Two hours: A Writing Exercise

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[A moment ago, I started a stopwatch. I plan to sit here at my computer for the next two hours and write about Nike’s ‘breaking2’ publicity stunt for that exact amount of time. I’ll try to fix typos and other errors as I go, but one way or the other, when the watch hits 2:00:00, I’m done. Wish me luck!]

Nike has already won; you know that, don’t you?

Nike’s self-described moonshot attempt to enable a human being to run 26 miles 385 actual yards in under two hours has already generated the kind of buzz that is a PR person’s dream. There is a hot prediction thread on LetsRun.com and an extensive preview with various experts weighing in. It almost feels like a real event.

The fact that most of those experts see little chance of Eliud Kipchoge, or either of the other two runners succeeding in breaking the two-hour barrier matters not at all. The fact that we’re all paying attention is the payoff.

It’s no bold prediction to say that the runners won’t succeed, notwithstanding all the careful planning and artificial assistance with pacing, hydration, shoes, apparel, etc.
But never mind that, because the lengthy discussions of WHY they are likely to fall short, only further spotlight Nike’s innovations, and in spite of myself, I’ve been drawn into the interesting explanations for why the runners will fade or blow up, or whatever they will do. In fact, dire predications that point out the audacity of what the runners are trying to achieve only help gin up interest in the attempt.

As I see it, failure is not only an option, it’s not at all a bad thing, especially if the failure happens in an interesting way (say, if Kipchoge runs under the existing WR, or if he runs to 20M at sub-2:00 pace and then blows up in spectacular fashion). Either way, Nike wins.

I wonder whether the folks at Nike are aware that their runners are unlikely to succeed? I suspect that they are, and that knowledge does not contradict their promoting the event throughout the running community. They surely must know that staging the event at 5:30 a.m. (Italy time) on an automotive race track, closed to the public, surrounded by technicians, and streaming the whole thing into the early hours of the morning in the U.S., is not going to produce the kind of Roger Bannister moment that a truly epochal achievement would deserve.

But then, Nike has never really promoted the idea that this is about any one individual. They are not out to make Eliud Kipchoge a household name.

If I sound overly cynical, I apologize.

I want to be clear where I stand on this whole enterprise. I think that it is fundamentally a stunt that has little to do with the real sport of distance running, and that it is being staged solely for the benefit of a large global corporation whose motives are brand dominance. I think the breaking2 effort is meant to demonstrate the superiority of the massively corporate approach to performance. And I don’t think the runners need to break two hours for Nike to claim that they’ve pushed the performance limits further than anyone has before. And to be honest, in spite of my general animus to the project, I’ve been sucked in wondering what will happen, just like everyone else.

But I wonder whether the executive vice-presidents at Nike have been thinking about the end game, here. How is this going to play out, and how long is it useful to fund the ongoing effort. It’s all speculation on my part, of course, but I wonder whether the project team asked for more time – perhaps even another few months to make an attempt in the fall – and were told, “No, we do not want a prolonged process; we are sticking to our original six-month PR campaign.” And then, the team discussed the possible outcomes, gave their own assessment of the runners’ chances, and – along with their bosses – agreed on how they would manage the various types of risks. At this point, I’m sure there are multiple drafts of press releases to be issued, considering different possible scenarios.

You see, I don’t think this is about running.

I think this is about research and development. I think this is not a contest or a competition but a demonstration. And I know from having worked in the High-Tech field for so long that a demo doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective, it just has to leave a powerful impression in the viewer’s mind of the possibilities of new technology. It can (and should) be aspirational.

The ideal outcome from Nike’s perspective, I think, would be for one or more of the runners to run between 2:01 and 2:02, which would be a huge improvement over the current world best, if it were actually achieved under legitimate conditions. “See,” Nike would say, “We have shown the promise of technology and Nike’s corporate can-do spirit. We have pointed the way. We are the company that took on the two-hour barrier, and one day, when a man finally runs 1:59:59, it will be because of us.” What could one say to that? And who would bother writing that the circumstances of the demonstration had been engineered to be favorable to the point that there was actually no official record?

A less ideal outcome would be if someone actually runs 1:59:59 or better, in which case Nike will have to deal with the hundred of stories pointing out that the run was nothing like a race and therefore was a meaningless exercise in simplifying the task to the point that it was achievable.

Well, it’s all speculation on my part. But as my own two hours winds down, I think, perhaps, that I’ve talked myself into rooting for Kipchoge to actually do the deed. If he manages to break two hours after all, then Nike will have a lot of explaining to do.

And wouldn’t it be ironic if Nike’s plans all along had been to stage a noble and inspirational failure, and if the human in the middle of the show, innocent of their true motives and motivated by a mad self-confidence, stepped up and ruined their plans by actually doing what they claimed they were helping him attempt.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for the past thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. About a dozen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past eight years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, MA. I've been writing for as long as I've been running. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and after a two-year hiatus, began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. In my experience, writing about running is way harder than running itself. I also still have a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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