from 2:10:41 to 2:06:51, even though this run didn’t count for official stats.
Think Monza, and your mind is immediately transported to a world of high-octane and high-speed Formula 1 racing. So, one cannot necessarily equate this legendary circuit located northeast of Milan, Italy with a world record attempt on two feet.
To put things in perspective, a Formula 1 car would cover the 42.1 km of a marathon in just over 6:30 minutes, based on the average speed of such a vehicle. In the shadow of this fact, the runners’ attempt seems leisurely, but in the world of marathons this will be breakneck pace. Monza isn’t called a Temple of Speed for nothing. The finishing straight of this circuit has seen many a speed record set, but the Nike chose to cordon off a smaller loop of the larger circuit for this particular attempt.
This piece from Runner’s World talks about Brad Wilkins, Ph.D., director of Next Generation Research in the Nike Sport Research Laboratory. “His team had set up two weather stations to gather track-level data on temperature, humidity, and wind speed for the full marathon attempt, slated for May 6th, 7th, or 8th, depending on weather conditions,” Runner’s World notes.
The world record attempt was made around the 2.405-kilometer (1.5-mile) loop of mostly flat asphalt with its hard characteristics that does not always please athletes but its perfect for fast pace required. The smaller loop in the course meant the runners had to do to more than 17 laps to make up the 42.1 km. But with just the one not-so-steep uphill and downhill section, it ended up being a perfectly chosen section. There weren’t any right-angle turns either, and only a couple of gradual gentle turns. The conditions made it seem that it was going to be ‘easier’ than a standard marathon route. But it wasn’t just the course itself which allowed the runners to show a stunning pace performance at Monza.
The likes of Lopez Lomong, Sam Chelanga, and Bernard Lagat are sure to make the list of current marathon heavyweights. And these are also the runners who turned pacers for Breaking2. But that’s just 3 from a total of 30 runners brought in by Nike for this epic attempt, from USA, Kenya, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
The world had not seen a gathering of this caliber used as pacers for any runner. Ordinarily, pacers help you chase a particular time target. Here, pacers faced a big challenge – helping set the pace for a never-before-achieved target. How does one go about this? You start by picking the best of the best.
Despite all their experience, here the pacers were following the lead of a pace-car which had a ticking clock affixed to the back. In addition, they had to keep up with lasers pointing to an ideal track position. If the lead pacer was off this fast-moving bullseye, chances are the runners were well behind the mark.
Then there was the challenge of keeping the pacers fresh enough to maintain the breakneck pace being targeted. Nike’s answer was the triangle formation, mimicking an arrowhead. This shielded the Breaking2 runners from wind resistance, and helped enable a system of substitutions.
Each pacer only covered two laps or 4.8 kilometers, before getting a 30-minute rest period. So they could maintain a 5K pace, which was the ideal pace required if the runner were to break the 2-hour mark.
After running for 4.8km, three pacers would exit the course, and three pacers would move to the front of the formation. Three fresh pacers entered the formation – all of this without disrupting the pace of Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese. It was as much a synchronised run routine as it was pace-setting.
And the most amazing thing about this was that the pacers didn’t get any help from the special shoe designed for the runners.
It was always going to be something special. Nike labored for 3 years before coming up with an efficient shoe design that’s built for pure speed. They named it Vaporfly Elite and only Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese got their hands – or feet – on it.
At first glance, you would think it’s inspired by the cars that zoom around Monza most of the time. The aerodynamic-inspired heel is not unlike a nose on an F1 car and is the most eye-catching feature. The exaggerated taper is built to reduce drag, as the runner cuts through the air. This means less energy required by the runner to cover the distance.
The heel is just one of several design and material choices primarily developed to eliminate any factors that may harm the attempt. It roughly weighs around 185 g, which is far lighter than any other racing shoe in the market. This lightweight was thanks to a new material. Nike created a thick slab of lightweight cushioning called ZoomX, which helped protect the runners’ legs from the pounding on asphalt, but also aided in push-off.
Compared to materials found in other Nike shoes, ZoomX weighed significantly less. It was also found to deliver a total energy return of 85 percent, giving it a bouncy feel., which is crucial for pace development
Between two ZoomX layers, Nike inserted a carbon-fiber plate, which curves, slants and tapers as it runs across the length of the shoe – Runner’s World compared it to a footbed in a woman’s high heel shoe. The front of the plate pushes up to allow faster transfer during push-off and less energy loss too as is evident in the total energy return. The lower heel area and tapering reduced undue pressure on the calves, thus addressing muscle fatigue issues over the course of such a fast marathon.
When viewed from below, the distinct shape of the shoe becomes very apparent. It is quite narrow through the heel and middle portions but bulges out for a wider base under the ball of the foot, which gave the runners the necessary stability.
For each athlete, Nike customized the upper – the proprietary Flyknit fit like a glove on the runner’s foot. “The yarn is knit with monofilament along the lower half of the shoe to reduce stretch and add structure, without adding any overlays or weight,” Runner’s World noted.
The final result was a shoe that allowed the athletes to run by consuming 4 percent less energy than a regular racing shoe.
One thing that designers didn’t have to worry about was durability after the one run. This was a limited edition wonder, created for pure pace performance and not for the world at large. As such it will not be commercially available, but Nike will release a consumer shoe based on this design called Zoom Vaporfly 4%.
On Saturday, May 6, 2017, three years of planning and preparation, was tested. As we know by now Kipchoge, the Kenyan marathon genius, fell short by 25 seconds despite running the world’s fastest marathon. It won’t count as an official record as some practices are not sanctioned by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Kipchoge’s average pace was 4:35.7 per mile or 1.6 km which was just over a second per mile slower than the desired average of 4:34.5 per mile. “The world now is just 25 seconds away from under two hours,” Kipchoge said.
Kipchoge, Desisa and Tadese, along with the band of six pacers started the run at 5:45 am in Monza, Italy. The arrow formation meant the six pacers formed an arrowhead, while the three runners followed in a single file. This unique formation was also developed after months of research on the subject of pacing in marathons.
Well into the run, Desisa trailed off the head around the 16 km mark, and just 6 laps into the run. At the 20K mark, Tadese started trailing and ended up putting significant space between himself and the pace group leading the runners. The Eritrean finished in 2:06:51, his previous best of 2:10:41, shattered in the wake of Breaking2.
With 25 km done, Kipchoge looked on track to make the world record. mark still on pace with just under 49 minutes left on the clock. Forty-nine minutes in which to run 17.1 km. By the time he reached the 30 km point, Kipchoge had trailed off the desired pace, but was still within touching distance, just one second behind the ideal time. But even as he sprinted in the final stretch to break the tape, the clock had gone over 2 hours. A monumental effort, but just short of what was needed on the day.
Kipchoge’s valiant attempt was vindication for Nike, who had handpicked the Kenyan his fast times over shorter distances and his racing confidence. “I believe in good training and good preparation,” he said after the race, adding, “If I have that, the 25 seconds will come.”
Watch the full run below:
Rumours abound that Nike will take a second shot at Breaking2 in the near future. But the question is whether it should. As Kipchoge has shown, a sub-2 marathon is not far away, with a few years and improved shoe technology and access to more granular sensor-related data, elite runners will not need a carefully-manicured course to beat the mark.
The idea is that Nike has done enough to prove that yes a sub-2 hour marathon is possible in the right conditions, and soon enough it will be possible in the ‘natural’ conditions of a city marathon as well. Whether Kipchoge gets there – his path illuminated by the awe-inspiring Breaking2 attempt – or some other natural-born runner is the real question.
Main Photograph Courtesy: Clayton Cotterell | Nike