Chrissie Wellington, the women’s world record holder in the Ironman Triathlon, won her first Ironman race less than a year after she turned pro. Subsequently, she reeled off victories in the next 12 triathlons she entered and broke her own world record. Her current time of 8:18:13 smashed the record that stood from 1994 to 2008 by an amazing 32 minutes.
Already a swimmer, Wellington began running regularly after college. Traveling in Nepal, she discovered her immense endurance for cycling. All three athletic skills are needed in triathlons; and eventually the British phenom found her sweet spot in the long-distance Ironman format—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile (marathon) run.
In Part 1 of our interview with Wellington, she discussed her journey to the Ironman and how her performances have surpassed even the incredibly high expectations she had for herself—as detailed in her upcoming autobiography, A Life Without Limits. Here in Part 2, the triathlon champ tackles technical questions, including preparation, race-to-race obstacles and dealing with pain.
STACK: How does it feel to cross the finish line as the world champion?
CW: Surreal. It was something that happened to someone else. It would never happen to me. I had to pinch myself … I still do.
STACK: Does one particular race stand out in your mind as most memorable?
CW: Kona, last year (2011). I had a bike crash two weeks before. I was in the hospital and could hardly walk. But I put myself on that start line. I was mentally and physically broken but somehow managed to pull it off. I crossed the finish line absolutely annihilated.
STACK: How much do the “times” mean to you? How important is setting records?
CW: Records are important because they indicate progress. And I’m proud of my world records, because they show that women are raising the bar. But time is not the only measure of success, which I proved at Kona last year. I was practically crippled, and while my time was not the best possible time I could have achieved had I been 100 percent fit, it was my best race ever.
No one can ever take away those world championship victories, but records are ephemeral; they are meant for someone to come along and break them, which is part of the beauty of the sport.
STACK: What are some other barriers that you’ve overcome to get where you are today? How did you push those limits?
CW: I mean, we all have barriers and hurdles we need to overcome to get to our goal—economic, social, cultural, familial, physical. I think if you’re lucky enough to have a good support team around you, you’re able to tackle most anything. [For example,] some people don’t want to be seen in Lycra (laughs).
No, for me, at first I was on a very low salary and I couldn’t afford a bike, so I borrowed one. I borrowed my first wetsuit. Often people think they need the latest and greatest equipment to be able to perform. I won my first Ironman on a road bike with training wheels, so you’ve got to do it within your means, and you don’t need the fancy luxury gadgets in order to perform. Remember that your biggest weapon costs nothing.
STACK: Before you turned pro, how did you balance working full-time and training for races?
CW: Good time management, prioritization. And yes, you have to make certain sacrifices, and yeah, it involved getting up early, or getting home late after a training session, not necessarily having as many nights out with friends as I would have done before.
It requires an understanding boss, or an understanding partner or family, but you know, you also have to work out how you can get bang for your buck. Maybe you run or bike to work, squeeze a run in on your lunch hour, or do more efficient sessions that take less time but with maximum benefit.
STACK: How do you mentally prepare for a race?
CW: You have to mentally prepare for a race in training. You can’t hope to have mental strategies on race day if you haven’t practiced them. In a race, you need to expect the highs and expect the lows. It’s a long race. How well you enjoy those lows is the measure of success.
I have a personal mantra, “never give up,” that I repeat over and over again. I keep a bank of really positive images in my mind—of friends and family, of previous victories, of beautiful places, of the charities that I’m racing for. Those give me an incredible mental boost.
I have songs in my head that I repeat over and over. I also break the race down into manageable segments, so that it’s not seen in its entirety but as [a series of] smaller achievable goals, which is really important in training as much as in racing. I practice visualization, too. So, before I race, I’ve already raced the race in my mind and pictured myself as successful, confident and strong. I’ve pictured myself overcoming certain obstacles—flat tire, goggles getting knocked off, cramps, pain—and if you’ve pictured yourself overcoming those obstacles, when they do happen, you have the confidence to overcome them.
STACK: What do you wear during the event?
CW: You wear the same thing throughout, to limit the loss of time. I wear the same kit for the swim, bike and run: a tier tankini and tier shorts. Sometimes a wetsuit, sometimes not, depending on the water, which you obviously take off when you get on the bike. And my Oakley sunglasses. I don’t like to wear a hat, because I get a feeling of constriction on my head, although the majority of people will wear a hat or visor.
My racing shoes, Brooks T7, I’ve worn right from my very first triathlon. I didn’t have a pair of racing shoes that fit me, so I went out two days before the race and bought these Brooks, and I’ve been wearing them ever since—well, not the same pair! They give enough support, but are very lightweight as well.
STACK: Let’s talk about your training. What was your training schedule like leading up to your first Ironman?
CW: It didn’t change at all. I was thrown into it by my coach. It was intensive and time-consuming. But for me now, training is 24/7. It’s not just about when you swim, bike and run; it’s about training your mind, it’s about eating right, hydrating right, it’s making sure you get massages and do your physical therapy. It’s sleep, it’s rest, it’s recovery. It’s all of those things.
The two weeks before a race isn’t any different from the three months before, although it does taper a bit. Like I said, I train 24/7—about 30 hours a week, plus strength and conditioning work. And, of course, it varies.
STACK: What’s your fueling plan, specifically during a race?
CW: During the race I use liquid nutrition on the bike: two bottles of Cidermax with about 430 calories each, a couple gels—one halfway through the bike and about 30 minutes before the start of the run, and then one gel every 25 minutes on the run, all washed down with water. It’s a pretty simple nutritional strategy that works for me, but it’s all about trial and error and working out a strategy of what’s best for the individual, given the racing or training conditions.
In Life Without Limits, Wellington provides a sample training schedule and meal plan (see below). Stay tuned for an exclusive STACK-Wellington training day!