Since Chrissie Wellington blasted her way into the world of triathlon in 2007—when the upstart Brit, fresh from a TeamTBB heat camp governed by her then-coach Brett Sutton—took charge of the Ironman World Championship in Kona during the bike and sailed to what appeared to be a victory of ease, we have witnessed a great champion unleashing her talent and drive with such force that we have seen little, if any vulnerability. I remember a flat tire that took 10 minutes to repair that ultimately didn’t as much scrape her overpowering second championship.
Last year, of course, we learned Chrissie was human when she decided, last minute, not to start the race due to a viral infection. But bad luck due to an equipment problem or a DNS due to a pre-race injury or illness is not the same thing as seeing what inner metals exist when a great athlete—wrapped up in the turmoil of a hard day when things aren’t going dreamily—gets pressed by a great-athlete-on-the-rise. In the case of today’s 2011 Hawaii Ironman, these new variables were added into the mix, one being a reigning Ironman champion with mercurial foot speed. This being, of course, Australian Mirinda Carfrae, a speedster who is still developing her a deep wealth of talent under her coach of 7 years, former ITU World Champion Siri Lindley. Today Carfrae would set a new women’s record for the marathon—2:52:09 (!!!)—on a day when the Kona sun ripped through the tropical humidity and cast short, sharp shadows in such a way that it reminded spectators of the possibility of complete bodily collapses like those that have been witnessed in the past (Chris Legh, Julie Moss, Paula Newby-Fraser, Sean Welch and Wendy Ingraham come to mind).
Just a few weeks ago Wellington crashed her bike while on a training ride in Boulder, Colorado (crashing into, as a matter of fact, 20-year-old Drew Scott, the son of 6-time Ironman Champion Dave Scott, who with a hairline fracture started today’s race and at the time of this writing has split a 58-minute swim and 5:48 bike ride). The wreck left Wellington with broad patches of road rash on her body. Luckily she didn’t break any bones (or worse), but the healing process undeniably would impact her final preparations for the race. Typically road rash drains large amounts of energy and forces unscheduled periods of complete rest.
After last year’s shocker when the first report from the 2010 Hawaii Ironman was that Wellington wasn’t going to compete, the realm of possibility seemed wide open this year. And when Wellington emerged from the water in 1:01:03 (one unconfirmed report suggests Wellington, returning to the pool a few days after the crash, pulled a pectoral muscle), well behind the lead women, it was immediately apparent that today’s race would be different than the trademark Wellington carpet-bombing missions we’ve seen in the past. This was not the same woman who set her world record over the Ironman distance this past July, at Challenge Roth, in 8 hours and 18 minutes. In 2009, the last time Wellington won in Kona, she dashed through the swim in 54:31.
But Wellington smiled her way through T-1, climbed aboard her Cannondale, and set to work.
While Wellington ground her way back into the race with a 4:56 bike split, ultimately 8 minutes faster than Carfrae’s, she wasn’t in a position to assume the lead until deep into the marathon, and even then, a level of strain we’ve never seen before was apparent. Asked once how she dealt with the pressure of expectations to win that are ubiquitously placed upon her in the triathlon world, she flatly replied, “The pressure that others may place on me is nothing compared to the pressure I put upon myself.”
In the days leading up to Kona an image swirled among conversations: How will Chrissie respond if Carfrae pulls up to her shoulder? Although this specific image did not materialize, one could see the gears turning in Wellington’s brain: ‘Not going to let this happen.’ Despite Carfrae charging along at record pace, the gap between her and Wellington remained at four minutes, unflinching and permanent. Wellington was rigging together, step by willful step, the same record pace.
Wellington’s running was not fluid and easy. Her actual speed seemed incongruent to the rough biomechanics being employed. Rather, it was a vivid example of her tremendous psychological powers to enforce rule over the physiological world. While Carfrae never crept up on her shoulder she might as well have. Wellington was running as if her life depended on it.
After crossing the finish line and winning her fourth World Ironman championship, Wellington, having pushed her body to hauntingly deep levels and in a state of semi-consciousness, approached Ann Wessling, the host of “TriCenter” and asked, “Can I have an IV? Is that allowed?”
We know Wellington is one of the greatest triathletes of all time, perhaps the greatest. We know she’s insanely gifted, both in physical and psychological ways. We’ve also learned she’s human. We’ve also learned that if she ever does break in a race, it’s not going to come easy.