In Chrissie Wellington, the world has come to know an Ironman prodigy, an athlete whose formidable physical and mental resources, together with a relentless work ethic, has brought authoritative dominance of her field. Wellington rules an elite roster filled with people who, broadly speaking, are just as fit and just as hungry, but who, in the glare of the sun and blast-furnace winds of the Ironman World Championship, simply cannot match her performances. Four-time Ironman World Champion, multiple world record holder, a force across the gender divide (as one headline trumpeted after Challenge Roth, The Fifth Man is a Woman), often doing it injured, and always doing it with a smile.
In A Life Without Limits (written with Michael Aylwin), we come to know the mindset that separates her from the pack. The book is a fascinating account of what’s in her head as she encounters, acclimates to, trains and summits a world that is, in its upper reaches, as daunting and hypnotic and grueling as Everest.
After a gripping foreword, where we ride along with Chrissie on the unforgiving lava fields of Kailua-Kona, we get a quick lesson about what it takes to win at this level. She explains: “Don’t underestimate the use of urine as a weapon . . . to get too close to the bike is not only dangerous but cheating . . . if anyone does it to me, I let off a warning shot and they usually back off. It is yet another reason to keep yourself hydrated.” It doesn’t get more elemental than that.
Again and again in these pages we se that ranks of elite Ironman are no place for anyone fussy about bodily fluids. At her second Kona championship, diarrhoea strikes before the swim even starts:
"that kind of thing sets the thoughts racing in your mind . . . It’s all very well crapping into your swimskin when you’re in the water (not so great for your fellow competitors, admittedly), but doing it on a bike is horrible. And trying to run a marathon with poo dribbling down your leg is not much more fun. The key is not to let those problems affect your performance. It is what it is, and you’ve just got to get on with it."
The stay-calm-and-carry-on approach, and the down-to-earth gratitude toward those who helped her along the way, remind us that despite her teenage stints in American summer camps and worldwide travels for her job as a civil servant, Chrissie remains a true Brit. In the early chapters we see an unexceptional, outdoorsy childhood in rural Norfolk. But there were hints of the success to come: she excelled on the swim team, excelled at Geography at Birmingham University, excelled in her early career as a civil servant officer in Her Majesty’s department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, where she helped formulate and negotiate government policy on development issues.
Excellence for Wellington is not only default mode, it’s the one place she can find equilibrium. “If there was one thing that marked me out as unusual it was my drive. I would go so far as to describe it as obsessive-compulsive. I have, and always have had, the most powerful urge to make the best of myself . . . it is an essential part of who I am, and I cannot make any apology for this.”
In her early teen years, the control-freak nature found an outlet in bulimia, (which, with its physical demands, absurd self-focus and discomfort is a cracked-mirror reflection of elite athleticism). Eventually, the latter took over for the former and Chrissie began eating to win rather than to lose.
First she was running (marathons, unfeasibly fast), and biking (her idea of a great time, while doing a stint of development work in Nepal, was to take all-day road trips in the foothills of the Himalayas). Back in London, friendships made after joining a running club led to dipping into triathlons, with predictably fast finishes. Bigger races followed, with higher profile wins, then an age-group championship. At the ripe age of 29, she met the coach who was to make her into world champion material, Brett Sutton.
The chapters describing her apprenticeship under his unorthodox training methods are among the best in the book, for Sutton is a character for the ages (“I’m so right it’s scary”). His methods are compared to throwing eggs against a wall, with the ones that don’t break becoming the best in the world. So what happens when one titanic control freak meets another of equally gargantuan proportions? King Kong tells Godzilla: “I think you have the physical attributes to make it as a pro . . . but I’m going to have to chop your head off.”
And more. After a particularly gruesome session in the pool, Sutton ranted: “’you’re fucking weak . . . You’re giving something to one of your competitors! You never give a competitor anything! Never show them your weaknesses!’ . . . There was no point arguing. My goggles filled with tears, but my heart was burning with anger, just as much as my teeth were burning with acid. . . . I was exhausted.”
But the transformation was taking place: “ . . I spent a lot of my time exhausted . . . but I also felt stronger than I ever had. It was a strange sensation to feel my body changing shape and coursing with so much power, and yet to be so beset with fatigue.”
If the average age-grouper finds it easy to empathize with the fatigue part, we are quickly brought up short by the sheer volume of work that Wellington and her fellow elites log on a weekly basis. While this book is in no way a how-to on getting to Ironman championship, Chrissie does give us a look at a typical week’s plan, which rounds out to approximately 30km of swimming, 13 hours of biking, 80k of running, with strength and conditioning sessions thrown in for good measure, and a whopping two days off per month.
If Chrissie were to be viewed as one of Sutton’s eggs flying against the wall, she’s an especially hard-boiled one, to be able to withstand this kind of load and an often relentless racing schedule. Amazingly, apart from chronic hamstring tendinopathy fixed with injections of Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP), most of her injuries seem to be self-inflicted, or result from crashes on the bike due to risktaking (riding during icy conditions) or freak mishap (jacket sleeve getting caught on bar, bike flipping over).
The author spends a fair amount of time describing her skills at this kind of self-sabotage, which at an early age earned her the nickname of “Muppet” (more-or-less “goofball” in American). It would drive coach Sutton mad, and as hard as he tried to get her to slow down when it mattered, the accidents kept on coming.
And, significantly, one in particular set the stage for what she considers her greatest race, the 2011 Hawaii Championship. A bike accident shortly before the most important race in her season, left her with a severely bruised elbow and hip, and road rash that extended most of the way up one leg. The injuries killed her final weeks of training, and during the race, gave her so much pain that for the first time in her career she thought of quitting in the middle of a race. “You can’t latch on to the pain,” she says “somehow you must switch that part of your brain off and go into automatic pilot. I’m good at that, it’s one of the keys to success, but even so this was the worst I’d ever known.”
And this might be the biggest and best lesson the book holds. While readers will enjoy it for its wonderful you-are-there descriptions of races worldwide, from Kona to Roth to Korea to South Africa, and pictures of comradeship that exists in the world of triathlon -- where one competitor won’t hesitate to toss another a CO2 canister to help mend a flat – the biggest takeaway might be this:
“My mind could have given up on me at so many stages, and I just would not let it. For that reason alone, this win, this most cathartic regaining of my crown, will stand as the ultimate accolade of my career.”
The girl didn’t give up. That’s a race technique everybody can borrow from Wellington, and eventually get to the finish line behind her. And she’ll be there, waiting to cheer you in.
Her blog, at www.yearoftrainingdangerously.blogspot.com takes a wide-angle view of triathlon, from personal race reports to offbeat gear to TriLOLcats and more.