In this interview from February 2021, Alistair Brownlee discusses his plan to attempt a sub-seven hour Iron distance triathlon in 2022, training with brother Jonny during lockdown and his hopes of more Olympic success at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Games.
Alistair Brownlee did his first triathlon aged eight and trains three times a day, almost every day. Friday is “easy day”, when he swims and works out in the gym. When he’s not training, he enjoys riding his mountain bike. “I don’t like sitting still,” he says.
The reigning Olympic triathlon champion will harness that boundless energy in a unique challenge next year. The Pho3nix SUB7 will see Brownlee try to complete an Iron distance triathlon in under seven hours. For context, the current men’s world record is 7:35:39.
“It’s a lot faster than has been done before,” Brownlee tells City A.M. “It’s an enormous challenge. But that’s what makes it interesting.”
Brownlee says he won’t be happy to merely go faster than anyone before. “No. This challenge is all about going sub-seven.”
That will mean swimming 3.8km of open water at Olympic medal-winning pace; cycling 180km at 51kmh, equivalent to the fastest ever non-time trial Tour de France stage; and running a marathon in under two and a half hours.
“I feel relatively confident. I did my homework before agreeing to it to see if it was possible. But it’s not a dead cert at all. If it was, it would be boring, wouldn’t it? It’s possible but difficult – that’s the key to making it an interesting challenge.”
Inspired by Kipchoge
Brownlee’s challenge, which will also be attempted by three other leading triathletes, owes much to Eliud Kipchoge. The Kenyan distance runner succeeded in a similar one-off event in October 2019, when he became the first person to run a marathon in under two hours.
“The idea to do this came from a conversation about what we could do to inspire people to be active, get a project around triathlon and tell the story of how it could be done. We had that conversation a few weeks after the Kipchoge attempt and it was very inspired by that, definitely.”
Kipchoge’s landmark achievement relied on every controllable factor being set up in his favour. The course was flat and tree-lined to minimise wind; pacemakers ran ahead of Kipchoge in a V formation to provide a slipstream; and he wore Nike’s genuinely revolutionary VaporFly shoe.
Similarly, the Pho3nix SUB7 and SUB8, as the women’s version is known, will be optimised as much as possible. A course for the challenge next March or April has not been chosen yet, but consideration will be given to topography, climate and the best time of day to start.
How Brownlee hopes to go SUB7
Brownlee will wear an extra-thick wetsuit for added buoyancy, the fastest trainers, suit and bike at his disposal, and use rolling nutrition – in other words, eating and drinking without stopping. He will use team time trial tactics for the cycle, where he hopes to save the most time.
All this means that, like Kipchoge’s feat, it won’t be deemed an official world record. “No, this is something very different. It’s a challenge to see if it’s possible to get under seven hours. I’m really keen to point out that it’s not a world record.”
In some ways, it’s bigger than that. Kipchoge achieved far more fame for his sub-two hour marathon than for setting a world record the previous year. A sub-seven-hour Iron triathlon might bring Brownlee more attention than his two Olympic golds – or helping his stricken younger brother Jonny over the line at a 2016 race – ever have. He’s not sure.
“The recognition should be in proportion to the scale of the achievement and the Olympics is the pinnacle – full stop. This is not about recognition as such. It’s about pushing triathlon out there and encouraging people to try to achieve things that seem impossible or a bit mad.”
Brownlee focused on Olympic hat-trick
Brownlee might be talking about SUB7 now, but his mind and current training regime are focused on the Olympics. That’s despite Covid-19 creating lingering uncertainty that the delayed Tokyo 2020 Games will finally go ahead this summer as hoped.
“I can’t really entertain that thought too much. It’s interesting, from a current affairs point of view, to follow what’s going on. But my athlete side is not even considering that.”
The 32-year-old can complete a hat-trick of Olympic golds in Tokyo, having won at both London 2012 and Rio 2016. He believes Paris 2024 will be beyond him, so his hopes of iron-cladding his legacy as the greatest Olympic triathlete rest on the next few months.
“It would be very disappointing, but it’s important to be pragmatic. I’ve been phenomenally lucky to go to three Olympics and win two of them.”
Disruption to the sporting calendar is far from over, but next year’s SUB7 challenge seems a safer bet. “It’s always good to have other goals. At the moment I’m focused on the Olympic Games but it’s really important, I’ve found, to be able to move on quickly after big events.”
Why training with brother Jonny is best
The Pho3nix SUB7 is proof that Brownlee is moving on – for good – to long-course competitions. He has finished second in the last two half-Iron distance world championships, in 2018 and 2019, but has only ever completed three races over the full 205km.
“In lots of ways it’s like a different sport, because it’s over seven or eight hours. I had an uncle who did Ironman, so it’s always been at the back of my mind as something that I wanted to do.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have a great career in Olympic distance racing and it’s time to try another form to achieve my goals in that.”
And those goals are? “Sub-seven. And I’d also like to be world champion.”
Brownlee is grateful that his life has been relatively untouched by the pandemic. As an elite athlete, he has dispensation to use training facilities and – perhaps equally importantly – train alongside Jonny, himself a two-time Olympic medallist.
“I think we’d struggle, because we are used to pushing each other on. It makes us train harder; you can’t get that type of intensity training on your own.”
Brownlee can’t decide which of his looming targets he craves the most. “They’re incomparable. Another Olympic gold would be an incredible achievement. But this [SUB7] is something different.”
But if he could only win one or the other? He laughs: “Doesn’t matter – I’ll have either.”
For more information on the Pho3nix SUB7 and SUB events, visit the website here.