Before the triathlon world completely moves on from the historic spectacle that was the Pho3nix Sub7 and Sub8 Project, Powered by Zwift, let's talk about it one last time. (At least, until they start talking about doing something on an even larger scale...)
The Race Itself
Mark Allen called it on his podcast, but Dave Scott as well as Lothar Leder (the first man to go under 8 hours) were still not convinced.
To many, the last-minute pull-out of Alistair Brownlee and his replacement with Joe Skipper didn't sound like good news especially on the heels of Lucy Charles-Barclay dropping out earlier and Kat Matthews replacing her. Quite a few people were saying that this event was cursed, although its organisers were nonplussed and moved forward.
Well, race day repudiated the naysayers: all four athletes did not only slip under their respective marks, but absolutely smashed the 7- and 8-hour mythical barrier. Kristian Blummenfelt was the first man across the line in 6:44:25, and Kat Matthews was the first woman in 7:31:54.
Nicola Spirig overcame a broken collarbone and ribs and punctured lung back in February to become the second woman to go Sub7 in 7:34:19.
Astonishingly, Joe Skipper the pinch-hitter finished in 6:47:36. It was within half a minute of his stated target time, which pre-race sounded quite ambitious compared with Blummenfelt's target of just under 7 hours. He also logged the world's fastest bike split across 180 kilometres: 3:16:42. He did so with the bike team assembled for Brownlee, having only the week before the race to dial in their pacelining and strategy.
These were no mean feats; they will change the game in the way we think about the limits of human endurance across a full triathlon, in much the same way Breaking 2 and INEOS 1:59 redefined what's possible and enabled Eliud Kipchoge to break the two-hour mark over the marathon.
Obviously with MX Endurance having an inside track into the workings of Chris McCormack's mind, we knew to expect excellent coverage and commentary on the race day endeavours. But what we got blew previous long-course coverage out of the water.
The nine-hour event was streamed live on Youtube, with a peak of 28,880 concurrent viewers watching these champion athletes finish under goal time and over 5,000 comments from a highly-engaged audience in the live chat. With 202,300 logged views after 24 hours, the livestream is projected to exceed a quarter of a million views over the next week. It was also mirrored on Facebook, where it reached 174,438 views and 15,995 link clicks, with related social media post engagement logging a whopping 600% increase from baseline.
The commentary was informed, relevant, insightful, and done by people who actually know the sport and its athletes (unlike the debacle from the triathlon commentary provided at the Tokyo Olympics).
There were a few areas for improvement in the coverage. Graphics in particular set context for the endeavor, but the onscreen timers could be at times inconsistent with what was happening in the race.
Much of the stats recorded and collected by Garmin were relegated to the stats dashboard provided on the website. Many viewers did not know to open a second screen for this information and would frequently ask for updates on the live chat. Thankfully, periodically on screen we would get current speeds and whether or not each athlete was on track or behind their target times.
Infrequently, the camera would focus on a pacemaker instead of the athlete they were pacing. But we didn't get much info on the commentary or the graphics about these powerhouses who helped ferry the athletes toward breaking the 7- and 8-hour marks. Maybe the highlights coverage that will soon be available across multiple territories will have that.
With a multi-lap course, some graphics like that of Formula 1 where you can see how many laps to go would have been appreciated, because all of a sudden the athletes were on their last bike lap.
All that being said, the livestream was still light years ahead of anything we had previously seen. It has definitely set the benchmark quite high for long course, just as Super League Triathlon did for short course; time will tell if the PTO, Ironman, and World Triathlon will step theirs up.
While people are now saying they expected the Sub7 and Sub8 barriers to be breached because of the team time trial element on the bike leg, last year right after the Sub7 and Sub8 event was announced they were singing a completely different tune. Conventional wisdom held that Sub8 was achievable, but not Sub7.
According to Triathlete Magazine in January 2021:
No matter where or when it’s held, it would be nearly impossible for Brownlee or Blummenfelt to get close to the seven-hour mark. That would require a 45-minute swim, 3:45 bike, and 2:30 run—and that doesn’t include at least one minute total for transitions. Blummenfelt has never run a marathon (yet), and Brownlee’s best run off an iron-distance bike is 2:43. Brownlee would have to shave more than 45 minutes off of his Ironman PR of 7:45. A group of pacers might be able to give him 30 minutes on the bike, but no amount of pacers can give him 15 minutes on the marathon.
For the women there’s a glimmer of hope, especially with Charles-Barclay, whose PR at the iron-distance is only 36 minutes shy of the eight-hour mark. If a clever bike-pacing strategy can give her 30-minutes on the bike, then she can at least make it interesting late in the run. Breaking eight hours means a 45-minute swim, 4:15 ride, and a sub-three-hour marathon. Given unlimited pacers on the bike and run, that doesn’t seem completely out of her reach. She might even be able to tow a few swim pacers to a 45-minute swim.
Then we saw the men's record fall not just once, but twice: at Jan Frodeno's Tri Battle, and with Kristian Blummenfelt's performance at Ironman Cozumel. Could it actually be done?
By November 2021, sentiment had shifted and poll results on the Sub7Sub8 website showed this.
Incredibly, on the same day of Sub7 and Sub8, Laura Philipp at the Ironman European Championship nearly broke Chrissie Wellington's ironman world record by eight seconds.
Whether or not the times set at Sub7 and Sub8 stand as records is besides the point. It was a chance to show that the pursuit of something even if it's considered impossible is a worthy goal, and that you'll only find out if you have the courage to try.
Also it showed that you can make long-course triathlon into gripping and engaging viewing not just for the avid triathlete, but also tapping into other audiences across the three sports involved in triathlon.
A rising tide lifts all boats; putting on a spectacle like this has elevated the sport's profile for all involved.
(Photos credit: Mana Group)