When it comes to triathlon, Alistair Brownlee is already the GOAT, but the two-time Olympic gold medalist still has ambitions he wants to check off his sporting bucket list.
First up is competing and medalling at this summer’s rearranged Tokyo Olympics, and while neither of those goals are certain, you certainly wouldn’t bet against him. After that Brownlee wants to become the first man to complete an ironman event in less than seven hours.
The best time for a full ironman – a 2.4-mile swim, a 112‑mile cycle and a 26.2-mile run – is 7hr 35min, and while his attempt won’t be recognised by World Triathlon and will benefit from technological and competitive advantages not allowed in regular competition, it’s still a hell of a task that’s being undertaken by one hell of an athlete.
We spoke to Brownlee about how he plans to knock over half an hour off the current record, what a sub-7 ironman could do for the discipline as a whole, as well as discussing his preparation for, and the pressure he feels going into, his final Olympics.
Men’s Health: Why in an Olympic year and coming off the back of the year we’ve just had, with Covid-19 and disrupted training, did you want to take on the SUB7 challenge?
Alistair Brownlee: I thought it was a really cool project and it was something that was kind of my idea originally. It came about from a few of us having a conversation about what we could do to really promote the sport of triathlon and use it as a vessel to inspire and encourage people to be active and try to attempt things that seem almost impossible. That’s where the idea came from and it really appealed to me.
MH: How exactly do you plan on knocking over half an hour off the current best time for an Ironman?
AB: Well you’ve not got an awful lot of room to manoeuvre on the swim, you’ve got about 45 minutes, and you’ve not necessarily got a massive amount of room to manoeuvre on the run, a 2:35 would be very quick but 2:40 is probably more probable, so that leaves you about 2:35 to do the bike, so it’s the bike where the time has to come from. Most of that time will come from using technology and having the best possible location for it: really fast roads, really perfect weather, low air pressure etc. We’ll also be doing it in team time trial format.
MH: Although this won’t be done under strict competition rules, it will still be a challenge, so what makes you so confident then that you can complete a challenging Ironman in less than seven hours?
AB: Seven hours is a great target because with using the kind of advantages that I’ve just talked about it brings it into range, but it’s still definitely not a done deal. It’ll still take a hell of a performance to put it together and actually pull it off. That makes it obviously a challenge, and that’s why it’s exciting.
MH: When a barrier like this is broken, whether it’s a sub-seven Ironman or a two-hour marathon, what does that do for the rest of that particular discipline?
AB: I think it’s more of a one-off challenge and an exhibition to show how fast it is possible for people to go. I think there will be some kind of filter down results, so probably the technology usage and what people believe they can do and that’s fascinating.
I think the four minute mile is the best example of that. People were peppering just over four minutes for decades and then within months of breaking the four-minute mile, people had gone faster, a lot faster. This is not really like that because it’s not that kind of barrier and it’s not record conditions, but it’s still really interesting.
MH: Do you think it’s possible for someone to go sub seven in a race that is recognised by World Triathlon?
AB: I think so yeah, it’d be silly to say no. I remember, just in my sporting lifetime, when the world marathon record first dipped under 2:05, in the mid 2000s. Then to see them dip under two, but obviously run about 2:01:30 under normal conditions, the scale of those improvements are incredible. The triathlon will be no different.
MH: Let’s talk about your preparation for the Olympics, how’s that going and has Covid-19 got in your way at all?
AB: I’m really lucky that as an elite athlete I can still access facilities, so that’s absolutely brilliant. I’m managing to swim pretty normally and I still run and bike outside, but also I can access gyms and stuff. I can still train with my brother and a few others in specific locations, so being an elite athlete allows me to get on and do my job to the best of my ability. Normally I probably spend a bit more time abroad at this time of the year to miss out on the tough Yorkshire weather, but I’m actually quite enjoying being at home and the training consistency that that’s bringing.
MH: You know what it feels like to be in a good place to win medals, so do you feel like you’re in that place this time around?
AB: Well it’s different every time. Definitely being a bit older, I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I think a few things looked really positive towards the end of last year. I was racing really well, and was up there racing the best in the world and getting really close to winning races against the world champion, so that’s a massive positive for me and that gave me a lot of confidence. Since then, on the whole, training has gone pretty well, and I’m pleased with where I’m at, so I’m just doing what I can to slowly progress my way to hopefully be in a position to win a medal at the Olympics.
MH: This will presumably be your final Olympics, but do you feel any pressure to medal?
AB: Yeah, absolutely. I’d only be going or trying to get to the Olympics if I believed I had a great chance of winning a medal, so yeah, I’m fully focused on that, and I’m doing everything I can, but at the same time, I feel really lucky that I’ve achieved far more than I ever believed that I’d be able to achieve in the sport. I feel the 14-year-old me would be really happy with how far I’ve got.
Sign up to the Men’s Health newsletter and kickstart your home body plan. Make positive steps to become healthier and mentally strong with all the best fitness, muscle-building and nutrition advice delivered to your inbox.
For effective home workouts, uplifting stories, easy recipes and advice you can trust, subscribe to Men’s Health UK.