Chrissie Wellington has won all 13 Ironman events that she's entered. Although naturally endowed with incredible, sometimes obsessive drive, Wellington was not a competitive athlete until her mid-twenties when she discovered the sport of triathlon—and eventually the Ironman, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.
For someone destined to become the top female endurance athlete in the world, sports began as a sort of safe haven for Wellington, a place where the pressure to succeed was actually lifted. Growing up in Norfolk, a town north of London, she poured her energy almost entirely into her schoolwork—although she did swim as a pure extra-curricular. She says, "I've always been driven, competitive, obsessive-compulsive, and I channeled all of that into academia, so [swimming] was a social outlet, and an outlet for those kind of characteristics." But once she discovered the triathlon, Wellington's competitive nature found its perfect match.
This May, Wellington will release her autobiography, A Life Without Limits, which traces each step of her journey to the top—from her struggle with an eating disorder to her first triathlon to her career work in international development.
STACK interviewed Wellington about her book. In the process, we learned about the mental and physical toughness it takes to become a four-time world champion.
STACK: How did you first discover Ironman as a sport?
CW: I first discovered it after I started running post-college, when members of my running club told me about triathlons. And through that, I learned about the different distances, and learned about the Ironman. I remember saying to someone in 2005 that you'd have to be absolutely crazy to do an Ironman, that I'd never never do one of those. (Editor's note: Her first Ironman was in 2007.)
STACK: Did you ever think you'd be racing all around the world? What's that like?
CW: Well, racing in Hawaii is very different from racing in Germany. Some courses are flat, some are rolling, some are hilly. Some of the swim portions are in the ocean, some are in a canal or a lake. Obviously temperatures can change. I've raced in rain—and in the sauna that was Ironman Korea.
But the variety of courses is part of the fun and the challenge—adapting your technique, approach and strategy on race day to suit the different conditions—both in terms of your preparation and the equipment you choose. To me, that is part of the beauty of the sport. It's not as simple as putting on your running shoes and doing a 10-miler. No two races, no two days are ever the same.
I was the person who said they never could do an Ironman, but I went on and defied what I thought was possible.
STACK: Where do you think your competitive drive comes from?
CW: While my parents are wonderful people, they're not competitive in the slightest. So, I don't know. I ask myself that all the time. It's a trait I've always had. And I've channeled it into lots of different directions. I make no apologies for it, but it does have to be controlled; otherwise, it gets out of hand.
STACK: How do you keep it in check?
CW: You have to rein yourself in and obtain perspective in all the things that you do, and realize that you're not solely defined by the objective or the goal that you're striving toward. Often, I'm my own worst critic, so I need to incorporate positive talk as well to balance the constant self-criticism.
STACK: How has overcoming an eating disorder affected you as an athlete?
CW: Well, since I'm very controlling, I channeled that into monitoring my eating and limiting my food intake, but a lot of it did, in fact, boil down to body image. Growing up, we're bombarded by images of wafer-thin supermodels, which defined my idea of "perfection."
It is a difficult process. I didn't see my body as this amazing, unique vehicle for me to achieve something. If you can get past simply looking at the flesh and color there to be scrutinized and manipulated, [you] see your body as a holistic system that enables you to do what you do. Through sport, I developed this newfound respect for my body and could banish the negative thoughts judging how I looked in the mirror. Instead, I judge myself by how well I perform, and I only could perform if I fueled my body in the proper way.
STACK: Can you talk about your evolution as an athlete? How did working with your various coaches affect or shape your process?
CW: The coach-athlete relationship is one of the most important, if not the most important, relationship that you can have. Your requirements from a coach will vary over time, depending on your achievements, your capabilities, your strengths, your weaknesses.
My very first coach was my running coach, a guy called Frank Horwill, who was an incredibly inspirational character, who at his rawest, taught me that sports should be fun. That was the most important lesson for me initially. We worked really hard, but he always integrated an element of fun into our training. He instilled in me a love for sport, a love for training, and confidence that I could improve. He also gave me the knowledge—which to me is basic now, but then was a revelation—that training should be varied. I used to always go out and run at the same pace for the same amount of time around the same route, and he injected different regimens into my training.
After I turned professional, my first triathlon coach was Brett Sutton, who was a very authoritarian character. I gave myself over to him, which was very difficult, and allowed him to take the reins. He told me to race there, I raced; he told me to do this training, I trained; he told me to eat that, I ate that.
Eventually, down the road, I wanted a more reciprocal relationship with a coach, someone who could answer the "why" questions that I have, so I moved to my current coach, Dave Scott.
STACK: After winning your first Ironman, how did you handle the heightened expectations?
CW: No one places more expectation on my shoulders than I do, but obviously the pressures increased after I won, because people now knew who I was, and they didn't know who I was before. Pressure is a necessary evil if you want to achieve, but I didn't see it as debilitating. I saw it as a positive, because with pressure and with profile comes opportunity. Wearing the crown can either crush you or it can lift you up.
STACK: You've got as many accomplishments in government as you have in sports. Is there a crossover between that passion and your love for triathlon?
CW: I always have been passionate about trying to find a solution to the problems that exist in the world. And then I made that my career as a policy adviser to the government and worked on international development policy. Then I went to live and work in Nepal. Once I won the world championships, I realized that I had an amazing opportunity to combine my two passions. Sport is really an amazing developmental tool. And I have a platform that I can use to the best possible effect, raising money for certain foundations, raising awareness for charities, and inspiring people to take up sports.
Sports can change lives, and the finish line of an Ironman, in particular, is filled with the type of emotions that help bind people together. At the end of each one of my races, I literally roll across the finish line, to honor former triathlete Jon Blais in support of the Blazeman Foundation for the war against ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease).
STACK: Do you have a "mantra" of sorts? If you had to choose the biggest lesson you've learned, what would it be?
CW: Never give up. Crash or crash through.
Someone also told me something quite recently that I've tried hard to internalize: "Be kind to yourself." This can be quite hard to do, especially for someone who's so self-critical ... But take pride in what you've achieved and the person you are, rather than always wanting something more. You have to be able to have confidence and faith in your preparation and also not define yourself solely by who you are as an athlete.
But that being said, the biggest thing I've learned—going back to the title of [my] book—is to try and live without limits, and not be immobilized by fear of failure. To take a chance, a risk, to try and defy what you think is possible. Be prepared to take a kind of leap into the unknown, or just have a go at something, because you never know how good you can be at something until you try.
Check out Part 2 for more of our interview with Wellington.
Photos: newshopper.sulekha.com, newshopper.com
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