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Sub7 Sub8 Challenge: Hi-tech goggles, banked turns and real courage

Kat Matthews
Matthews finished second in her debut at the Ironman World Championships last month in Utah

“It’s a ‘cringe’ question and I think I have a ‘cringe’ answer,” says Kat Matthews.

She was just asked how it would feel to cross the finish line on Sunday and see her time at the start with a seven.

Never before has a woman completed an Ironman distance triathlon in less than eight hours.

But arguably nobody had a better chance this weekend than Britain’s Matthews.

The Sub 8 Challenge will combine a flat, fast course with cutting-edge technology and world-class data experts to give Matthews and Swiss rival Nicola Spirig the best chance of breaking the eight-hour barrier.

On the same day, Ironman world champion and Olympic gold medalist Kristian Blummenfelt and Brit Joe Skipper – a late replacement for Alistair Brownlee – will attempt to become the first men to bat seven hours for the same distance.

“It’s about challenging our performance limits as a collective,” Matthews told BBC Sport. “Not just for me, but for the whole sport and anyone who comes through.

“We’re trying to break down those barriers and figure out what’s physically possible. It will give me a new expectation of what it means to race at the limit.”

In 2019, the team behind the Ineos 1:59 Challenge chose the Austrian capital of Vienna and a circuit with minimal, gentle turns, a slight camber and shelter from the wind to push the great Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge to a marathon of under two hours .

The Sub7 Sub8 Challenge is styled similarly.

The 2.4-mile swim takes place in the 1,300-acre Senftenberg Lake to allow for a direct point-to-point swim without having to waste time rounding buoys.

The 112-mile bike course includes 27 laps of the banked Lausitzring, where some of the world’s top motorsport teams come for testing.

The marathon takes the triathletes over the same smooth, flat tarmac, sheltered from any breeze by trees bordering the course.

Each of the four participants will be accompanied by pacemakers and science-heavy support teams.

Sarah-Jane Walker and India Lee will have Matthews behind them on the swim course, while in front of them, live stats on how fast they’re swimming can be seen thanks to high-tech goggles.

Matthews will be wearing a specially tailored wetsuit, with the thickness of each neoprene panel designed to complement her individual swimming style.

On the bike, Matthews’ pace-making team calibrates to maximize their aerodynamics and power delivery and minimize their own exertion. They will be linked via radio to enable tactical optimizations based on data analyzed in a nearby team car.

The steep curves of the Lausitzring
The steep corners of the Lausitzring are a key advantage of the circuit

For the run, Matthews will be clad in a yet-to-be-released Asics shoe that utilizes the latest carbon plate running shoe technology.

At this point in the challenge, however, Matthews says she’ll also rely on something less tangible, albeit just as important.

Among the running team is Nerys Jones.

Unlike many other pacemakers, Jones is not a professional triathlete. Instead, she is a serving soldier, part of the Army’s Physical Training Corps.

In April she was part of a season who covered the 813 miles from Land’s End to John O’Groats in less than four days.external link

Matthews, the has her own background in the army enjoys her mental and emotional support on the leg, where slipstreaming matters least.

“For me, running is more about morale,” she said.

“It’s about having people around me who keep the spirits high and the psychological effort to do it very low because the cycle is going to be so focus-heavy.

“There is an army camaraderie with Nerys that I love. It is heartwarming that she will come and do this with me.”

There are allies, but also a twin enemy to defeat.

Matthews knows she must beat both the clock and Spirig to earn her place in history.

“I wouldn’t be satisfied with beating Nicola and not going under eight. And I wouldn’t be happy to go under eight and finish second behind Nicola,” added Matthews.

“For me it’s the combination, I want to win.”

When Matthews sees zero people in front of her and a seven on the timing board above her at the finish line on Sunday afternoon, it becomes a milestone for her and her team.

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