Three Hawaiis, three victories: just what is there left for Britain’s greatest-ever long-distance athlete to prove? Plenty, as Liz Barrett (220 Triathlon, December 2009) finds out…

220 Triathlon Cover - Chrissie Is it wrong to admit that prior to this year’s Ironman World Championships I was hoping for a different result from last year? ‘What!’ I hear you cry. And rightly so; with such a comment I know I could easily wave goodbye to my career and any respect from the readers of this magazine. But believe me when I say it wasn’t because I wished Chrissie any ill will. Far from it. It was just as a journalist I’d run out of superlatives to write about this woman. Seriously, I’ve looked, and there are no more words left in the English language to describe what this 32-year-old from Norfolk has done since she started out in triathlon just three years ago. I’ve used every amazing, stupendous, scintillating, mind-blowing, record-breaking, awe-inspiring and incredible there is. I’m out! But then on the 10th of October she did something else again – she broke one of the longest-standing records in Ironman history, that of Paula Newby-Fraser’s course record, which had stood firm since 1992. And in doing so joined an elite group of women, that includes Natascha Badmann and Newby-Fraser, to have claimed three successive titles. And another thing happened on that day – I was there to see it live.

220 Magazine

Live from Kona

In a time of 8:54:02 she rewrote history, taking the record by 1:26mins, finishing 23rd overall – let’s just make it clear here that that’s just 22 men who are faster than her in the entire world – and almost 20 minutes clear of second place. There really weren’t any words at that precise moment, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the press stand. Men and women emulating Chrissie’s mile-long grin, and all welling up for Wellington. With the Black Eyed Peas’ I Gotta Feeling pumping out along Ali’i Drive, and with Newby-Fraser’s record looking safer with each tick of the clock, the excitement and tension as we all waited for her to run through was something else. Bizarrely, when she crossed the line, she looked confused as to what she’d just done. But surely she can’t have been surprised? “You know, I still can’t believe I won the first time, never mind three times!” said Wellington, 10 days after Kona, talking on the phone from New York. “It all feels a bit surreal saying I’m World Champion for a third time. “And this is Ironman, you know, anything can happen. You can be the best-prepared athlete in the world but each race will throw up a variety of challenges, as it did last year with the flat tyre! You never know how your body is going to respond to the conditions and what the race throws at you. Honestly, it’s a huge relief when the hard work and effort that you put in pays off.” These pros are modest types. Wellington remains unbeaten in an Ironman-distance race; this year seeing her take crowns at Australia and Roth (where she also posted the fastest Iron-distance time ever of 8:31:59) to add to her wins at Germany and Korea. It’s also a year that has seen her ditch Simon Lessing, her coach, for whom she was with for nine months, to go it alone. “Although I’m ultimately self-coached, I do seek the advice of a couple of people whose opinions I really trust,” admits Wellington. “I also carry the lessons with me from previous coaches – not just Brett [Sutton] and Simon but also my running coach in the UK, Frank Horwill, and other coaches I have, so a lot of what I do is based on previous programmes.”

220 Magazine

In the beginning…

Countless pages have been dedicated to the wonder that is Wellington and her rise from triathlon obscurity to multisporting royalty. From her sporty childhood growing up in Norfolk where she “never excelled and was always more interested in the social side of the sports scene”, to Birmingham University where she read geography. Another of Britain’s triathlon stars, Rachel Joyce, who finished sixth on her Kona debut, also studied at Birmingham, and can vouch for Chrissie’s interest in sport’s “other” side. “I can remember turning up to the swimming trials as a fresher,” recalls Joyce, “and Chrissie (the then captain) reassured me that it didn’t matter that I hadn’t swum for two years as the social aspects of the team were as important as the swimming bit! Needless to say we had a lot of fun!” From Birmingham, Chrissie spread her wings to go travelling around the world for two years. On returning home it was straight into a masters followed by work in international development in London. After clocking a 3:08hr marathon time in 2002 the competitive seed was sown, and she pushed for a sub-three hour a year later. But fate came a knocking when she was involved in a road accident in 2003. Suffering damage to her left quadriceps she couldn’t run or cycle as a result… but she could swim. Giving her first triathlon a go, it was evident that her bike was the weakest of the three disciplines. But 18 months working in the mountains of Nepal soon changed that. In June of 2006, she qualified for the Worlds by winning the Shropshire Triathlon in convincing form. Three months later, in Lausanne, she won her 25-29 age group and posted the fastest women’s time overall with a 2:17:32. “It was while watching the elites the next day when I started thinking about turning pro,” says Chrissie. Since then it’s been glory galore. Quitting her job in February 2007, and under the watchful eye of super coach Brett Sutton, Chrissie was steered towards her destiny. Winning her first Ironman, Korea, on debut, she qualified for Kona. The rest they say…

220 Magazine

History in the making

Except with Chrissie, she’s still writing it. “There’s this little seed inside me that won’t let me stop until I’ve achieved the best I can be. I don’t think I’ve reached that yet. There’s definitely more to come and that’s important – the essence of sport is growth and improvement and change. I want to get stronger and I want to get faster. The more I achieve in the sport, the more I get out of it. And I love the burn, I’m a masochist!” Ironmen beware. But what about the women? Chrissie has displayed such speed since her debut, do they even stand a chance of beating her? Chrissie talked, pre-Kona, about how she was up against the strongest field she’s faced so far. Yet she still finished 20 minutes ahead of Mirinda Carfrae, in second place. That must have been a surprise? “In all honesty, yes,” admits Wellington. “I was expecting it to be closer. I set myself up for a great day with a strong swim and I was determined that the bike was going to be the ace that I wanted to play.” So why is she still so far ahead? Fellow champ Craig Alexander has some thoughts. “If you know Chrissie, her mindset and how she trains, it’s [her achievement] not that unbelievable really. She deserves every thing that comes her way because, although she obviously has a natural talent for the sport, I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as she does. She has passion for it and loves it, which is important.” Exercise physiologist Asker Jeukendrup has known her since before 2004, when she joined the BRAT (Birmingham Running and Triathlon) club. Back then he recognised the raw talent, despite not having “a clue how to handle a bike! Even two years later when she turned pro, I was holding my breath every time she turned a corner at high speed or tried to dismount the bike coming into T2. She was definitely too strong for her skills.” “But Chrissie seems to have an incredibly large engine,” Jeukendrup continues, “producing power that most men would be proud of. And this combines with a very low bodyweight to give her the highest power-toweight ratio of any female triathlete out there, and most likely in the history of the sport. “In addition to this she has excellent thermoregulation, and all together these characteristics make her virtually unbeatable in races that are hard, hilly and hot.” But what does the lady herself attribute her talent to? “That’s the million dollar question,” says Chrissie. “If I tell you I’ll have to kill you! No, I think it’s a combination. Of course, there’s the physical ability, the mental toughness and drive, but many athletes have that. I think the support I receive from my family, friends, sponsors and healthcare professionals… all of those people allow me to perform at my best. The equipment – the bike, the clothes, the shoes – all have an effect. I don’t know if there’s one specific skill that sets me apart. My love and passion for the sport shines through. And my ability to put it all in perspective! “Oh, and I got a marriage proposal from a banana at three miles – that gave me the energy I needed. That was the turning point!”

Digging deep

CW4So a banana proposing marriage – the secret to Ironman success? Perhaps not, but it’s evident how much those crowds mean to Chrissie. Each word of encouragement pushing her forwards. So much so, that in Kona it started to look effortless. Although, she assures me, it was anything but. “This year’s race was probably the most difficult for me. I had to dig really deep, and mentally there was a lot of expectation that I put on myself and other people put on me. “I didn’t think about the course record a lot until the last five miles when I switched my watch over to actual time. I was trying to do the maths in my head, ‘It started at 6.45am and it’s now 2.30pm in the afternoon…’ And it was within those last five miles that people started telling me I was within the course record – that’s when it really started to hurt. Physically, I was really suffering at that point, but mentally it wasn’t as much of a struggle as I knew my body wouldn’t give out on me.” It seems Chrissie Wellington has been blessed with the X-factor of sport; that elusive combination that allows a person to race to their limits and beyond, and never settle for second best. She’s also blessed with humility, avoiding the pitfalls of complacency and using each victory to effect change, whether that be for herself or others. “I go into the race wanting to win. I’d never settle for the mediocrity of second place and I can’t understand athletes who go in there wanting to take second place. But I never take the win for granted.” And could a new achievement be Olympic success? Another “million dollar question” and one that yields a beguiling answer. “I’d like to explore the cycling time trial,” she admits. “The only way I can keep that option open is by doing time trials next year just to see how competitive I could be. That’s a possibility, but I’m not saying I could step straight into it. What the British cyclists have achieved is phenomenal, especially the women. They’re so talented, and it’s very competitive. It would be difficult for me to achieve the heights needed to represent GB, but it’s important that I give it a go.” All I can say is, watch out Emma Pooley. “Although 2012 seems a long way off, I need to put down any marker to my interest soon – in other words, next year. I have to be looking to do some time-trial races. It would be great training if nothing else.” But let’s get back to 2009. What she’s learnt from this year, surely her best to date? “I’m learning to listen to my body, to be more intuitive about my body, especially now I’m more self-coached. It’s a constant learning and growing process. Every race helps me identify areas where I want to improve and Kona was no different.” And how does this title compare? “My first Kona victory was my first world title, so that’ll always have a special place in my heart, but I didn’t really have an understanding of what I’d achieved. It was surreal and a whirlwind for me. The second year I was proud to win because it showed that I could cope with the pressure that comes with having a target on your back. This third victory, the pressure had increased further. I tried to use that to give me a boost rather than bring me down. “But no race I’ve ever done has been perfect. My best race this year was Ironman Australia. Faster swim, bike and run on the same course as the year before with similar conditions. It was my first race since leaving Brett so I had to deal with not having him in my corner and having one of his athletes against me! I’m most proud of that race.” So, Australia was Chrissie’s proudest moment in 2009, and come 2012, it might well be London! Like I said, exclamation exclamation marks, that’s all I’m left with.

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