Running is sexy now. Urban crews are taking over from stuffy old running clubs, cool new labels are producing performance running gear that looks more like streetwear, and trail sneakers are a staple at major fashion weeks. Even in the professional sport itself, things are changing in a big way.
At the forefront is a 34-year-old Kenyan named Eliud Kipchoge and his longstanding sponsor Nike. Kipchoge is for many the greatest runner of all time, smashing the marathon world record with a time of 2:01:39 in Berlin last year and coming agonizingly close to breaking the two-hour barrier (albeit in non-world record eligible conditions) during Nike’s Breaking2 attempt in Monza, Italy.
Nike, meanwhile, has over the course of the last five years reestablished itself as a serious running name after a period in which even the Swoosh itself would admit it had lost the trust of some runners. Now, though, Nike is again the brand all athletes want, even need, to wear.
Athletes wearing the Vaporfly 4% (so named for the percentage it improves performance) won more major marathons in 2018 than all other athletes combined. Some non-Nike athletes have even gone to the length of racing in them with the Swoosh covered, so great is the supposed advantage.
The shoe's successor, the ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%, was unveiled last month, and a few days later it was christened by Kipchoge as he stormed to victory in them at the London Marathon.
Kipchoge has become the face of running and Nike's recent success in the sport. He isn't a billboard-friendly name in the vein of Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James, but he should be. This is a man who has won 11 of his 12 major marathons at truly superhuman speeds (seriously, step on a treadmill at 13mph and see how long you last). He is one of the greatest athletes of all time and he still never skips chores such as cleaning the toilets at his Kenyan basecamp.
We sat down with Kipchoge in Berlin to discuss the future of running, Nike’s NEXT% innovation, and the possibility of him breaking the two-hour marathon barrier when he next attempts it in London later this year.
I know you’re a big Tottenham Hotspur fan. What can running learn from football and do you think it's possible for the sport to generate a similar level of fandom in the future?
I think, actually, the most important thing is to first inspire people to run. It's important to tell people that running is the only place where you can be free. People need to realize that the only time you can enjoy true freedom in this world is when you are running.
Beyond that, I think one day, running will become more of a team sport because you can achieve more as a team and there are more opportunities for the sport to grow that way. When you train as a team, for example, it's easier to perform and easier to complete hard training sessions than when you are just an individual. It would also be more exciting to watch.
What do you still have to achieve in your career and kind of legacy do you want to leave when you retire? Why is breaking the two-hour marathon barrier so important?
In the future, I still need to perform well and I still need to win marathons. But I feel more than anything that I need to make history. I feel tasked to break the two-hour barrier. Over the last years, since the Nike Breaking2 project in Monza, I've always felt that I need to try once again.
I think it would show people that anything is possible. Other runners would start to believe in themselves. They would really trust the hard work that they are doing to achieve their goals. It would remove the notion that the human body or the human mind is limited. I want to do it so everybody can see that this is not true, and so that everybody can come and enjoy the sport and experience the freedom running gives you.
How does your partnership with Nike work? How closely do you work on new products in terms of shaping them in the way you want them before they hit the market?
I work very closely with Nike. Everything we do, we do 100 percent. They really got the best out of us during the Breaking2 attempt, and now I don't just get support from them as an athlete, but as a human being too. I actually remember the first time I tried on all of Nike's racing shoes, not just the NEXT%.
For all of my 12 marathons, I have been wearing Nike. I love the innovation every time, the development of the shoe over the years. I look forward to change. I'm always ready to test new products. I want to push all things forward.
What do you think about the impact technological advancements will have on the future of running? There are people out there, for instance, who think that there needs to be less technology involved in the sport.
Running will absolutely be heavily influenced by technology in the future. Technology is driving us in all aspects of life. Right now, in running, it's the technology from Nike and other companies like Maurten [the drinks company that supplies Kipchoge’s energy before, during, and after races]. To those people who do not want these advancements, I say you cannot stop the world. The world is moving already and you cannot stop it. You need to accept change and live with the change.
You’re already the greatest marathoner of all time. How does this make you feel?
My happiest moments are always when I learn that I've inspired someone in some way. That's what makes me happy. Whether I inspire people to run faster, or to start running, or to be a better person, it doesn't matter.
You always lead the pack in races, and you’re the de facto leader of long-distance running, but what is required of the leaders of the future?
You need to have a good character to be a leader. You need positivity about life, a belief that you can achieve anything. You need to be able to trust other human beings, so they can trust you just the same. That's what makes you a good leader. You have to set a good example. My advice to young people is to really believe in what they are doing. To believe in running, in their training, in themselves. To trust themselves. You know, running is life, it can teach you how to live as a human being.