The Story Behind Nike’s Ambitious Effort to Run a Marathon in Less Than 2 Hours

The goal is unmet, but the brand's innovations will pay off

Olympic Gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge was one of three runners aiming to break the 2-hour marathon mark.
Nike

Early Saturday morning in Monza, Italy, a trio of legendary runners met up on the city’s Formula 1 racetrack to do the impossible: Break the 2-hour barrier for a full marathon run.

A marathon is a little over 26.2 miles. The fastest marathon time ever recorded, per the IAAF, was set in 2014 by Kenyan runner Dennis Kipruto Kimetto in Berlin, clocking in at 2:02:57. Driving the feat was Nike and its agency Wieden + Kennedy, with help from a bevy of partners like content studio Dirty Robber.

Spoiler: None of the runners ended up breaking the barrier, though Eliud Kipchoge came incredibly close, finishing at 2:00:25—a colossal 2:32 under Kimetto’s IAAF record. Sadly, this run won’t be counted as a world record breaker.

But in addition to challenging the mental barrier we’ve built around 2 hours, Nike’s “Breaking2” deserves recognition for what it meant simply to take this on.

Breaking2 has been in the works for what W+K simply tells Adweek was “a looong time”—and to come even close to breaching the barrier, Nike needed to ensure all conditions were perfect.

In terms of planning, marketing and ambition, it’s easily comparable to 2012’s Red Bull Stratos—which The Drum rightly calls “the high watermark of content marketing productions”—even if the feat is literally much closer to Earth.

To fully appreciate what “Breaking2” accomplished, it helps to understand the technicalities. Nike called this a “moonshot,” partially inspired by the moment Sir Roger Bannister ran the first 4-minute mile in 1954, redefining what athletes were capable of.

“The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart,” says Nike co-founder and track coach Bill Bowerman.

Running a marathon in under two hours means shaving seven whole seconds off the average number of minutes Kimetto spent on each of his marathon miles. He ran each mile at an average 4:41. That means Nike’s athletes had to clock an ideal figure of 4:34 per mile—far from under 4 minutes, granted, but try holding that pace down for a whole marathon.

If you’re a regular runner, you know it’s easy to beat your time for one mile, maybe two or three, but consecutively over 26 miles while maintaining an average of nearly 4:30 per mile is trying, even for the best runners. As Oregon Live put it, “Succeeding would be a little like Babe Ruth coming to the plate, stepping out of the batter’s box, pointing at the outfield fence, then hitting one out.”

Many argue that running a sub-2:00 marathon simply isn’t possible—partly because the runners themselves may not be fast enough, but also because of, well, math.

Per LetsRun.com, a sub-2:00 marathon demands a minimum 2.41 percent improvement on the previous world best—which would be the biggest improvement by far over the past 50 years. Even as marathons grow more frequent, the improvement rate has never crossed 1 percent.

In Nike’s defense, the brand’s partners seemed aware of this. “When you plot out world records, it should take a couple decades to get to where we want to be,” says Dr. Philip Skiba, a performance engineer for Advocate Medical Group, in the video below.

“But no one’s ever gone flat-out from the gun before. That’s what I think is so amazing about this project: We’re gonna tell these guys you’re gonna go for it from the gun, and whatever happens happens. That, I feel, is a recipe for greatness.”

The first thing Nike needed to do was ensure it had the runners best equipped to do the job. This isn’t just a matter of how fast they run; they also tested for runners’ amount of oxygen intake, how much energy they conserve while running, and ability to sustain speed for the longest possible time.