Inside the Sub 8 Project on location in The Swiss Alps

In St Moritz the home of the TriSutto coaching team, I was lucky to have the opportunity, after a tough swim set, to have a coffee with Els Visser, professional triathlete ( and gain some inside track on this inspirational project. Els was one of Nicola Spirig’s pacemakers on the bike. Els is currently spending the summer in St Moritz as she prepares for Challenge Almere. After turning professional in 2017, following her first place as an Age Grouper at Ironman Switzerland, Els has an impressive list of achievements across olympic, middle, ironman, time trialing and was most recently 2nd in Ironman Lanzarote. No wonder Nicola Spirig asked her to be on her team!

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The Pho3nix Foundation* Sub-7 Sub-8 project was an ambitious experiment to see whether the best male and female triathletes could “defy the impossible” and break seven and eight hours respectively for the full iron distance triathlon (3.8km swim; 180km bike and 42.2 km run).  Inspired by Eliud Kipchoge’s sub 2 hour marathon in 2019, a project was born to reach the previously unimaginable times for men, sub 7 and women, sub 8, in triathlon. As with Kipchoge racing conditions were controlled by athletes used as pacers across all three disciplines. The Lausitzring motor track in Dresden, Germany, was chosen as the venue and four athletes were selected to compete: Nicola Spirig, Katrina Matthews, Joe Skipper and Kristian Blummenfelt for the race on 5 June. Each athlete was allowed a team of 10 and freedom to appoint whomever they wanted to use as pacemakers in the three disciplines. 

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Els, How did you become involved in the project?

The project was initiated by Pho3nix foundation and was two years in the making, to inspire the next generation of triathletes by achieving previously unthinkable times for the Ironman full distance. I train with Nicola in Brett Sutton’s pro squad at TriSutto and during a training camp in Gran Canaria in January, she asked me if I would support her on the bike leg as she needed strong cyclists. Nicola is a huge inspiration for me so it was an easy decision.

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Was there a lot of preparation by the athletes?

Not really together as a team. But we all had our individual preparations.  We arrived in Germany on the Tuesday before the race on the Sunday and we rode together on the Wednesday, Friday and the Saturday before the event.  Nicola and I did a lot of specific training sessions towards the event. Lots of time trial sessions together, but also long solid rides. And we practiced her sitting comfortably on my wheel. 

Were you nervous?

No, I wasn’t nervous for the event. I was excited and couldn’t wait until race day. It’s a different role to be in as a pacemaker than being the lead athlete. I can imagine that for Nicola it was extra hard. She had both the pressure of a normal race, and then also a whole team behind her which you don’t want to disappoint. 

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Did you have a speed in mind for the bike leg?

We didn’t have a set time in our mind as we relied on the circumstances of the day. We were hoping to hold an average speed of 43kmh on the circuit, which already sounds really fast, however we ended up averaging 46kmh!  It was a 20km bike from the transition to the circuit where Nicola had four riders to support her and then once we were on the track we were mostly riding with 5 pacemakers. 4 in front of Nicola, 1 behind and the other 3 girls having a break. I was in 4th position in front of Nicola. Towards the end of the race we could use every help so then I also took some turns in the front. We were all pretty similar riders (apart from 1 girl, she did a lot of work in the front). I rode 4th/ 5th with Nicola but after 120km took turns on the front to keep the pace as I was one of the stronger bikers. The mentality was “don’t be afraid” and that pushed us on to achieve such a high average speed. The guys were racing at the same time and lapped us a couple of times.

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Sub7Sub8 Germany on 5th June 2022, during the Sub7Sub8 Event

That must have been an amazing experience?

Absolutely. It was so different from a normal triathlon which is such a selfish and individual sport where you have to fight for everything. Everybody of the team was super supportive to help Nicola achieve the target. It was an amazing experience.

It was especially emotional for Nicola who punctured a lung and broke her collarbone and ribs while training in February.  Her finish time was 7:34:19 (swim: 54:50, bike: 3:53:16, run: 2:45.07). For the 2012 Olympic Champion a veteran of five games and a mother of three this is her last season. A great way to bow out.

We haven’t seen Els racing our Dubai 70.3 yet, but who knows what 2023 might bring. Thank you Els for sharing your time and insights with us.

By David Hunt, and Certified TriSutto Coach

The Pho3nix Foundation is a non-profit organisation created by Polish businessman Sebastian Kulczyk, with the sole purpose of promoting physical activity as a way to improve health and wellbeing among children with a particular focus on those in disadvantaged situations.

Posted on 4th Jul 2022