Things happen for a reason, Alexander said.
This is precisely what six-time Ironman world champion Dave Scott says when talking about the development of his coaching relationship with Chrissie Wellington. When Wellington moved on from her first coach, TeamTBB’s Brett Sutton, she initially announced she would be working with coach Cliff English, but then in the late part of 2008 she announced she’d be training underneath fellow Brit Simon Lessing. By August of 2009 the partnership disintegrated, and since then Wellington has not formally announced a new coach. But at the press conferences this year in Kona Wellington referred to Scott as her coach several times, confirming what had been observed in Boulder, Colo., where she lives, and was also highlighted in 2010, when Wellington explained that her decision to not race due to a viral infection was made after discussions with Scott.
“She has a confrontational personality and I have a confrontational personality,” Scott said, indicating just one of several comparisons an observer could make between the two legendary triathletes. “At times we definitely ended up kicking each other enough.”
Scott said the early collisions nearly put an end to their professional relationship but that they eventually helped them forge into a team.
“I think it happened the way it did for a reason,” he said.
The value of the bond was put to the test in the buildup to the 2011 Ironman World Championship, when Wellington, 12 days out from race day and 50 minutes into her last long bike ride, leaned into a corner with, unknowingly, a flat tire. The front wheel slid out and the crash resulted in severe road rash and contusions, eliciting a trip to the hospital. (You have to imagine Wellington’s trip to the X-ray room, thinking, “Not again.”) X-rays were negative, a relief, but the damage to her taper was done. Scott also said the physical pain of recovering was complicated by the psychological pain that Wellington faced because, before the crash, she was in the best shape of her career—a career that included three Ironman World Championships, a world record at the full distance, and an undefeated record at the iron distance.
The 2011 preparation had required Wellington to put full faith and trust in her new coach, and a key in this regard was exchanging an ultra-high training volume for more intensity and more recovery. Following Scott as a coach also meant adopting his long-held reverence for the power of nutrition. Hence this faith was seemingly inspired, in part, by the illness that forced her to withdraw in 2010.
“I was devastated to not start the race,” she said. “As an athlete it’s your responsibility to get on the start line healthy and fit and be ready to compete, and I wasn’t. I knew this year I had to be more diligent in my nutrition and to get more antioxidants to ward off sickness.” (Although she would later add, “No amount of nutrition is going to stop you from falling off your bike.”)
Wellington’s penchant for high volume is not a new concern. In an interview in the spring of 2008 with Brett Sutton, during a TeamTBB training camp in the Philippines, Sutton used Wellington as an example of why he believed he was incorrectly cast as a coach that drowned all of his triathletes with too much mileage, suggesting that an athlete as talented as Wellington is a “thoroughbred” and needs “just enough” volume to deliver a great performance. He added that Wellington’s overpowering work ethic could eventually be her undoing.
“I want Chrissie in my camp not so that I can make sure she’s doing enough training,” Sutton said. “I want her in camp to make sure she doesn’t do too much.”
Doing too much wasn’t a problem for Wellington in the final two weeks before her attempt at a fourth Kona title. Infections from the road rash plagued her recovery, sapped her energy and required her to take antibiotics up until race morning. While still back in Boulder, she tried to do a simple workout on the elliptical trainer, but couldn’t bear any weight on her leg and had to be carried out of the gym. Scott and Wellington waged a daily battle to just get through the uphill muck of each day. Small victories, like being able to ride a bike without pain, were undermined by severe chest pains that surfaced when she tried to get in some swim mileage just a few days before the race—leaving her crying into her goggles and at the Kona Community Hospital for six hours. Additional X-rays suggested to doctors she’d torn a pectoral muscle and intercostal muscles, and the world would not know about the depth of Wellington’s struggles until race morning when, instead of clocking a 55-minute swim, about her norm in Kona, she clocked a 1:01. But this too was a small victory—Wellington had been fearful that she might end up getting pulled out of the water because she simply couldn’t swim.
Once on the bike Wellington began the slow, painful work of earning back her crown—and this time the pain was as much from the discomfort of a hard endurance effort as from the yet unrepaired damage to her body. When she peed during the bike leg, for example, the urine trickled into the road rash scabs, which looked like raw hamburger meat, and added a wincing dose of insult to injury.
But at no point in her public comments, before or after the race, did Wellington ever dwell on the injuries as any brand of an excuse.
“I know this sounds cliché and kind of trite, but there are many who have faced more significant physical challenges here than road rash,” she said.
The top five women in Kona would include Leanda Cave, Great Britain, third, Rachel Joyce, Great Britain, fourth, and Caroline Steffen, Switzerland, fifth, yet the race had been boiled down—both in the build-up and race-day execution—to the clash between Wellington and the defending champion, Australia’s fleet Mirinda Carfrae. When Wellington caught and passed Carfrae on the way to the turnaround on the bike, one question arose. Given her injuries and reputation as a slightly “slower” runner than Carfrae, how much time would Wellington need to put in on the defending champ?
It was apparent to those watching that Wellington wasn’t the only one having an imperfect day as Carfrae’s facial expression showed signs of struggle. Wellington took back the time lost to Carfrae during the swim and then some—out-biking her by seven minutes—and during the first half of the marathon, holding her own against the run course record holder. Carfrae would admit after the race that she wasn’t able to establish a rhythm until halfway through the marathon. And Wellington, despite a visible brokenness in her running mechanics, was managing a 2:52:41. Upon the day’s finish it would be the second fastest in history behind Carfrae’s 2:52:09, which was only good for second overall.
Dave Scott, a fiercely linear man known for being incapable of exaggeration, described Wellington as “traumatized” by the ancillary effects and problems created by the bike wreck. In talking about it all after Wellington slogged her way to victory, Scott seemed to want people to know that as stoic as Wellington was about the injuries and the havoc they wrought, the truth was that it was worse than any of us may have imagined.
“I don’t think Chrissie will appreciate me telling you this, but it’s important,” he said.
In the final miles of the marathon, on her way to victory, Wellington’s body finally began to slow. But if Carfrae had been able to close the gap on Wellington and get up on her shoulder near the end, would anyone doubt that she’d dig into new internal territory and respond? The way that she literally scooted her way to a 2:52 marathon points to no.
Wellington’s fourth Ironman world title will go down as “inspirational,” of course, but it was more than that. It was chilling. Historically the way to effectively navigate through the ups and downs of Kona is to ride out the bad patches by listening to the body and being patient. Perhaps the swim was one long bad patch for Wellington, one she had to lay off of a bit to not break something and be forced out of the event, but the remainder of the race vividly portrayed the true Wellington method: Screw bad patches. Bulldoze through them. If the mind says yes, the body must obey, and it’s as simple as that.
“I firmly believe the body and the mind are capable of great things,” Wellington said.
It was chilling to watch because you could see Wellington racing her way right to the hospital, paying literally no heed to her brain’s internal governor—one that has been wired into the human body through millions of years of evolution.
It must have also been chilling for Wellington’s opponents. At the post-race press conference, Carfrae looked demoralized. If you can’t compete with Wellington in the circumstances of 2011, when can you?
Wellington won the race and held it all together long enough to wave to the crowd and launch into a Blazeman roll across the finish line, but then quickly, with the look of a satellite-orbit out-of-it space cadet, asked a media person near the finish, “Is it OK if I get an I.V.?”
Good lord, yes, Chrissie. In a race that the medical profession probably would have preferred you’d never started, you should at least get two.
For coverage of the 2012 Ironman World Championship, visit Triathlete.com/Kona2012.Pages: 1 2