How Nike Gave the Internet Runner’s High

— Marisa Lalli 

I wouldn’t call myself a runner. I’m more of a Soul Cycle or Beyoncé dance class kind of person. Running is intimidating – that fear factor of not being able to run fast or far, fear of not having the right shoes or shorts, and really, the fear of everyone thinking that I’m walking when in fact I am literally going as fast as we can. Or at least as fast as I think I can.

So it’s surprising to me that I had the reaction I did to Nike’s latest initiative – Breaking2. The quest for the sub-two-hour marathon was not something I was familiar with, but for the runners among us, it’s the stuff of legend. Math and science and general logic all tell us the human body cannot sustain a two-hour marathon. Nike called this attempt its “moonshot.” It wasn’t likely that it would happen, and spoiler alert – it actually didn’t happen. But that wasn’t the purpose of Breaking2.

The real purpose of Breaking2 was to reinvigorate Nike’s identity as the authority on running. For the past few years, retro and fashion sneakers have been gaining market share with the more performance-based footwear falling behind. With Breaking2, Nike managed to remind the world that it is, in fact, the authority on all things running with a campaign that shows emotion, innovation, commitment and sheer chutzpah.

Nike treated the entire experience as a scientific experiment – chronicling everything from the preparation, to the equipment (new shoe) to the race day itself. They started with an exclusive, and went all in. They worked with Wired and Ed Caesar, who wrote the book Two Hours: The Quest To Run The Impossible Marathon. Ed used the same training regime, apparel, and expertise as Nike’s three elite athletes to try to achieve his own personal milestone: a sub-90-minute half-marathon. Ed went on to report seven exclusive stories on Breaking2 for Wired. Collectively, these have been shared out over 32K times from alone.

But it wasn’t just the Wired takeover that made a splash in an otherwise sports-heavy weekend (hello, Kentucky Derby). The 360 approach of earned, paid and owned consumed the weekend’s social channels, from the livestreams on Nike’s Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, to the countless editors that Nike flew to Italy, documenting everything from their 6am runs to well-earned Italian feasts.

Nike co-founder and track coach Bill Bowerman says The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart. The real purpose of Breaking2 was never to break the record itself and it wasn’t to launch a new shoe. The real purpose was to test the limits of the human heart. And Nike did that 10 fold. If you are an avid runner, a running enthusiast, or even a casual runner, you were likely drawn to challenge of it all – the attempt to break the unbreakable record, testing the human heart in the most literal of terms. And if, like me, you are, at best, an apathetic runner, you were likely drawn to the mythic quality of it all – can we, mere humans, endure this? Can the spirit of the human heart withstand this?

Breaking2 is emotional storytelling at its very best – Nike personified the ethos of the company with this endeavor, staying true to its core but at the same time making running interesting, exciting and maybe even accessible to the masses. With the right writer, a huge investment and the ability to face the unknown head-on, Nike turned an otherwise ‘unofficial race’ into a cultural moment that people will talk about for years. And they’re not stopping anytime soon, using the endorphin high to create a documentary and future “moonshot” projects, potentially with female athletes.

After pouring over the media coverage and the content Nike created, I found myself, self-proclaimed apathetic runner, ready to strap on my shoes and take on a 10k. 


 Connect with the author, Marisa Lalli, on Twitter.