In the first of our two-part installment, we chat with the enigmatic coach of TeamTBB, a remarkably dynamic squad with 17-members in camp, each harboring as many goals, ranging from Chrissie Wellington defending her Hawaii title to Lisbeth Kristensen returning to fitness after having she and Andrew Johns’ first child, and everything in between.
To date, TeamTBB (www.teamtbb.com) has won seven Ironman titles and two Ironman 70.3 titles this year. Sutton talks to us in this installment on the subject of his team’s reigning Ironman World Champ Chrissie Wellington. With four Ironman wins in as many tries, a world title on debut and a near record Ironman time, is TeamTBB’s Chrissie Wellington a legend in the making? Slowtwitch chats with her enigmatic Australian coach Brett Sutton to find out just how much of the tip of this iceberg we’ve actually seen, as well as the future.
In Part 2, we’ll talk about training, technology and managing egos in the strongest team in triathlon.
Slowtwitch: Paula Newby Fraser’s 8:50:53, which she recorded at Ironman Europe in Roth in 1994, has always been the women’s benchmark. It’s been an interesting past month. First, Chrissie nearly misses hitting that time by just a few seconds. Then the following weekend, the floodgates break open; Dutch athlete Yvonne Van Vlereken breaks the record with an 8:45:48 at the Roth Challenge, and one of your other charges, Hungarian Erika Csomor, follows suit in breaking PNFs record, taking second to Van Vlereken at the same race in 8:47:05.
Meanwhile, on the same day at Ironman Austria, an unknown German, Sandra Wallenhorst did it as well, going 8:47:26. And again, Bella Comerford, one of your athletes nearly gets in under Fraser’s time, taking second to Wallenhorst in 8:51:17. So in two weeks, that’s three women that broke the record, one of which was your athletes, and two who nearly broke it, both of whom are yours. It seems the women in Ironman racing are stepping up, or taking liberties, or the race officials are just not on course. What is your take?
Sutton: It’s good to see, but to be perfectly honest, I’m most interested in WTC (World Triathlon Corporation) trying to have a separate pro women’s start, or to incorporate a time of 15 minutes ahead of—at least—the pro men. If (pro women are) caught before the swim ends, they are out. It would make the records, and the races, much cleaner.
It’s a travesty now to watch some races with the girls doing their best, but they can’t help but be embedded in a pack of men. I’ve seen it now three times last year, as I was taking times; a female lose three minutes on a four-kilometer climb, and then four minutes astern at the bottom—and they shut down that four minutes in 20 kilometers of flat riding.
The next lap, it’s four minute again put in up the hill, only to see her get off the bike with the one in front. It was not descending, and she wasn’t trying to cheat, but when 11 men are riding together, what are they to do? This is the blight we need to address. Then no one has a problem with who is doing what.
I think Belinda (Granger), Bella and the three super-girls — Chrissie, Erika and Van Vlereken — can all ride two classes above the others, and I think Chrissie is one class ahead of them at present.
Slowtwitch: If Chrissie is one class ahead, where does she fit in with these falling records, or more broadly, the quality of the women in Ironman racing today? If you had put Wellington on the Roth course instead of Frankfurt, might things have been different in the outcome?
Sutton: People can look at times all they want, but really, ask Belinda Granger if she thinks Chrissie would have been nine minutes behind her off the bike under any circumstance. (Van Vlereken was nine minutes behind Granger off the bike at the Quelle Roth Challenge - ed)
However, I was pleased that like-for-like may have happened at Roth. I’m not clear on if it was the same course the great Paula Newby Fraser did it on. But I do know two things: while I think these two (Van Vlereken and Csomor) bike easily as well as Paula did, and run possibly better, Paula is a great because she did it year upon year. The record-breakers have a long way to go yet to be mentioned in the same breath. I don’t think that is doing a disservice to either of the them. It was a great, great performance.
But before we get too carried away, they have to get by Natasha, Michellie and Sam McGlone. Once they’ve done that, then they can think about turning their attention to the Chrissinator. And they can be sure of one thing, she will be ready to rumble, and they won’t want to give her nine-minute head start. Ironman women’s racing is going into a golden period.
Slowtwitch: It’s amazing to consider that Chrissie has been doing Ironman for less than a full year, and she’s already taken four titles, including a world title, and she’s simply destroying her competition. Is this an athlete that was simply made for Ironman, with a gift of speed and endurance we see in very few athletes like Newby Fraser, or Allen, or Scott? Granted, it’s very early in her racing career, but is Wellington an athlete capable of surpassing what PNF has achieved in her career? Is this record thing anything that she—or you—care about, especially if some race director attempts to make it lucrative for the athlete by putting up, say, a prime for breaking it on a true, measured course?
Sutton: Paula Newby Fraser, or whomever people think are the icons, that’s where the sport needs to mature. It’s like the world record. People are saying “it’s a world record,” If you come from sports that are a time-factor sport, which I do, the records—they’re meaningless. People shorten their career because they’re trying to break a record, have the fastest run split, all this in an Ironman.
From my perspective, Ironman is a very, very difficult sport. The reason why we do it is because I think it is the last bastion of extreme sports that’s a real race. It’s a race you can do, all day. To me, that’s the beauty of it. The fact of the matter is, There’s no break in between, there’s no “I’ll have a sleep for two hours.” I hold it as the epitome of what endurance is all about.
Saying that, I’ve seen plenty of people bust themselves and have bad seasons because they’re chasing records. As far as we’re concerned, we’re about doing good performance. I’d have gone crooked if she went hard—I still might—when I talk to Chrissie and find out how much she pushed. Once she got to the front and had ‘em locked away, it was our plan to do it as easy as possible. So from my perspective, I’ll be trying to work out how hard she pushed, because that will determine whether she does another Ironman before Hawaii. We take that very seriously. We like to finish off strong.
Slowtwitch: Chrissie had some missed nutrition issues at Ironman Germany—which, for an athlete having done just her fourth Ironman, is the eventual experience of most athletes, pro or age-grouper.
Sutton: Yes, she had some troubles with her water bottles and lost all her food. She’s still new to the sport, which is what’s crazy about it. At the end of the race, she said “I’ve got sore quads and feel like the other girls did, because I didn’t eat.” And I said “I don’t think you’ll ever feel what the other girls do.” She had some issues by not getting in the carbohydrates on the bike, and she felt it in the run. She is still learning.
Slowtwitch: On the issue of the record, if she had secured it, it would have surely brought about question as to its veracity, since it seemed the swim was short.
Sutton: We considered the course as being short. Faris (Al Sultan) isn’t a great swimmer—he’s alright, but if Faris swam a 43, Craig Walton or a Benny Sanson would swim 40. So, obviously the swim was short, and the bike was two kilometers long.
I’ve looked at the (Roth) course in the old days when Paula Newby Fraser did the other one. The bike was ridiculous—it was short. The run was…hmmmm. I’m not running out saying “oh, the course in Roth in the old days was much easier and shorter. It’s just beggar’s belief at the moment. If people want to chop at the record, let Germany put up $100,000 like they used to do in the old days. If they want to have Chrissie have a crack, then we’ll have a crack.
Moreover, the most important thing for me all along is for her to do the Ironman as easily as possible, because it’s new to her. Her instructions were to enjoy the race. We went to Frankfurt so she could feel a German crowd and understand what the real sport is. Because she’s still new to it all. She thought Hawaii was great, and I said “go up and see what 500,000 people do, whether Roth or Frankfurt. And really, just enjoy the moment. And that’s what she did.
Slowtwitch: Given that she’s so new to Ironman racing, you’ve mentioned she’s made strident improvements over last year. In what areas?
Sutton: Yes, absolutely. Swimming is better, and anxiety is much, much better. For some people, the crown weighs heavy. Other people grow into it. We’ve discussed this before she ever got the crown, and I thought she was one of the people to whom it would give confidence. And it has. She’s improved in all aspects psychologically, she’s in control of what she’s doing mentally, whereas before she was a bit of a brunette blonde. We still make little mistakes we see in training, but I’d say she’s improved in two of the three things.
But I really have to hold her back. Chrissie does about half of what she wants to do. She loves to train hard, however doing more isn’t necessarily better for her. We’re working on her swimming, maintinaing her bike and working on her running. I’m happy she’s capable of running around three hours off the bike. Will that be good enough to win in four year’s time? No, it’s not. There’s no reason we should be sitting around kidding ourselves.
Slowtwitch: Working with someone who’s been in the sport for only a couple years, she must be a fun ball of clay to mold.
Sutton: She has. She has a wonderful persistence, a will to be good that’s frightening. She just happened to run into a guy who knew how to harness it. There’s no magic bullet. There’s plenty of athletes out there doing more work than Chrissie, and it’s up to them and their coaches to do it.
Chrissie’s advantage is she has not been inundated with all the triathlon stuff, she had no handicap of prior knowledge going into Kona. I told her she was training better than Jo King. I said Natascha (Badmann) is not as good as she was, and Michellie (Jones), in my opinion, doesn’t have the body of an Ironman person. And the course? If the wind doesn’t blow, it’s the easiest course on the circuit.
But I just told her to settle in, take your time and wind it up on the bike—but don’t die wondering, give it a red-hot go. I saw her go through the halfway point of the run in well under three-hour pace.
I don’t think she’s too much better than someone like Rebecca Preston. But Rebecca has grown up as a triathlete and had years of triathlon misinformation. The things that worry triathletes worry Rebecca. She had a marvelous first (Hawaii) Ironman as well (as an age-grouper). On the bike on her first one, (Preston) said “I controlled it because everyone said I was gonna die, the heat’s gonna get me. She’d been worshipping Hawaii for nine years saying”I just hope I can get there as an age-grouper. And when she did as an age grouper, she ran home a 3:06 her first attempt. It was great, but she had all the information. Chrissie had none. It was a career-definining moment for both.