Undaunted: A Profile Of Mary Beth Ellis

  • By Holly Bennett
  • Published Sep 24, 2013
Photo by Jeff Clark.

Should there be any question whether Ellis’ rapid-fire Ironman three-peat was a fluke, consider this: Her Austria race marked the fastest ever female Ironman debut (8:43:34), set a new women’s American Ironman record and broke the previous course record. In Regensburg, despite a nagging glute injury, Ellis’ 9:18:55 was good enough for the win by a 10-minute margin. And in Canada, she handily slashed a course record that stood for more than 20 years, clocking 9:03:13. Yet piling another 140.6 miles atop that already hefty tally, a mere six weeks later, proved a bit much even for Ellis.

“I was so fried, physically and mentally,” she recalls of her 2011 Kona race. “I don’t think anybody, until they’ve done an Ironman, really understands ‘going to the well.’ Each race takes a piece of you. Deep down, I struggled with the fact that I was going to have to hurt myself as bad as I had in Canada again so soon. In Canada I was trying to prove to my coach that I wasn’t a soft biker. So I biked harder than at any other race, and then on the first mile of the run I was like: Uh oh! I’m in for a long marathon. But it’s a lot easier to deal with that when you’re winning. In Kona I was like: I’m in for a long marathon—and I’m 30 minutes behind!

“But I’m glad I didn’t stop,” continues Ellis, who posted a so-so swim, struggled through vomiting and a flat tire—which she rode the final 11 miles into T2—on the bike and survived the run, finishing a disappointing 15th. “The only thing worse would be if I hadn’t finished. It was pretty abysmal as it was, but it could have been worse.”

While Kona 2011 came as an afterthought for Ellis, Kona 2012 served as a focal point, with a far more forgiving lead-up schedule. And with wins thus far at Ironman Texas, the Ironman U.S. Championship and Ironman 70.3 Singapore, two second-place 70.3 finishes (St. Croix and Mooseman), Ellis easily qualified for Kona. Yet the question remains: Has Ellis’ zealous over-training tendency been resolved with the help of her new coach?

“Brett’s background is in training racehorses,” says Olson. “And MB is exactly like a racehorse. A racehorse can’t tell you when it’s tired—it will go and go and go until it’s broken. Brett has this innate sense with his athletes, and I’m sure it was the same with his horses. If MB needs to be pushed, he’ll push her. If she needs to chill out, he’ll tell her to take a day off, whereas she never would have taken that day off on her own.”

And while Ellis no longer sneaks out of a dorm window to log extra laps, it took some time before she accepted Sutton’s credos.

“I came in categorized as injury-prone, so initially he took a really conservative approach. I was one of those people that if I wasn’t hurt, I would run every single day. Brett said, ‘No, you’re not running every day.’ And I was like: Yes I am! I wasn’t skeptical exactly, but I wasn’t ready to fully drink the Kool-Aid. But the longer I’ve been with him, the more impressed I’ve become. I listen to things he says, predictions he makes or things about me, and they come true a month or two later. He’s good at knowing when to hold me back. Also, seeing my training partners doing so well,” says Ellis, referring to teamTBB stars such as Caroline Steffen and Nicola Spirig, “gives me even more confidence that I’m on the right path.”

Sutton also believes that Ellis is headed in the right direction.

“What I saw in MB, that made me want to help her, is the very thing that makes her good and also destroys her,” explains Sutton. “Most don’t realize that the ferocious will to win can sometimes be one’s fiercest opponent. MB had not been taught to harness hers for good, but instead fanned it until it became her biggest enemy. Knowing when to push on and when to pull back can be an unclear thing to a person who wants it so bad it hurts. I’m not frightened to tell it how it is, and I thought: If she’s not frightened to listen, we can make her good again. And possibly, if she keeps listening, great. Five Ironman wins later, I still think we are a work in progress.”

It’s a work in progress marked by milestones of success. Aside from the 2011 and 2012 wins, there are day-to-day training gains where Ellis is forced to test her toughness.

“Once last winter at camp in Australia, Brett dropped MB and the guys on the squad off in Noosa and told them to run to Mooloolaba. That’s 45K,” says Olson. “Afterward, Scotty DeFilippis [another TBB athlete] told me, ‘Your girl smelled the barn with 10K to go. She dropped it to a 6:30 pace and dropped us boys off the back.’ MB told me later, ‘If I ever run over 3:20 in an Ironman you have to shoot me, because we were running a 3:20 marathon pace and we were jogging!’”

At 5-foot-4 this tough-as-nails muscle-packed mini-dynamo is a force to be reckoned with. Olson, an aspiring age-group athlete who trains with Ellis when his schedule allows, tries his best to keep pace with his wonder-wife, who routinely “chicks” him in every pursuit.

“We were in Mexico recently for a friend’s wedding, and everyone asked why they didn’t see us during the day,” says Olson. “It’s because we were busy riding in circles.”

Ellis had a 50-mile ride on her training schedule and dragged Olson along to the only place appropriate for cycling in Playa del Carmen—a one-mile loop, peppered with speed bumps.

“We rode it 50 times,” laments Olson. “She said to me, ‘I have an extreme tolerance for boredom.’ She’s the toughest person I’ve ever met, male or female. She can handle anything.”

It’s a toughness Ellis turns on the instant the race cannon fires.

“She’s incredibly focused when she races,” says Olson. “She truly gives her all the entire way. She just won’t let up. That’s why she rarely has a good finish photo and usually misses the post-race interviews. She’s absolutely toast by the end.” Ellis subscribes to Coach Sutton’s belief that triathlon is akin to boxing; second place means losing. But she’s matter-of-fact in her confidence.

“I think I have to improve, but if I didn’t think I had a shot at Kona then I wouldn’t race,” she says. “What would be the point?”

Ellis acknowledges that Ironman may be the sweet spot in triathlon that suits her abilities perfectly, though she’s not one to close any other door completely, nor will she wax nostalgic once her Ironman chapter is over.

“I kind of always knew that I was a bit more of a diesel than a turbo. But that’s not to say that I wouldn’t mind, depending on the course in 2016—I mean the Olympics is always going to be the Olympics. But I’m not sure if I would have that speed, and for now Ironman’s a good challenge. I like it. And until I have a good race in Kona I’d like to at least go there a couple more times and see if I can crack it.”

“I won’t be like Natascha Badmann though, 45 and still racing triathlon, because I’ll want a new challenge,” she continues, already excited by her future plans. “I’ve always wanted to race the Comrades Marathon [a grueling 56-mile ultra marathon] in South Africa.”

Other adventures on Ellis’ life list include running the Leadville Trail and Western States 100-milers, hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and, at some point, motherhood.

“For now she’s giving triathlon everything she’s got,” says Olson. “But when she gets to a point where she doesn’t feel she can win, she’ll walk away without any remorse, without a single look back.”

But for the time being, Ellis’ gaze is firmly fixed on a line drawn across Ali’i Drive in Kona. It’s a line marked “Finish,” Ellis is striving to reach first.

“I’m excited for another shot,” she says, undaunted as always.

MB’s Clues to Cope With Injury

Keep sight of the end goal.I’ve heard it said that the injury process is like the grieving process. You go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think that’s true with every injury. But you just have to keep your eye on why you do what you do, the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Focus on the positives, and even the perks. “With triathlon, most of the time you can do one sport, if not two. Plus you can make improvements while you’re injured. I turned pro in 2006, but I still worked full-time. In 2007, I finally left my job—and within a week I tore my labrum. I was already questioning whether I should I have quit my business career, and suddenly I was on the injured list. But in retrospect, it was fine. I needed to improve my bike and my swim anyway, so I biked and swam and aqua-jogged for a few months. I even won a race without having run more than 20 minutes, twice a week.”

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