Nike Marathon Stunt Fails to Break Two-Hour Barrier

By Sara Germano Features Dow Jones Newswires

Nike Inc.'s attempt to stage the first sub-two-hour marathon fell just short Saturday, a rare marketing miss for the world's largest sportswear maker.

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Eliud Kipchoge, the reigning Olympic marathon champion, finished the company-controlled race in two hours, 25 seconds--more than two minutes better than the current world best. Still, his mark likely won't be ratified as a world record, since Nike didn't obey regulations on pacing and hydrating in its race. Two other runners, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, fell out of contention early and finished several minutes behind.

Nike invested years of research and had more than a dozen employees working on the project, dubbed Breaking 2, a multifaceted effort to engineer technically sophisticated footwear and prepare the three elite distance runners to break an iconic time barrier in sports. The race was staged on a Formula One racetrack in Monza, Italy, selected for its ideal climate for distance running, and Nike flew in dozens of other world-class runners to set the pace for the contestants.

Ultimately, the Breaking 2 race amounted to a two-hour live-stream program by Nike that was part commercial, part sporting event, and part foray into broadcasting with celebrity commentary. The race was shown across several social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Nike didn't respond to questions regarding whether it will continue the project. In a statement, Chief Executive Mark Parker, who attended the marathon, said "this achievement represents more than a race. It's a moment of global inspiration that will encourage every athlete, in every community, to push the limits of their potential."

In the months before the event, Nike said it wouldn't consider it a failure if the runners didn't break two hours. Still, not meeting the ambitious time goal may thwart the company's plans to sell $250 carbon-plate running shoes--modeled after those worn Saturday by the pros--to the general public.

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Breaking the two-hour marathon has become something of an arms race among top sportswear companies, with rival Adidas AG working on a similar project. The German company sponsors the current world record holder, Dennis Kimetto of Kenya, who ran 2:02:57 in 2014. Running under two hours would require a 2.4% improvement over Mr. Kimetto's record, a wide margin for a sport which typically sees world records broken by much smaller percentages.

Nike is the world's largest sports brand by revenue, though it has been struggling with sales in North America, its home market, amid a changing retail environment and a shift away from technical shoes toward more casual sneakers. That shift has favored Adidas, which this week reported a 31% jump in sales in the region for its most recent period.

Nike spends more than $3 billion each year on so-called demand creation expenses, which includes marketing and endorsement costs. In an interview with Runner's World published this week, Mr. Parker wouldn't quantify how much the company spent on the marathon race, saying it was expensive but "it's not like we're reckless sailors."

It isn't clear what is next for the three runners, who skipped the lucrative spring marathon season to focus on the Nike race. Jos Hermens, an agent representing Mr. Kipchoge, said in an interview last week that anything slower than the current world record "would be a failure."

It is the third time Mr. Kipchoge has fallen short when chasing a time goal, including at the Berlin Marathon in 2015 when the insoles of his Nike shoes fell apart and caused him to miss the world record by 63 seconds.

Write to Sara Germano at sara.germano@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 06, 2017 03:43 ET (07:43 GMT)