Earlier this week, a cadre of elite triathletes announced the audacious goal to go after a sub-seven and sub-eight iron-distance triathlon for men and women, respectively. The event, known as Pho3nix SUB7 and Pho3nix SUB8, is set for spring of 2022 at a yet-to-be-determined location and will include the likes of Alistair Brownlee, Kristian Blummenfelt, Lucy Charles-Barclay, and Nicola Spirig. Granted, the athletes will be boosted by speed-inducing elements, like thicker wetsuits that’ll increase buoyancy and the ability to draft off of pacers on the bike, so it can’t quite be compared to “regular” races. But, as we dream about just how fast triathletes can cover the 140.6-mile distance, it’s worth a look back at those triathletes who set the current standard and share the stories behind the fastest iron-distance finishes to date. This week: The women’s record, set in 2011 by the indomitable Chrissie Wellington.
The record: 8 hours, 18 minutes, 13 seconds
The athlete: Chrissie Wellington
The date: July 10, 2011
The story: By 2011, world records were old hat for Wellington, the Brit who famously burst onto triathlon’s world stage with her surprise win in Kona in 2007. When she toed the line of the heralded Challenge Roth race on that balmy midsummer morning, Wellington was a three-time Ironman world champ and had already set–and smashed–the iron-distance world record twice before on that very course. But, that day was different. It was the tenth anniversary of the race, to start, and an electric buzz pulsed throughout the Bavarian town. Plus, Wellington was in even better shape–especially when it came to her run–than ever before. Still, the 8:19:13 mark she set in 2010 (a full 12 minutes faster than her 2009 time) seemed almost untouchable, even to Wellington herself. “To have an even more perfect day than  would be a tall order,” she wrote in her race recap. “But I guess I ordered tall.”
Despite a scrum of a swim, which Wellington described as a “Friday night pub brawl,” the then-34-year-old emerged from the Donau Canal in first place in 49:49—30 seconds faster than her 2010 split. This set her up for what would be a wire-to-wire victory, highlighted by a 4:40:39 bike split on her Cannondale Slice, some 10 minutes faster than any other woman. (To put that time into perspective, Wellington’s average bike speed was just under 24 mph over the 111-mile rolling Roth course).
By the time she slipped on her racing flats and hit the run course, Wellington had built a 12-minute lead over eventual runner-up, German rookie Julia Wagner. But the record was not yet firmly in her grasp. “Parts of my body intermittently [reminded] me that I was cranking out sub-four-minutes per kilometer [6:26 per mile] and that they weren’t exactly happy about this fact,” she wrote. Still, Wellington continued to click off that impressive pace, digging deep in the final miles as throngs of screaming spectators cheered her on to cross the line with a 2:44:35 marathon, a split faster than everyone else, male or female, in the field save men’s winner Andreas Raelert, who also broke the world mark that day. The win–and a new world record–were Wellington’s to keep.
Wellington would go on to win the Ironman World Champs in Kona, Hawaii three months later in a herculean effort while nursing several severe injuries sustained from a serious bike crash in the weeks leading up to the race. And then, in 2012, she left the sport in the same fashion she arrived: Suddenly and unexpectedly, announcing that she’d fulfilled her dreams in the sport and was ready for new ventures.
Now, nearly a decade later, Wellington’s world record has remained the gold standard–out of reach for even the most formidable females in the sport. Four-time Ironman world champ Daniela Ryf, who has been vocal about her goal of breaking the record, has come the closest with an 8:22:04, set in 2016. So, unless an athlete comes along with even more lethal foot speed than Wellington’s, it appears as though her mark will remain, well, ironclad.