Army Captain makes long-distance triathlon history

To defy the impossible, to push your body beyond the peak of known human capability and to have the mindset to drive it there is what Royal Army Medical Corps Physiotherapist, Captain Kat Matthews has achieved in remarkable style.

The IRONMAN® triathlon is a familiar world-wide brand in which competitors push the boundary of physical endurance to the limits. Each of its three disciplines is a massive assault on the body’s capacity to cope and mental fortitude. A 3.8km open water swim followed by a 180km cycle race and then to finish, a full 42.2km marathon. The women’s former world champion, Chrissie Wellington achieved a total time of 8 hours 18 minutes which has remained the fastest under competition regulations. However; a plan was hatched to just see how far the human body could be pushed and with it, what times could be achieved.

This was the Sub7/Sub8 project; four long-distance triathletes, two men and two women would push, under optimised conditions to break through the then unimaginable target of a sub 7 hour time for the men and sub 8 for the women. Kat would be competing against the Swiss ‘Superfrau’ Nicola Spirig into what was once unchartered territory in the world of IRONMAN®.

But just what were those optimised for speed conditions? Basically, the athletes were allowed to have ten pacesetters in each of the three disciplines. There were no limits as to how much the athlete could draft off the pacesetter (slipstreaming). The positioning and roles of the pacesetters were at the discretion of the athlete. 

"I train 6hrs a day around 30 a week; it’s very tough, but I enjoy it especially the running.” Captain Kat Matthews

The whole Sub7/Sub8 project was an experiment to see how far the IRONMAN® challenge could be pushed, but no one could have predicted by how much Kat would take it to. Given that the target was 8 hours, Kat completed in an incredible 7 hours 31 minutes with her competitor Nicola Spirig 7 hours 34.

Kat joined the Army six years ago embarking on a medical career as a Physio, but she always harboured a deep interest in biology and human performance. Kat said, “Studying and practising as a physiotherapist had a massive impact on me as an endurance athlete. It meant I could utilise the skills and lessons learnt from my role and implement them into my training.”

Gradually the call of her sport drew her more and more to the point whereby in 2019 she signed up as an athlete under the Army’s Elite Sport Programme where she is given the opportunity to concentrate her training, commenting, “There is little if any work-life balance, I train 6hrs a day around 30 a week; it’s very tough, but I enjoy it especially the running.”

Coming straight off the back of this history making sub 8 hours achievement, Kat is now in training to prepare herself for the next IRONMAN® world championships to be held during October in Hawaii, the birthplace of the IRONMAN® event. The last world championship held last month in St George, Utah was Kat’s first venture into the sport at this level – she came second.