Nike Breaking2: In praise of Eliud Kipchoge

my enduring memory is that of a single, transcendent human performance

You probably already know the basic facts: On May 5, at Monza’s ‘Temple of Speed’ F1 circuit, Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge ran the fastest 26.2 miles in history. It was the most glorious of failures as he finished just 26 seconds outside the audacious sub-2 hour target (and it won’t appear as an official WR due to rule-breaking on pacers). Even in ‘failure’ though, it was quite a story, with preceding chapters spanning several years of Nike’s monumental Breaking2 project, and encompassing controversial product innovation, cutting-edge sports science and much-debated motives.

You can read the full, exclusive, behind-the-scenes story in the August issue of RW, but having been fortunate enough to witness it live, my enduring memory is that of a single, transcendent human performance. Of Eliud Kipchoge in full, irrepressible and – I’ll say it – beautiful flow.

Talking point

The internet and sports columns have been filled with a variety of different and sometimes strong opinions on the credibility and significance of the Breaking2 project and Kipchoge’s performance, and there’s validity in most of them. But wherever you stand on it, I reckon the fact that we are having impassioned debates about running with people who wouldn’t normally give it a second thought is undeniably a positive.

When I got back to my Milan hotel room after watching the attempt I switched on BBC World News to see the story looping as a lead item, and my wife (whose interest in running is usually limited to what time I’ll be back from my run to resume shared childcare duties) had texted me to say she’d heard about it on Radio 4. That this captured the imagination enough to break out of the running/athletics silo into mainstream news is, in my opinion, a fantastic thing for our sport.

If the shoe fits

Nike, of course, can rub people up in the particular wrong way that only a global mega-brand with a marketing budget beyond many nations’ GDP can, and yes, the event was hype-heavy, with more than a touch of corporate fist-pumping, the show-biz of Carl Lewis and - as enthusiastic as he was tangential - Kevin Hart. The project has also, naturally, produced some shoes that will be available to consumers from June, sales of which the more cynical out there cite as the real motivation behind ‘testing the limits of the human heart’, as Nike’s original press release on the project put it.

There’s obviously an element of truth in that, Nike are in the shoe business after all. But having met some of the people directly involved in the Breaking2 project, I believe that they were genuinely passionate about it and working solely for the digits on the Monza race clock, not the company balance sheet.

 Nike are in the fortunate position that they can afford to back a team of passionate people to have a crack at something as bonkers as this and offer the athletes involved the incentives and rewards their efforts deserve. And in this case I think that has been our good fortune, too.  

Poetry in motion  

By the start/finish line in Monza, as I watched Eliud Kipchoge run lap after lap, everything else – the carbon-plated super-shoes, the drag-reducing apparel, the quibbles about pacers and the cynicism around Nike’s motives – melted away. As he strode further and further into the unknown with a fluid elegance that was a moving masterpiece of performance art I felt incredibly privileged to be witnessing a supreme athlete taking the opportunity to push the boundaries. ‘We are not machines,’ Kipchoge said in the press conference following the attempt. ‘We are human.’

He was talking specifically about dropping those crucial few seconds off pace in the final miles, but to me it went deeper than that. Eliud Kipchoge is a running machine designed not in Nike’s ‘Innovation Kitchen’ research lab but by millions of years of human evolution, a history and a design that we all share to at least some degree. And in the chilly grey of that Monza morning, to see a fellow human move so fast, for so long, and so beautifully, made me a true believer in our power to achieve. 

So ultimately I don’t side with the nay-sayers and grumblers. At the heart of all the hullabaloo, a softly-spoken, supremely gifted human being ran the fastest 26.2 miles in history, and I feel incredibly privileged to have witnessed it. I’m excited too, about what it will bring next because whether it’s Kipchoge or another, wearing swoosh or stripes, there are definitely more chapters to be written in what I reckon will continue to be an amazing story.