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When the Sub7/Sub8 project was announced, you’d have gotten long odds on Joe Skipper and Kat Matthews being the first triathletes to break the mystical 7- and 8-hour marks. Their fellow Brits, Alistair Brownlee and Lucy Charles-Barclay, were due to go head-to-head with Tokyo Olympic champion Kristian Blummenfelt and London 2012 winner Nicola Spirig, before hip injuries ruined the chances of both.
Matthews has now known since early April that she’ll replace Charles-Barclay, which doesn’t seem long to prepare until put into context with Skipper, who has had less than a week’s notice.
Neither though seem like makeweights to a nascent concept which, for all the aerodynamic testing and time-split predictions, is intriguing because no one can really be sure how it will play out. The noises from the circuit are, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it will be quick.
RELATED: What is the Sub7/8 Project?
Hyperbole is all part of the marketing, but organizer Chris McCormack believes the Dekra Lausitzring racing circuit near Dresden, Germany is the fastest race-track in the world. On site he’s witnessed the men’s teams for this weekend cruising at 55kph (a bit over 34 mph). Do the math, and that’s a 3:20 bike split, making the marathon needed towards a sub-7-hour Iron-distance a gentle stroll. In theory.
For the women, Kat Matthews’ camp are already predicting that she could be closer to 7:30 than 8 hours. It’s warp speed stuff. Triathlon, Jim, but not as we know it.
Yet Spirig’s long-time coach Brett Sutton, who is directing the 39-year-old’s attempt, offers more caution: “This one understands something most triathlon experts don’t. I’m an ex-professional boxer, so rule one is all the best laid plans go out the window when you get smashed in the face.”
It all remains to be seen. Let’s dig a little into the details.
The Sub7/8 Athletes
A note of realism. To say that all four are arriving in tip-top shape would be to view this through rose-tinted performance eyewear.
Spirig is hopefully fully recovered from a broken collarbone, ribs, and punctured lung from a bike crash in February—ribs she damaged again coughing after contracting COVID. Other than a couple of domestic running races, she has no real form to speak of, but an almost unrivaled depth of experience. Tokyo was her fifth Olympic Games. On any given day, Spirig tends to perform.
While everything looks to be on the up for Matthews, a second-place in the Ironman World Championship also belies a far from perfect build-up.
“She can get by on one race with a slightly lower training volume, but the fatigue burden of that race is reflectively higher,” husband and Sub8 project manager Mark Matthews explains. The positives are that after a week with her BMC team, Kat’s numbers are heading in the right direction.
Blummenfelt might be physically the best placed of all. The Norwegian has had a busy past 12 months and slayed pretty much all before him, but even he was throwing up before the swim in St. George. And this is not just about the physical contest.
Then there’s poor old Joe Skipper, who had been preparing for Ironman France in Nice before heading off on his stag-do (known as a bachelor party, for our friends in the U.S.). Skipper says he’s fully recovered from the coronavirus that kept him out of the world champs, but will understandably be a little short on specific prep.
The swim is to follow the feet in front, the run more about keeping up morale and steady pacing than aerodynamic gains. So, it might not be all about the bike, but it’s not far removed.
Matthews and Spirig have been more open about their strategies, while Jacob Tipper strategizing for the Brownlee-turned-Skipper team and bike guru and TT-ace Matt Bottrill, who is directing Blummenfelt’s attempt, have kept cards close to their chests.
“What I can tell you is that we’ll have two bike teams of four with a designated ‘hitter’ on each team,” Sutton said regarding Spirig. “The two teams take turns to actively rest the hitter when necessary. On each team, Nicola will also have a wing man that will do whatever dirty work may be required—blocking crosswinds, rain protection, or in a worst-case scenario, pulling her back up to her team. There will be no scheduled timings. The decision will be taken in the heat of battle, when the strength of each athlete on the day can be assessed under race day pressure.”
Matthews’ strategy differs slightly.
Fellow Ironman triathlete Ruth Astle is poised to sit directly in front of Kat for the entire ride. “We’re working out a pacing strategy around that,” Mark Matthews said. “Ruth’s great to have on board. They are great friends and racing with friends makes you go faster.”
The initial plan is for three teams of two riders—all time-trial specialists from the UK—rotating every couple of minutes at the front in 20-minutes bursts. “If you want to build a team of time trialists you have to approach the UK,” Mark said. “Other countries don’t have a domestic time-trial scene like we do.”
If Kat has to push too much power, they may switch to two teams of three with fewer breaks for the riders. The goal is to keep her at “Zone 2” effort—the idea being she can work well enough within herself to be fresh for the marathon.
There is far less being revealed on the men’s side. “There’s secrecy between the two camps,” Skipper’s team manager Tipper said. “The athletes are being coy—even hiding the rides on Strava. They [Blummenfelt, et al] have been to the track early and we’ve been later, but while they might have caught a bit of our sessions, they’ve no idea whether we’re gunning it.”
All Tipper will say is the final few days of testing are there to “validate their hypotheses.” It’s suitably cryptic, but suggests final decisions haven’t been made.
“We’ve done a preliminary review of data, including drag coefficients, but there are so many ways to calculate it that it’s not really replicable. The best way of doing it is here.”
Despite Skipper coming in as a late replacement, Tipper doesn’t envisage it being a switch of strategy. “It won’t change dramatically. Alistair has spent time moto pacing and getting used to being close to the wheel, but Joe’s doing a great job despite being thrown in the deep end. Everything is ‘easy’ according to Joe. He’s infectious to have around.”
The close-knit team built initially to support Brownlee are all familiar to one another. “We picked riders capable of riding together, rather than dragging in guys from all over the country.
“These guys have medaled in a world time-trial—four of us even lived together in Derby. We’re ready, set and made for this, and nothing has changed. Jokingly, we’re up for winning the bike race—whether we take Joe with us or not!”
The Gear, Tech, and Super Secret Equipment
“I’m surprised there’s so much hype around optimizing athletes for this given they operate in the Ironman space under pretty lapse bike rules anyway,” Mark Matthew said. “If you’re doing it for this, why aren’t you doing it already?”
The swim might be one exception. Mark says both Spirig and Brownlee developed wetsuits thicker than the usual 5mm maximum allowed to give more buoyancy.
“They made the wetsuits then successfully appealed the ITU rule that was in place,” Mark said. “We’ve scrabbled about in the background to match that advantage, looking at adding thicker panels to the thighs and lower torso. Essentially we’ll have buoyancy shorts cut up and stitched on the inside.”
The marketing spiel for Spirig’s Deboer wetsuit claims it “imitates fish scale skin” and could knock 10 minutes off an Ironman swim for a 1:45/100m non-wetsuit swimmer. That should sell a few wetsuits, but don’t expect such large gains here.
Kat will be swimming in the Orca Apex Flo, following the feet of training partner Sarah-Jane Walker, with India Lee to one side.
Like Spirig, Blummenfelt swims in Deboer, but the Floh 2.0 he wore in St. George might be swapped out for a suit marked Fjord S7—of which little is known.
Blummenfelt may also roll out his prototype Cadex tri bike for the ride. Kat is on the BMC Timemachine 01 Disc, and Skipper an Argon 18 Disc. Bucking the trend, Spirig is on her Specialized road bike. “Being in the draft means that the aerodynamics of my bike becomes less important,” she said. “While factors like the ability to get the ideal draft, comfort, and using a position that lets me run the best off the bike get much more important.”
It’s a move Mark Matthews questions. “Of course, she can keep up on a road bike, but why not push 20 watts less and do it on a time trial bike?”
With a team car able to drive alongside and hand the riders bottles, inbuilt nutrition systems with huge liquid reservoirs aren’t as critical as they would be for a normal Ironman. Tipper also expects all the riders set-ups to be optimized.
“We’re not doing anything an astute time trialist wouldn’t have done,” he explains. “If you can do an aero test, you’d get the same level of optimization. I told everyone to tune-up as if it’s the national time trial champs. Although I knew it wouldn’t happen, so I brought my time-trial bike so they could pinch the parts.”
An On Running shoe prototype will be used by Spirig for the marathon. “Tadesse Abraham just ran a new Swiss marathon record in my prototype a few weeks ago, so it’s good to see it’s working,” she said.
Skipper is a Hoka athlete and both Matthews and Blummenfelt run in Asics Metaspeed, with a pair also provided to the other athletes joining Matthews on the run.
What we can reveal for certain is that the attempt has now been locked in for Sunday. Monday was a back-up day, but the forecast looks favorable to go with Plan A. But as we’ve seen so far in the build-up to this event, everything else could still be subject to change.
Want to watch? The broadcast is scheduled to start at 6:30 a.m. CEST (local time)—which is 12:30 a.m. ET in the U.S. and 9:30 p.m. PT the night before on the West Coast. Women will go off at 7 a.m. CEST (1 a.m. ET) and men will follow an hour later.