Sub7/Sub8 Project: Our predictions for the race

Expect some crazy fast times and not everything to run smoothly as the ambitious Sub7/Sub8 Project approaches. Can it be achieved, and who’ll emerge victorious? Tim Heming takes a look 

BOLTON, ENGLAND - JULY 04:  Joe Skipper of Great Britain on the run course during the Supersapiens IRONMAN UK Bolton on July 04, 2021 in Bolton, England. (Photo by Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

The anticipation is rising ahead of this coming weekend’s Sub7/Sub8 challenge in Germany where four triathletes will look to set the fastest times ever recorded for the Ironman distance.


Reigning Olympic and Ironman champion Kristian Blummenfelt and five-time Ironman winner Joe Skipper – a late replacement for the injured Alistair Brownlee – will attempt to break 7hrs for the men, while 2012 Olympic champion Nicola Spirig and Ironman World Championship runner-up Kat Matthews will try to finish under 8hrs for the women.

While anything close to these times will knock chunks off the existing records, the event, organised by the Pho3nix Foundation and primarily hosted at the Dekra Lausitzring racing circuit near Dresden, does not follow triathlon’s normal rules.

Each athlete will have a team of 10 pacers to help them through the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike leg and 26.2-mile run. The most noticeable change to regular long course racing is that drafting is allowed – so expect to see fast times on the bike.

It’s also not just a matter of breaking 7hrs and 8hrs respectively, with prime focus on the head-to-head result between Skipper and Blummenfelt, and Spirig and Matthews.

What the athletes need to do to succeed in the Sub7/Sub8 

While one of the draws of this novel and ambitious experiment is that no-one is really sure what will happen, the overwhelming consensus is that Sub8 is more achievable for the women than Sub7 will be for the men.

It makes logical sense. When the very best male triathletes go up against the very best female triathletes over iron distance there’s rarely a 60min gap – in the Ironman World Championship you have to go back to 2004.

As the duration of an event reduces as it does here, that hour difference becomes more generous still.

But otherwise, much is up in their air. While Eliud Kipchoge’s Ineos 1.59 Challenge – the marathon equivalent to Sub7Sub8 – relied on the Kenyan being able to hold pace behind his team of support runners, here there is far more jeopardy.

The point-to-point swim in Lake Senftenberg should be the smoothest part of the day. Those pacing should all have clear water, and the four protagonists easy feet to follow for 3.8km.

The men and women start at different times and in their own lanes initially, and no-one will be keen to get in anyone else’s way. Put simply, if there are problems in the swim, it’s going to be a long day.

The bike leg is where the challenge will live or die. Are the pacers of high enough calibre to push the required power for 112 miles? Will the strategy give the triathletes enough shelter from the wind?

Can the team be well drilled enough to hold the time-trial line for hours? Will the nutrition be right? And ultimately, will they bike fast enough – and leave the triathletes fresh enough – to run the marathon required?

After the swiftest of T2s, the pacers’ jobs on the marathon are limited – they will be more morale-boosters than windbreaks – and we should gain a good idea from the early pace whether both Sub7 and Sub8 are on, and who has the form, fitness and judgement to seal victory.

What can we expect from Joe Skipper in the Sub7?

A late curveball means that Skipper now replaces Brownlee and goes head-to-head with Blummenfelt.

Given Alistair’s history of injury and his recent illnesses, perhaps it shouldn’t and doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Perhaps the only triathlete that could really step into the void too was the Norfolk charger, who not only refuses to shy away from taking on epic challenges, but:

  1. Was already training for Ironman France in Nice in June.
  2. Will have the bit between his teeth after missing out on the Ironman worlds in St George having contracted Covid.
  3. Has been testing with the Ribble Weldtite team as part of Brownlee’s build-up.
  4. Is under the management of the organisers, Mana, so will have had as much advance notice as possible that he might be called in.

How the Sub7 race might play out in the swim

In a complete change of personnel, Skipper will be paced on the swim by Max Stapley and Gordon Benson as he tries to stay within touch of Blummenfelt – who’ll be tucking in behind seven-time Dutch national long-distance swimming champion Lars Bottelier.

Blummenfelt is now likely to emerge first from the water in around 47mins, but Skipper shouldn’t be more than a couple of minutes behind.

How the Sub7 race might play out on the bike

On to the bike and Skipper’s supporting cast remains the same as planned for Brownlee, and is directed by Jacob Tipper of Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling Team. Renowned UK time triallist Matt Botterill – who will be pulling turns himself – is running the Norwegian’s camp.

While all the riders will be skilled and drilled, they’ve only had a limited time to practice, so there is a chance something slips, and punctures, mechanicals, crashes, sickness or rider off-days can’t be ruled out.

Tipper has been bullish about his team that also features GB’s Alex Dowsett, fresh or otherwise from the Giro d’Italia, and substituting Skipper for Brownlee doesn’t change that. With Skipper a more powerfully-built athlete, he may even be more suited to the flat oval of the racing circuit than Brownlee.

There’ll also be few concerns over his ability to hunker into the TT position for hours, given he broke the British record for the 12-hour time trial less than two years ago with a total of 326 miles.

The question will be what power Skipper is confident he can hold for the 112 miles and still run a fast marathon, because this will dictate the speed of his train, and hence the split.

The team may still go faster than Blummenfelt’s but expect the margin to be measured in a few minutes rather than the laps that Tipper is predicting.

How the Sub7 race might play out on the run

A bike leg of around 3:35 to 3:40hrs mark would mean that with sharp transitions Skipper would have to run around a 2:35-2:38hr marathon.

Provided enough energy has been saved over the bike leg – and there’s much talk of keeping it ‘Zone 2 effort – that would be a dream scenario, especially given he’s three times run under 2:40hr in iron-distance marathons. His support runner will now be German national marathon champion Frank Schauer.

If Blummenfelt is looking at around a 2:30 marathon to break 7hrs and win, he’ll consider it well within his capabilities after the 2:38 marathon in St George on a hilly course.

Who will win the Sub7 race?

Overall, having Skipper instead of Brownlee as an opponent hardly makes the Norwegian’s task easier. As Blummenfelt’s said himself, “It’s not going to get easier with Joe. He has a better full-distance resumé and a higher world ranking than Alistair. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

That resumé includes a sixth place in Hawaii the last time the race was held there in 2019.

But Blummenfelt still gets the nod because we know he is in shape and buoyant after the Ironman World Championship win. Of course, it will have taken a toll, but he’s shown over the years how resilient he is.

We know Skipper will run through brick walls for success, but there has to be a question mark over whether he has fully regained fitness after Covid, and whether he’s been able to adjust his focus at such short notice to give himself a chance.

How the Sub8 race might play out in the swim

If the men’s race is hard to call, the women’s is no easier. Spirig isn’t a top swimmer by World Triathlon standards but her qualities should stack up well for the 2.4 miles of long course.

The only Ironman race the Swiss has ever done was in Cozumel in 2014, and while her swim leg was 47:12mins it’s renowned for being current-assisted.

Spirig’s two middle-distance swims this year haven’t been world-beating, but she’s also been working her way back after breaking her collarbone, two ribs and suffering a punctured lung in a bike crash in early February.

Matthews’ swimming is improving all the time, so there could be little in it when it comes to T1 and neither will get too concerned if it’s a minute or so either way.  The swim is not going to be the determining factor here.

How the Sub8 race might play out on the bike

The bike leg is a tough one up call. Both are among the strongest cyclists in the sport, Matthews a national 100-mile time-trial champion from 2020, and Spirig routinely dragging the chase pack up to the front in short-course racing or displaying her class on tough middle-distance courses.

Much of it will come down to the strategies working out, with Matthews planning to hold the wheel of fellow Ironman athlete and friend Ruth Astle for the whole ride so she won’t need to ever spike her effort to close gaps.

It looks as if Spirig will be on a road bike, which might demand putting out more power than she’d need on a TT bike. We’ve heard the TT v road bike debate many times, not least in last year’s Collins Cup when being on a road bike didn’t seem to do USA’s Taylor Knibb any harm.

Spirig’s camp will attest that the more familiar position will help her when it comes to the run, but I’m still picking Matthews to out-bike the Swiss by around 5mins – with a 4-flat versus 4:05hr split.

How the Sub8 race might play out on the run

This should see Matthews first off the bike and leave both women ‘only’ having to run around 3hrs to crack the challenge, which should be well within their capabilities.

Given Matthews ran that time in Utah when she looked all out in T2, and Spirig has a 2:37hr marathon PB – albeit from eight years ago – run times are likely to be closer to 2:45-2:50hrs.

Who will win the Sub8 race?

Barring mechanicals or injury, I’ll take both to comfortably go under 8hrs and Matthews with a slight buffer from the bike to hold on for the win.

But equally, she’s up against just about the wiliest character in the sport, so don’t be surprised to see it going the other way.


Top image: Huw Fairclough/Getty Images