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The Adventures of Ironman Champion Chrissie Wellington

  • By Bob Babbitt
  • Published May 7, 2010
  • Updated Oct 6, 2010 at 3:44 PM UTC
From the March issue of Competitor Magazine.

What makes Chrissie Wellington the most dominant Ironman triathlete on the planet? It might have a little bit to do with how she spends her off-season.

It was one year ago—early winter 2009—and to all six of them it seemed like a heck of a good idea. They were all gathered in Argentina for the wedding of Augustina (Tina) and Sebastian (Seb). The recently crowned two-time Ford Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington and her longtime friend, world-class mountaineer Billi Bierling, were staying at Tina and Seb’s home in the city of Mendoza.Written by: Bob Babbitt

The wedding itself was a few hours away by bike, so Chrissie and Billi mounted up and rode three hours to the ceremony on their mountain bikes. “We had our dresses in our rucksacks,” laughs Wellington.

When the party was over, Billi, Chrissie, Tina, Seb and their friends Rata and Helen took off on their mountain bikes on a journey that none of them would ever forget.

“Hey,” they figured, “why not rent a few mountain bikes, grab sleeping bags, panniers and tents and spend some time together riding over the Andes?” What a memorable way to spend Tina and Seb’s honeymoon, right?

What started out as an adventure honeymoon—“I don’t know if Tina invited us on the honeymoon or not, but we went anyways,” remembers Wellington—led to this six-pack of friends trying to make it over, around and through a mountainous region and over a pass that had never been biked before. “What I love about these adventures is that they represent sport at the absolute rawest,” Wellington says. “We are out there on this adventure simply for the love of the sport.”

That was the way the woman who has never been beaten at the Ironman distance, the now three-time defending Ford Ironman World Champion, spent her vacation. What started as a Jeep track became sand and then basically petered out to no trail at all. “We were bushwhacking over glaciers with 65 pounds in our panniers,” Wellington says. “I was beginning to question this whole honeymoon malarkey. There were times we averaged only two kilometers per hour for 10 straight hours.”

On day five, way behind schedule, the group ran out of food. “We went up to this farmer’s house, who was living quite happily without the six of us in his life,” Wellington recalls. “We told him that we were out of food and he offered to slaughter one of his goats for us. The next thing we know we’re at his table eating his goat.”

Eventually, after seven amazing days in the mountains, the honeymoon was complete. Chrissie Wellington—athlete, philanthropist and adventurer—was rested, recharged and relaxed, another exciting vacation stored forever in the memory banks.

Flash back to the summer of 2008—the 2007 Ford Ironman World Champion, Chris McCormack, is having a knock-down, drag-out, one-on-one battle with Eneko Llanos of Spain in Frankfurt, Germany, at Ironman Europe. During the week leading into the race, McCormack and Wellington had become friends. “We spent some time talking and she’s such a positive person,” remembers McCormack. The run course in Frankfurt loops around and at one point the men ran past the lead women. “When I ran by Chrissie,” McCormack continues, “she started running with me and cheering ‘Way to go Chris, you are running GREAT! Who’s in second?’ I could barely breathe and I yelled back, ‘Llanos… he’s right behind me.’ So now she’s cheering for both of us and continuing to stay with both Eneko and me. Everyone knew Chrissie was a special talent, but after she ran with us for the better part of the next mile, I realized just how special.”

How special? She won the first Ironman she attempted—Ironman Korea in 2007—and she has yet to lose any Ironman-distance event. That’s three times in a row in Kona, two times in Australia and two times in Germany. In Kona this past October, she broke Paula Newby-Fraser’s 17-year-old course record and went 8:54:02. At the Quelle Challenge in Roth, Germany, she took nearly 14 minutes off the existing course record and went 8:31:59, the fastest time ever for a woman at an Ironman-distance race.

Her rise to the top of the sport has been meteoric to say the least. At her first triathlon in England, she borrowed a wetsuit and a bike and rode in running shoes. Her shoelaces came undone during the ride and wrapped around the crank as she came into transition. Wellington fell over sideways before getting up and starting the run. “That was a pretty impressive first race, don’t you think?” she asks. At her second race, she invited her parents to watch her compete in England’s national sprint championship. She again borrowed a wetsuit, one she had never tried on before race day.

Big mistake.

“It was a schoolgirl error,” Wellington admits. “The water was really cold and when I jumped in, the wetsuit flooded and I froze. I had to be saved by a kayaker. That was an auspicious start to my career.”

Her coach, Brett Sutton, saw something in Wellington before she did. It was her ability to push hard and suffer for long periods of time. Hmm. What event would those qualities connect well to?

Bingo. Sutton sent her to Ironman Korea and the rest, as they say, is history.

The first time she won Kona, in 2007, very few triathlon journalists had even heard of her. When she met Dave Scott, Mark Allen and Paula Newby-Fraser after the race, she had no idea who those legends of Ironman were.

But Chrissie Wellington is a quick study—and she has realized that not only does she have a talent for going long, but she can also use that talent to impact others.

“When I first started working with Coach Sutton in February of 2007,” she says, “I told him I didn’t know how long I could stay in this sport because it feels so self-indulgent to be out running, riding and swimming every day. He told me that I can use triathlon to make a difference, that the more I achieve in it, the more I can achieve outside of it. I want my legacy to be more than fast times and records. I want to educate and empower people—especially women—through what I accomplish in triathlon.”

And she has. She supports a group called gotribal.com that helps women get the tools they need to give fitness a chance. She has also used her platform as an athlete to create exposure for the Blazeman Foundation, a non-profit that raises awareness and research funds for ALS. “When I first won the Ironman World Championship, I didn’t understand the significance of the event and the win,” Wellington says. “I do now.”

It was in Nepal, trying to make a difference by working for Rural Reconstruction Nepal, where she met Billi Bierling—a kindred spirit and her soon-to-be BFF. The two would get up early and go for morning mountain bike rides that tested both of them. “In Nepal, the trails are washed away and you have potholes that you and your bike can disappear in,” says Bierling. “Because the water quality was so bad, we spent a lot of time standing over our handlebars with our stomachs cramping from having parasites in our bellies. Chrissie feels that the cycling there made her strong because of the altitude, the nasty trails and the fact that most of the time we’d be riding despite being sick as a dog.”

In 2005 the two did a 1,000K mountain bike ride to the Mt. Everest Base Camp. “A lot of that was more of a mountain bike push than a mountain bike ride,” says Bierling. “It was bloody tough!”

Bierling knows a little bit about tough. The woman reached the summit of Mt. Everest in May of 2009 and was part of Seb and Tina’s honeymoon adventure last winter. She is asked to sum up her friend, to analyze why Chrissie Wellington has taken the sport of triathlon by storm and destroyed every record and every athlete standing in her way, all with a smile on her face. “What makes Chrissie so successful,” Bierling answers, “is that her physical strength is out of this world and her mental strength and ambition have never changed. At the end of the day, she is still the same woman who I rode the Kathmandu Valley with.

“Chrissie told me once that these adventures that we go on make any race seem so much easier—because in a race, you know what you’re doing and what you have in front of you. But when you’re out in the wild, you never really know what might be awaiting you.”

Listen to interviews with Chrissie at competitorradio.com.

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Bob Babbitt

Bob Babbitt

Bob Babbitt is the editor of Competitor magazine.

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