Covering 140.6 miles of swim, bike and run is an impressive feat for most—but to do so in under eight hours? That’s just plain superhuman. When Lothar Leder broke the Challenge Roth finish line tape at 7:52:02 in 1996, the crowd went wild. It was an accomplishment so impressive, everyone assumed it would be impossible to replicate. Imagine their surprise when Leder repeated the accomplishment in 1997, clocking a 7:56:39—only good enough for third place on a day that saw four sub-eight performances. Belgian athlete Luc Van Lierde was the winner that day, recording a mind-boggling 7:50:27 (his time would stand as the world’s fastest iron-distance time for more than 14 years).
In the 20 years since Leder’s breakout performance, only a relatively small number of triathletes have broken the sub-eight barrier. This select club contains only 40 members, with times ranging from current record holder Jan Frodeno’s 7:35:39 to James Cunnama’s by-a-whisker 7:59:59.
But even superhumans are still, at their core, human. Though many assume a record-breaking performance occurs because of a nutritional breakthrough, technological wizardry or super-secret training plan, most members of the Sub-Eight Club say their secret power is quite boring: hard work, and lots of it.
Though your own iron-distance goals might not be in the sub-single digits, that doesn’t mean the lessons of the sub-eight Ironman don’t apply. There’s a lot we can learn from the personal best performances of the pros to hit our own PRs.
Lesson 1: Try, Try Again
For American Tim O’Donnell, breaking eight was always a goal: “It’s like breaking a minute in the 100 free for the first time…just something you want to do!” But it didn’t come easily. O’Donnell tried several times to hit the mark, first at Ironman Arizona in 2011.
“I was on pace until I absolutely blew up halfway through the run,” says O’Donnell, who immediately performed a thorough and honest post-race analysis. Using those lessons, O’Donnell set out for a sub-eight at the 2013 Ironman Brasil, where he narrowly missed his goal with an 8:01:32. Again, O’Donnell assessed and adjusted. Being honest about what was—and wasn’t—working paid off.
“When I finally did it in 2015 [a 7:55:56 at Brasil], there was definitely a big smile on my face when I saw my time.”
Takeaway: PRs don’t usually come overnight. There’s usually a learning process, and failure is part of that process. Learn from and build upon each setback—it’s worth it.
Lesson 2: Just Do Your Best
For American Ben Hoffman, sub-eight wasn’t on his radar going in to Ironman South Africa 2017. His goal was merely to show he was still growing and performing as an athlete.
“I never know what is going to happen in an Ironman!” Hoffman laughs. “I felt that I had done some really good training this winter, but I never thought about breaking eight hours on this course. I had a great race last year, and was somewhere around 8:12. I thought it would be awesome to improve my time if the conditions allowed, but going sub-eight wasn’t on my radar.”
By going in with a “do your best” attitude (and nothing else), Hoffman actually did his best: a 7:58:40 finishing time.
Takeaway: Self-imposed pressure can be…well, imposing. Let go of your expectations, and you may just surprise yourself.
Lesson 3: Don’t Skimp on Speed Work
Aussie Luke McKenzie, who hit 7:55:58 at Ironman Western Australia in 2015, says his breakthrough came somewhat serendipitously.
“I didn’t intentionally change much in my training ahead of Ironman Western Australia,” says McKenzie. “But by circumstance I was racing the Island House Invitational Triathlon, which was super sprint style racing, the previous month. I integrated a lot of speed work in my training in October and November leading in the Ironman Western Australia in December. I believe that speed work really helped me.”
Takeaway: Sign up for shorter distances, like a sprint triathlon or mile race, as a way to shake up your long-course routine and engage your speedy side.
Lesson 4: Fuel Your Fire
“Competition always drives great performances,” says O’Donnell. “When I hit the run in Brasil 2015 I had no idea where I was at with my overall time. All I knew was that Marino [Vanhoenacker] was up the road and I needed to catch him to win. I had gapped Brent [McMahon] halfway through the run, so I was trying to hold him off, too! That was the real key for me, having guys like Marino and Brent pushing the pace made everyone step up.”
Takeaway: Even if you’re not a podium contender, you can use the power of competition to level up your game. Friendly competition, like a spirited group ride or local challenge on Strava, can push your performance to new heights.
Lesson 5: Race the Mile You’re In
“The day I broke eight hours I distinctly remember the nature in which I kept breaking down the race into little segments,” says McKenzie. “I never thought of the race as a whole at any point. I just kept pushing to each little stepping stone along the way throughout the day. During the marathon, I was just fixated on trying to record the same one kilometer split over and over. My mindset was just kilometer by kilometer never 10, 15 or 20 kilometers down the road. I think it’s a great approach for the age-group athletes to take when tackling such a long distance.”
Takeaway: The entire race can be overwhelming, but focusing on just one section—whether it’s a mile, a kilometer, or even “just make it to that lightpost”—allows you to address what you need to do in the moment, rather than stressing about the unknown.
Lesson 6: Put On A Happy Face
“Believe in yourself to be better than you planned,” advises Hoffman. “Everyone seems to get nervous and assume things will go worse than what they want on their best day, but what happens if you reframe and believe the opposite?”
Takeaway: A positive attitude can be just the ticket to a PR. Go forth and be awesome.