Nike Recruits Top Runners to Break 2-Hour Marathon Barrier

Sport News

Reigning Olympic champ Eliud Kipchoge, 2-time Boston Marathon champ Lelisa Desisa and half-marathon world record holder Zersenay Tadese will partake.

Breaking2. The quest to break the two-hour marathon barrier.

By Sara Germano | The Wall Street Journal,

Three of the world’s top distance runners will skip major marathons this spring so they can focus instead on a Nike Inc. project to produce the world’s first sub-2 hour marathon, a high-stakes marketing ploy by the sneaker giant.

Breaking the 2-hour barrier is considered one of the last frontiers in the running world, and for years has been a consistent topic of debate within the sport. The current world record of 2:02:57 was set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto in 2014.

For Nike, a company rooted in running culture that sponsors and outfits most of the sport’s elite competitors, the initiative is a risky undertaking that comes as the company faces increasing pressure to prove it is a step ahead of competitors like Adidas AG and Under Armour Inc.

The project, which Nike is calling Breaking2, will involve reigning Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, two-time Boston Marathon champion Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, and half-marathon world record holder Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea.

The athletes will forego racing the major spring marathons in London and Boston, which carry six-figure paydays for winners, and focus on training for a sub-2 hour attempt at a date and place to be determined by Nike. The company says that while the run won’t be world record-eligible on a sanctioned course, the attempt will “show the potential to break it and enable future times to fall.”

The company said it began working on marathon-specific footwear in 2013, and eventually broadened its ambitions to the sub-2 effort announced Monday. Nike said it has assembled a team of experts to “unpack performance at the molecular level.”

The project was met with some skepticism by running experts.

Adharanand Finn, author of “Running with the Kenyans” and “The Way of the Runner,“ said chasing the sub-2 barrier “is starting to feel too much like a science experiment with the athletes as the lab rats.” He pointed to similar projects, like one named Sub2Hours which helped Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele run 2:03:03 in Berlin this fall.

“That’s not good for the sport,” he said. “It feels too contrived if Nike suddenly engineers some spring-loaded shoes, or produces some crazy course with wind tunnels or something.”

Others expressed doubt Nike could engineer a sub-2 race when smaller projects, including footwear development for marathon running, have hit snags. The Nike sneakers worn by Mr. Kipchoge in the 2015 Berlin Marathon, a prototype the company said it was testing at the time, fell apart midrace.

“The same geniuses that had [the shoe malfunction] happening last year in Berlin are suddenly going to figure out how to get someone to run 3 minutes faster in a marathon in the span of 6 months?” said Robert Johnson, co-founder of the running website

Asked whether the company is taking a risk if the sub-2 goal doesn’t materialize this spring, Nike said that “the only real failure would be to not attempt it,” emphasizing that the company can learn from the record attempt itself and apply those lessons to product development and customer services.

The company is working to create what it calls “a complete product system” for the race, including footwear, apparel and socks, which together will help the runners with temperature regulation, aerodynamics, and propulsion, among other traits.

Nike has faced increased competition from rivals Adidas and Under Armour. In October, analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch downgraded the company’s stock amid concerns of a so-called “innovation gap” in Nike’s product pipeline relative to competitors.

Nike shares have fallen roughly 18% for the year through close of trading on Monday.