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Last week, a cadre of elite triathletes announced the audacious goal to go after a sub-seven and sub-eight iron-distance triathlon for women and men, 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 who set the current standard and share the stories behind the fastest iron-distance finishes to date.
Last week, we shared about the women’s record, set in 2011 by the indomitable Chrissie Wellington. This week, we’ll recall Jan Frodeno’s epic race in 2016.
The record: 7 hours, 35 minutes, 39 seconds
The athlete: Jan Frodeno
The date: July 17, 2016
The story: On a cool, overcast summer morning, Jan Frodeno arrived in the red-carpeted transition area at Challenge Roth. Clad in black from head to toe, the lanky, dark-haired German cut a striking figure as he made final checks and tweaks to his Canyon bike and gear bags. As a camera crew and admiring onlookers traced his every move, “Frodo” appeared focused, but relaxed. “I am very well prepared and looking forward to getting this race started,” he told a reporter in the moments before the race, just before finding his wife, Australian Olympic gold medalist triathlete Emma Snowsill, in the crowd. The two embraced before parting ways, Snowsill sending him off with a reassuring wink and nod, as if to say, “You’ve got this.”
And that he did. In the days leading up to the race, Frodeno, who was making his Roth debut, did not mince words when it came to his intentions that day: “My aim is to try and beat the world record,” he said in the pre-race press conference. “I’m fascinated by this time. But of course it’s something different talking about it and then doing it. But I’ve never been one to be shy about talking about my goals.”
It’s not like Frodeno didn’t have the athletic chops to back up that goal. By July of 2016, the then-34-year-old had already won the Ironman 70.3 World Championship, the Ironman European Championship, and his first of now three Ironman World Championship titles. (Not to mention his prowess at the shorter distances, having snagged the Olympic gold medal in 2008.) His finish at the 2015 European Championships in Frankfurt was especially indicative of his abilities, as his winning time of 7:49:49 crushed the course record by more than five minutes in sweltering heat. Surely, with less oppressive weather and on Roth’s fast course, the 7:41:33 world record (set by Andreas Raelert at Challenge Roth in 2011) was within Frodeno’s grasp.
Of course, the Iron-distance can be riddled with potential pitfalls, and nothing is ever a given on race day. Despite his confidence, Frodeno recognized this fact before the race. “It’s something different talking about it and then doing it,” he said of going after the world record. “I’ll stay with my plan and have my very own race and then toward the end look at the clock and what’s possible time-wise.”
From the sound of the starting cannon, Frodeno–the only male in the field wearing a golden swim cap–established a lead that he would never relent in the seven-plus hours to come. As he churned through the narrow Donau Canal, its grassy banks lined with hundreds of spectators angling to get a glimpse at potential history in the making, a small gap between Frodeno and the chase pack soon widened to several body lengths, and then to a whole minute and a half. When Frodeno lifted his six-foot-four-inch body out of the canal and onto dry land, the time on the clock read 45:22, putting him nearly a minute ahead of Raelert’s world record pace.
Although pre-race chatter put Germany’s Nils Frommhold–the 2015 Challenge Roth champion–as a potential disruptor of Frodeno’s plan, the deficit in the swim was just too much for him, or anyone in the field, to recover from. At the front, Frodeno was commanding, his cadence smooth and efficient as he whirred along the rolling course at an average speed of about 27 miles per hour. Not even a tense few minutes, in which a wayward Frodeno rode off a slippery stretch of pavement and fell into a patch of grass, derailed his efforts. He simply shook it off, hopped back on his bike, and started his assault on the world record yet again.
Frodeno eventually extended his lead over the field to a staggering 12 minutes, hopping off the bike in a split of 4:08:07, a course record–and, more importantly, nearly four minutes faster than Raelert’s 2011 split. Which meant as long as Frodeno covered the 26.2 miles laid out before him in around 2:48, the record would belong to him.
As the ebullient crowd buoyed their home-country hero, Frodeno clipped along the course around a 6:04-per-mile pace. It wasn’t until the pointy end of the run when his gait grew slightly stunted and his face twisted into a pained grimace, a display of Frodeno’s dogged efforts to emerge as the victor in this epic race against the clock. Winding around Roth’s famed finish stadium, Frodeno made one final check of his watch. Clearly aware that he had plenty of time to spare, his shoulders visibly relaxed and his look of consternation turned to elation. He raised one arm, then another, gleefully pointing to the crowd before emphatically grabbing the finish line tape in his now-trademark celebratory flex.
Surprisingly, Frodeno’s 2:39:18 marathon split that day wasn’t the fastest of the day (a hard-charging Joe Skipper, of England, hit 2:38:52 to run into second place, some 20 minutes behind Frodeno). But it was more than enough to secure Frodeno’s performance as the greatest in history over the 140.6-mile distance.
“I am incredibly happy that I got the record and just thankful that I didn’t break,” Frodeno said after the race. “But there wasn’t any other option except to risk it all and give everything I had. The time should hold for the next two or three years.”
Four years, actually–and counting. In the three subsequent Roth races since 2016, no one has come within 14 minutes of Frodeno’s record. And, considering the now 39-year-old’s continued dominance in the sport, the one person who could stand to threaten the mark anytime soon is, well, Frodo himself.