Last week I was blessed with the opportunity to grab a two-hour breakfast with Ironman sensation Chrissie Wellington. Not only has she won three successive Ironman World Championships, but she also came in at 8:54:02 this year, breaking the 17-year-old course record set by Paula Newby-Fraser. I’ve followed Chrissie’s rapid ascension into the sport, coming literally out of nowhere four years ago and catapulting to the very top of the highest platform of the sport. I’ve always sat in awe of not just her athletic prowess, but also her deep humanity. Ever smiling and cheering on the age-groupers, Chrissie always struck me as passionate and personable, the perfect ambassador for the sport—our Magic Johnson, if you will. After spending the better part of a morning with her, I’m happy to say she’s all that and much, much more.

Bicycling website article

I’m devoting this little slice of cyberspace to share some of the highlights of our conversation. You’ll find even more in the April issue of Bicycling magazine.

I have to ask. Can you believe it? Three successive wins at Kona and now the course record?

(Smiling and shaking head vigorously) No. I still can’t believe I won Kona in ‘07, let alone three times in a row. I have a huge amount of respect for Paula [Newby-Fraser] and everything she has done and I have many years to go before I reach those heights. When people mention me in the same sentence as her it feels slightly surreal. It’s never my objective to break a course record or any record. My only goal is to push as hard as I can as fast as I can as long as I can, and when it hurts just push harder. To have my name etched in triathlon history is really very humbling. It means a tremendous amount to me.

Some people are saying it’s a marathoner’s race these days. Do you agree?

No. I think it’s a biker’s race. That’s when I know I’m in really good shape, when I’m on the bike course. I’ve been working hard at getting stronger and faster on the bike. I’ve been training with a lot of strong cyclists in Boulder—Greg Bennett, Julie Dibens, who just won her third consecutive Xterra World Championship, and Chris Lee. They keep me on my toes. I go out and just try to chase them down. I knew there were going to be some incredible cyclists and incredible athletes at Kona. This year I went in knowing that my bike was my ace card that I had to play and I knew I had to play it to the best of my ability.

All this from a woman who was riding and racing in toe clips just a few years ago….

(Cracks up) Yeah, I had done the London Marathon in 2002 and did quite well. And I had been swimming. So a friend of mine in the Birmingham bike club said, “You’ve done swimming and running and you’re pretty good at both of those. Why not try a triathlon?” So in 2004, I decided to try triathlon. I bought a third-hand Peugeot for 300 pounds. I still have it, actually. I had never even sat on a road bike before and didn’t know how to operate the gears, so I set to work learning how to ride. At my very first triathlon I was wearing my running shoes on the bike with my feet in the cages and one of my shoelaces came undone and caught in the crank and I ended up doing this amazing, flailing dismount. It wasn’t a very auspicious start to my triathlon career.

These days you’re on a considerably better bike…

I became part of the Cannondale family in January. I have the Slice and I love it. It’s not a decision I took lightly, since the bike is an incredibly important part of the triathlon armory. I went through all the options available to me. It felt so comfortable right from the start. The bike is light and still and aerodynamic and comfortable. I really enjoy riding it. I’m a bit of a technical numpty and my bike handling skills are not so great, but this bike gives me great confidence. It handles really well on the flats, rollers, climbs, descents, and corners. I have complete confidence in the bike and that it will do what it needs to do. So I can focus on my race without worrying that the bike is a bit twitchy or that I’ll have a problem with it. It was the wind beneath my wings at Kona. And you can’t argue with the results. Myself and Mirinda [Carfrae] went one and two at Kona on the same bike. We call each other the Cannondale chicks.

Do you have a favorite of the three sports?

The bike. I love that you’re powering this vehicle and you’re able to go 40 kilometers an hour powering this machine. I love that you can experience so many different environments, especially in Boulder. You have flats, rolling hills, farm land and mountains—it’s totally different within 40 kilometers. I really like that. Biking gives me an adrenaline rush that swimming definitely doesn’t give me (laughs). I love the camaraderie.

You’ve gotten quite the reputation on the bike too. Talk about that big gear you push.

I love to push a big gear. It’s a misconception that you need to spin a smaller gear at a higher cadence on the bike. You don’t. Doing that actually raises your heart rate and makes you more tired, which doesn’t serve you very well in long distance racing. Cranking it down and pushing a bigger gear lets me lower my heart rate. It’s what feels natural to me and enables me to go the fastest I can go.

Speaking of doing things differently, I’ve also read that you don’t do the six-hour slog rides so many triathletes do.

It’s that triathlon mentality that you need to do more, more, more. Well, sometimes that’s less. My longest rides are four and a half, maybe five hours. But more often I do double rides. So you still get the volume, but not at the exclusion of quality. For example, in the morning, I’ll do hill repeats where I’ll warm up and then do a climb anything from 1.5 to 4 kilometers and stick it in the 53/11, get on my aerobars and just grind it up and down for an hour to an hour and a quarter. Then I’ll swim and rest. And later in the day—after my legs are loaded up with lactic acid—I’ll do another two-hour ride with a time trial of 30 to 60 minutes thrown in. So you’re basically time-trialing on tired legs. When I was training in Switzerland, we were up at about 4,000 feet and we’d do these time trial sessions where we’d go 23 kilometers down the mountain, then do a time trial loop at the bottom, and have to climb back up at the end of it. That was incredibly beneficial.

You still don’t wear an aero helmet?

No, and I don’t think I ever will. I realized very quickly in the races I’ve done, but especially Hawaii, that I need the regular helmet to stay cool. My head just gets very hot. So I’m always pouring water over my head and on the back of my neck to stay cool. You can’t do that with an aero helmet. I think they’re great for 40-kilometer time-trialists, who are in the time-trial position, head tucked in. Not for 112 miles. I’m always looking around. I would be jabbing the cameraman and actually being less aerodynamic with this giant point sticking out and up.

A lot of people have been asking you if you’re going to try for the Olympics. Is that a goal?

My main goal is to get stronger and faster for Ironman. That’s a sport I love and where my talents lie. Next year I’ll be doing three Ironman races, one in spring, one in July and then Kona. I’ll do three or four 70.3 races as well. So that’s next year. In terms of the Olympics—I don’t see myself racing the Olympic distance event with all the drafting. I love being on my bike and giving it everything I have and knowing my victory is my victory. Unfortunately with the Olympic triathlon, if I do that, I’ll have all those girls on my wheel who will beat me on the run, because I’m not as fast on the shorter course. I’m a Duracell Bunny. I like the long course.

I do have an open mind with regards to the Olympics time-trial event. It’s not something I’ve activity pursued at the moment, but I did speak to British Cycling about it. And basically I just need to do some time trials. I think I would be competitive, but I don’t know how competitive going from 112 miles to shorter time trial events. And Britain has experienced this huge renaissance in cycling, and the men and women are hugely successful. So I would have to be phenomenal to even get my little cycling cleat into the door. As with triathlon, if you don’t try, you never know. I love cycling so it would be great to have a shot.

Thanks Chrissie, this has been great.

Thank you!