Matt Slater’s Blog – www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/mattslater/
She is an unbeaten, three-time world champion, who holds every meaningful record in her event, but could probably walk down any British high street totally unnoticed. To say Chrissie Wellington has a low profile is akin to suggesting Joey Barton has an opinion, Darren Clarke gets thirsty or Lewis Hamilton is in a hurry.
Quite why the greatest female triathlete in history is so unheralded in her own land is a mystery to me, her stats are staggering. She routinely beats the best women in the world by an eternity, is usually only bettered by a handful of the men’s field and possesses the five quickest women’s times for the Ironman distance.
To put that in context, Paula Radcliffe has four of the five best marathon times but would be mobbed if she popped out for a pint of skimmed milk.
Wellington’s best time for 26.2 miles, by the way, was beaten by only four women at last year’s London Marathon. But they had not already swum 2.4 miles and cycled 112 miles.
Given all this, I probably should not have been surprised by her reply to my request for “five tips for amateur triathletes”. “Sure,” she said, “I can give you 50!”
But before I get to those, let me fill in some more of Wellington’s remarkable back story, because her tale is an inspiration to anybody convinced they haven’t found their vocation yet.
“I didn’t set out to be a sportsperson,” Wellington told me over the phone from her training base in Boulder, Colorado.
“I liked sport at school but it was more of a social thing. I made the teams but I didn’t shine and I certainly never dedicated myself. I was focused on getting good grades. I was determined to be an A student.”
And a first-class student and one with distinction and…you get the idea, she didn’t fail many exams.
Those good qualifications got her a government job, working on international development projects, a long-standing passion.
It was around this time that the Suffolk-born civil servant decided to take up running – she was worried she had put on weight during her post-uni travels.
“I started off doing 20 minutes, then 30 minutes, then 40. All of sudden I’m running for an hour and a half…so I did the 2002 London Marathon and ran it in 3.08,” she said, as if explaining the most normal thing in the world.
It was the best time by anybody at her running club (having decided to do something, Wellington does it properly) and it told her she had “some talent”.
Quite how much talent, however, did not become any clearer until she spent 2005 in Nepal on sabbatical.
“We used to ride our bikes every morning and I’d find it quite easy to keep going. It was just fun really,” she said.
“And then during a holiday a group of us went riding for two weeks in the mountains – we reached base camp on the Tibetan side of Everest. It was sport at its rawest but it wasn’t training.”
That came soon enough, though, because Wellington now realised she might be missing her true calling. Having returned to the UK in 2006, she was entering and winning triathlons, including the amateur world championships in Switzerland.
Five months later, aged 30, Wellington quit her job and became a professional triathlete. By October she was Ironman world champion, the only person to do this in their first year as a pro.
The Ironman scene was stunned and has pretty much remained that way as Wellington has improved every year, changing long-held beliefs about what is possible for a female endurance athlete.
“Not many people know what they’re good at until they try it,” she said.
“I never saw triathlon as a potential job, it was the challenge that appealed. I loved working in development, I loved living in London.
“But I thought I should take the chance, give it a go. So I found this sport quite late but all my experiences have shaped me and perhaps they have given me a longer shelf life in what is a gruelling sport.”
Indeed it is, so let’s get to those tips. I don’t have room for the full 50 – I believe you can find them in most good newsagents – so here are five golden nuggets of advice for fast and not so furious transitions:
1. Practise them, don’t just assume everything will go smoothly on the day
2. Have a strategy, break it down chronologically: know what arm you going to take out of your wetsuit first, which leg etc
3. Don’t sit down if you are doing an Olympic, sprint or super-sprint tri, you will waste time and you shouldn’t need the rest
4. You don’t need socks for an Olympic tri, put talcum powder in your shoes and leave them wide open
5. Stay calm!
Right, that’s enough. Good luck to all those who are joining me in action in Hyde Park this weekend (and the dozens of triathlons up and down the country every month). I hope to stride manfully over the finish line by the Serpentine at about 11.15 on Sunday morning.
And good luck also to Chrissie. Next up for her is the Timberman Ironman 70.3 in New Hampshire on 21 August (a sprint for her) and then the biggie, her “Olympics”, the world champs in Hawaii on 8 October.