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Commentary: The Hype (and Slight) of Sub7/Sub 8

Four titans of triathlon are attempting a no-holds-barred assault on the ultimate time barriers in the sport. Will it transcend tri or fall flat?

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The definition of impossible in triathlon has changed quite a bit over the past two decades. Twenty years ago, 7 hours 30 minutes for men and 8:30 for women at the iron-distance weren’t even in the discussion. And now both 140.6-mile world records are quite a bit below those previously thought insurmountable marks. What else is possible?

After the success of marathon world record–holder Eliud Kipchoge’s much-hyped, no-holds-barred breaking of the two-hour marathon mark in 2019, some of triathlon’s royalty will go after our own sport’s barriers in an attempt to break the seven-hour mark for men and eight-hour mark for women—by similarly stripping away just about every rule and regulation.

RELATED: What is the Sub7/8 Project?

The product of Ironman legend Chris “Macca” McCormack and Polish billionaire Sebastian Kulczyk, Sub7/Sub8 will take place the first week of June at an auto-racing track in Brandenburg, Germany, where Kristian Blummenfelt and Joe Skipper (who replaces Alistair Brownlee) will see if they can cover 140.6 miles in under seven hours, and Kat Matthews and Nicola Spirig will attempt to break the eight-hour line. They will be allowed to suspend every drafting and technological rule, except for using motors or motorpacing.

Will they do it? Probably. Will it generate anywhere near the kind of interest as Kipchoge running 26.2 miles in 1:59? Definitely not.

For starters, the advantage of drafting behind a rotating mix of über-bikers should make breaking these two barriers almost a guarantee. For the women breaking eight hours should simply be a very painful walk in the park (no pressure). The fastest women’s iron-distance performance in history is 8:18.13 by Chrissie Wellington at Challenge Roth in 2011. Given a team of pacers for all three disciplines, going 18 minutes faster than that should be well within reach, and 7:50 isn’t out of the question.

Going sub-seven hours will be a slightly taller order for the men, but certainly not too tall for Blummenfelt. Blummenfelt’s 7:21:12 Ironman debut in Cozumel last November is the world’s best time for 140.6 miles, although he had the assistance of a strong current and poor course measurement in the swim. The next fastest time is Jan Frodeno’s 7:27:53 at the Tri Battle Royale in Germany last summer. Split the difference and you’re looking at gaining somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 minutes—harder, but they should still be able to do it on the bike alone.

From a breaking-the-barrier standpoint, this race against the clock should be a success. But whether it garners any widespread attention outside of triathlon circles will be the ultimate measure of its achievement. While it’s likely to get our sport more newspaper headlines and Sports Center quips than usual, will that translate to actual fans after 6:59 is achieved?

Asking people to care about the world’s greatest marathoner for two hours is one thing. Asking them to care about four people exercising for seven or eight hours is a much taller order. As we saw (or didn’t see) with the Tri Battle Royale, a couple of people swimming, biking, and running all afternoon doesn’t necessarily make for great theater—even with the lingering “will they/won’t they?” suspense inherent in this attempt.

Not that Macca nor his billionaire bankroller are actually asking anyone to watch the whole thing. They’re looking for impressions and reach. Like the surge of supershoes after Kipchoge’s 1:59, the longest-lasting legacy of Sub7/Sub8 will likely be the technology and trickle-down effect that comes out of it, particularly on the bike, where these athletes are riding free of regulations for the very first time (and where we’ve already seen Blummenfelt’s new prototype bike in action in St. George). While there may not be many people who sit down with popcorn to watch four people and their entourage ride in circles around a racetrack, this stunt will probably still amass more reach, impressions, buzz, and tech advances than any real triathlon this entire year. And that can’t be bad for the sport.

RELATED: Can A Triathlete Really Break 7 Hours Over the Iron-Distance?