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Triathlete Alistair Brownlee’s insane endurance attempt

Words by Rob Chilton

The double Olympic gold medallist aims to complete an Ironman race almost one hour faster than the world record, as his team leader warns of the “physical brutality, mental anguish and suffering”

Alistair Brownlee is one of the fittest and most successful triathletes competing today – he’s also perhaps one of the most up-to-date about what’s going on in the world. The only athlete to hold two Olympic triathlon titles after winning back-to-back gold medals in 2012 and 2016, Brownlee listens to news podcasts on his long training sessions.

“I often train with other people, and my brother [Olympic bronze and silver medallist Jonny Brownlee] and that keeps me entertained,” he tells EDGAR. “But if I’m out on my own I listen to music, audiobooks and all sorts of podcasts.” As well as current affairs, Brownlee checks in with the BBC’s long-running Desert Island Discs podcast in which a notable figure picks the eight pieces of music they’d take with them if they found themselves a castaway on a desert island. Brownlee himself would make a fine castaway it seems: “I’m fine in my own company.”

The 32-year-old is currently training for the Tokyo Olympics, postponed from 2020, and says he is “fully focussed” on getting a spot in the GB team. “It’s going well, it’s winter here in Leeds [England] so I’m doing what I can” he says. “There’s a long way to go, but my body feels good.”

Brownlee won consecutive Olympic triathlon golds

Positive thinking

As Covid continues to disrupt the sporting calendar, the Tokyo Games still hang in the balance, but Brownlee says the uncertainty is not affecting his preparation. “I think as an athlete, as far as I’m concerned, I have to believe 100 per cent that the Games are going to happen. And I do think they’re going to go ahead.”

After taking a shot at a remarkable third consecutive Olympic gold this summer, Brownlee will then attempt another mammoth task of completing the Ironman distance triathlon in under seven hours. The current Ironman world record is held by Jan Frodeno who completed the 3.8km swim, 180km bike and 42km run in 2019 in 7hrs and 51mins.

Brownlee chuckles and says he’s “not entirely sure” what he was thinking when he signed up to the “mythical” challenge of going sub-seven hours.

“I wanted a cool idea to inspire people to get active,” he explains. Is going under seven hours possible? “Of course it’s possible,” he replies instantly. “I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. It's going to be interesting to find out the limits of what’s possible.”

Brownlee brothers Jonny (left) and Alistair

Team spirit

Taking place in spring 2022 in a location yet to be decided, the attempt will not be an official world record as the event is not affiliated to any athletic association, Brownlee explains. Titled Pho3nix SUB 7 in the men’s category and Pho3nix SUB 8 in the women’s category, the race is backed by The Pho3nix Foundation that aims to attract young people to try sport.

Brownlee is making the attempt with triathletes Kristian Blummenfelt, Lucy Charles-Barclay and Nicola Spirig who will employ technology to help them break the seven and eight-hour mark. Factors such as water current, wind, air temperature and air pressure will all be analysed to find the most accommodating location.

“Exploring the science behind it is very exciting for me and pretty motivational,” Brownlee says. “We’re going to maximise all those things to go as fast as possible. Telling that story will hopefully inspire people.”

Coordinating the attempt is two-time Ironman World Champion, Chris McCormack who says ominously, “What they are attempting is almost the perfect multi-sport endurance athletic challenge. The physical brutality is one thing, but the mental anguish and suffering loaded with this is unheralded.”

Jan Frodeno holds the Ironman world record

Mind games

Brownlee says those dark moments are “part of being an endurance athlete,” adding, “I have to work my way through them. Most of the time in a race I’m pushing hard to get the best out of myself and not getting distracted about feeling uncomfortable, or being too hot or too cold, or my legs hurting. If I start thinking about other things, like what I’m having for dinner, then I know I’m having a bad day.”

And if the pain does come during a race? “Oh, that can be really tough,” he says. “You start thinking, ‘I want this to stop, how can I make it stop?’ It’s a strange high about being an endurance athlete, when I’m very focused on what I’m doing.”

As a schoolboy, Brownlee says he “couldn’t sit still” and channelled his energy into athletics. “I was pretty useless at cross country running,” he laughs. “But it caught my imagination and taught me that the harder I worked the better I got.”

The fruits of Brownlee’s hard work so far are two world triathlon titles, four European titles, a Commonwealth gold medal and those consecutive Olympic golds in London and Rio. An Olympic triathlon (1,500m swim, 40km bike, 10km run) is shorter than an Ironman. In his first Ironman in Hawaii in October 2019 Brownlee finished 21st, but in his second, in Australia two months later, he won.

Is he obsessed with winning? “No, I’m not actually,” says Brownlee. “I’m very pragmatic. I go out and train as hard as I can to help me win the race and if things don’t go my way – I think there is a bit of luck involved – I move on quickly and focus on the next challenge.”

Another win in the bag

Alistair Brownlee spoke to EDGAR as part of the Pho3nix SUB 7 and SUB 8 challenge, which aims to drive change and inspire sporting participation among young people.

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