When Alistair Brownlee takes on the Sub7 challenge later this year, whatever he achieves will not just be down to athletic brilliance.
With athletes allowed to deploy up to 10 pacers across the three disciplines, the strategy employed could end up being just as important when raceday finally arrives.
Brownlee and reigning Olympic Champion Kristian Blummenfelt will aim to go Sub7 for the Ironman distance, while Lucy Charles-Barclay and Nicola Spirig bid to break the eight-hour time barrier.
McCormack on Brownlee
As one of the people behind this marquee event, two-time Kona king Chris McCormack has been observing closely how the athletes are assembling their teams, and piecing together a battle plan. He has in particular been blown away by Brownlee.
Speaking on the MX Endurance Podcast, he said: “It’s really good to see Alistair really deep-dive into this. He’s a real deep thinker Alistair, as well as being an amazing athlete and he really likes the enormity of the challenge.
“He likes the science and the process and the planning that goes into an attempt like this. He’s thriving on the information, he’s a data geek at heart, he’s looking at all this stuff.”
While the four athletes take top billing in Sub7Sub8, and the races are framed as individual events, McCormack re-iterated that the team element will be crucial to the result.
“Looking at all the teams, men and the women, everyone’s gonna travel quicker for sure. But the big takeaway from me is that this is to some degree a team event.
“Let me throw this scenario out there for example. Kristian Blummenfelt and Alistair Brownlee dive in the water together, they’ve got their swimmers. Alistair technically is probably a two-minute better swimmer than Kristian mano a mano, maybe not in a big group – but this is a match race.
“So two minutes up the road, now let’s say he’s got Mathieu van der Poel as a bike rider, some serious pro horsepower up front, and Tony Martin, these type of athletes. And Kristian opts to take Gustav Iden. The match race is not only between Kristian and Alistair, but it’s a match race between your pacers.
“There’s the opportunity I believe that Alistair is such a brilliant bike handler, a bike racer – a pro level cyclist – he descends amazingly, he handles his bike well. More so than the brute force of Kristian – who suits that triathlon dynamic where you muscle your way and grind the gears and chunk away.
“I’m interested in that dynamic and I think who is in those athletes’ pacing teams is going to be critical to the overall attempt.”
While McCormack has been impressed by Brownlee’s analytical approach to the task at hand, he is getting similar vibes from Swiss superstar Spirig.
Nicola broke her collarbone and fractured two ribs last weekend in a bike accident on the eve of her 40th birthday. McCormack though says it shouldn’t drastically affect her bid to go Sub8. He says she too has a clear vision on how the big day plays out.
“I think speaking to Nic, she’s prepared in the Sub8 attempt to give 5,6,7 minutes – in her head the swim is an irrelevant beast. She is the one that really pointed out the importance of pacers.
“She is building her team, saying: ‘If Lucy is not taking her pacing strategy seriously she’s gonna get blasted because my team can ride her down. And if she does it’s game over’.”
As he summed up his thoughts a few short months out from raceday, McCormack again brought it back to his overarching point – that building the right team could yet mean the difference between victory and defeat. And as Brownlee and Blummenfelt have both said, nobody wants to go Sub7 and finish second…
A team game
“My thoughts in the last couple of weeks having seen a lot of it, I keep coming back to this, we keep focusing on the individual athletes on the attempt.
“Alistair and Nicola seem to be the ones that are shifting the narrative and going ‘okay, who are the best people I can put around me to ensure I can get to that position as quick as I possibly can?
“There was talk in the early days of having pro cyclists, and then talking about pro triathletes because they could use them across multiple distances. Talking about Ironman athletes. And they realised these Ironman triathletes can ride 43k all day, but they cant ride 51.
“Alistair went through a process going ‘I’m probably better off getting short-course triathletes and rotating my team out’.”