With exactly one month to go before the Ironman World Championships, we thought we’d begin a raft of Kona-related articles by asking the big question about whether someone can go Sub-8. The current record is 8:03:56 set by Craig Alexander in 2011…
If few question that someone will go sub eight someday, the questions of who, when and how remain. Will any of today’s crop of top Ironman athletes be the one? Does the recent downtick in Ironman winning times portend an imminent breaking of the eight-hour barrier? What will these potential athletes need to do to get over the mental hump that is breaking a time barrier? What exactly will it take to produce a 7:59 Ironman or better in Kona?
When pundits are surveyed with the first of these questions, two names are mentioned more than any other: Andreas and Michael Raelert of Rostock, Germany, who have shown tantalising signs of having the potential to lower Crowie’s mark. Older brother Andreas, 35, brings as much speed as anyone to Kona, having smashed the iron-distance world record at Challenge Roth in July with a 7:41:33, more than four minutes faster than the iron-distance record of 7:45:58 set by Belgium’s Marino Vanhoenacker one week earlier.
Younger brother Michael, 31, meanwhile, is as fast as they come at the half-iron distance. He’s won two Ironman 70.3 World Championships, the last with a stunning time of 3:41:19, which he closed out with a jaw-dropping sub-70- minute half-marathon.
“I would never say it’s a goal to finish sub-8:00 in Kona,” Andreas said. “The time really doesn’t matter, because it’s all about winning this event. But you have to bring this [mind-set] going into the race: ‘I have to race under eight hours because maybe the other guys out there, they’ve got the potential, too.’”
Michael echoes these sentiments: “I know that Andy and I have the potential to win this race, and to be under this magical number, but to be honest we don’t care about this number. We know it’s possible.”
The likelihood of a sub-8:00 Kona Ironman happening soon seemed to have increased when Vanhoenacker, last year’s third-place finisher, shattered Van Lierde’s 14-year-old iron-distance world record of 7:50:27 with his 7:45:48 at Ironman Austria in July. Ironically, Vanhoenacker himself sees it differently: “Honestly, I believe it is impossible to go sub-8:00 in Kona,” he said. “It is just a little bit too hot to go supersonic all day long, and if the wind hits us then the time is really out of reach.”
As Vanhoenacker’s reasoning suggests, the presence of athletes who have the necessary physical potential may be the first requirement for a sub- eight-hour Ironman in Kona, but it is hardly the only requirement. A look back at Ironman history reveals four types of scenarios that tend to foster fast winning times. Without question, at least one of these scenarios will have to play out on a day when athletes with the right potential are in the race for the first sub-eight-hour Hawaii Ironman to occur.
Scenario One: The Perfect Day
Kona’s famously harsh weather conditions are one reason that no man has ever finished the Ironman World Championship in less than eight hours. Even though the race attracts the deepest fields of elite male athletes, who typically arrive in better shape and with greater motivation than they do at any other Ironman race, Alexander’s Kona course record falls more than 20 minutes short of Raelert’s iron-distance world record, thanks in part to Kona’s climatic challenges.
The influence of the course and conditions on the achievability of a sub- eight-hour Ironman time is highlighted by the fact that 11 of history’s 15 sub- 8:00 performances have occurred on a single course: Challenge Roth, formerly Ironman Europe, where race-day weather is almost always temperate and calm.
The challenges in Kona are twofold. First, there’s the heat and humidity. The average high temperature on the Queen K Highway on race day is close to 32 degrees Celsius, and the humidity hovers around 90 per cent. Heat reduces endurance performance by elevating athletes’ core body temperatures so that they must reduce the amount of heat they produce through muscle contractions — by slowing down — to avoid overheating. Humidity exacerbates the problem by reducing the rate at which perspiration evaporates from the skin.
The second challenge is the Kona coast’s notorious Ho’o Mumuku winds. These winds come off the shore as crosswinds during the cycling portion of the race, with gusts often exceeding 65 kilometres per hour.
Some race days in Kona are not as bad as others, however. While conditions there are never as favourable as they usually are in Roth, Germany, where Raelert’s iron-distance world record was set, Kona competitors luck out some years and get weather that is relatively conducive to fast times. More than once, Ironman course records have been set in Hawaii on such days.
Take 1993, for example. In that year’s Ironman, Mark Allen broke his own record, clocking 8:07:45. The Mumuku winds were unusually quiet, and the air temperature unusually cool, at least during the first half of the race. This allowed Allen to complete the 180-kilometre bike leg in a personal-best time of 4:29:00, several minutes faster than his typical split. On the strength of that ride he was able to lop more than a minute off his record despite running a 2:48:05 marathon, a full eight minutes slower than his best.
Andreas Raelert has suggested that a day of ideal weather could make a sub-eight-hour performance not only possible but even necessary to win: “Under perfect conditions, with a field this competitive, this is one of the numbers you have to be prepared for,” he said.
Naysayer Vanhoenacker contends there is no such thing as perfect conditions on the Kona coast, however: “Hawaii is Hawaii and you can’t expect it to be 15 to 20 degrees Celsius on race day,” he says.
Scenario Two: An Outstanding Talent
In 1980, when two Ironmans had been contested and the race record was 11:15:56, a young swim coach from Davis, California, came to Oahu (the site of the first three Ironmans) and blitzed the course in 9:24:33, winning by an hour. Dave Scott was perfectly designed for Ironman. Although he was not especially fast over short distances, he could sustain speeds close to his maximum for hours on end. He was remarkably impervious to the effects of heat and humidity. Scott also had the special mental strength required to excel in that race.
“I think I have the mental perseverance to out-endure anyone in this race,” Scott told ABC in 1983. “The topography and the terrain are mentally stifling. I think that most people lose their concentration after about five hours. They give up. It’s not physical; it’s the mental concentration.”
It happens every now and again in every sport: A phenomenal talent comes out of nowhere and raises the bar. But in triathlon there is so much variety in the different types of races that an outlier talent may be especially suited to just one of them, as Dave Scott was for Ironman.
The few athletes who have stood head and shoulders above the rest in Kona have typically been characterised as “diesel engines”—they don’t have great top-end speed but they can grind all day—and they have an extraordinary capacity to suffer.
Eight-time Ironman world champion and former course record holder Paula Newby-Fraser is one such athlete.
“If you took me out of that distance, I was still good but not great in short distance,” she said. “I wasn’t a great swimmer, cyclist or runner. Mostly it was the engine. I just had an ability to keep going at the same pace.”
The most recent outlier to come along is Chrissie Wellington, who has won Kona three times in three starts and in 2009 broke Newby-Fraser’s women’s course record in 8:54:02. It is widely agreed that Wellington would not dominate short-course triathlon if she devoted herself to it, but because of her diesel engine, she’s undefeated at 140.6 miles. She also shares another Kona-specific advantage with her coach, Dave Scott.
“I think you do need a genetic predisposition to be able to deal with the conditions there,” she said. “I am fortunate to be able to race well in the heat.”
Perhaps the Raelert brothers have outlier potential that has not been revealed. It took Allen seven tries to attain total dominance in Kona, after all. Or maybe the next outlier is someone else who hasn’t come along yet, but will soon.
Scenario Three: A Great Rivalry
Athletes at all levels, including the very highest, go faster when pushed by competition. It’s not surprising, then, that some of the fastest Ironman performances have come in some of the closest races. The supreme example, of course, is Iron War—the 1989 duel between Scott and Allen, when the two long-time rivals raced iterally side by side for eight hours, until Allen broke away to win in 8:09:15, lowering Scott’s course record by 19 minutes. (Scott finished second in 8:10:13.)
Scott and Allen were in a class by themselves at that time, and each was in the best form of his life going into the race. After losing to Scott in five previous Ironman events, Allen vowed to shadow Scott all the way through the race and try to break him at the end. Scott’s counter strategy was to set a withering tempo from the start in the hope of breaking Allen’s will before he had a chance to use his superior closing speed. It was a perfect storm of circumstances to set up a huge course record. In fact, before the race Scott predicted it would take an 8:10 or better to win.
When the two or three fastest competitors in a race such as Ironman consciously mark each other, a fast time only results when at least one of them races aggressively, seeing the swiftest possible race as his most likely way to win. But when all of the fastest competitors opt for more conservative tactics, waiting for someone else to make the first move, the race tends to be slower. This has been the “problem” in the men’s elite race in Kona for some time.
“The issue with the men’s race is the tactics,” Wellington said. “Yes, the fastest time wins the day, but the way the race plays out now might necessitate them being slightly more conservative on the run.”
The Raelert brothers give the rivalry scenario a new twist. Instead of pushing each other to new heights of performance through a bitter desire to annihilate the other, as Scott and Allen did, these two push each other to new heights of performance cooperatively— at least in training.
“Michi and I help each other and push each other, but in a different way,” Andreas said. “It’s more friendly. Of course I want to beat Michi and he wants to beat me in a training session, but it never gets aggressive.”
The two brothers raced each other often in their short-course careers, but they have never competed together in long-course events, where it’s easier to work cooperatively. It will be interesting to see in the future if the Raelerts’ anticipated teamwork in Kona manifests as aggressive racing at the front, or even as a committed effort to neutralise a stronger cyclist’s push off the front. If it does, a very fast winning time is likely.
Scenario Four: A Technical Breakthrough
In the early Ironman races, the top men’s bike splits seldom dipped under five hours. For example, in 1983, Scott Tinley’s split of 5:03:58 took him from 39th place at the swim exit to first place at T2. Then, in 1985, Tinley became the first pro to use an aerobar at Ironman. He set a new bike course record of 4:54:07 on the way to establishing a new overall course record of 8:50:54. Within five years, as triathlon bike geometry evolved to better accommodate the aerodynamic riding position made possible by the aerobar, the top men’s bike splits dropped into the 4:30s (and let’s remember that this was back in the day when T1 times were included in bike split times).
The same athletes who recorded the best bike times of more than five hours before the advent of the aerobar were going as much as 30 minutes faster by 1988. And it wasn’t because they were training differently. The improvement was entirely due to the technology.
“The aerobar was clearly the most revolutionary piece of equipment in terms of making a difference in triathlon bike performance, and there’s been nothing even close since then,” said Scott Rittschof, a student of cycling engineering and chief executive of Focus Bicycles.
Rittschof’s point is underscored by the bike split times of today’s Ironman winners, which are seldom much faster than those of the late ’80s. The very best bike times have improved modestly, though. Rittschof explains why.
“We’ve had a massive number of small innovations that have gradually whittled down those times,” he says, citing the examples of clip-in pedals and the use of carbon fibre in frames and components.
Strict design regulations for bikes introduced after the aerobar invasion have made it difficult for engineers to introduce an innovation capable of making an equivalent impact. But an innovation that lowers bike times by 30 minutes is not needed to break the eight-hour barrier. Only two minutes are needed. Could there be a future design improvement capable of lowering Ironman bike splits that much?
It’s an almost impossible question to answer, because if anyone knew what that invention was, racers would already be taking advantage of it. But the man who invented the aerobar, Speedplay President Richard Bryne, does see one specific possibility: automatic transmission.
“The multiple-cog drivetrains used in racing bikes are very inefficient,” Bryne explains. “They waste a lot of energy, especially in certain gear ratios, where cross-chaining occurs [in other words, when the chain is not in a straight line parallel to the top tube].”
Single-speed bikes are much more efficient but lack the versatility needed for maximum performance on a course with hills and varying wind conditions. However, new automatic bike transmission systems such as NuVinci by Fallbrook Technologies allow cyclists to have the best of both worlds, enabling them to change gearing without changing gears.
Bryne says the technology has not quite yet arrived at the point where elite racers are choosing to adopt it in large numbers (he cites weight issues), but it probably will be adopted. That is, if the rule makers allow it.
Speaking It Into Existence
In endurance sports, record-breaking performances typically only occur when athletes take conscious aim at them—they mentally prepare to break the barrier. Records seldom fall accidentally, as a mere by-product of trying to win. In 2008, the emergence of several new female long-distance triathlon talents inspired a lot of chatter about a possibly imminent breaking of Newby-Fraser’s iron-distance world record of 8:50:28. Later that same year, two women broke the mark in separate races on the same weekend, and Wellington has since brought the record all the way down to 8:18:13.
Until recently, there was little talk of a sub-eight-hour men’s performance at the Ironman World Championship. Now, suddenly, there is. Perhaps this very article is the final condition.
This article has been edited from the original that appeared in Triathlete Europe.