This weekend at the Berlin Marathon, Eliud Kipchoge set out to break the marathon world record. He wasn’t the first person to line up with the Brandenberg Gate at their back, the fastest marathon course in the world ahead of them, and high hopes of record-breaking running filling their mind. But Sunday’s race wasn’t quite like all those other times because Kipchoge knew before the gun was fired that he could – in the right conditions – run faster than 2:02:57. Because back in May, as part of Nike’s Breaking2 project, he did just that.
He ran 26.2 miles on a 2.4km loop around the Autodromo Nazionale Monza race track in 2:00:25. While it was incredibly fast, because of the carefully orchestrated nature of the Breaking2 run, the Monza time would of course never be officially recognised. On that day Kipchoge missed his goal by 26 seconds but with this performance under his belt, all the weight of Nike’s flagship project still behind him, it’s no surprise that he felt Berlin could be his shot at history. With a bit of luck with the weather, Breaking2 could become official.
I’ve followed the Breaking2 story closely. Having spent the last six years writing about the magic that happens technology and running collide, I’ve covered everything from innovations in biometric tracking, to brain training neuroscience, developments in nutrition and the latest running shoes design. I’ve obsessed over the idea that performance technology has the potential to provide that edge to make all of us run further, faster and better. And often been lucky enough to use this cutting edge tech to pursue my own running goals.
It’s no surprise therefore that I’m firmly in the camp that sees this as more than just a marketing gimmick. Nike’s Breaking2 might have raised some eyebrows among the purists but for anyone who’s interested in sports science and technology it was a chance to see what could be possible if money were no object and the top brains in the business used all their nouse to push for one goal. The result, as this documentary following the whole project shows was quite remarkable.
On a visit to Nike HQ back in 2013 I got to see the labs first hand and the technology used to assess, refine and improve the kit we wear amazing. The idea that Nike would throw the kitchen sink at breaking the elusive 2-hour marathon was pretty exciting. Even more so when one of the products of that endeavour, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite running shoes, would then be used by Kipchoge as he tried to break the world record in Berlin. Sadly neither the 2-hour barrier nor the world record fell but that hasn’t made it any less interesting to watch.
The Nike Breaking2 shoes
Unsurprisingly much of what’s been written about Nike Breaking2 has focused on these shoes, made bespoke for the athletes’ tilt at history making. And these are no ordinary shoes.
The Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite took athlete insights, combined that with biomechanics analysis and cutting-edge engineering to tune each pair of shoes perfectly for the three athletes.
A whole host of new tech debuted in the Vaporfly Elite shoes. For a start they featured the all-new Nike ZoomX foam, the most responsive EVA (the stuff most shoe soles are made of) on the market, capable of up to 85 per cent energy return. They also have a full-length carbon fibre plate, covering the whole foot, to increase stiffness and provide a sensation of propulsion. A 21-mm forefoot stack height and 9-mm offset are designed to minimise Achilles strain. And that crazy looking aerodynamic heel reduces drag while a Flyknit upper hugs the foot without adding weight.
Being handed a pair of Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite is the running equivalent of being handed the keys to Lewis Hamilton’s spare Mercedes F1 car and told to take it for a spin.
I didn’t expect to be sat here just four months after the actual record attempt clutching one of the few pairs of the limited edition Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite, just like those the athletes wore to tear it around the track at Monza in search of history.
It’s the running equivalent of being handed the keys to Lewis Hamilton’s spare Mercedes F1 car and told to take it for a spin. Which, of course, I did.
First spin in the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite
The first thing you notice when you take the Vaporfly Elite out of the box is how light they are considering the amount of midsole they have. One shoe weighs less than my Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphone. Unlike some super-lightweight shoes, these somehow still look a lot more robust. Like there’s more shoe.
One of the ideas behind the shoe was to create a track spike like feel in a marathon shoe, combining lightweight propulsion with enough support and comfort for the 26.2.
The moment you slip them on you’re aware that the shoes are urging you up onto your forefoot, even when you walk but it’s not a feeling that feels like it’s interrupting your own style. Once you get moving it somehow melts into your natural flow, while also giving you a feeling of fast.
I always say you know a good pair of running shoes when you put them on and it’s as if they’re not there and these fit that bill. Thus far I’ve only done a 7km spin around London’s streets in the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite but I found the fit was snug and unlike other cushioned shoes, I still felt like I was connected to the ground with decent stability.
This is the first pair of race shoes I think I’ve ever worn that feel minimal while also offering the kind of cushioned ride you’d get in a training shoe but without feeling spongey.
For us mortal everyday runners who can only dream of running a Park Run at Kipchoge’s marathon pace, light is nothing without comfort and these tick both boxes.
Naturally the question I want to answer is how fast these shoes can really make me? And with that in mind…
It’s time to (Vapor)fly
If you’re given a pair of shoes as rare as this, you’ve got to do something special with them. And so I’ve spent the last week wondering how to do them justice. Eventually it was WIRED.co.uk’s run-obsessed editor Matt Burgess who gave me an inspired idea on Instagram.
“Just spend the next six months smashing all your PBs with them. That’ll do it.” It was a casual comment from Matt but that little seed has been growing ever since and so my fate has been sealed. My goals are set. 2018 will be the #YearofPBs. It’s time for my own version of Nike’s ambitious project, let’s call it #Breaking3.
In 2018, I will use my Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite to break my personal best over every distance up to the marathon. What does that look like numbers? Here are my current PBs.
Half marathon: 1:22:53
1 mile: 5:40
Aside from my mile PB, all of these times were run more than 3 years ago when I was a sprightly 36 year old. By the time I set about breaking them I’ll be bearing down on my 40th birthday. Wish me luck.