May 6, 2017 marked the day the two-hour marathon time record was almost broken … by a marketing stunt. On that day, the first attempt at breaking the two-hour marathon barrier was sponsored by the multi-billion-dollar shoe company, Nike, when it sent three world-class marathoners to attempt to run a marathon in under two hours in their highly advertised event called “Breaking2.” Before the race, Nike developed a unique, energy-returning, running shoe, the Vaporfly, which reportedly increased running efficiency by about four percent.1 Nike hoped that its new, springy, carbon-plated shoe would be the first running shoe to propel running athletes below the two-hour marathon mark.
Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s fastest marathoner at that time with a personal marathon best of two hours, three minutes and five seconds, along with two other world-class marathoners were paid by Nike to forego the London and Berlin marathons so they could concentrate their efforts on besting the two-hour marathon for the Breaking2 event. The race was heavily advertised and generated worldwide interest since the two-hour marathon mark had been widely perceived as the next great barrier for human running achievement.
Over 65 years ago, people thought the four-minute mile was a barrier to human running performance, much as the two-hour barrier in the marathon has been thought to be a relatively untouchable performance barrier. However, the “impossible” was achieved on May 6, 1954 by Roger Bannister when he broke the four-minute mile in Oxford, England. Even though the four-minute mile is now relatively commonplace in track events featuring elite middle-distance runners, Bannister is still remembered and even revered over a half-century later for his amazing athletic achievement of the time.
For its Breaking2 event, Nike wanted to make certain that it wasn’t only the new shoes that were going to give Kipchoge the best chance to break the two-hour marathon. In addition to running the event on a track outside Milan, Italy to optimize the running surface, Nike virtually eliminated all the wind blowing into the faces of the racers during the event by using “pacers” and a “pace vehicle.” Multiple “pacer” runners came into and out of the race throughout the event to form a wind block for the marathoners. In addition, a “pace vehicle” was placed directly in front of all the runners with an oversized digital clock on top of the car that also significantly reduced the headwind for the runners. In effect, instead of the marathoners having a constant 13 miles-per-hour wind blowing into their faces for two hours, they effectively had almost no headwind for the entire event.
In the end, Kipchoge did not eclipse the two-hour marathon barrier in Breaking2 but came very close, running a two hour, 25 second marathon.
However, in a more recent two-hour marathon marketing event on October 12, 2019, Kipchoge did break the 2-hour marathon barrier with a time of one hour, 59 minutes and 40.2 seconds. This time, Kipchoge was sponsored by another multi-billion-dollar manufacturing company, INEOS, which employed a pace car with a digital clock on top and had multiple pace runners came in and out of the race to block the 13 miles-per-hour headwind for Kipchoge. Kipchoge was also wearing a prototype Nike running shoe, the AlphaFly, that supposedly increased his running energy efficiency by even more than four percent.
Of course, both the Nike Breaking2 and the INEOS 1:59 events showcased the amazing running ability of Kipchoge, who is one of the greatest marathon runners of all time. However, 65 years from now, will people still remember Kipchoge’s unofficial marathon accomplishments in these two contrived athletic marketing events in the same way that Roger Bannister’s accomplishments are still remembered for beating the “unbreakable” four-minute mile mark in 1954?
Yes, the two-hour marathon has finally been broken by an elite marathoner with the help of the marketing arms of these multi-billion-dollar corporations. Marathon running has now become the perfect vehicle for promotion of these huge corporations and related products by bending the international rules of running race events to achieve unrealistically fast marathon times so the corporations are associated with the first two-hour marathon time.
Is marketing and the two-hour marathon a good combination, or are we artificially pushing the limits of human performance by any means available to provide better marketing opportunities for these multi-billion-dollar corporations? Lastly, are we doing so at the expense of the performance integrity of this age-old running event, the marathon?
Dr. Kirby is an Adjunct Associate Professor within the Department of Applied Biomechanics at the California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, Calif. He is in private practice in Sacramento, Calif.
1. Hoogkamer W, Kipp S, Frank JH, Farina EM, Luo G, Kram R. A comparison of the energetic cost of running in marathon racing shoes. Sports Med. 2018;48(4):1009-1019.