Can Ali Brownlee go sub-7 hours over an Iron-distance?

It could be a triathlon performance for the ages, But shaving 36 minutes off the world’s best iron-distance effort is a monumental ask. As Ali Brownlee prepares to attempt just that, James Witts investigate the innovations that could make the dream become reality

Can Ali Brownlee go sub 7 hours

In January, the internet lit up with news that Alistair Brownlee was to attempt breaking seven hours for an iron-distance course in spring 2022. Fellow Brit Lucy Charles-Barclay would aim to become the first woman to dip under eight hours.

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Ineos’ 1:59 project echoed loud as, like Eluid Kipchoge’s sub-two-hour marathon, the appliance of science would win over rules and regulations. Both 7hr and 8hr challenges grabbed the headlines. For a moment. But there’s been little detail since. Until now. We’ve spoken to Alistair, his sponsors, engineers involved in Kipchoge’s effort and a six-time Hawaii winner to see if the fantastical is within the realms of possibility. But first up, we tapped up organiser and former Hawaii champion Chris McCormack to explain more about the challenge…

When did the idea of a sub 7hor and a sub 8hr Iron take hold?

“The seeds were sown two years ago after the Ironman event in Bahrain,” the Australian recalls. “Jan [Frodeno], Daniela [Ryf], Alistair [Brownlee], [Javier] Gomez and I were having dinner at the Four Seasons hotel. I asked Daniela, ‘Could you break eight hours?’ She thought maybe under the right conditions.
We then discussed how quick a man could go. I said, how about I put a concept together, link up with one of the foundations I work with and we go from there?”

McCormack, or Macca, is founder of MANA Sports and Entertainment Group, a marketing and advertising agency with a philanthropic arm. Their clients include the Pho3nix Foundation, a non-profit organisation that   “uses the power of sport to help underprivileged youth find their strength”. It’s the brainchild of Pole Sebastian Kulczyk. “He’s one of the wealthiest under-40-year-olds in Europe,” says McCormack. “He’s also a keen triathlete.” After conversations with Kulczyk, the idea gained traction… given a firmer foothold when Alistair and Lucy committed to the project. They’re not the only ones. Half-iron-distance record holder Kristian Blummenfelt will forge his own team to challenge Alistair on the men’s side; 2012 Olympic gold medallist Nicola Spirig will do similar on the women’s side.

Four world-class athletes, four athletes who’ve never tasted success in the biggest of them all – Ironman Hawaii. It begs the question: why no Jan or Daniela? “Ultimately, we needed athletes who believed it was possible and, when it came to it, some didn’t believe it was,” says McCormack. “Also, Jan’s 40 when this challenge comes around whereas Alistair will be at the peak of his long-course career. He’s been a disruptor since he burst onto the scene at the 2008 Olympics.

“On the women’s side, Nicola Spirig is part of the Pho3nix Foundation. She’s only ever wanted to do one long-course event, attack the world record and retire. She has no aspirations for Kona. As for Lucy, she’s the heir apparent and doesn’t have barriers in her head, which are built the longer you’re in the sport.”

Where will the challenge take place?

The challenge, originally mooted as March 2022, is more likely to be mid to late April with a three-day window, says McCormack. That’s because the original course favourite of the Middle East failed to tick enough boxes. “It was a little hilly and open to wind. That was an athlete decision. So was the shortlist of two, which are both in North America. There are so many things that come into play when it comes to optimal conditions in each sport. The humidity, an air temperature of early 20s, water temperature, whether it’s fresh or salt water (we felt salt was best but realised the salt could cause dehydration issues).

“[At time of press] we’re a few weeks from announcing the course. Daytona’s been mentioned and correctly so. It’s a fast course but feedback after the PTO event highlighted difficulty of banking at certain sections of the course. We’ll see, though we’ll definitely go for a circular course because of wind protection.”

Challenge Miami’s course has been mentioned, too. Either way, McCormack’s seeking crowd support – something notable by its absence from Kipchoge’s first attempt – and athlete support. “We’re talking about each athlete being allowed eight athletes in their team who can dip in and out of the race as pacemakers. How they’re allocated is up to them. At the moment, Kristian doesn’t want pacers on the run as he doesn’t like people running with him. Lucy wants one other person on the swim as she’s the world’s best triathlon swimmer. There’ll be a mix of triathletes – both long-course and shorter-course – and single-discipline specialists. Cameron Wurf, who rides for Ineos, came out and said he’d love to pace the guys. What we’ll be pushing for is athletes of substance to attract coverage to the event, so maybe Mo Farah, for example.”

McCormack’s desire for column inches could result in a potential flash point when each athlete announces their respective teams. There’s also dissent within the sport as a whole. We spoke to six-time Hawaii champion Dave Scott who raised doubts over its integrity. “It has no relevance,” he told us. “I’d much prefer the focus [for the men] being on breaking seven-and-a-half hours at Kona. A 45-minute swim, followed by a 4:10 bike and 2:33 marathon and it’s done. That would represent our sport better.”

As it stands, Frodeno holds the Hawaii record at 7:51:13. The German also holds the distinction for the fastest iron ever – 7:35:39 at Roth in 2016. With or without Scott’s approval, Brownlee will need to find nearly 36 minutes from somewhere. Fanciful? Based on the headlines, perhaps. But dig a little deeper and maybe not…

The 3.8km swim

Derby-based Huub has collaborated with the Brownlee brothers since 2013. They’ll be involved in the sub-7hr challenge. “We’re looking at several areas of the swim,” says Huub founder Dean Jackson. “We’re talking the mechanics of the suit, sighting, formations… It’s the discipline where there’s less potential to gain time but how gutted would we be if he finished in 7:00:05 and we hadn’t done enough?”

Still early days, Jackson suggests that they could bring in uber-triathlon swimmers Richard Varga and Henri Schoeman or open-water purists like Jack Burnell and Thomas Lurz for Alistair to draft. “There’ll be an optimum formation,” Jackson says. “The wetsuit’s also key. We’re playing around with 8-10mm neoprene around the hips for more buoyancy but there’s a tipping point where too much, especially if beyond his centre of gravity, will slow him down.

“There’s also a heat consideration. It’s fine adding 10mm neoprene but what’s the trade-off? That’s why we’re working with Steve Faulkner [lecturer in sports engineering and physiology at Nottingham Trent] about managing the heat. Do we pre-cool Alistair? Do we use   alcohol-lined suits? Does that alcohol have an effect when he’s out on the bike? There’s all sorts to look at.”

Including, on paper, the frankly ridiculous. “Should he have a mermaid tail as we won’t want him to kick,” Jackson speculates? “Do we use little compressors and inflate the suit with airbags that he can adjust? Do we have a one-use wetsuit that he rips off in transition? All we know is we’ll do a lot of our testing with Huub [Toussaint, co-founder] using our MAD testing facility in Mallorca. Whatever we decide, there are definite gains to be had.”

The 180km bike

“Daytona’d be a wise choice for the course as the bike times at the PTO were spectacular.” While Dave Scott might be sceptical about the challenge, he’s less so about the potential choice of bike course. And he’s not wrong with the likes of Lionel Sanders, Sam Long and Magnus Elbaek Ditlev riding under 1:39hrs for the 90km bike in the non-drafting format.

This, adds McCormack, is where Brownlee sees the greatest gains. “I know he’s had problems maintaining a long-course aero position; he’s had hip-flexor and back issues. So I know he’s talked about spending the first 120km on an aero bike and then swapping to a road bike to open up his hip flexors.”

That was news to aerodynamicist Simon Smart, who’d recently worked with Alistair due to their respective association with Scott bikes. “We set him up on the Plasma 6 to ride solo,” Smart says. “The goalposts have now moved and that’s fascinating. Maybe we can back off the position a little and make it less aggressive. If drafting the whole time, it’d be foolish to stay in that position.”

Especially when the benefits of drafting are huge. “By sitting inside a peloton you can reduce your aerodynamic drag loss by over 90%,” says Dan Bigham, involved in the project via Huub’s Fellowship of Speed. “Considering we’re looking to ride at over 50kph, where aero drag is around 300 watts of power output, reducing that by up to 90% is handy. The major issue here is that we still need the peloton to move that fast. So we need a good team of good time-triallists who can take turns on the front, followed by a reasonably good (pro level) bunch of around 60-100 riders where Ali can sit right in the middle, doing as little work as possible.” That’s the ideal. But Bigham was unaware of McCormack’s mooted team limit. Still, as Smart told us, even two-up time-trials sees riders knock 20 minutes off their individual efforts, so a small peloton will pay off. Bigham also stresses how braking must be limited to avoid turning kinetic energy into heat energy, “so no sharp corners or hairpins”. High gear ratios will also be important. “Some blocks will reach 60kph so we’d be looking at a 70T chainring to keep his chainline as straight as possible.”

The 42.2km run

The 1:59 project highlighted how even running can be influenced by innovation. As studies showed, Kipchoge’s carbon-fibre-plated shoes – Nike’s Alphafly – played a key role. Will Alistair follow suit in adidas’ carbon adios Pro? “I have already begun using those,” he told us, along with adding he “responds well to altitude”, so maybe a pre-sub-7hr challenge visit to St Moritz is on the cards?

Brownlee’s brevity’s not surprising so early in the challenge. What we need is someone who’s been there and done it. Cue Jon Paton of aerodynamic specialists TotalSim. “We were involved in the Ineos project but the two challenges are chalk and cheese,” he says, stressing that they’re not currently involved in the sub-7hr effort, albeit would be keen to be involved if the finances are there. “Funding for an event like this is vital,” he says. “The formation we came up with for Kipchoge wasn’t the result of five-grands’ worth of CFD modelling and wind-tunnel testing. Is the funding there?”

Kulczyk’s a billionaire but this is for his charitable foundation, meaning a personal cash injection arguably wouldn’t be a great look. If the challenge eats up millions, why not simply invest directly into the Pho3nix Foundation? It’s a point we raise to McCormack. “Well, Sebastian is close to Jim Ratcliffe [Ineos owner]. We met with Jim at Ironman Mallorca before the pandemic. He’s someone we’ll introduce to the project. Whether that’s as a guest of ours or another capacity is up to him.”

If the funding is in place, all bets are on, says Paton. “Take drafting again. On the run, you could be looking at 60-70% drag reduction with the right formation. Athlete size matters, too – you want the runner in front to make a big hole. So choose a taller runner, or runners, with baggy clothing, though they still need to be fast enough to pace Alistair. Alistair, on the other hand, would benefit from a bespoke form-fitting skinsuit.”

Whether that’s using a three-grand suit from Vorteq, a TotalSim company, remains to be seen. As does suit choice for both bike and run. “When we’re working with trackies, materials used is different between 45, 50 and 55kph. That means the optimum suit for the run will not be the optimum suit for the bike. The challenge is determining the quickest over the whole course. So, for instance, do you put on arm warmers for the bike that are a different texture to arm warmers for the run?”

I revisit the pace-making theme and mention how I’d just read Michael Crawley’s book on Ethiopian runners, Out of Thin Air, and how their running culture centred on group running and how its intricacies aren’t captured by computer modelling. “It’s a good point,” says Paton. “Running behind someone at close formation without clipping their heels isn’t easy. Have they the same stride length? It needs practice. If you were to call up someone like Mo Farah because he’s best runner, you’re not going to access him  for weeks of time as he has his own training. It’s a balancing act.”

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With so much modelling to be done, positions to play around with and athletes to choose, that’s the sub-7hr challenge in a nutshell – one huge balancing act.