Chrissie Wellington has broken every record in the book for the gruelling long-distance triathlon. She tells Sophie Goodchild why she is prepared to train for six hours a day, seven days a week…

I can’t help staring at Chrissie Wellington’s arms. Britain’s “fittest” woman is wearing a crop
T-shirt which accentuates her feminine yet strong limbs. The muscles are so defined they look hand-sculpted. Her stomach is washboard-flat and she’s not even in peak condition, the cast on her arm the legacy of a recent fall from her training bike.

At 32, Wellington is unrivalled as the queen of endurance sport after breaking every possible record in long-distance triathlon. This gruelling race is known as the “Ironman” — although women compete too — for its eye-watering combination of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile cycle, then a 26.2 mile marathon. Contestants start at 7am and have to complete the course by midnight. To date, Wellington, who lives in south-west London, has won the world championships in Hawaii three years running and has a personal best of eight hours, 31 minutes and 59 seconds. Her next major championship is this June in Roth, Germany, where she aims to crush her own record.

Fans include champion rower James Cracknell, who is “infatuated” with Wellington’s strength. But what makes her achievements exceptional is that she only discovered her phenomenal talent in her twenties. Until then, her day job was advising David Miliband on international development.

“My story shows anything is possible, and unless you have a go, then you’ll never know,” she says as we share a sofa during a rare break from training on her part.

“I’ve always been very focused, very driven. I love pushing my body to the limit. But I’d never have known if I hadn’t done endurance sports.”
The secret to Wellington’s success is an unrivalled talent and a training regime of six hours a day, seven days a week, 11 months of the year — she always takes a month off. Her calorie intake (not that she counts) is around 4,000 a day — or 8,000 when she’s racing (the recommended intake for a woman is 2,000). Nearly two-thirds of her intake is healthy carbs such as brown rice and buckwheat. The rest is fat. Red meat is allowed and “heaps” of fruit, seeds and nuts, oily fish and the occasional glass of wine, pizza slice or chocolate.

With success comes sacrifice. Her training regime means no late nights or last-minute weekend breaks. There is time, though, for a boyfriend, a fellow athlete (she won’t be drawn on the details).

“I did have a rich, varied life with weekends away and evenings out. Now it’s very limited. Spontaneity goes out of the door — it’s very monotonous and regimented.”

At 60kg and 5ft 8in, her body is honed to give her maximum power. It is a body she trusts completely and women with body issues depress her. Her mission is to inspire others to unlock their hidden sporting talents.

“If I lose too much weight I lose power and I need body fat for buoyancy [during swimming]. My body has carried me so far — I’m not disparaging about it. Women need role models.”

When Wellington was growing up in Norfolk she joined the local swimming club “for the social scene” and took a job as a swimming instructor in her holidays from Birmingham University. But her energies were mainly channelled into academic achievement (she’s a straight “A” student) and saving the planet.

In 2001, she landed a “dream job” with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and took up running as a hobby to shed a few pounds. Her first attempt at the London Marathon resulted in a time of three hours, eight minutes, well ahead of her three-and-a-half hour target. This success spurred her to join an amateur running group in Battersea.

But three years later Wellington became disillusioned. She left Defra for a sabbatical in Nepal. “I loved my job but felt hypocritical talking about poverty and at the same time flying around the world and staying in hotels.” She carried on running in an “obsessive but unstructured way” an hour every morning and an hour every night.

“The training I did wasn’t what a running coach would prescribe. I just liked running — I was strong and could go all day without a break.” In May 2006, she returned to the UK and decided to “take up triathlon seriously”. But there were setbacks. Her first UK race, the National Sprint championships, was a “disaster” thanks to her wetsuit, which was so big she had to be hauled out of the water.

Setbacks, says Wellington, make her work even harder. Australian coach Brett Sutton spotted her potential and put her through six months of “incredibly hard” training. First, though, he had to change her mindset. Control is important to Wellington but for once she had to let someone else take charge.

“I knew nothing about triathlon. I was put in a team house with three lads and they were told to make my life a misery. I had to earn their respect.”

Within weeks, she was on the startline in South Korea, with full sponsorship, for her first Ironman contest. It was 90 per cent heat and 90 per cent humidity but she “loved every minute of it”. Then came the World Ironman championships in Hawaii, the triathlon “Olympics”. She won in record time.

“All I wanted was to race my little heart out and get a top 10 place. I expected people to catch me — I didn’t know I’d overtaken last year’s winner. When I crossed the line and won I was totally blown away.”

Having found her niche, Chrissie’s aim is to inspire other women by setting up her own foundation.

“The gender boundaries that exist in other sports don’t exist in triathlon. And I love that.”

by Sophie Goodchild, Health Editor – London Evening Standard