Inside Nike’s Most Successful Failure

Breaking2 tested limits and led to surprising discoveries

Nike's Breaking2 set out to run a marathon in under 2 hours, what the brand called a 'moonshot of human potential.' Nike and National Geographic
Headshot of David Griner

CANNES, France—Many brand marketers love to say they value bold ideas and taking risks, but few would likely have the stomach for a project like Breaking2.

Both ambitious in goal and massive in logistical scope, Breaking2 was Nike’s attempt to run a marathon in less than 2 hours—which would require beating the current record not by seconds, but by three whole minutes.

Attempted on May 6, 2017, the mission succeeded in shaving considerable time off the existing record, but it did not break the 2-hour barrier. Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge finished just 25 seconds above 2 hours. You can watch an hour-long branded documentary about the project on National Geographic’s site.

Considering the investment of time, resources and no small amount of dollars to make the attempt—only to have it fall short of its goal—was Breaking2 a failure?

At the Cannes Lions, where the project won a gold Lion in Entertainment and a bronze, Adweek caught up with three members of the core team that created Breaking2. You can stream the podcast version of our conversation below and check it out on Apple Podcasts, or simply browse the transcript that follows:

Adweek: So let’s go around and introduce yourselves. Tell us about your role.

Mark McCambridge: I’m Mark McCambridge. I’m a brand comms director for Nike, and I was part of the project from the very beginning, looking at content capture, narrative and the eventual documentary partnership with Nat Geo.

Eric Baldwin: I’m Eric Baldwin. I’m the executive creative director of the Portland office (of Wieden + Kennedy).

Jason Puris: And I’m Jason Puris, the executive producer at Dirty Robber and of Breaking2.

Adweek: Mark, you can tell us the premise—the idea and what the goal was to accomplish.

McCambridge: We looked at this as a moonshot of human potential. Can a human being run a marathon in under two hours? Which many people thought was impossible. In the end, we narrowly missed the result. Eliud Kipchoge finished in 2 hours and 25 seconds. But it certainly proved that the moonshot is possible. So, audacious goal and incredible result.

Adweek: Whenever I explain this project to someone, they always ask me the same question: “Why didn’t they just run it again?”

Mark McCambridge

McCambridge: The difficulty in getting to even under 2 hours and 1 minute was substantial. Within the Nike family and outside of the Nike family, there was a team of hundreds if not thousands of people that touched this, from science and engineering, products, nutrition. We worked with some of the best statistical modelers of weather in the world to try to find the optimal place and time to actually execute this attempt. So having all the factors line up to make the attempt was statistically kind of an incredible moment. And what Eliud was able to do on the day was also pretty spectacular.

Adweek: Eric, tell us about the role of the agency in this. When did Wieden become part of this? Was there a brief?

Baldwin: Nike had come up with this idea and brought it to us to help them sort of brand it and then tell the story out to the rest of the world. So there was a brief on it. We were just excited about it because we loved the fact that it was an audacious goal and that this could fail. That felt like a really brave thing for Nike to come out and do.

Adweek: Jason, tell us about the production challenges of this one. When you first heard the scope of this project, what were your thoughts?

Puris: We started capturing the content before we actually knew what it was. We were standing in a wind tunnel at the University of New Hampshire two years ago. We knew that it could be this, it could be that. So we were involved with capturing content before we knew what it was, so there were challenges inherent in that. We needed to capture it generally, but also make sure that we have enough gold to deliver when we have to put things together.

Adweek: Why tackle this in the first place?

McCambridge: What it boils down to is we’re fascinated with round numbers, right? So, the importance of running under a 10-second 100 or breaking 4 minutes in the mile. This is the 100-point game in basketball or a no-hitter or a shutout. These things we fixate on, and within the running world there’s very few holy grails of numerical achievement that still exist. And within the Nike world, obviously we’re a company that’s deeply rooted in running, all the way back to the beginning. And this is something that, internally, there were champions that were very, very passionate about trying to take this on. But it was kind of a crazy, crazy goal. There’s no doubt about that.

Adweek: The solution is obviously not just to find someone who can run really fast, because you started with a team of people who can run very fast for very long distances. Tell us about some of the obstacles you knew would have to be overcome to get to this kind of speed.

McCambridge: If you look at the numbers, the existing record in the marathon is 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds. So it’s actually dropping 7 seconds per mile off of the existing world record pace. Physically, within the realm of elite marathon runners from around the world, even just trying to find people who could maintain 4:34 mile pace for that long narrowed us down to three guys that we felt could do it.

Then looking at the physical location, where is the optimal place to do this? We ended up settling on a Formula 1 race track and Monza, Italy, which is probably not anyone’s first idea. There were questions around, should we run it in a straight line? Should we run it a sub-zero elevation? There’s a number of theories out there.

It was an exhaustive research process to land on where was the best place to run it and then what was the best time to run it. And then finally the sort of the linchpin of the whole thing was the teamwork and pacing that it took to actually get the runners to maintain that pace. In existing marathon running—not to go too inside baseball—but in existing marathon running, pacers usually drop off around halfway through the race. And there’s no one that can pace the entire race. Obviously, if they could, 2 hours would have been broken on a major marathon course. So trying to find the right balance and orchestration of bringing in a bunch of pacers to be able to drive that ruthless pace for 2 hours was also quite a delicate exercise.

Adweek: Would this record have counted?

McCambridge: The marathon course was ratified, so it was an official, record-eligible course, but it would not have counted because of a couple of rules within the complex and tortuous rule book of marathon running. One of which is pacing, so having pacers come into the course after the race has started. And the other is hydration— actually handing off a water to athletes as they’re in motion versus having them pick it up off the table. Those were the two things that would have kept it from being an official record.

Adweek: Eric, do you think it would have mattered as a marketing victory if this hadn’t been a legitimate record?

Baldwin: It was enough of a victory because really the whole point of it was to find the limits to human potential. So seeing that and, again, just the audaciousness of trying to complete this task, I think that was the win in this thing.

Adweek: Jason, let’s talk about the production side. I’m curious to know more about how you even begin. Just documenting one marathon would be a pretty logistically heavy production exercise. How did you even begin staffing this and budgeting it?

Puris: We used a very small doc crew to cover most of the non-marathon stuff. For the marathon attempt itself, we worked with a group called Uncle Toad Media Group, and they are experts in live (coverage). So they had the course itself sort of wired and covered from every angle, plus we had a camera car obviously following them, and then we also had that small doc crew in to get the beauty images. The stuff that Uncle Toad was doing ended up being the live stuff that was going out over Twitter. We were able to take all of that footage and ultimately use it in the hour-long doc that we did for Nat Geo, though.

Adweek: At the moment that you got that final number, and you’re so close but didn’t quite make it, what was that feeling like for you?

McCambridge: I was in the live broadcast booth, and we knew probably with one lap to go that it was a nearly impossible for Eliud to pick up the pace to actually cover and cross under the 2-hour mark. It was a mix of sadness for him to have an athlete do something … the equivalent is hard to put a comparison to, but if LeBron (James) scored 100 points or 99 points in a Game 7 and still lost. It would be in that type of admiration and respect and awe. I know the director of the documentary was crying when Eliud crossed the line. I don’t know that there was a person in the audience live that didn’t feel an overwhelming sense of awe.

Puris: I think the fact that he was only 25 second short is a huge difference than if he was 5 minutes short. I think people may have been crying then, but I think when you see it all come together, you realize, wow, what he did is impossible.

Baldwin: I think the team was just excited to be a part of it because it was such a monumental thing that Nike wanted to do. That feeling of whether they make it or not wasn’t as important to the team even, just because they knew that they were going to be a part of something that was a historical event, because he did come so close to breaking it.

Adweek: Mark, you can field the obnoxious question that agency people get asked all the time, especially at Cannes: Did it sell shoes?

McCambridge: The answer to that question is yes. There was a technology that was in development in concert with this project that has actually taken home a very, very large quantity of victories in road races in the last year. So the project itself was a springboard for a technology platform that is currently in market, the ZoomX foam, which you can actually now find in a number of different consumer-available products, which I won’t go into hawking at this point because that’s just fundamentally against the spirit of this project. But yes, it is something that has sold a fair number of shoes.

Adweek: But would you say that was the motivation going in?

McCambridge: No. I mean, I suppose I should say yes, but the actual motivation was truly to see if someone was physically and mentally capable of running at those speeds and achieving the moonshot of 2 hours. I think if we looked at this exclusively as an opportunity to sell more shoes, we probably would have taken a different approach.

Puris: I will say as a marathon runner myself, when I’ve crossed the line at a couple half marathons recently and I’ve seen people wearing those shoes, I’d be like, “Hey, how do you like those 4 Percents?” They say like, “Wow, I just PR’d by 5 minutes!” So it’s real. It’s amazing.

Adweek: And you guys also just worked on a campaign around those 4 Percents, right, with Lena Waithe?

Puris: Yeah, we did, called “Shoe Therapy.” Lena Waithe was the shoe therapist. Shalane Flanagan, who had won the New York City Marathon, it’s about a dream that she had that the night before the marathon that someone stole her shoes.

Adweek: So even though that wasn’t necessarily the primary motivation, it did have a product benefit and a sales benefit. To that point, Mark, what do you think is the lesson here for brands? What’s the lesson of trying things this ambitious?

McCambridge: The lesson on trying things this ambitious is, it’s great when it works out. And in this instance, as a human story, as an opportunity to look at what humans are capable of it, it was exceptionally successful. I think the reality is, if we look at the broader consumer, the person we’re trying to connect with as a sport brand, people want reasons to believe that we’re capable of doing incredible things. So even in technical or, if you get into the exact numerical value of this race, it was looked at as not successful, the response to the attempt was overwhelmingly positive, and it continues to have positive effects. So looking at Breaking2 as a brand, I think it’s something that has given us a very, very strong position to continue to try to look at what humans are capable of and, obviously, where can we go from there

Adweek: Eric, what do you think your team at Wieden + Kennedy learned from this?

Baldwin: We always try to encourage everybody that we work with to take as many shots as they can, and you never know which one’s going to stick and which one’s going to really resonate with people. I think from our perspective, we don’t think of this as a failure at all,  just because of the response to the event. People enjoyed it, and I feel like the residual effect is there. Whether or not that exact project was successful or not, I don’t think really, really matters.

Adweek: So Mark, what’s next?

McCambridge: We’re always on the hunt for new ways to explore human potential. I’ll put it at that.

Adweek: But you don’t think you’ll do Breaking2 Two?

McCambridge: My personal opinion is it’s highly unlikely. We’re looking for ways to maximize the possibility of breaking records on the road, and I think actually the very positive thing is we’ve seen major marathons around the world start to reconsider certain factors in their own courses or their approach to racing or pacing that seemed to be very informed by Breaking2.

Adweek: If a competitor pulls off a similar feat, which they have been attempting, how will you feel if they somehow find a way to make it work?

McCambridge: I’d feel great. This is a opportunity for us to see what people are capable of. So I would tip my proverbial hat.



@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."