Eliud Kipchoge's sub-two-hour marathon a historic milestone in marketing

Running man: Eliud Kipchoge shows how pleased he is with his free shoes. Picture: Nike
Running man: Eliud Kipchoge shows how pleased he is with his free shoes. Picture: Nike

What has been billed as a breakthrough moment in human achievement could also be remembered as a similarly historic milestone in orchestrated brand promotion.

When Eliud Kipchoge became the first human being to complete the famed 42.2-kilometre distance inside the mystical two-hour timeframe, the achievement was immediately likened to Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile and even Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon.

On face value, it is a momentous achievement.

Since 490BC when Pheidippides ran the distance from Marathon to Athens naked, announced the Persians were about to invade and then dropped dead, generations of runners have been attempting to replicate his feat, albeit without the naked and dying bits.

The progression of the marathon world record has always been something of a minefield, which might help explain why the proponents run so fast.

Many times are considered questionable, not least because courses have not always been of unified length or correctly certified, but in general terms, the men's record has dropped by about an hour in the last century.

American Johnny Hayes' time of 2:55.18 set at the 1908 Olympic Games in London when the current race distance was standardised is recognised as the first reliable benchmark. Over the next 111 years it was gradually chipped away with varying degrees of authenticity with particular note worthy of Ethiopian Abebe Bikila whose 1960 time of 2:15.16 was also the fastest marathon in bare feet.

Of the last six official world record holders, one hailed from Ethiopia and five from Kenya with all those times set at the Berlin Marathon.

The last of those was Kipchoge's 2:01.39 a year ago.

Coming so close to the elusive two-hour barrier poked the interest not just of athletics statisticians but an equally shady branch of society - marketing gurus.

Kipchoge's sponsors were out of the blocks quicker than the man himself [Editor's note: Oi Shaw, marathon runners don't use blocks] [Author's note: I don't care, run with me on this] [Editor's note: Enough with the running puns] [Author's note: Sorry, been a bit run down lately].

I'm with the ABC on this so will attempt to complete this column without mentioning either the event organiser or Kipchoge's shoe sponsor, save for the required picture credit.

Firstly, they organised a special event at which the Olympic champion was invited to go a bit faster.

Advertised as "an innovation moonshot designed to unlock human potential" it was held on Italy's Monza racetrack where Kipchoge clocked 2:00:25. What a loser.

Undeterred, those lovable marketing types tried again, this time naming the project the 1:59 Challenge just to keep Eliud in no doubt as to what was expected of him.

Scheduled to be held in Vienna, it left no stone unturned, or indeed any stone at all as every possible variable was meticulously controlled.

Reportedly costing £15 million to stage ($28 million), it was to be held at the optimum time during a nine-day window on a resurfaced, wind-protected straight course which was totally flat save for the banked corners.

A team of 41 pacemakers (including Tasmanian Stewart McSweyn) would accompany Kipchoge in a 'V' formation designed to further reduce drag following a car from which a laser beam maintained the desired pace and direction with drinks provided from supporting cyclists.

It is not known whether Pheidippides had such assistance.

The result was a time of 1:59.40. Kipchoge had indeed become the first human to run a marathon in under two hours.

But it took a lot less than another two hours for questions to arise about the achievement.

As so many factors had been engineered to Kipchoge's advantage, the IAAF had already made it clear the time would not be recognised as an official world record - something never sought by the organisers.

Independent observers also questioned the time's legitimacy although it is worth remembering that Bannister also had the help of pacemakers in 1954 while Armstrong had a fairly substantial support team assisting his 1969 giant leap.

Paul Bisceglio, associate editor at The Atlantic, called it both "a triumph of humanity" and "a brazen defiance of the marathon's spirit".

No sooner had Kipchoge crossed the line than the marketing men took up the baton.

An email swiftly arrived in my inbox telling me all about the $446 prototype shoes Kipchoge was wearing, although it is unclear whether he paid that much for them.

The shoes worn by the pacemakers were called ZoomX Vaporfly Next%, if you were wondering.

It is worth remembering that the sportswear brand concerned is the same one that recently shut down its famed Oregon Project after the four-year doping ban handed out to its founder and coach Alberto Salazar.

It is also the same brand that backed Marion Jones, Lance Armstrong and Maria Sharapova until their respective drug scandals, had a major rethink about its "Winning Takes Care Of Everything" campaign following Tiger Woods' fall from grace, ended its deal with Oscar Pistorius after he was charged with murdering his girlfriend and ditched Manny Pacquiao after he said gay people were "worse than animals".

No wonder it didn't get the IAAF's tick of approval.

This story Marathon's marvellous marketing milestone first appeared on The Examiner.