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When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of races, athletes got creative with finding outlets for competition. Virtual races, Strava challenges, Everesting and chasing down FKTs (Fastest Known Times) became trendy, with athletes posting sweaty selfies from their bike trainers and treadmills. But unique challenges are nothing new for triathlete Tony Rich, who set the Guinness World Record for the fastest indoor iron-distance triathlon.
Rich set the 7:59:00 record in 2017 at Boston’s Oak Square YMCA as part of a fundraising challenge. “We were planning a fundraiser for health and wellness and after-school programs for families and communities in need,” said Rich. “I said I would do an indoor iron-distance triathlon—a 2.4-mile swim in a 25-yard pool, the 112-mile bike on an indoor trainer, and a treadmill marathon. People walking in and out of the facility would donate money in person and online. We’d raise thousands of dollars in the days and weeks leading up to the event.”
To add even more interest and intrigue to the event, Rich would not only do the race, but attempt to set a world record. But when he looked up the record time he’d need to chase down, he discovered there was no Guinness World Record for fastest indoor 140.6-mile triathlon. “I had to go through a process to even get it approved as a Guinness World Record, which took years,” said Rich.
Establishing a Guinness World Record takes more than simply filling out a form online. Each record title must fulfill a strict list of criteria, including a clear unit of measurement, a standard that can be followed for repeated record-breaking attempts, and specific methods of verifying a record has been set. The Guinness committee also set a specific time goal for it to be considered a record: eight hours. For comparison,
“Guinness World Records set the time goal at a very challenging goal,” said Rich. “I then began working with the YMCA to market annual fundraiser as a Guinness World Record attempt, allowing us to raise even more money for the charity.”
The ambitious goal also meant Rich had to get to work. Though Rich had more than 20 years of experience as an athlete and 10 years as a coach, going for a sub-8 hour Iron-distance attempt would require him to dial in his training: “About 8 years prior, I did Ironman Lake Placid in a little over 12 hours,” says Rich. “But I’ve always done a significant portion of my training indoors, probably more than most athletes, so I didn’t have to change much. As a certified coach, I understand the training science, so I just applied it to my training doing more of my training indoors including interval-based swim sets similar to a Masters Swim session. In addition to this, I did a lot of long bike and run combinations on the trainer and treadmill.”
On race day, Rich discovered that an indoor iron-distance triathlon was not much different from his experience on a traditional race course: “I’d say the difficulty can be very comparable to a traditional Ironman outdoors especially for the swim and the run. For the bike, it depends on resistance level applied to your course. Trainers and treadmills are unforgiving robots, so there’s some added difficulty of enduring the monotony of racing on these robots in the same place for hours.” Some elements were easier–for example, transitions are much faster, and climate control keeps Mother Nature from throwing in interfering winds or stifling heat.
But to cover 140.6 miles in less than eight hours–even in a perfectly-controlled environment–is a tremendous effort. The first time Rich attempted the Guinness World Record, in 2011, he finished in 10 hours and 13 minutes, more than two hours off the time he would need to set the record. Two years later, he made another failed attempt, and then tried again in 2015 and 2016. Each time, he inched closer to his goal, shaving off minutes in each discipline. That persistence finally paid off in 2017, when completed his 140.6-mile indoor triathlon with a time of 7:59:00. The accomplishment was a convergence of consistency, confidence, and community:
“While I was on the treadmill on the run, I was looking out the window when a motorcade drove by. It was the mayor of Boston, Marty Walsh, now Joe Biden’s Labor Secretary,” recalled Rich of the 2017 attempt. “He came into the event to provide encouragement and wish me luck, and gave me his words of encouragement to bring home the record to the City of Boston.”
Though Rich had the stopwatch to verify his record-breaking time, actually becoming the Guinness World Record holder happened months later. “The organization has an entire protocol for proving your record after an attempt,” said Rich. “We had to provide documentation of all empirical evidence including video recording the entire event as well as evidence from wearable technology and photographs of equipment. We also had to provide signed affidavits from all parties stewarding and overseeing the event. All of it is submitted to Guinness World Records for review, and the evaluation process can take months.”
After years of working to achieve his goal, becoming the verified Guinness World Record holder was extremely satisfying; more rewarding, however, was knowing the process helped raise thousands of dollars for the YMCA. Helping people discover the life-changing magic of endurance sport is something Rich is passionate about, even to this day.
“I want to continue to use the experience that I’ve garnered from nearly 20 years as an endurance athlete and over 10 years as a coach to continue to help other endurance athletes of all abilities and all walks of life achieve their training and racing goals,” said Rich. “I want to continue to help educate athletes through my podcast. Being a coach and running a training and coaching platform is my first priority, but I’ll still continue to jump in a handful events per year, purely as recreational events.”
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