In February 2020 it was announced that there was a project being setup to beat the existing Ironman (triathlon) records for both men and women. Not just beat them but smash through the 7 hour barrier for men and the 8 hour barrier for women. The first impression is that it is mirroring the Nike Sub-2 and Ineoes 1-59 projects setup recently to see if someone could beat the 2-hour barrier for running the marathon distance.
There is not much information available yet, but it seems to be setup to be a double header of male and female one-on-ones. Alistair Bownlee versus Kristian Blummenfelt, and Nicola Spirig versus Lucy Charles-Barclay. It is set to be held in Spring 2022 at a venue to be announced. One thing strongly in its favour is the gender equality, apparently the same incentives for either sex, something that I believe is the norm in that sport (unlike mainstream athletics). Whatever happens it will not be recognised as a new Ironman record, due to the artificial nature of the event. It will be interesting to see how much technological advantage can be gained in each of the three triathlon disciplines (swim, bike and run) as there is a lot of time to carve off in each case.
Some basic data: the distances are swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run a marathon. The existing records are: Jan Frodeno (GER), 2017, 7 hrs 35 mins 39 secs and Chrissie Wellington (GBR), 2011, 8 hours 18 mins 13 secs. From that you will see that the men have to ‘lose’ over 35 minutes and the women a lesser amount of 19 minutes. The following table gives (an estimate, as data is difficult to find) the fastest splits done by different individuals within standard Ironman events, and a theoretical total time as if those times all came in the same event.
The data suggests that the women’s task might be an easier one. But where will that time be gained, in which disciplines and by what methods? There could be thicker, more buoyant wetsuits, pacing by kayak in the swim (would that help?). Drafting behind a phalanx of bikes (like a Tour de France peloton), or even using pace vehicles for the bike section. Laser pacing, with shielding pacers for the run. Specialists in each event in each pacing team. Women using men as pacers? Then there are shoe and bike innovations. What do you think?
A worry that I have is that there will changes that will adversely affect traditional triathlon events. This has certainly been the case in running since the 2 hour barrier was broken. The shoe developments that initiative prompted have seen a sea change in athletics, with carbon plates and thicker soles being added by most shoe manufacturers. It has produced a rush of unprecedented times both on the road and track. It seems you now have to wear these new (very expensive) shoes to be able to compete, which actually produces an un-level playing field. Might a similar situation happen in triathlon?
As a result of shoes developed for sub-2, in 2020 World Athletics announced major changes to its rules on footwear.
The new regulations imposed an immediate ban on any shoe with a sole thicker than 40mm, as well as on shoes that contained more than one plate. In a bid to ensure shoes worn by some athletes didn’t offer an unfair advantage, the rules also stated that any shoe used in competition must have been available for purchase on the retail market for a period of four months. This move effectively banned the use of prototypes in competition.
There is a parallel in some aspects between the sub 7 sub 8 project and the Hour Record in cycling. In that challenge the idea is to cover as much ground as possible in 60 minutes. These days it takes place on an indoor track, which pretty much removes weather and terrain from the equation, predicting/controlling both of which factors both sub-2 and sub7sub8 aim(ed) for. It seems that the Hour Challenge was something that came into cyclists sights towards the very end of their careers at the top of their sport. That was the case for Bradley Wiggins, who took the record in 2015, before retiring in 2016, and writing a book about The Hour (cover to left).
Although Alistair Brownlee plans to compete in the Tokyo Olympics if possible, there is a thought in my mind that this high profile triathlon challenge might be his swansong. As far as I can see his last competition was in Sept 2020 in the Helvellyn Triathlon, which ends with a 9 mile fell race up Hellvellyn (yes, I know he has been a noted fell runner when he chosen to race on the fells) – which is hardly ITU-level competition [he won]. You could argue that Nicola Spirig is in the autumn of her career too, but that is not the case for either Blummenfelt or Charles-Barclay, so it is a weak argument.
Conclusion: is it a good thing, and will I watch it when it happens? At the moment I see it as a cleverly pitched publicity move by the sponsor. Looking at the times I would say there is a strong chance of the woman’s sub-8 happening, but really think the men’s sub-7 is asking too much (but am happy to be proved wrong). I am skeptical now, but know full well that I will be sucked in and will probably set aside time to sit and watch the whole thing unfurl. That is certainly what happened with the Ineos 1-59 effort of Eliud Kipchoge and his team.
Afterthought: As I recall, in the Nike sub-2 effort there were three athletes all shooting for the time, and two of them couldn’t hack the required pace and dropped out at various stages. I wonder if all 4 triathletes will be fit enough to ‘chase the pace’ or whether one or more of them will drop off it and drop out, although the pacing of the three disciplines isn’t a simple numerical factor, and it won’t be really possible to second guess the outcome until well into the marathon running stage. We will see.
Project website: https://www.sub7sub8.com/