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In a carefully-designed test of human endurance, Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt and Britain’s Kat Matthews became the first triathletes to finish an iron-distance race in under 7 hours and 8 hours, respectively—and their challengers, Joe Skipper and Nicola Spirig, each became the second to do so.
If success for the one-versus-one Pho3nix Foundation’s innovative Sub7/Sub8 Project in Germany was how far under the ambitious targets the men and women could go, then this was an emphatic victory for all involved.
RELATED: What is the Sub7/Sub8 Project?
Reigning Ironman and Olympic champion Blummenfelt stopped the clock at 6 hours, 44 minutes, and 25 seconds, with Skipper just over 3 minutes behind.
Matthews, who rallied late on after being passed in the run, finished in an equally mind-blowing 7:31:54, as Spirig, a five-time Olympian in her first attempt over the distance for eight years, followed just over 2 minutes later.
These are times we’ve never seen in triathlon before, and whatever the mitigating rules of the event, it was some show of physical prowess from all involved. The world knew both Blummenfelt and Matthews were in top form after May’s Ironman World Championship race in St. George, Utah. But given that Spirig turned 40 in February and has come back from broken ribs and a punctured lung after a bike crash, and Skipper recovered from COVID and only found out earlier in the week that he would be replacing Alistair Brownlee, it’s hard to say which performance wins for most impressive of the day.
Certainly, the times were massively aided by the change in normal triathlon rules for this nascent concept, which allowed for a team of 10 pacers, where on the bike in particular it made for huge time savings. To illustrate, Team Skipper, stacked with the best road and track time-trialists from the UK, posted a 3:16:42 bike split for the 112 miles at an average of 34 miles per hour—a pace almost on par with the world hour record on the track.
A team effort on the swim
Matthews and Spirig both chose to have two support swimmers but differing strategies to begin the swim. The Brit lined out behind 27-year-old South African Sara-Jane Walker and three-time Ironman 70.3 champion India Lee. Whereas Lucy Buckingham, a 2012 Olympian now racing 70.3, and 46-year veteran and two-time 25km open water champion Angela Maurer swam almost side-by-side to ‘punch a hole’ in the water ahead of the Swiss.
There was little to choose between the two groups for the first mile before Spirig pulled clear. But the toe-tapping formation of the Matthews trio—an improvised morse code on whether to go faster or slower—clawed back the advantage and it was Matthews who defied most pre-event predictions to reach T1 first in 54:43, just 7 seconds ahead.
Skipper and Blummenfelt, starting an hour later so that the magic marks of Sub7 and Sub8 would coincide at 3 p.m., chose to go with just one pacer each. In Skipper’s case that was two-time Olympic champion Brownlee, who agreed to swim despite the stress reaction in his hip that meant he pulled out from the overall event.
Skipper started the 2.4-mile swim on Alistair’s hip, eventually dropping on to his feet. Whatever the tactic, the goal was to limit the time lost in the water to the reigning Ironman champion. But it proved a tough ask, with Blummenfelt emerging from Lake Senftenberg in 48:21 and Skipper 5 minutes back. While he didn’t know it then, ultimately the off-color swim would cost the Brit.
The blistering bike leg
On to the bike and Team Skipper set about rectifying the damage. With Alex Dowsett, who arrived fresh from the Giro d’Italia, leading the charge, halfway through the 112-mile bike leg they had reduced the deficit to 40 seconds—close enough to have the translucent trisuit of Blummenfelt in sight over the long straights of the Dekra Lausitzring test track.
Upping the effort, the blue train of Skipper made the pass with around 50 miles left on the bike, taking long enough for Joe to pass a junkyard dog bark on his rival (visit Skipper’s Instagram for an explanation of that one)—and one that would be returned on the run.
Meanwhile, Matthews had been steadily building her lead over Spirig. Unlike the men’s team, who kept more pacers on the bike, both women’s squads decided to go with smaller numbers out on the track and allow athletes to rest up in a pit lane between efforts.
This strategy didn’t seem to hold either group back, and having held the gap for the first 12 miles to the race circuit, Team Matthews gradually pulled away to eventually open a 4-minute lead into T2.
A rally (and a record) on the run
The second transition zone more resembled a motor racing pit lane than a normal triathlon transition, and the changeover was almost as fast as a regular pitstop as both Matthews and Spirig zipped through. Spirig then made her intentions clear from the start of the marathon. The Swiss, a five-time Olympian who holds a 2:37 marathon PR, started eating into Matthews’ lead from the get-go.
Blummenfelt had a slightly smaller advantage to claw back in the men’s race, but set about his task with relish and even Skipper’s novel strategy of having an outrider carrying a tank of chilled water and a spray gun.
Pacers swapped in and out to support, including a 2:09 marathoner in Kenyan Barnaba Kipkoech for Blummenfelt, and when the Norwegian swept past Skipper into the second half of the run, he wasn’t going to let up.
It was a different story in the women’s race. But when the inevitable pass happened and Spirig took the lead with just under 10 miles to go, Matthews rallied superbly, maintained her pacing and retook the advantage. From there she held strong for victory, another remarkable step up in her short career, and the first woman to ever go under 8 hours for the iron distance.
Sub7/Sub8 Project splits
June 5, 2022
Dekra Lausitzring, Germany