Nike and NatGeo's 'Breaking2' documentary shows the power of branded storytelling

Dirty Robber's Chris Uettwiller talks production and execution of the attempt to break a human record.

On May 9th of this year, three of the world’s elite distance runners tried to run a two-hour marathon, which no one has ever done. More than 19 million people from across the world watched a livestream of their attempt. The fastest time was 2:00:25, less than 1 second per mile behind the two-hour mark. The record stayed put, but it’s closer than ever to breaking. 

Wednesday night at 8:00 p.m. ET, National Geographic airs an hourlong documentary, "Breaking2," about the two years of preparation that went into the attempt. It follows the runners from their homes in three African countries, to American sports labs where they’re tested and trained by scientists and finally to the race itself, in Italy. The film is presented by Nike, in an unusual partnership between a sports powerhouse and a legacy media brand.

"These new and exciting ways to reach audiences, whether that’s short content, digital, a live event, a feature length documentary, can be super successful," said Chris Uettwiller, CEO and executive producer at Dirty Robber, the production company that shot the film. "We got to do all of the things we like to do in one project." 

Uettwiller said the project didn’t begin as a documentary—the brief was focused on generating excitement and viewers for the live event and turning that footage into a brand spot. Because a marathon is just two hours of runners trotting the same circle, Dirty Robber needed to create interstitials to keep audiences engaged. So they visited the stars of the race at home: Eliud Kipchoge, in Kenya; Lelisa Desisa, in Ethiopia; and Zerseney Tadese, in Eritrea. They visited them again at Nike’s research lab in Oregon, where sports scientists conducted testing to optimize race performance. All along, the filmmakers needed to seamlessly integrate the brand’s essential role in the attempt seamlessly into the story, even before they knew it would be a longer film.

That required, more than anything, authentic storytelling. "These are characters that are bigger than life, so we try to humanize these characters. That gives the film more appeal beyond fans of the sport," said Uettwiller. They’d learned how to do this from filming Muse, a 2015 documentary about Kobe Bryant’s return to basketball. "How do people get attached to running? My wife doesn’t watch basketball, but she watched the Kobe Bryant movie because it wasn’t about basketball. These guys are runners, but it’s also about what they’ve achieved."

Despite the company’s experience with sports docs, "Breaking2" required a higher level of planning and coordination, with its filming spread across six countries and its production a collaboration between five vendors—Nike, NatGeo, Dirty Robber, Wieden + Kennedy, and Uncle Toad’s Media Group. Dirty Robber has an established relationship with Nike, but it was their first time working with the rest of the cohort.  "It was a bit of a joke, trying to plan out the production schedule, said Uettwiller. "The scale was huge, with so many teams working together. The amount of people and resources was mind-blowing."

Although none of the runners broke the 2-hour mark, the event was a resounding success from a brand perspective. The nearly 20 million livestream viewers generated over 2 trillion social impressions and dozens of instances of earned media. The 14 interstitials created for the livestream are now shareable as short films, and Nike is now permanently linked to a high-profile sports milestone that came very close to making running history, whose athletes—trained by Nike—may well go on to finally break that barrier. 

The event succeeded from a storytelling perspective, too. "So much of the drama came from wondering how they were going to do," Uetwiller said. "As a storyteller, we got the best possible outcome. It doesn’t feel like the unobtanium anymore."