2018 – Eliud Kipchoge

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16-Sep-2018 – Berlin Marathon – 2:01:39 – Nike Zoom VaporFly Next% prototype
Date of birth: 5-Nov-1984
Nationality: Kenyan
World Record Duration: 4 years, 9 days

The athlete:                
It cannot be understated how high expectations were for Eliud Kipchoge coming into the 2018 Berlin Marathon. Since his marathon debut in 2013, where he won the Hamburg Marathon in 2:05:30, he had quickly established himself as someone to watch. This was only reinforced by his second place finish at the 2013 Berlin Marathon. He came in at 2:04:05 which was, at the time, the fifth fastest marathon in history.

He proceeded to win every other marathon he entered, including his gold medal performance at the 2016 Olympics. It was quite the transformation for an athlete who had previously focussed on the 5,000 metre distance. His Olympic victory was also notable for the prototype of the shoes with which he would become so closely linked.

The Nike Zoom VaporFly prototype that he wore looked quite different to the version he would wear in 2017 as part of Nike’s ‘Breaking 2’ project. You can read more about it here. In short Nike got three of the fastest men in the world, gave them prototype Zoom VaporFly shoes modified to their needs and set them loose around the Monza racing circuit.

Kipchoge didn’t break the 2 hour barrier as Nike hoped, but he got perilously close with a time of 2:00:25. Later that year at the Berlin Marathon he came similarly close to bettering the benchmark set by Dennis Kimetto in 2014, finishing in wet conditions with a time of 2:03:32. There would be no such issues at the 2018 event. Such was his pace that two of his three pacesetters dropped out well before Kipchoge reached halfway.

With weather far more favourable than the year before, Kipchoge would soon find himself racing against the clock. His pace only increased in the second half, and in the final 10 miles Kipchoge started going even faster. His final two kilometres were faster still, Kipchoge ensuring that when he crossed the line he would hold the world record.

Although the shoes Kipchoge wore were by that time commercially available, earlier in 2018 the rules were changed by World Athletics to prevent protoypes being used in competition like at the 2016 Olympics. Updates to Rule 143, which regulated athletic clothing, stated that only shoes that were reasonably available could be worn in competition. It should be noted again that even with the technological advantage, Kipchoge finished well ahead of the other two men wearing the protype VaporFly.

Kipchoge’s story was far from over, and in 2019 Nike wanted to try again to break the legendary 2:00 barrier for the marathon. You can read more about that here, but as you likely know he was successful, and still has more chances to set even lower times in official competition which is exactly what he did in 2022.

The shoes:                   

First sighted in prototype form in 2015, Nike wanted to completely change the running shoe landscape. Instead of focussing on weight reduction, they instead thought about how to provide better energy return while also providing comfort for distance running.

They updated an idea to insert a carbon-fibre plate within a running shoe that was originally developed for Adidas in the early 2000s. You can read more about in here. The final result was the Nike Zoom VaporFly 4% Flyknit, with the shoe weighing in at only 195 grams. The name was derived from the improvement in running efficiency the shoe demonstrated in testing. 

The first part of the formula was the Pebax foam that Nike used to create ZoomX. It had much lower density compared with traditional EVA. It was extremely responsive, lightweight but also soft. This meant it needed to be kept stable if higher stack heights were to be used. What made the ZoomX foam work is the second part, the aforementioned curved carbon-fibre plate that Nike inserted in the middle of the midsole.

It was curved, specifically designed to provide runners with more forward propulsion with each foot strike. To oversimplify, stepping on the front part of the plate brings it up against your foot, pushing you upwards and forwards. It was all to reduce the energy of runners when bending at the toes during their stride. Combined together, it made for an experience unlike any previous running shoe. 

The upper was relatively unremarkable given what was happening beneath, Nike employing its Flyknit technology to provide comfort and breathability. Flyknit is an engineered fabric Nike has been developing since its release in 2012. This was not however the shoe that Kipchoge wore to set the new world record. Explained in detail on the Vaporflyers Instagram page, the shoes he wore featured the midsole unit that would eventually be used on the VaporFly Next% model, while featuring the Flyknit upper of the 4%. The picture we have is courtesy of Julian Paget who owns a prototype pair just like what Kipchoge wore.

I myself was initially confused by this, as the colourway was used for a VaporFly 4% released around the time of Kipchoge’s achievement and listed as the shoe he wore by many sources. Although ultimately similar shoes, the Next% featured various improvements which in the heat of competition at the elite level could make all the difference. The most notable difference in the prototype pair worn by Kipchoge was the midsole, which featured the same aggressive shape seen in the Nike VaporFly Elite. Although you cannot buy a pair exactly like Kipchoge’s, the VaporFly 4% featuring the same colourway can be had for less than retail several years after its original release, and the midsole unit would find its way into the VaporFly Next% which is similarly widely available.