A few months after Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to run a marathon in two hours, Chris McCormack and several other elite athletes sat around a table in Bahrain and talked about how far they could cross human boundaries. Exercises.
Everyone was well aware of this topic. McCormack, the world triathlon champion, was joined in the conversation by four-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah, cyclist Mark Cavendish and triathlete Alistair Brownle and Daniela Reef.
They wondered what it took to copy the triathlon record books.
If they controlled the conditions of the race, as this kipchog did in the 2019 Barrier-Breaking Marathon, could a man complete a full Ironman Triathlon in an unimaginable time, in less than seven hours? Can a woman complete under eight?
Consensus: Indeed, they could. Their self-confidence led to the creation of the Sub7Sub8 event, a meticulously planned challenge to what was possible in triathlon.
They started by looking at what made Kipchoge 1:59:40 a marathon possible. For example, he hired 41 professional running teams to be cardiometers and wind blockers. The pessaries were guided by laser beams projected onto the track by an electric timing machine that moved for exactly 4 minutes 34 seconds per mile. Cyclists delivered hydrocarbon gels and liquids, while runners wore carbon fiber-plated shoes.
Duplicating such success will be more difficult instead of three disciplines instead of one and 140.6 miles of competition: 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling and 26.2 miles of jogging.
McCormack, CEO of MANA Sports and Entertainment Group, began creating Sub7Sub8 with the Pho3nix Foundation in December 2019. Sub7Sub8 has started surveying interested athletes and exploring potential venues. He needed to set up courses near the water body, happily flat, with a looped bike and jogging route. He discussed places like the racetrack in Italy and places in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Daytona, Florida.
He settled in Germany, on the Lausitzring motor racing track, after a pandemic stopped the event for a long time. Four triathletes were selected for the competition: Nicola Spirig, Katrina Matthews, Joe Skipper and Christian Blumenfelt.
Each participant was given a 10-man team and the freedom to appoint whoever they wished to assist in all three disciplines in cardio development, which is not allowed in typical triathlons. Matthews used the first few laps of the marathon in an ultra-run, while the Skipper team used eight pacemakers in the bike.
“It’s almost like a game of chess,” McCormack said.
Although they had different strategies, all participants used the proposed technology to help them.
Monitoring systems attached to the triathlon arms allowed them to analyze blood sugar levels, and athletes received eating and drinking warnings based on their core body temperature, measured at regular intervals.
“They actually fill athletes with real-time data that we have never had before,” said McCormack, who won the Ironman World Championships in 2007 and 2010. “It’s wild.”
Some of the used wet suits are made of high quality neoprene, which provides 43 percent more durability than standard neoprene. Spirig, a gold medalist at the 2012 Olympics, wore a wet suit that said “imitates the skin of a fish.”
Bicycles have also reached new heights of efficiency. They did not have an upper mile on the frame, allowing the rider to take a more aerodynamic position. They also had aerodynamic bottle holders on the front and back, which McCormack said disrupted airflow to make the bike even faster. Riders were also allowed to draft, which is not allowed in regulatory triathlons.
“We were able to bring in the best people in the world and tell them, ‘You have a blank canvas here,'” McCormack said. “Just force these men and women to leave as soon as possible.”
Dan Bigham, a bike expert, was brought in to work on the bikes and optimize the pace-creating strategies. He used computer software to find the ideal position for the Pacers during the race and guided when to change positions in a group.
The results were radical. The world record for one-hour cycles – or the total distance covered in 60 minutes – was continuously broken during the men’s race.
“Men drove an average of 55.5 kilometers per hour,” McCormack said with some disbelief. That’s more than 34 miles per hour.
The marathon was a race to keep cool. Next to the captain, someone had a bicycle with a water tank and spray guns, and all the athletes had drinks mixed with ice to maintain body temperature.
The event was particularly emotional for 40-year-old Spirig, who suffered a lung puncture and a broken neck bone and ribs during a workout in February. Her hopes of becoming the first woman to break the eight-hour triathlon barrier seemed bleak.
“I saw him in the hospital and he had cars hanging from him, so I told him to forget about it,” McCormack said.
Spirig was unrestrained. This is his last season, he said, and he was determined to end his historic career with a record.
That he did. All four athletes completed the race in an incredible amount of time.
Spirig finished 7 hours 34 minutes 19 seconds, three minutes behind Matthews, who won the women’s race 7:31:54.
Norwegian Blumenfelt, who won the Olympic triathlon at the Tokyo Games last year, won the men’s race in 6:44:25. The captain took second place 6:47:36.
Success in Germany has further strengthened athletes and organizers looking to make money on record-breaking opportunities. McCormack said the organizers aim to stage an even faster race in 2024 and plan to repeat Sub7Sub8 every other year.
They also focus on young athletes and various sports. McCormack said he was inspired by watching a documentary about extreme skier and BASE jumper Shane McConkie, who died in a jump in 2009, and that he wanted to set and break down barriers in other extreme sports. He talks to winter sports athletes – snowboarders, ice skaters and skiers – as part of a further investigation.
“We want to see what the impossible target is,” McCormack said.