“I don’t like to do things by halves”: Ironman Champion Chrissie Wellington talks about her passion, her charity work and the power of sport.
Chrissie Wellington, British Triathlete and four time World Ironman Champion (2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011), was born 18th February 1977 and grew up in rural Norfolk, attending Downham Market High School and Sixth Form. In later years, Chrissie attended the University of Birmingham, where she studied Geography and became a member of several clubs and teams, particularly Captaining the University Swimming Team. After University, Chrissie initially intended to train as a lawyer, but decided to travel to Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Asia before embarking on her career. After two years, she’d changed her mind and returned to the UK to begin an MA at the University of Manchester. Chrissie’s first marathon was the London Marathon that took place in April 2002, which gave her a taste of the buzz running could bring, and the feeling of achievement a race brought. Whilst working for the UK government, Chrissie continued to enjoy running, even joining a running group, and in 2004 was encouraged by a friend to attempt a triathlon. In September of the same year, Chrissie began to work for the Nepalese development NGO, Rural Reconstruction Nepal in the capital of Nepal – Kathmandu. It was here that she developed a love for mountain biking and also often enjoyed running on the many (hilly) trails in the Kathmandu Valley. In the years that followed Chrissie continued to take part in triathlons across the country, winning several and eventually winning the World Amateur title in the ITU World Age Group (Amateur) Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was at this time she made the decision to become a professional athlete and promptly joined a newly formed triathlon team (TeamTBB) at their training camp in Thailand. Since making this decision Chrissie has participated in dozens of events across the globe, and has won four World Ironman competitions. On 23rd February 2012, Chrissie’s book, A Life Without Limits – “the amazing life story of Britain’s world conquering triathlete”, was released.
Q: You have said that when you were young you “was a member of most school sports teams, although I focused more on my studies than I did on reaching my full potential on the pitch”. Obviously you were into sport when you were younger, but what did you imagine yourself being one day? And what do you think your younger self would have thought of you now being a professional athlete?
My younger self would have laughed had you said I would have become a professional athlete! As my autobiography ‘A Life Without Limits’ will show, I have taken a rather unique path to professional sport. I didn’t grow up like many other triathletes watching triathlon on television and wanting to qualify for the World Championships in Hawaii. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would become a professional sports person! At a very young age my dream was to become a tractor driver, but these ambitions were quashed by the fact that I am a liability behind the wheel, and after that I wanted to be a teacher, a vet, and then later a lawyer and as I said, after an epiphany when travelling I realized my passion lay in international development, and made that my career.
I was always a sporty kid, but doing well academically was the most important thing to me. I swam competitively for a local swim team and played hockey and netball at school – but yes, like you said, I never excelled and was always more interested in the social side. I went to university at 18, then travelled the world for 2 years. Travelling opened my eyes to the many problems that exist, but also the opportunity that there is for positive change. I knew then that I wanted to work in international development. I did an MA and got a job working for the UK Government on international environment and development policy for 3 years.
While I was doing my MA I decided to take up running – starting with 20mins until I could run about 90minutes. I decided to do the London Marathon in 2002, and ran 3.08. After that I joined a running club in London and began to train more seriously, and in 2003 I also started swimming again. A friend persuaded me to do a few triathlons in 2004 – all on an old, borrowed bike and a very big wetsuit that didn’t fit me! I really enjoyed it – but I also wanted to work overseas and so in September that year I left the UK to work in Nepal for 16 months. Here I bought a mountain bike and cycled every single day before work. It was an amazing opportunity to explore the countryside, meet people and keep fit. I didn’t do any structured training – just grinding up and down the hills was enough to make me super strong!
I returned to the UK in 2006, and entered a few triathlons as an amateur – managing to amaze myself by qualifying for the World Triathlon Championships in Lausanne. I got a coach, trained really hard for 10 weeks and somehow managed to win the world amateur title. I seriously couldn’t believe what I had achieved! Then I had to decide whether or not to take the risk, give up my job and have a go at professional triathlon. I never want to look back and think ‘what if’. So, in February 2007 I gave up my job and became a professional triathlete – but was only thinking of doing short course, Olympic distance – not Ironman. I didn’t actually know anything about Ironman, other than that I thought you had to be crazy to do it! It was only when my coach suggested that I do Ironman Korea in august 2007, and I won it and managed to qualify for the World Championships six weeks later in Hawaii. Much to my surprise I won that race, and was crowned World Ironman Champion in my very first year as a pro!
I guess my message here would be that we all have talents, some we tap into and others may lay dormant unless we have the courage to take a step into the unknown, try something new, without fear or the imposition of preconceived limits on ourselves. You only get one chance at life and the most important thing is for me to know that I have given it everything and been the best that I can be. To me the biggest failure of all is not to try. I didn’t know where that philosophy would take me in terms of triathlon, but unless I gave it a shot at going pro I would never really know.
Q: Your book, A Life without Limits, has just been released. What made you decide to write this, and share your experiences with the world?
The autobiography truly has been a labour of love, and I have invested so much time and energy into this project over the past few years. My motives for wanting to publically recount my life story in print are varied. Selfishly, I craved the intellectual and emotional challenge, and fulfilment, that comes from cathartic self-reflection. I also want to use it as a means to thank all those who have played a part in my life, both before and during my career in professional sport.
I wanted to share some practical tips for the triathletes out there, but more important are the ‘life’ lessons and philosophies that transcend sport, and are applicable to anyone – whether or not they are a pro athlete or a coach potato. These come from all areas of my life: my childhood, academia, whilst travelling, during my career as a civil servant, in Nepal and also through sport. Through my words I want to encourage people, young and old, to take up sport, to travel, to pursue their dreams. I want to inspire people to take a chance, to attempt defy what they deem impossible and to be willing to look fear and adversity in the face and truly live their life without any preconceived limits. The book is one such the vehicle for doing this.
But effectively conveying these messages meant ‘humanizing’ myself. I am sometimes held up as this robotic, infallible ‘freak of nature’, but of course I am no such thing. In order for the reader to be able to relate and identify with me I had to expose the good, the bad and the ugly. I wanted to reveal my strengths, my weaknesses, my fears, my concerns, my likes and dislikes, my passions, my true nature. There are things in the book that people may not have known, for example my battles with eating and body image – but it is only by sharing some of these stories, that I can break down the façade, and really impact – and hopefully inspire – the reader.
In writing a book that transcended triathlon I wanted to try and take the sport out of the minority, and into the psyche of the majority. I wanted to showcase our sport to those that may have never heard of ironman, and show that it truly is accessible to the masses. A lofty ambition perhaps, but the more exposure I can get of book, and of triathlon, in the mainstream media the closer I get to making this pipe dream that a reality. And that’s why I want to invest as much time in promoting the book as I did in creating it. I hope World of Books customers enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Q: You announced back in January that this year you are having a break from Ironman. What other hobbies and commitments will you be pursuing instead?
You know, I never thought I would say this, but I really am enjoying having a break from full time ironman training and racing. Making the decision to have a sabbatical was reminiscent of the time in 2006 when I was deliberating whether or not to embark on an unknown path as a pro triathlete. Although having such choices is a blessing making these decisions is never easy: but now, as then, I simply try to follow my gut instinct and do what I feel is right deep in my heart. But yes, it was a HUGE decision, and one that I deliberated long and hard over.
I have devoted the whole of the last 5 years to being the best athlete I can be. No short cuts, no stone left unturned. And I have loved every minute of it. I feel so incredibly fortunate and grateful to have found a sport that I love; to have had the chance to actually make that passion my career; to have continually defied what I thought was possible; to have made so many great friends; to have travelled the world, and of course to have developed a platform on which I can now build.
But I believe that racing cannot always be the axis around which my life revolves. It should not be an end in itself – never the be all and end all of my life. Never defining me. It is just one branch on a tree that I hope is as big, rich and varied as I can possibly make it. I want to inject some variety back into my life, some balance, and some spontaneity. I want to be freer to explore and seize other opportunities. I have also realised that I need to take the time to truly truly cherish what I have achieved in this sport and actually appreciate ‘what is’. So yes, I am doing all these things and more, and actually I am busier than ever – just in a different way than before!
I don’t like to do things by halves, so although I wont be racing ironman events this year I hope that doing other sporting and non sporting related activities will give me a huge amount of joy and gratification – albeit slightly different from crossing the finish line. Some of those goals may not be as grandiose as winning Kona, but are personally important to me, such as spending more time with family and friends, reading more widely, going to concerts etc. I want to work more closely with my chosen charities, to attend different races around the world, to work with my sponsors, to be able to attend the Olympics (although not to compete!), to promote my autobiography, do some public and corporate speaking engagements and to try and inspire as many people as possible. Yes, I could do this whilst training and racing full time, but not to the extent and with the energy and passion that I feel is necessary.
My desire to work a lot more actively with all of my chosen charities was a key reason for my decision to step back from full time training and racing for a little while. I have an amazing opportunity to use my platform to raise funds and awareness for causes that are important to me, and simply felt that I couldn’t do as much as I wanted to do whilst also trying to be the best athlete I could be. The charitable work will focus on those that I am already actively supporting, such as Janes Appeal, the Blazeman Foundation for ALS, Girls Education Nepal and Challenged Athletes Foundation and well as helping to grow GOTRIbal.
I have organised specific events, such as ‘Runs with Chrissie’ (www.runwithchrissie.com) in the UK where people pay to run 5km with me, do a training session, have dinner and then attend a Q&A and presentation. All the money goes to Jane’s Appeal and we have raised over £10,000 already through two events. I have also done some clinics and events in aid of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. I am also fortunate to be able to use other projects (such as the recently launched motivation and training downloads I made with Audiofuel) as a vehicle to support worthwhile causes.
My next sporting Challenge will be in April and will a big one! I will run the Paris Marathon, cycle 1000km and then run London Marathon, all in the space of a week!!!! My aim is to help pace others around, and so I wont be trying to so a personal best time in the marathon. Its all about teamwork, and helping others to also complete this amazing Challenge in aid of Janes Appeal. But even if I don’t want to actually race fast I still need to start training!
Q: When speaking about your past trainer Frank Horwill who passed away on 1st January this year, you remember one of his expressions being “never utter the words ‘I can’t’. Only ‘I will try’”. How often have you recalled these words throughout your career? How long did it take you to fully train mentally as well as physically for rigorous races such as Ironman?
Frank was my first proper running coach. His body may have departed, but his legacy will forever live on in my memory, and in the thousands of other’s whose lives he so selflessly, generously and inspirationally touched. Those words are Frank in a nutshell. Selfless, generous and inspirational. And to that I would add intelligent, witty, non-conformist, loyal, passionate, energetic, and side splittingly funny. He was a man of many talents, some of which I am ashamed to say, I have only truly reflected on, and appreciated, since his passing.
I first met Frank in 2002. As a member of Serpentine running club I used to go down to Battersea track, in London, for the Thursday evening training session, where Frank also used to coach a group of athletes – the Horwill Harriers. He welcomed all – regardless of ability or background – his only criteria being that an athlete never uttered the word I cant. ‘Only ‘I will try’. I learnt so much from him, and try to always live by that motto.
It was Frank who first made clear to me that you race with your mind as well as your body. When I raced at the World Ironman Championships at Kona last year, having had a bad bike crash two weeks before, I won the race, not on physical prowess, but on grit, will power, determination and mental strength. I hope I showed through my performance there that – as Frank always said – sporting success rests, in part, about having the mental fortitude necessary to overcome our fears, hurt, and discomfort. It sounds simple but so easy to forget. If we let our head drop, our heart drops with it. Keep your head, and your body is capable of amazing feats. To plunder the words of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – “Don’t ever forget that you play with your soul as well as your body.”
The message: all the physical strength in the world won’t help you if your mind is not prepared. This is part of training – the part that people don’t put in their log books; the part that all the monitors, gizmos and gadgets in the world can’t influence. And, I believe that whilst some of us are born with that mental strength, it can also be learned and that there are strategies one can use to ‘train the brain’. You just need to put the time and energy into doing so. This can include visualisation, positive self talk, having positive mental images, using music, testing yourself in training so that you know you can endure discomfort, having a mantra, setting clear goals, and training/racing for a cause that is bigger than yourself, for example a charity or a special person in your life, like Frank.
Q: At the beginning of this year you teamed up with AudioFuel and Universal Music and created ‘Tri Harder’, a set of motivational CDs for athletes across the globe, whether they are beginners or semi-pro. The CDs range from a motivational warm-up session, ‘Lace Up’, to ‘Ride Harder’ – a guide to indoor cycling. What is your key bit of advice that spans across all these CDs?
This was a great opportunity to work with two companies, whose passion is to motivate people through music. We invested a lot of time and energy in creating the Tri Harder product, and I am so incredibly proud of what we have achieved. If I was to pinpoint the key message(s) it would be to test your limits, push the boundaries of what you think you can achieve, never be scared to try, and most of all to enjoy the amazing sporting journey.
Q: From perusing your website (check out http://www.chrissiewellington.org/) we were delighted to learn that your favourite books are ‘Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett and ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (favourites at World of Books too!) Why would you say that these two books have had an impact on you?
Yes, two of my favourite books are ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. The first is an amazingly colourful, thought provoking, gripping masterpiece of a novel that manages to weave together issues of colonialism, oppression, ethnicity, civil war, love, race, family bonds, loyalty and much more – I couldn’t put it down! Pillars of the Earth was given to me by one of my best friends while I was living in Nepal. I never expected to be captivated by a historical saga about medieval cathedrals. But it’s an epic in every sense: the landscapes, architecture, characters and dialogue truly come to life in your hands.
Q: What are your three biggest pet peeves?
Apathy, arrogance and chaffing.
Q: “Sport has phenomenal, far-reaching amazing power. It is a vehicle to do great things. For me, winning races is not about the glory, it’s not about the money, it’s not about the times. The key is the manner in which I try and win, the lessons I learn and the message I hope I convey”. What “great things” do you think sport is currently making possible and in the future?
You know, champions come and go, but to me the real judge of my personal success will be whether I actually do something positive with the opportunities I have been given. I try never to take for granted the opportunities I have to encourage others, to increase participation in triathlon and other sports and to generate more interest and support amongst the media and businesses, in the UK and around the world. That’s what motivates me – and, for me, that’s the beauty of sport. It is a vehicle to achieve so much more.
Sport plays a hugely important role at the individual, community, national and global levels. For the individual, sport enhances one’s personal abilities and skills, general health and well-being and is a route to self-discovery and empowerment. On the national level sport and physical education contribute to economic and social growth, improve public health, break down artificial barriers in society, and unite fractioned communities. At a time when many countries are becoming increasingly characterised by sedentary lifestyles, chronic ill health and endemic obesity, as well as wider social and economic problems, such as unemployment, social unrest and prejudice sport is one way of helping to tackle these issues.
Through my work with the Challenged Athletes Foundation I have seen first hand what sport can bring to physically challenged people, enabling both their physical and mental growth, and – like a snowball – one athlete inspires another to defy what others might think is impossible.
I feel really strongly that everyone, young and old, needs good role models – people they can look to for inspiration. Sports people can be such role models, and can be a force for incredible good: helping to encourage and inspire people to undertake physical activity, dream big, reach for the stars and empower themselves, and those around them.
Q: And the last question, World of Books is dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?
Of course, having worked in international environment and development policy I have seen first hand the need for sustainable practices all the way from the global to the local level. World of Books provides a great service – there is nothing like turning the page of a great book, especially if you know that it is saving and conserving the world’s resources and also giving back to charitable causes too. It’s a big win win win in my book (no pun intended!).