A couple of months after Eliud Kipchoge, a Kenyan, became the first man to run a marathon in under two hours, Chris McCormack and a few other elite athletes sat around a table in Bahrain, talking about how far they could push the limits of human exertion.
They all knew a good deal about the subject. McCormack, a triathlon world champion, was joined in the conversation by the four-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah, the cyclist Mark Cavendish and the triathletes Alistair Brownlee and Daniela Ryf.
They wondered what it would take to rewrite the triathlon record books.
If they controlled the racing conditions, the way Kipchoge did in his barrier-breaking marathon in 2019, could a man complete a full Ironman triathlon in the previously unimaginable time of under seven hours? Could a woman finish in under eight?
The consensus: Indeed, they could. Their confidence led to the creation of the Sub7Sub8 event, a carefully planned challenge to what was believed possible in triathlon.
They started by looking at what made Kipchoge’s 1:59:40 marathon possible. For example, he had employed a team of 41 professional runners to be pacesetters and wind blockers. The pacesetters were guided by laser beams projected onto the track by an electric timing car driving at exactly 4 minutes 34 seconds per mile. Cyclists delivered carbohydrate gels and fluids, and runners wore carbon-fiber-plated shoes.
Duplicating that kind of success would be more complicated with three disciplines instead of one and 140.6 miles of competition: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run.
McCormack, the chief executive of the MANA Sports and Entertainment Group, went about creating Sub7Sub8 with the Pho3nix Foundation in December 2019. Sub7Sub8 started polling interested athletes and looking at potential venues. It needed to create a course near a body of water with a blissfully flat, looped cycling and running route. It considered sites like a racetrack in Italy and venues in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Daytona, Fla.
It settled on the Lausitzring motor racing track in Germany after the pandemic had put the event on an extended hold. Four triathletes were selected to compete: Nicola Spirig, Katrina Matthews, Joe Skipper and Kristian Blummenfelt.
Each participant was given a team of 10 and the freedom to appoint whomever they wanted to help with pacemaking in all three disciplines, something that is not allowed in typical triathlons. Matthews used an ultrarunner for the first few laps of the marathon, while Skipper’s team used eight pacers in the cycling.
“It’s almost like a game of chess,” McCormack said.
Though they had different strategies, all of the participants used the technology on offer to help them.
Monitoring systems attached to the triathletes’ arms allowed them to analyze their blood sugar levels, and athletes got alerts to eat and drink based on their core body temperature, which was measured at regular intervals.
“They’re actually fueling the athletes with real-time data, something that we just never had,” said McCormack, who won the Ironman world championship in 2007 and 2010. “It’s wild.”
Some of the wet suits used were made with the highest grade neoprene, providing 43 percent more buoyancy than standard neoprene. Spirig, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist, wore a wet suit said to “imitate fish scale skin.”
Bikes hit new heights of efficiency, too. They had no top tube on the frame, allowing the rider to adopt a more aerodynamic position. They also had aerodynamic bottle holders at the front and back, which, McCormack said, disrupted the air flow to enable the bike to be even faster. Riders were also allowed to draft, which isn’t allowed in regulation triathlons.
“We were able to bring the best people of the world in and say to them, ‘You have a blank canvas here,’” McCormack said. “Just make these men and women go as fast as they possibly can.”
Dan Bigham, a bike expert, was brought in to work on the bikes and optimize the pace maker strategies. He used computer software during the race to find the ideal position for the pacers, and directed when they should change positions within the group.
The results were radical. The one-hour cycling world record — that is, the total distance covered within 60 minutes — was broken continuously during the men’s race.
“The men were riding at a 55.5-kilometers-an-hour average,” McCormack said with some incredulity. That’s more than 34 miles an hour.
The marathon was a race to stay cool. Skipper had someone bike alongside him with a tank of water and a spray gun, and all the athletes had drinks blended with ice in an attempt to keep their core body temperature down.
The event was especially emotional for Spirig, 40, who punctured a lung and broke her collarbone and ribs while training in February. Her hopes of becoming the first woman to break the eight-hour triathlon barrier appeared bleak.
“I saw her in hospital and she had machines hanging out her so I told her to forget about it,” McCormack said.
Spirig was undeterred. This is her final season, she said, and she was determined to cap off her storied career with a record.
That she did. All four athletes completed the race with unthinkable times.
Spirig finished in 7 hours 34 minutes 19 seconds, three minutes behind Matthews, who won the women’s race in 7:31:54.
Blummenfelt, of Norway, who won the Olympic triathlon last year at the Tokyo Games, won the men’s race in 6:44:25. Skipper finished second in 6:47:36.
The success in Germany has further fueled athletes and organizers looking to cash in on record-setting opportunities. McCormack said the organizers were aiming to stage an even faster race in 2024 and planning to repeat the Sub7Sub8 every other year.
They are also setting their sights on younger athletes and different sports. McCormack said that he was inspired by watching a documentary about the extreme skier and BASE jumper Shane McConkey, who died on a jump in 2009, and that he wanted to identify and break barriers in other extreme sports. He is speaking with winter sport athletes — snowboarders, ice skaters and cross-country skiers — as part of an exploratory investigation into what’s next.
“We want to see what’s an impossible target,” McCormack said.