Boundary-pushing performances at Sub7Sub8 and Laura Philipp’s spectacular IM Hamburg win highlight the excitement of long-course tri racing.
More than two years in the making, we finally got to witness Sub7Sub8, a human-powered challenge to see if it’s possible to go under the seven- and eight-hour barriers in a full-distance event for men and women respectively.
Four teams tackled the challenge, each made up of a triathlon superstar and backed by 10 pacers to be used across swim, bike and run.
For the men, PTO World #1 Kristian Blummenfelt and PTO World #12, Joe Skipper, would go toe to toe in Sub7 while PTO World #14 Nicola Spirig and PTO World #4 Kat Matthews would take on Sub8, starting one hour before the men.
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The Women’s Sub8 Contenders
Like Sub7, the Sub8 teams didn’t have a smooth ride to the start line. 2012 Olympic Champion and 2016 Olympic silver medal winner Nicola Spirig crashed hard in February, coming off her bike to break her collarbone and some ribs as well as puncturing her lung. The gritty Swiss star put all that behind her to take on the challenge of Sub8 in her final professional year.
PTO World #5 and reigning IM 70.3 World Champion Lucy Charles-Barclay was initially slated to face off against Spirig but a stress fracture of the hip meant giving way to fellow Brit, Kat Matthews, in April. Matthews, second at the Ironman World Championship in May and perhaps the long-course world’s preeminent bike-runner has had a rapid rise in the sport, boasting a ferocious 2:49:48 Ironman marathon best.
The Sub8 Race
Both women opted for two swim pacers and after initially leading, Spirig was overhauled by Matthews in the closing stages. By the end, the pair finished the first leg only seven seconds apart after 3.8km in the water, just shy of 55 minutes.
Matthews and her team quickly made time on the bike, but the gap to Spirig didn’t balloon too far, settling in just below four minutes. That buffer eventually came down to around three minutes as Matthews’ pace lowered in the closing stages of the 180km course around the Dekra Lausitzring track.
With a 2:37 marathon PB, that was a deficit many thought Spirig could erase – and initially, that looked to be the case. Slowly reeling in Matthews, Spirig made the catch with around 14km to go but the Brit kept the Swiss superfrau in her sights and kept her cool to repass 3km later and build a convincing lead.
Matthews remained metronomic in her pace, holding strong for a 2:46:09 marathon time and an overall finish of 7:31:54 – within a minute of her goal time. Spirig dug deep to clock a faster marathon time than the Brit – 2:45 – and crossed the line in 7:34:19.
While pre-race pundits postulated that the Sub8 barrier would be the easier to take down – Chrissie Wellington’s iron-distance world-best at Roth standing at 8:18 – the margin by which both women smashed that mark was astonishing and inspiring in equal measure.
The Men’s Sub7 Contenders
When the idea for Sub7Sub8 was announced, there were many raised eyebrows about the inclusion of Blummenfelt, who, at the time, was yet to complete an iron-distance race. A couple of seasons on, the Norwegian took to the start line of Sub7 in Germany as world number one, World Triathlon Champion, Olympic Champion and Ironman World Champion, proving doubters wrong at every turn.
A six-time full-distance champ, Skipper joined Sub7 just eight days from the race start after dual Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee bowed out due to a stress reaction injury. In gamely jumping in, the Brit certainly gained some new fans while cementing his position as the ‘junkyard’ underdog.
The Sub7 Race
Each with a single swim pacer in Lars Botellier for Blummenfelt and Alistair Brownlee for Skipper, the Norwegian drew first blood, besting the Brit by five minutes out of the water. Once on the bike though, the power and discipline of the team put together by Brownlee – including former hour-record holder Alex Dowsett – shone through.
Storming past Blummenfelt, Skipper gave the Olympic champ his trademark junkyard dog bark, the team going on to an astonishing 3:16 bike split, some eight minutes quicker than Blummenfelt’s squad and clocking over 55kmph average. There was also a hairy moment for the world number one along the way when a touch of wheels in the group nearly sent them down like a pack of dominoes.
On the marathon, Skipper put in an exceptional effort but even a stunning 2:36 run wasn’t enough to hold off the Norwegian’s advance. Woofing back at Skipper as he passed around 17km in, Blummenfelt steamrollered to victory with a 2:30 marathon, crossing the line in 6:44:25 while Skipper came home in 6:47:36 – both comfortably under the seven-hour mark.
While Sub7Sub8 might not result in any new official records, it was certainly one of the most compelling and entertaining triathlon events of recent years. Let’s hope we get to see more athletes take on similar challenges in the future to push the barriers of human performance.
Meanwhile, we know what Blummenfelt is up to next as the Norwegian powerhouse confirmed his intention to race at the PTO Canadian Open on 24 July. There’s just a month to go to enter the event yourself – so you can race an iconic course, then hit the grandstand to see Blummenfelt do his thing!
Laura Philipp Makes A Statement In Hamburg
Going into last weekend, we thought all the references to Chrissie Wellington’s world-best iron-distance time of 8:18:13 would be reserved for Sub8 but while Matthews and Spirig were being paced around a race track, PTO World #3 Laura Philipp was putting together a devastating performance at IM Hamburg.
A quick check on previous years’ results at IM Hamburg showed a women’s course record of 8:54:30 – set in 2021 by Laura Zimmermann – where the AIT (Adjusted Ideal Time) was 8:43:19. With that in mind, it seemed unlikely that we’d see super-fast times despite Philipp’s pedigree and the event’s European Championship status. How wrong we were!
Finding the feet of iron-rookie Chelsea Sodaro (now moved up 13 places to PTO World #17), Philipp and the American left the water together just ahead of France’s Manon Genet (PTO World #32). Once on the bike, Philipp pushed hard to gap Sodaro – and had to, as the US star chased hard over her maiden 180km and would only lose four minutes by T2. Philipp posted a staggering bike split of 4:31:14, one of the fastest ever seen in the sport.
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Leaving transition, Philipp showed zero after-effects of the tough Covid bout that kept her from the IM world champs in St. George. Simply sensational throughout the run, German bounded around the course to a mind-blowing 2:45:38 marathon for an 8:18:20 finish. That’s just seven seconds shy of Chrissie Wellington’s world best time with a run split that bettered Kat Matthews’ Sub8 attempt.
Sodaro came home with an impressive first iron-distance time of 8:36 while Genet rounded out the podium in 8:52.
The result is a huge score of 115.08 PTO World Rankings Points for Philipp, which, with the addition of a 10% bonus for her single best iron-distance performance of the year, put her score at 126.59 meaning she jumped two places in the rankings up to PTO World #2.
This sets the stage for the rest of the season with Philipp yet to face PTO World #1 and recently crowned Ironman World Champion, Daniela Ryf – a matchup we could see at the PTO Canadian Open in July before the pair are likely to join forces for Team Europe at the Collins Cup in August!
Banner image credits: Kat Matthews – James Mitchell, Kristian Blummenfelt – James Mitchell, Laura Philipp – Phillipp Seipp