by Noelle De Guzman
“What if we could push the envelope by bringing the best together and have them race freely? In other sports it is often outside of championship racing where we see the best competitions occur. It is when athletes take chances and go for it. What would happen then? What could happen when you get a mix of the best chasing a new impossible?”
When Macca wrote this about what would motivate triathletes to challenge the limits of human endurance (What Motivates Champions, part 2), it whet my appetite for something in triathlon that would attempt to achieve what Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-two hour marathon did for marathon running.
That was six months ago. Today, we get what should be huge news not just for our sport but for sport in general. Four of the most successful and decorated athletes in Olympic and triathlon history will attempt not only to break the current world records for the iron distance, but to set an entirely new benchmark: that’s to go under 7 hours for the men, and under 8 hours for the women.
From the press release:
Taking on the landmark sporting challenge in Spring 2022 will be reigning Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee (GB) and half-iron distance world record holder Kristian Blummenfelt (NOR), who will be looking to break the current men’s record of 7 hours, 35 minutes, and 39 seconds by going sub-seven hours. They will be joined by three-time Ironman World Championship runner-up Lucy Charles-Barclay (GB) and dual Olympic medalist Nicola Spirig (SUI), who will be attempting to complete the distance in under eight hours, beating the current women’s record by 18 minutes and 18 seconds.
The Pho3nix SUB7 and Pho3nix SUB8 are scheduled for Spring 2022. While the venue and logistics for this have yet to be revealed, what we do know of it has me abuzz because it’s not what one would have expected coming from a sport that despite its youth seems hellbent on doing things the way they have always been done and making athletes “pay their dues”.
So here are five things that surprised and excited me about the Pho3nix SUB7 and SUB8.
Jan Frodeno and Daniela Ryf aren’t part of it.
You’d think the man who owns the current record and the woman who has come the closest to breaking Chrissie Wellington’s record would be at the very forefront of any major attempt at a world record. But that’s just not the case here.
How many times have we seen these athletes show up on a start list and everybody says, “Well of course they’ll win”? While they may have their own reasons for not signing on, this means the very long shadow these two cast on any sporting event just isn’t present here. And that takes away the predictability that makes watching long distance events boring and a foregone conclusion.
Alistair Brownlee cooked up the idea to go Sub-7.
In the press release, Alistair is quoted as saying: “We sat around a table after an endurance race in Bahrain discussing the world record times and if they could be beaten. The women thought in the right conditions it was possible to go under 8 hours. I thought I could go sub seven hours.”
To shave off a minute or two is within the realm of possibility; athletes do it all the time with new personal bests. Jan bettered Andreas Raelert’s record by six minutes and that was already considered superhuman. But an entire half hour? For Alistair to believe it’s within his reach made my jaw drop.
But this is the athlete who heralded a new way of racing triathlon: aggressive off the front, achieving times competitive with single-sport professionals. He is also arguably the world’s best single-day racer who put himself in the best possible position to win an Olympic gold medal -- twice. How can I not cheer him on for trying?
And going by how Kristian Blummenfelt races, he’s going to put his entire self into matching Alistair stroke for stroke and stride for stride.
Lucy Charles-Barclay and Nicola Spirig are tremendous athletes in their own right.
Speaking of how Daniela Ryf has overshadowed many other female athletes, Lucy is one of those athletes who but for Daniela might already have won a world championship or two. And she's so young and STILL getting faster.
Nicola is a bit more unheralded when it comes to long distance. Although she’s done one iron distance and won it (as well as a host of half distances) as well as marathons, she hasn’t made a big deal about stepping up in distance and has concentrated on Olympic triathlon to great success with her Olympic gold and silver. But did you know Daniela was put on the Swiss Olympic team as a domestique for Nicola?
Technology will help immensely, but the attempt will still be brutal.
Alistair revealed bits of how they would get some assistance from technology: wetsuits that are more buoyant than allowed by regulations as well as drafting on the bike leg. I'm assuming each athlete's shoe sponsor will also provide their fastest shoes.
Shoe technology has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last few years (practically and literally) – but that doesn’t mean anybody can lace up in Kipchoge’s shoes and run a marathon in 1:59.
For the SUB7 & SUB8 you’ve still got to push the pace, and after that punishing swim and bike you still have to run a marathon.
Talent, training, and drive will still have a lot to do with the times that can be achieved.
It would be an achievement even if they miss the mark.
I keep drawing on Kipchoge but this situation really does echo his sub-2 marathon attempts. I remember watching the first one in 2017 and him barely missing the target by 26 seconds. Despite the disappointment, I was still so inspired that they got that close. Kipchoge took the knowledge and training lessons from that attempt and turned it into confidence to win the Berlin Marathon the following year and break the actual world record.
And then he achieved a sub-2 hour marathon the year after that. Despite what the naysayers said about it not being a "real" marathon and not counting for a world record, in the end Kipchoge's sub-2 hour marathon was hailed as a massive achievement.
These four athletes are going to do all that is humanly possible to get themselves into peak fitness. And then they’re going to race, let the chips fall where they may. It will be something to watch, whatever happens.
But I do hope they succeed in Defying The Impossible, because Impossible is only what we think it is.
For more information about the Pho3nix SUB7 & SUB8 challenges, visit sub7sub8.com