What We Know About Nike’s Secretive Plan to Break 2 Hours in the Marathon

Lelisa Desisa, Zersenay Tadese, and Eliud Kipchoge Courtesy Nike

Last December Nike put an exclamation point on their 2017 marketing calendar when they announced Breaking2, a highly resourced campaign to break the two-hour marathon time. The move was simultaneously bold — most running experts and exercise physiologists remain doubtful — and secretive. Nike issued no formal press release and has remained mysteriously tight-lipped regarding preparation for the potentially historic race, giving Runner’s World alone some information on athlete selection, training, testing protocols, and details on the race itself.

We do know that sometime this spring, Nike athletes Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea will attempt to smash the world record on a fixed, 2.4km loop (approximately 1.5 miles) located just outside of Monza, Italy. Nike settled on the Autodromo Nazionale Monza complex, a Formula 1 race track, after conducting a global search for a course that would offer the most optimal race-day conditions.

Monza, located about nine miles north of Milan, regularly enjoys the kind of mild weather all marathoners hope for: cool temps, low wind gusts, minimal humidity, and overcast skies. The asphalt track lacks banks, allowing clear visibility for the athletes who will complete 17.5 laps on race day. It’s flatter than any other major marathon course, but will meet all course requirements as outlined by The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Nike, the 2.4km track size is not only perfect for pace management, but it is also ideal for the support team, which manages hydration and nutrition.

The athletes recently participated in a half-marathon test run in Monza, and each runner was outfitted with a version of the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite, which Nike designed exclusively for the Breaking2 attempt. The dress rehearsal was intended to test the track and race logistics, not the athletes’ fitness levels. That being said, both Kipchoge and Tadese finished in under an hour with respective times of 59:17 and 59:41. Desisa trailed slightly, coming in at 62:55. Prior to the run, the athletes ingested “smart” pills designed to measure their core temperatures, and they were each outfitted with muscle-oxygen and skin-temperature sensors that were worn for the duration of the race.

Nike has yet to release the specific results of those physiological tests, so we don’t have even a general sense of whether or not the 20-person Nike team of scientists, coaches, and engineers still believes that, based on their findings, it’s possible for Kipchoge and Tadese to maintain their break-neck pace for an additional 13.1 miles. (Or if Desisa’s “slow” finishing time was a warning sign or just par for the course.) We don’t know if the support strategy will change, or if the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite will get a few more tweaks before the big day.

We do know that the three-man team ran the trial with a pack of pacers, which apparently fell out of formation at times throughout the run and Nike has indicated that the use of pacers during the official attempt is “under consideration.” They are “still exploring the exact approach.”

And, of course, the biggest unknown is the actual date of the event. Nike has only committed to “spring 2016,” putting any date between March 20 and June 20 in the running. However, if Nike’s current communication strategy is any indication, we may not get that crucial piece of information until someone crosses the finish line.