by Mike Cassidy
April 1, 2017
Sources have leaked the press release Nike will release if its sub-2 hour marathon exhibition is successful.
MONZA, Italy —In a raw and unprecedented display of speed and endurance, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite today redefined the limits of athletic footwear performance, becoming the first shoes to complete a marathon in less than two hours, clocking 1:59:43 for the classic 26.2-mile distance.
The feat is as unexpected as it is inspiring, a testament to what scientific progress can achieve, when suitably paired with marketing genius. Just months ago, Nike, the Oregon-based epitome of human transcendence, was roundly pilloried for setting a goal seen as ambitious to the point of absurdity.
Breaking2, as Nike’s quest to break two hours for the marathon was christened, would require a 2.5 percent improvement on the previous world record of 2:02:57, set in Berlin in 2014 by the now laughably inferior adidas Adizero Adios Boost 2.0.
“We are humbled to be a part of this monumental expectation-shattering, worldview-revolutionizing watershed milestone of epochal transformation,” said Mark Parker, Nike Chairman, President, and CEO. “It is truly hyperbole superlative.”
The record attempt got underway just after 5:00 p.m. local time at the famed Autodromo Nazionale Monza Formula One race track. Joined by two Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite compatriots, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite took off at a preposterously fast, yet carefully measured tempo, the cadence meticulously meted out by a phalanx of ten Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% pacemakers. Heading the procession was a lead vehicle piloted by an experienced Formula One test driver and outfitted with hundreds of thousands of dollars of timing equipment, which would seem excessive until you consider its ulterior wind-blocking capabilities.
The pack of Zoom Vaporflys stuck closely together in the early going, content to draft as the pacemakers clicked off consistent 4:34 mile splits. As expected, the conditions—10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) with negligible wind—were conducive to running fast, and the Zoom Vaporflys looked remarkably relaxed as they traversed the opening laps of what would be 17 circuits of the 2,400-meter oval.
Things remained mostly unchanged as the trio of irresistibly compelling Zoom Vaporflys passed the midway mark in 59:55, a staggering standalone half-marathon for shoes of any vintage. One by one, the pacemakers dropped off, but, with splits delivered every 200 meters, the tempo remained steady.
The decisive move came at 35 kilometers (21.7 miles), when the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite somehow, improbably, accelerated, its parabolic carbon-fiber plate providing effortless transitions while its ZoomX midsole foam optimized energy return from each powerful stride. Within moments, the Zoom Vaporfly had a lead of 20 meters, then 50 meters on the other Zoom Vaporflys. 35-40K was covered in an absurd 13:58, and the magical barrier was clearly in sight.
While the initial plan called for substitute pacers to join the race en route, the Zoom Vaporfly Elite looked so majestically composed that the backups were called off at the last minute, so as to preserve the result for IAAF certification purposes.
Again and again, the glorious cycle continued, each lightweight-cushioned footfall followed by a responsive, energy-returning toe-off, as the Zoom Vaporfly, its Flyknit upper hugging tight to its contoured body, aerodynamically floated towards the finish.
When the tape broke in 1:59:43, 17 seconds under goal pace and three-plus minutes ahead of that inferior shoemaker’s world best, the Nike team responsible for the effort was nearly speechless with joy.
“This isn’t about selling shoes. This is about pushing boundaries, redefining limits, showing the impossible is possible—provided, of course, that you buy our shoes,” declared Bret Schoolmeester, Nike’s Senior Innovation Director of Global Running Footwear.
The second-place Zoom Vaporfly stopped the clock in 2:02:25, also under the old record, while third place practically jogged home in a still-purchase-worthy 2:05:47.
“If Breaking2 was just a crass marketing ploy, would I be using this quote as an opportunity to tell you the Zoom Vaporflys will go on-sale on June 8 for the bargain price of $250?” asked Schoolmeester.
The Zoom Vaporfly’s momentous achievement surely ranks among the greatest breakthroughs in the history of athletic footwear, right up there with the 1996 Olympics, when the in-no-way-ergogenically-aided golden Nike spikes won both the 200 and 400 meters, or that time when the Nike Air Jordan 11’s saved the earth from aliens bent on expropriating humanity’s basketball talent.
Arguably the most impressive aspect of the Zoom Vaporfly’s stunning achievement is that Zoom Vaporflys are relatively new to international distance running.
“There was a time, not that long ago, when marathons were mostly a blue-collar affair,” noted David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene. “Races were won by regular shoes with recognizable names, relatable backgrounds, and unremarkable phenotypes—familiar, everyday footwear like New Balance Tracksters, Onitsuka Tigers, and Nike Bostons.”
What they lacked in natural talent, these pioneers made up for in grit and passion, logging countless miles while typically holding down a day job. But as mass participation road races exploded in popularity, running became increasingly professionalized. Generous prize purses, abundant appearance fees, and lucrative sponsorships attracted previously-untapped Zoom Vaporfly talent onto the global running scene.
The impact has been sudden and dramatic. Since their introduction in early 2016, Zoom Vaporflys have come to utterly dominate distance running. They swept the men’s marathon podium at the Rio Olympics, while also claiming victory at the London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City marathons in 2016.
Not surprisingly, the unrivaled ascendance of Nike Zoom Vaporflys has attracted considerable attention from observers seeking to explain their incomparable superiority. While there is yet no consensus, scientists, coaches, and other running experts have come up with a number of theories.
At the core is the debate between nature and nurture—are the Zoom Vaporflys endowed with some sort of innate advantage, or is their unquestionable supremacy achieved through training?
One camp puts the emphasis squarely on molecular makeup.
“Success is bred into the smallest monofilaments of their being,” said Stefan Guest, Nike Senior Footwear Design Director for Innovation. “The Zoom Vaporflys are the apotheosis of performance footwear. Their dominance is no accident— every bit of their DNA, from their ZoomX midsoles to their Flyknit uppers, was meticulously engineered expressly for the purpose of running fast.”
The real breakthrough, accordingly to completely neutral observers, is that the ZoomX foam allows the Zoom Vaporflys to simultaneously excel across dimensions traditionally seen as mutually incompatible.
“They’re both super cushioned and super lightweight,” noted Tony Bignell, Nike Vice President of Footwear Innovation. “I mean, they have a 31-millimeter stack height but weigh only 6.5 ounces. That’s preposterous!”
And the salubrious contradictions don’t end there, with an almost comically wide toe-box tapering into peaked heel counter that evokes the aerodynamic efficiency of a Tour de France time trial.
“If you were to design a shoe custom built for marathon success it would look exactly like this,” said Schoolmeester, Nike’s Senior Innovation Director for Innovative Innovativity. “So we did.”
Dr. Geng Luo, a senior researcher at the Nike Sport Research Lab, concurred.
“Geometries. It’s all about their geometries—angles, shapes, lines, curves, radius, hypotenuse, protractor,” said Luo, adding that “the more times I say ‘geometries,’ the smarter you’ll think I am, geometries.”
Bignell agreed, noting that a unique, proprietary application of sophomore year math explains the Vaporflys’ “distinct, 100% patented performance advantage.”
“You won’t see this technology anywhere else, said Bignell, “Or we’ll sue you so bad you’ll wish you were New Balance.”
And, indeed, independent laboratory tests have confirmed that the lightweight Pebax foam comprising the ZoomX have an off-the-charts 85 percent energy return. Working in tandem with the stiff, scoop-shaped carbon-fiber plate embedded within it—which optimizes ankle position and toe-off—the ZoomX achieves a level of economy well beyond the previously measured highs.
“The Vaporflys require four percent less energy than the next best racing flat to run at given pace,” explained Rodger Kram, head of the University of Colorado’s Locomotion Laboratory, and author of the study that gave the Vaporfly 4%’s their name.
While such a gain in running economy may seem implausible, we should trust the results because Kram is an independent expert, in the sense that he was paid by Nike.
“If you want to understand what’s going on, a good analogy is to think of the foam-plate combo as a spring-loaded lever,” said Guest, who may or may not slightly outrank Schoolmeester, innovation-wise. “Except don’t because that would probably be illegal.”
According to IAAF Rule 143, which governs competition footwear, shoes “must not be constructed so as to give an athlete any unfair additional assistance,” a situation which encompasses “any technology which will give the wearer any unfair advantage” and makes it abundantly clear generic tautologies are useful to no one.
Nike contends everything about the Zoom Vaporfly is 110 percent in compliance with both the language and spirit of the law, with Schoolmeester pointing out that “Hey, the shoes are freely available to any athlete who was smart enough to be impoverished, er, sponsored by Nike.”
Even more to the point, others suggest that the Zoom Vaporflys’ success is mostly about hard work, emphasizing the Zoom Vaporflys were raised in an environment that both celebrates and subsists on running.
“Let’s not forget that, from a young age, the Zoom Vaporflys were running six miles back and forth to school every day,” said Parker, Nike’s CEO whose title is curiously lacking in innovation. “It’s not like they just woke up one morning and were suddenly good. They were raised in a corporate culture that eats, breathes, and sleeps running. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a billion dollars to go give Kevin Durant.”
Guest recalls that early in their product lifecycle, Zoom Vaporflys “looked like a cross between Hoka One Ones and Vibrams. In other words, they may as well have been Reeboks.”
But through endless months spent single-mindedly being optimized for marathon performance—a typical day for Zoom Vaporflys consists entirely of training or resting—the unflappable footwear became the world-beaters they are today.
Underscoring it all were the financial incentives. For most Zoom Vaporflys, being sold as running shoes represents the best chance to escape subsisting as inventory. Nike, the unquestionably preeminent maker of athletic footwear whose hegemony is in no way under threat no matter what you might read in the newspaper, made sure the Vaporflys’ dreams could become a reality.
“Never underestimate the motivating force of pure, unadulterated greed,” said Schoolmeester. “When having more money, more market share, more power—did I mention more money?—is your sole, overriding ambition, failing to completely wipe out any competition simply is not an option. At Nike, we see running as a chance to escape the hardships of basic affluence and assert our constitutional right to monopolistic opulence.”
More likely than not, all of these explanations hold some truth, as Runner’s World Sweat Science columnist and PhD physicist Alex Hutchinson reasonably suggested. “I’ll admit, initially I was skeptical of Breaking2, but through a combination of talent and hard work, the Zoom Vaporflys surpassed even my 95% confidence interval expectations.”
To sum things up, in a passage definitely not taken from a press release, the Zoom Vaporflys are an astounding feat of engineering and design, an innovative and unprecedented marriage of comfort, style, and performance, emphasis on innovative.
Where they go from here will be limited only by imagination, determination, and the number of people brilliant marketing can convince to pay $250 for a pair of shoes that will last for about one race. But for now, the Zoom Vaporflys will bask in the well-deserved glory of being the fastest shoes ever to run a marathon.
Several African runners, including a Kenyan, an Ethiopian, and an Eritrean, whose names will remain anonymous, also took part in the event by running 26.2 miles while wearing the Zoom Vaporflys.