Nike’s Breaking2 initiative was a crazy physical achievement and a brilliant marketing campaign

Nike’s Breaking2 initiative didn’t quite reach its goal of breaking the two-hour marathon mark, but that hasn’t stopped the company from crowing about the results.

Nike has been working with three runners, Eliud Kipchoge, Lelisa Desisa and Zersenay Tadese, to break the two-hour threshold. It wasn’t just giving them shoes — a variation of the Zoom Vaporfly Elite — but also putting them through an array of tests and creating race conditions (including choosing the right course, date and time) for optimal speed.

The result? Well, Kipchoge was the fastest of the three. With a time of 2 hours and 25 seconds, he not only he beat his personal best of 2:03:05, he also came awfully close to finishing under two hours. And that’s two minutes faster than the world record, which is held by Dennis Kimetto at 2:02:57.

And while Kipchoge didn’t quite reach that official two-hour goal, Nike will get plenty of mileage from the event. It posted live video of the race on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — on Facebook, as I write this on Saturday evening, the livestream has been viewed 4.9 million times, and a shorter clip highlighting Kipchoge’s finish has been viewed 4.2 million times. (You’ll probably see plenty more ads featuring that clip.)

It may seem kind of gross to talk about this achievement as if it was just a marketing campaign. But from Nike’s perspective, that is what it was — the company wasn’t running Twitter ads promoting the #Breaking2 hashtag all day on a whim.

You might feel even more cynical about the initiative when you realize that Nike paid the three runners to skip the London and Berlin marathons this year, and that Kipchoge’s time won’t become the official world record, because the Breaking2 marathon used a non-compliant arrangement of runners who ran ahead to set the pace and reduce drag.

That doesn’t mean everything was done for the sake of marketing. After all, if you want a lot of eyeballs on your race, you probably don’t schedule it for 11:45pm Eastern on a Friday night, and you don’t close it off from the general public. First and foremost, Nike seems to have been laser-focused on getting the fastest times possible — and then promoting the heck out of the results.

To me, at least, Breaking2 seems to have reached a kind of marketing nirvana, something that brands promise all the time without really delivering — a great story that also happens to be part of an advertising campaign.

In fact, it was exciting enough that at least one other shoe brand had to share its compliments on Twitter. (2017 is weird, you guys.) And hey, if any marketers want to replicate Nike’s success, they just need a team of sports researchers, months of training time and the participation of the world’s top athletes.

Maybe my favorite part of this story is the fact that Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic had previously predicted that the best possible time for a man running a marathon is 1:57:58. Today, Kipchoge came within three minutes of that physiological limit, closer than anyone’s ever come before. If that feat helps Nike sell more shoes, I’m totally okay with that.