Chrissie Wellington, three-time Ironman world champion, was an age-grouper who went pro and turned tri on its head. Now she races for more than fast times. Interview by Fiona Duffy
Smashing records is what Chrissie Wellington does best. With victories across countless long-distance finish lines, and fresh from her latest spectacular Ironman win in South Africa, we met Wellington at the 10-year anniversary black tie ball of her old club: Birmingham Running and Triathlon Club (BRAT).
She’s never severed her roots, keeping in touch with her old team mates and the coaches who spotted her talent and encouraged her to give triathlon a go. It’s hard to believe she only turned professional at 29 (when many other athletes are well into their careers).
In just four years she’s notched up an impressive racing CV in a short time – smashing world records with almost every race she runs.
Triple Ironman world Champion and a world record holder, she’s often hailed as the fittest woman on the planet. But the writing wasn’t always on the wall.
Wellington took up gymnastics at an early age only to abandon it when she discovered she displayed, as she puts it, “the coordination and balance of a baby giraffe”. She then threw all her efforts into swimming – making the school squad and, later, captaining the Birmingham University team.
At a chance attendance at a swim training session at Tiverton Pool, in South Birmingham in 2004, she caught the eye of BRAT coach Paul Robertshaw.
“She knew how to swim,” he recalls. “And I heard she’d run a pretty good marathon.” (Wellington, who had taken up running just to get fit, had run the 2002 London Marathon in 3:08).
Wellington says when Paul asked if she did triathlon, her reply was a baffled ‘What’s that’?’
Until that point, Wellington had never ridden a road bike. She was eased in gently – and joined the BRAT women’s running road relay team – scooping gold in both 2004 and 2006.
“Paul then sold me his fourth-hand Klein bike, which I named Calvin. It was Paul who came to watch me at my first triathlon in Eton Super Sprints. And Paul who taught me how to clip and unclip my feet from pedals the day before a triathlon in Shropshire, which I won. And that gave me a ticket to the World Championships.”
Wellington was hoping for an age-group placing. She surprised everyone by winning the women’s race and gave up her job to turn professional.
Less than 12 months later, in October 2007, she became the women’s World Ironman Champion in Kona. And the rest is history.
“If it wasn’t for Paul Robertshaw, I wouldn’t be standing here today – and I wouldn’t be standing here as triple world champion and world record holder. He gave me the best gift anyone could give – the gift of believing that anything is possible. It took me to the top of the world – and for that I am sincerely grateful,” she told BRAT at the ball.
For 11 months of the year, Wellington lives triathlon 24/7: “Training, eating, sleeping – that’s all I do. My life is so regimented and monotonous and monkish.”
Fans are often indignant on her behalf that she, and her achievements, aren’t more widely celebrated.
“I get recognised more now, day to day, in the street. Obviously, I’m not David Beckham, but the growth of triathlon is such that so many more people are doing it. So inevitably, there are triathletes who recognise me. That’s fantastic – not for me necessarily, but in showing the growth of the sport.”
INJURY AND ILLNESS
2010 was a trying year. Last January she suffered a badly broken right arm after her front bike wheel hit black ice. “I can still hear the crunch as I hit the ground, and a second crunch as my two fellow riders landed on top of me,” she recalls.
X-rays revealed impressive fractures – including the radius, two metacarpals and two fingers. She would need surgery to insert pins – and six weeks in a cast.
“Yes, it hurt. But nothing that a bit of morphine couldn’t sort out. I counted myself lucky. There are people coping day in day out, year on year with life-threatening and debilitating illnesses and injuries. I had a broken arm, but it wasn’t the end of the world.
“I believe you can derive positives from any misfortune, and ensure it makes you a stronger, focused, flexible, and resilient athlete and person. Doors close, others open.
“The first step for me was to take control and acknowledge the injury – then learn about it, so that I could prepare emotionally and physically for the road ahead.
“This meant getting an early diagnosis from medical staff and finding out how they proposed to treat it. I researched bone healing and, particularly, foods and drinks that might help or hinder recovery.
“The second step was to try and avoid asking ‘why me?’ and instead take full responsibility for my injury. This wasn’t too difficult considering I was the muppet that decided to ride in the Surrey Hills in the middle of winter.
“I knew that I didn’t have to sit on the sofa for six weeks watching Wanted Down Under. I could still exercise; it was about adaptation and developing a love affair with the turbo, cross trainer and Swiss ball. I tried not to think about what I couldn’t do and instead focused on what was possible. Yes, I might lose come cardiovascular fitness, but I could build butt cheeks of steel thanks to the single-legged squat.
“I realised that the psychological impact of an injury is just as, if not more, debilitating than broken bones. For me the key coping mechanism was to maintain a positive outlook. It sounds simple, but isn’t. I don’t think that things necessarily happen for a reason. But I do believe that you can derive positives from any misfortune, and ensure that it makes you a stronger, focused, flexible, and resilient athlete and person. Having broken bones gave me more time to spend with my friends and family and made me realise just how much I need, and value their support.
“Being injured also forced me to consider my identity. If I define myself solely as an athlete then my entire emotional and physical wellbeing is dependent on sporting performance. If I see myself as a daughter, girlfriend, sister, Scrabble champion, chef, my self-esteem and happiness is also derived from fulfilling other roles. It all boils down to maintaining a balanced perspective and life.” Wellington sounds very sensible. But there are times when her common sense takes a back seat.
LEARNING THE HARD WAY
“It’s in my nature to test my limits – and swimming 4km with the cast on was perhaps pushing the rehab a little bit too far. I contracted a horrendous infection, a tree-trunked-sized red arm, and ended up back in hospital on intravenous antibiotics.
“So yes, injury did disrupt my early 2010 season. But in the words of basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – ‘Don’t ever forget that you play with your soul as well as your body.’ My bones may have been broken, but I knew that my mind, soul and butt cheeks of steel were stronger than ever.”
In fact, Wellington enjoyed her best race just seven months later at Challenge Roth – setting another world record and smashing her PB by 12 minutes and 46 seconds.
As the Ironman World Championships dawned in Hawaii last October, the eyes of the world were upon Wellington – eager to see if she could take the title for the fourth year in a row.
In her hotel room, however, Wellington was feeling below par. “I’d started feeling slightly ill at lunchtime the day before with a sore head and throat,” she revealed later on her website. “My legs were like jelly and I was sweating much more than usual. My tired head hit the pillow at 7pm and I woke up several times during the night, literally drenched in sweat, my head pounding and feeling like my throat was closing.”
At 5am (just two hours before the race start), Wellington pulled out. Tests revealed she had West Nile Virus, bacterial pneumonia and bacterial strep throat – and needed a long course of antibiotics to help her recover. Just six weeks later, Wellington was being crowned winner of the Arizona Ironman, smashing her own world record again, only to break it again in April, in South Africa, taking it down to a staggering 8:33:56.
BACK ON TOP
“Training has been going incredibly well,” she says, fresh from her victory in South Africa. “I had the race I wanted and I know that there is still room for improvement – definitely. Otherwise, I wouldn’t still do it.”
Wellington is as passionate about her charity work as she is about her sport. “I’ve been involved with charities mainly since winning my first world championships. I do what I can to raise money, auctioning items and doing public speaking engagements. One man paid $10,000 to have dinner with me, and I gave all that money to charity.”
The charities she supports include Jon Blais’ Blazeman Foundation for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (www.waronals.com), which funds support for and research into ALS (a fatal motor neurone disease); the Jane Tomlinson Appeal (www. janetomlinsonappeal.com) and GOTRIbal, an organisation aimed at empowering women and girls through sport (www.gotribalnow.com).
And it’s for these causes that she continues to compete, she insists. “I don’t do it for the times any more. I’m three times world champion, I’ve broken the world record three times. I’ve achieved more than I could have ever imagined. For me, a victory is the platform, a means to spread a message, to give a speech, to inspire people.
“In South Africa, I achieved more than I ever dreamed. I never went to that race thinking I could give a performance like that. I’m constantly testing my limits and exceeding what I think they are.
“I’m passionate about people taking a chance, taking a risk, daring to dream slightly bigger dreams and setting goals. This sport is incredibly empowering, not only because it enables you to be physically fit and healthy and aspire to bigger challenges. It also gives you the confidence to achieve goals in your wider life. Sport in general is a great empowerment tool. But obviously triathlon is a phenomenal endurance challenge.”
Do her family ever worry about the toll the sport is taking on her body – and the fact that she’s continually pushing herself?
“I don’t think anything surprises them about what I do,” she says. “They’ve always encouraged me – in my degree, when I went travelling for nine months but didn’t come back for two years, when I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore but work in international development, so did my MA, then worked in international development, then decided I wanted to go and live in Nepal. They know how ambitious and driven and determined I am.
“And they trust me to make the best judgement calls on what’s best for me and my body. My body is how I make a living. I wouldn’t do anything that would jeopardise it in the long term.
“However,” she concedes, “you have to be cognitive of the toll it does take. It’s not normal to train as much as I do for four to six hours a day or more. You have to be aware of that, whether you’re an age-group athlete or professional athlete, listen to your body, be in tune with your body, and really respond to the feedback that it does give you. That’s how you mature and grow as an athlete.”
And there’s more to success than training.
“People ask me ‘how can I get stronger and faster’? It’s not all about training harder and faster and smarter. It’s about developing personality traits that make a successful athlete. The ability to relax, to listen to your body and to act on what it’s telling you, the mental strength you need to be a successful athlete. I’m definitely not there yet. I’ve only been a professional athlete for four years. I’m still learning, I’m lucky that some of those qualities are innate – this competitive fire, the warrior kind of spirit. But the antithesis of that is I do find it very difficult to relax, to switch off, and that’s something I’ve learned to do.”
“I do relaxation techniques with a strength coach I see in Boulder. But it doesn’t have to be that formal. Just being around my boyfriend, Tom, has made me a lot more relaxed, a lot less highly strung, because he’s so placid and calm and I’m trying to adopt some of those qualities I admire.”
Wellington has built up a reputation as a ‘superwoman’ – the fittest woman on the planet.
“It’s probably genetics, but genetics are nothing without practice. Talent is nothing without practice and the ability to endure boredom, day in, day out, the willingness to work on your strengths and weaknesses. You need drive, determination, perseverance – that competitive fire. Some of the most genetically talented people in the world may not necessarily find themselves on the top of that podium because they are not prepared to do the work they have to do to get there.”
“Like any job or activity, there are days when you suffer from lack of motivation, but that’s when goals are really important – having the bigger picture in your mind, having a cause that’s bigger than yourself.”
Does she have a favourite discipline in the sport? “You can’t,” she says emphatically. “You have to be consistent across all three.”
“I am not the strongest swimmer in the sport, I am not the strongest biker, I am one of the strongest runners, but probably not even THE strongest runner. But I am the strongest across all three.”
Wellington is in the middle of another busy season. She won the Kansas Ironman 70.3 in June and, by the time you read this, could have another Challenge Roth win under her belt. Then she has a half Ironman in August and the Ironman World Championships in October – there’ll be even more excitement after last year’s 11th-hour withdrawal.
Does she get nervous? “Of course, everyone gets nervous and apprehensive. It wouldn’t be normal not to. You have got to channel that nervousness and use it.
“But I go into a race knowing I have done everything I possibly can – because I do. I give my heart and soul to being the best possible athlete I can be at that race. And I can’t ask for more of myself than that.”
Wellington has built up a reputation as a role model, an inspiration to other triathletes. After a blistering performance, Wellington insists on standing at the finish line to cheer other competitors home and present them with their medals.
“That’s so important. But for me, my biggest supporters are the age-group athletes that drive our sport. What better way can I have to thank them than to be on the finish line when they cross? When I’m racing all I hear is ‘Go, Chrissie Go.’ It’s not from the spectators, it’s from the other athletes. I think ‘you are spending some of your precious energy cheering me on. The least I can do is be at the finish line when you cross’.”
This article was first published in Triathlon Plus magazine – click here to subscribe.