There have been few marathons in the last couple of years that have exercised opinions or attracted as much attention as Nikes breaking2 attempt at Monza last Saturday. Rarely does a marathon result register in the mainstream media in the same way that Eliud Kipchoge’s 2:00:24 did.

One of the most interesting things about it though is not how close he came to breaking that elusive 2 hour barrier rather that it divided opinion so much amongst runners.

Ask most runners what they think about how how some of the biggest marathons in the world, London or Boston or were raced or won this year they probably wouldn’t have an answer. Ask them who had stood on the top step of the podium and they also couldn’t tell you.

Ask them what their thoughts were on Nikes Breaking2 attempt and you are almost guaranteed to get an answer that is either gushing excitement at how close they came to making history or a negative reaction that it was just a marketing stunt, wasn’t a real marathon or that the use of pacers or some other factor was all wrong and against the ethos of the sport. Either way most have an opinion and are at least aware that it took place.

Marketing stunt

I can’t understand the reaction of people who are so angry, disgusted and opposed to the whole thing because it’s a big marketing stunt. What do they think Nike exist to do? They sell shoes, they’re a business. They’re not a charity, they are a shoe company.

As a business they need to market and they can choose to do this in a number of ways. They can do a worldwide advertising campaign and spend millions with ad agencies, TV, print, online and offline media. In this case us, the runner, doesn’t really benefit. I think we all agree that we see quite enough ad’s and that as good and entertaining as ad’s by Nike, Guinness or Coca Cola are they have very no impact on the quality of our lives.

They can also take a big welly load of money and give it to a footballer, golfer or some other bazillionaire athlete and get our attention that way. Again apart from the entertainment that a football match or golf tournament provides on a weekend it has little or no impact on our lives.

They can also come up with some impossible looking, history making challenge and pump millions into that instead. And in the process have an effect on a wider audience. The breaking 2 project has gone on for over two years and employed everyone from sports scientists, to dozens of athletes in their research and preparation. I cant put a number to the cost of the whole project but I’m guessing it’s in the millions.

It’s funny that both of the first two humongously wasteful ways of spending money to get our attention don’t attract the vitriolic responses I saw from some runners after their Breaking 2 attempt at the weekend. Why would runners of all people object to someone spending money to advance their sport?

If Nike sell more shoes as a result then I’ve no issue with that. I’m not a Nike fan, I don’t run in their shoes or run kit but I’ve a hell of a lot of respect for a company that takes on a project of this size with a very slim chance of success and gets behind it to the extent that they have.

It’s not a real marathon.

The argument that it’s not a “real” marathon has to be one of the most ridiculous. Where do they think that marathon courses come from? Just because it’s not an “official” big city marathon is complete rubbish. All marathon courses are made up, they weren’t mapped out by the God of running and handed down in running scripture.

There are also marathons run on lapped courses that only open to elite runners, the USA Olympic trials for example. And they don’t seem to be subject to the same criticism.

Redefining possibilities

I’m a fan of sport, I have been all my adult life. Whether it was watching the savagery of Mike Tyson at the height of his powers, the unbelievable, unnatural juggernaut that was Jonah Lomu tear the
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1994 Rugby World Cup apart, Casey Stoner slide a motorbike sideways around a corner at close to 200mph or Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen go head to head in the Spring cycling classics. I love watching athletes redefining what’s possible and rejecting what they’ve been told is impossible.

I remember standing at the side of the road on a climb in the French Alps in 2003 watching Lance Armstrong race and win yet another Tour de France and thinking how lucky I was to be there watch him make history. I was there and was a part of it in a way that was never possible with past legends like Mohammad Ali or Eddy Merckx who I could only read about or watch on old videos.

At the time I felt that we were witnessing history being written and it was a history that would be talked about for generations. I loved the idea that someday in the far off distant future I would be able to say I saw Lance rip the Tour apart. That I was there when history was written, that I stood close enough to him on Alps d’Huez to reach out and touch him. I loved how exciting and inspiring and beautiful it was.

As it turned out Lances legacy is one of disgrace, not beauty. He’s been removed from the history books after having all seven of his tour wins struck from the records. He wasn’t the hero we thought him to be. As a result the whole Lance thing soured me and made me much more cynical for a long time to the beauty of sport and human endeavour.

Rediscovering inspiration

Then for the first time in a number of years I had that same feeling again at the weekend. I’d been following the build up to Nike’s attempt at breaking 2 with a growing excitement and anticipation. When I woke on Saturday morning to the news that Kipchoge had come within 24 seconds of making history. I felt vindicated for him and Nike that he’d come so close and in the process moved the possibility much closer than it’s ever been before. At the same time I was disappointed that he had come so close but ultimately failed.

Showing the world what’s possible.

I’ve read a couple of the books about the possibility of us seeing a sub 2 hour marathon and a lot of the articles that have been written on it over the last few months and years particularly by Runners Worlds Alex Hutchinson in his Sweat Science column. While there are plenty who believed it will ultimately happen, almost no one seemed to believe we would see someone from the current generation of runners do it.

In coming so close Eliud has shown the world and maybe more importantly other elite runners that the person who will break 2 hours for the marathon is probably racing right now. He has shown that we don’t have to wait for another ten, twenty or thirty years for us to evolve into sub 2 runners.

Athletes who thought that someday the 2 hour barrier may be broken. Maybe by someone not even born yet are now waking up believing that they have probably raced alongside the person who will do it. Maybe they are starting to believe that they will do it themselves.

The impossible is only impossible until someone does it.
In coming so close Eliud didn’t fail. He only made a sub 2 seem all the more real and possible. And not just for himself and Nike but for the entire world.

One second per mile

All he needed to do was run one second per mile faster and he would be celebrated worldwide. A week ago to go almost three minutes faster than anyone had ever done before seemed like an insurmountable hurdle. To most observers and pundits it was a leap too far. I’d hazard a guess that one second per mile looks like a much more achievable target now.

Despite not going sub two Nike, Eliud and all of those involved have made a little bit of history and I feel privileged to be alive to have been a witness. Even if it was through the magic of the internet and from thousands of miles away.

Imagine being the person who not only made history but influenced millions of people in the process. Eliud held in his hands something that very few people will ever experience. A moment in time where he can not only make history but can also inspire a generation of runners and athletes to chase their dreams, no matter how far away and impossible they might seem to be.

In that moment last Saturday he proved that he was worthy of the opportunity and of the stage he was given on which to attempt to make a little dent in the world.