Bent, But Not Broken

By Mario Fraioli

Close, but not quite. Photo: Courtesy of Nike

I didn’t want to spend a lot of time writing about Nike’s Breaking2 Project this week, but all anyone—myself included—has been talking about of late, it seems, is Nike’s Breaking2 Project (which I think says something, like it or not), so I’d be doing a great disservice here by not spending a fair amount of time on it.

If you’ve been reading the morning shakeout long enough, you know that I’ve been critical of the Breaking2 Project since it was first made public last December (and have also opined on other sub-2 hour marathon initiatives once or twice prior to that). My main criticisms throughout have been that such contrived events threaten the spirit of the sport and make a mockery of racing. And while I still feel that way to some degree (more on this in a bit), my perspective has been somewhat reshaped after watching Eliud Kipchoge run 2:00:25 around an empty race track in northern Italy late on Friday night. Let me explain.

Last Tuesday, I wrote, “Has all the hype gotten non-fans of the sport more interested in pro running or the participants of Breaking2? To this point, I’d argue no. It’s only created a polarizing debate amongst the already interested geekery, including yours truly, while putting the Nike brand in the headlines of endemic and non-endemic publications alike, from Runner’s World and Competitor to Wired and The New York Times. This script, as you might imagine, has been carefully crafted by Nike’s masterful marketing team.”

Well, fast forward a few days, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue with the popularity of Breaking2, as just shy of 5 million people tuned into the Facebook Live stream of the event on Friday night. Another I-don’t-know-how-many millions of people watched on Twitter, YouTube, runnersworld.com, wired.com and nike.com. I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong last Tuesday. While the pre-event hype was lukewarm at best, the thing itself was, by all accounts, a smashing success. Personally, I had friends with little to no regular interest in running texting me that they were watching the stunt (many of them on the east coast, where it got underway at 11:45 PM). And unlike me, I’d bet my lunch money that most of those friends probably weren’t watching the Payton Jordan Invitational at the same time.

And make no mistake, Breaking2 was a stunt—and a well-executed one at that—that took the form of a 2-1/2 hour streaming Nike ad which mesmerized millions of viewers, an undoubtedly diverse mix of diehard running fans and curious bystanders who all wanted to see if a skinny dude from East Africa could run under 2 hours for 26.2 miles. That’s a pretty impressive stunt to pull off, no matter how you slice it. Influx of Swooshes aside, Nike got people watching—and talking about—running, and that’s something I can get behind and support.

For me, finally coming to accept the event as an exhibition—much like the home run derby in Major League Baseball, the slam dunk contest in the NBA, or the skills competition in the NHL—and not a competition, was the major hurdle I cleared in the last week. The end result didn’t count for anything but Breaking2 got people interested and excited, and it was immediately clear to me that our sport needs more of these types of exhibition-style events to stay relevant, attract new fans and, ultimately, survive.

As for Breaking2 itself—I still won’t call it a race—most of the action wasn’t all that exciting and the broadcast was OK at best. After a couple laps of the empty track (which was a total eye sore) at sub-2 hour pace, I desperately wanted to one of the athletes to go off-script and throw in a surge. That’s what makes racing interesting and dramatic, and I missed that element of it, but I realize that wasn’t the point. I do think, however, that the lack of pure racing led to some awful commentary (and may have cost Kipchoge a few seconds in the end, but that’s a different topic for another day). Some bland play-by-play was probably to be expected since there were no moves to be made but Craig Masback, Paula Radcliffe and Sal Masekela might as well have been on mute. (Cutting away to Kevin Hart was a nice diversion, albeit a weird one.) The on-screen clock—or lack thereof at times, like in the last 400 meters!—drove me crazy. How hard would it have been to show the race time, mileage and whether or not the runner(s) were on pace in one small window? To end this on a brighter note, kudos to Shalane Flanagan, who was excellent on the post-event bit. I hope she’s got a few more fast races left in her legs, but between this and her recent work in Boston, she’ll have no trouble landing a broadcast gig when she hangs up her racing flats for good.

All that aside, I was incredibly impressed by Eliud Kipchoge and the presence he carried on the track. Let’s save the speculation about training shoe technology, ideal weather conditions, wind shields, special nutrition, rotating pacers and even doping for another day. (Or, better yet, just go read Ross Tucker’s excellent analyses here and here on The Science of Sport blog.) I want to discuss Kipchoge. From the get-go it was clear that if any of the three men were going to break 2 hours, or even come close, it was going to be the Kenyan. Clad in a fitted red singlet, Kipchoge was the alpha male of the group and firmly established his position on the inside. He ran with a calm confidence, intense focus and unmatched level of fitness. Even when he started hurting past 35K, you could barely tell. His poker face was that good. “That’s why he’s the greatest marathoner on the planet,” I thought to myself at the time. Sometime after he crossed the finish line 25 seconds north of 2 hours, Kipchoge Tweeted: “It was a hard seven months of dedication, patience, diligence, hope, faith and above all self discipline.” All of these qualities he listed were manifested in Monza. You could see it all in his stride. I’ve never watched someone perform with such a presence that you could just sense through the screen. It was a beautiful sight to behold, although I’d much rather watch him race people than the clock.

At the end of the day, I didn’t love Breaking2, but I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would (or did), either. Time will tell, but I think it will ultimately end up doing more good than harm for the sport. It was clearly interesting and inspiring for many who watched, and I’m hopeful we’ll see more such exhibitions that support and enhance existing events while helping and generate new excitement for fans, athletes and media alike. A lot needs to be done to ensure these types of exhibitions don’t totally go off the rails—like instituting a regular and transparent drug-testing protocol—but Breaking2 showed what’s possible, not just for the world’s best athletes, but for the sport itself.

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.