Chrissie Wellington’s dominating win in South Africa last weekend marked the sixth consecutive time in which she’s finished an Iron-distance race in less than nine hours.
In just a few short years, Wellington has ushered in a new era in the sport. She’s made Sub Nine performances seem commonplace—yet they are far from that.
A Sub Nine performance puts a woman among the elite of the elite. Membership in this exclusive group numbers just 22; half of those have been earned in the last three seasons. The first woman to stop the clock with an ‘eight’ in front of it was Thea Sybesma of the Netherlands in 1991.
“I wanted to know more about these women, both those racing now and those who came earlier,” says Timothy Moore, author of Sub Nine: History’s Fastest Ironwomen. “I also wanted there to be a historical record of what they have achieved.”
It started with a blog in January 2008 and led to a story ‘Assault on the World Record’ in the June 2008 issue of Triathlete magazine. Weeks later, seven women went Sub Nine, with three of them breaking the 14-year-old record of Paula Newby-Fraser. And the idea for a book was born.
“I wanted to know more,” says Moore, who has worked as an editor at The Australian Financial Review for the last five years and previously worked for 12 years as a reporter and then editor at Bloomberg News in Canada and Australia. The book represents more than a year of focused research and writing.
“What I found in interviewing the women was that their success came because of day in and day out hard work,” Moore says.
On a summer day in July 1991, then medical student Thea Sybesma was the first woman to go Sub Nine, finishing the Ironman race in Roth, Germany in 8:55:29.
Sybesma received little recognition for her effort. “It’s like climbing a mountain,” says Sybesma, who left the sport in 1993 to pursue a career as an orthopedic surgeon. “Others tend to put extreme accomplishment quickly in a different frame of reference.” She says even she didn’t realize until years later how fast she had been.
In the two decades since, Newby-Fraser and Wellington have captured most of the Sub Nine headlines, and with good reason. Other members of the group though include Irma Heeren, Sue Latshaw, Lori Bowden, Kate Allen, Yvonne van Vlerken, Erika Csomor and Bek Keat.
Few of these women have achieved recognition beyond the sport and some of them have already slipped silently from triathlon’s radar screen.
For most of the women, the first time they went Sub Nine was a confirmation of who they were as an athlete. It was more important to some than others, and as fast as they went on their respective days, it wasn’t always fast enough.
“It was special and it was typical me. I just broke the 14-year-old record, only to finish second. One of my eyes was smiling, one was crying: we triathletes love to win,” Erika Csomor says of her 8:47:05 in Roth in 2008.
In their individual profiles, most of the women talk about how they define success; for some it’s all about winning, for others it’s about reaching their potential.
Heather Fuhr, Karen Smyers, Erin Baker—each an Ironman World Champion with careers filled with victories—are not profiled in this book as they never broke the elusive nine hour mark. Nor has six-time World Champion Natascha Badmann.
“You are neither a better person for having a Sub Nine result nor a lesser one for not having done so,” Moore says. Winning isn't always about being the fastest.
Still, sport is about records, setting them, breaking them and pursuing them. Where speed is an element, everyone wants to go faster.
What Sybesma did was equivalent to Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute barrier for the mile, Moore says, though she doesn't think so. "She opened the door. She made women believe they could go faster. And they have. Wellington is affirming that in almost every race," the author says.
Critics allege courses are short or that one athlete or another was pulled through the swim, drafted on the bike or paced on the run. They say that the only race that really counts is held on the Big Island in October.
“There’s value in being skeptical,” Moore says. “But winning an Iron-distance race, no matter its organizer or its location, is no easy task. Finishing in less than nine hours is a remarkable accomplishment.”
Wellington has seven Sub Nine performances on six different courses. She's clearly history's fastest Ironwoman and she's far from done.