Chrissie Wellington takes a break

In October of 2007 Christine Anne Wellington was a virtually unknown dark horse from Great Britain who came to the Ironman World Championship at the relatively late age of 30 and seized the race and the sport by the throat. Four and a half years later, Chrissie Wellington has won four Ironman World titles, is undefeated in 13 Ironman distance races, broke Paula Newby-Fraser’s Kona race record, and lowered the women’s Ironman distance best by half an hour. Last October, she overcame extensive, painful injuries suffered in a bike crash two weeks before Kona, basically limped through the swim, surged on the bike, and managed to survive Mirinda Carfrae’s sizzling 2:52 marathon to win in her most courageous performance yet.

To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, she doth bestride the world of Ironman like a Colossus. And this week so she decided to walk away from the Ironman game for a year. Or perhaps more? In doing so, she follows in the footsteps of Mark Allen, who in 1994 took off from a defense of his five straight Kona wins, and Dave Scott, who retired from 1990 to 1993 before coming back to take a crack at Kona in 1994. Perhaps this break might echo Michael Jordan, who took time off after three NBA championships to pursue a quixotic, lifelong dream to play professional baseball and find out how good he could be (minor league). Wellington says she is open to other athletic challenges, as long as they take their place in line with her desire to finish and promote her autobiography, spend more time with family and friends, devote more time to her charities, savor the London Olympics, and try some new athletic challenges.

Wellington took some time this week from the whirlwind surrounding her decision to respond with her characteristic thoroughness questions from Slowtwitch.

ST: First off, congratulations on the decision to step off the Ironman merry go round to smell the roses and embrace a wider world this year. For some, the addiction to success and amassing career records would be a hard habit to break. Your thoughts?

Chrissie Wellington: Thanks so much for the congratulations! I have actually been quite surprised by how many people have reacted that way, and have seen the deep thought and reasoning that has gone into making this decision. It wasn’t spur of the moment, and definitely wasn’t easy. Not everyone will agree, or understand why I have taken this path, but I know in my heart it is the right thing for me to do at this point in my career.

Of course, I am under no illusions that the change of lifestyle will be easy to adapt to, but one can’t shy away from a challenge just because we fear the unknown, or are scared of what we may/may not encounter. Like you say Tim, sport and success truly is addictive, both mentally and physically. I have experienced, and will continue to face, a wide variety of mixed emotions and reactions, some will be good and some not so, but dealing with this rollercoaster, and the underlying causes, is all part of the challenge (and the excitement) too.

ST: I can’t conceive of you chilling out on a tropical beach with a Corona and a slice of lemon for 365 days.

Chrissie: Of course, I will have to have a goal – or goals: something to work towards and to achieve in the course of this year. As you know, I don’t like to do things by halves, so although I won’t be racing I hope that achieving other sporting and non sporting related things in my life 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, whilst also attending more events and races, working with my sponsors, promoting my autobiography, more actively promoting the charities and causes I care about, and most important of all taking the time to truly, truly cherish what I have achieved in this sport and actually appreciate ‘what is’.

ST: Back in 1994, Mark Allen took a year off after five Ironman wins in a row for a whole set of reasons. One of which was that physically he felt he was running on empty and needed to regenerate. Another was to feel free to try some new athletic challenges without the pressure of defending [it turns out his hiatus did not allow him enough training to reach his 1994 goals of breaking 8 hours at Roth and making the Olympic marathon qualifying standard at Berlin]. Do you feel you need to recharge your body’s batteries after five straight years of maximum training and dedication?

Chrissie: I actually spoke to Mark after Kona last year. Of course, I hadn’t made the decision then, but talking to him (and, of course, Dave [Scott] and others) made me realise that other athletes have felt, and do feel, similar urges and emotions - and that taking a sabbatical is possible, and sometimes necessary.

Those that know me know that I have always been incredibly driven, determined and, in many respects, obsessive and controlling – in all areas of my life. I put a huge amount of pressure on myself to do my best and attain perfection - although I realise the idea of potential and perfection is a nebulous concept and constantly moving feast, given that I never once imagined that my potential was to go 8 hours 18 minutes and win 4 Ironman World Championships. 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. I train my body and mind 24/7. And I have loved every minute of it.

But like many others, Mark included, I feel strongly that racing cannot always be the centre of my world. Never the be all and end all of my life. My emotions – the highs and the lows – should never be solely tied to what I achieve on the race course or during training sessions. As one of my close friends has wisely said, being at the top is good and great, but there are other peaks as well. Don’t be afraid to climb them. So yes, recharging my physical batteries is one thing, but more important is the need to recharge my mental batteries, and to enable to me to inject some variety back into my life, some balance, and some spontaneity -- to open the door to other opportunities. Out of respect for the Ironman I didn’t feel that I was able to juggle these balls and give training and racing the commitment it truly deserves – something had to give, before balls were dropped and I ran the risk of performing below my potential.

ST: What part did your bike crash before Kona, the painful injuries you had to overcome and endure on race day, the stress of antibiotics while racing at such a level – play in your decision to take a year off from Ironman?

Chrissie: It wasn’t necessary the physical side of things. I have almost recovered from the ill effects (although it looks like the rather large, red scars will stay with me forever!), but it was the nature of the race and the resulting emotions that played a huge part. You know, Tim, Kona 2011 truly was the most satisfying and proudest moment of my career. I dug to the very depths of my soul and truly pushed beyond any limit I thought existed. It was the hard-fought race I have always dreamed of, and - as I have said in other interviews - I feel that maybe at this race I proved to myself, and others, that I really was worthy of being called a champion.

ST: How much on the edge were you at Kona in 2011?

Chrissie: Teetering on the brink! That was the most pleasing - masochistic - thing of all. The opportunity to push beyond what I thought was possible, not only physically but mentally too.

ST: Perhaps this year’s Kona took more out of you than anything in your sports career. But what prior stresses, injuries may have added to your cumulative decision to take a year off?

Chrissie: Obviously Ironman is physically demanding, and I (like other athletes) have had my fair share of injuries, mostly self-inflicted due to my inability to defy gravity on the bike! Although there are some chronic issues I would like to clear up (including the fact that my lower back keeps going numb and can be very painful), overall I still feel strong and healthy and my decision was governed by my desire for new challenges and, like I said, to get some balance, perspective and variety back into my life. If I don’t open the door to new opportunities I will never be in a position to know what is out there and what is possible. It is the unknown that is so exciting, yet obviously slightly scary at the same time!

ST: What do you think will be the effect of your year off on the rising tide of talented women chasing you in the Ironman field? Certainly every single one of them has taken the attitude that they are grateful at how you have raised the bar, crashed through some glass ceilings and shown the way past self-imposed limits for everyone?

Chrissie: The women’s field is so incredibly strong and deep – now more than ever before. Mirinda [Carfrae], Julie [Dibens], Catriona [Morrison], Leanda [Cave], Rachel [Joyce], Caroline [Steffen] , Mary Beth [Ellis] and many others are taking Ironman distance racing to a new level. And that’s what sport is all about. Like a snowball, success breeds improvement in all those prepared to rise to the challenge. And I love that. The deeper the field and the stronger the competition the harder we are forced to work, the better we have to get and the deeper we have to dig, in training and racing. For example, knowing that Rinny had already run a 2.53 marathon at Kona definitely put a huge firework up my backside, and I don’t think I could have secured my fourth crown without her breathing down my neck, coupled with the desire to overtake the great athletes up ahead.

But, of course, Kona 2010 showed that despite my absence races are always there to be won, and can be as exciting as ever. Rinny did a 2.53 marathon in 2010, and certainly didn’t need me there to push her to the limit. Mary Beth has broken down barriers, without needing me on the start line. I have no doubt that even without me in the mix the women will continue to shine and raise the bar still further: and I can’t wait to see what they can do.

ST: You mentioned that you were taking a break from Ironman, but does this leave room for some triathlon?

Chrissie: The beauty of taking some time off is that I will be able to attend more triathlons and associated events, meeting as many athletes as possible, supporting my sponsors, commentating, handing out medals and sharing a smile. And of course, I absolutely love sport and beasting myself physically, so I fully intend to be doing something active every day – maybe just not with the swim, bike, run, rest, recover, eat, sleep structure and intensity that has characterized my daily life over the past 5 years.

ST: If so, might that include a duel with Melissa Rollison at IM 70.3 Worlds? XTERRA? Some select Olympic distance races at interesting venues? Being part of a relay at the Challenged Athletes Foundation race in San Diego?

Chrissie: I am not closing the door on any type of competitive event, this year and in future. I just don’t have a definite plan on what form this might take – although this is unlikely to be in cross country skiing, given my recent experiences being a Bambi on ice and spending a large proportion of time on my backside! I would definitely like to participate in races such as the CAF Charity Challenge, like I did after Kona last year: with the emphasis being on participation, rather than competition. But as I said, I would like to get my teeth into a variety of endurance challenges, which may or may not have a competitive element attached. Maybe long-distance bog snorkeling?

ST: Some observers of sport have suggested that of all sports you would be very well equipped to make the GBR Olympic team in time trial cycling. Are you tempted to try? After all your best Ironman bike splits are quite comparable to Karin Thuerig’s. Is it even feasible at this date?

Chrissie: While I always claim that ‘anything is possible’, in this case no, I don’t think its feasible. In fact, to me, it would be incredibly disrespectful and arrogant to think that I could go from being a successful Ironman athlete to qualifying for an Olympic team for 2012. Had I even wanted to be in with a shot of qualifying it would have taken a good few years of focus, dedication and commitment to that one discipline or sport. I have achieved more than I could have ever imagined in Ironman, and I have my four ‘gold’ medals. They don’t have the five rings on them, but in my chosen sport I have reached the pinnacle, and that means the world to me.

ST: If you are not competing, how might you take part in the 2012 London Olympics?
Chrissie: This was also played a part in my decision to take a break. I always wished I had stayed in Australia to watch the 2000 Olympics, and now that they are in my home country I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be part of the best sporting spectacle the world has ever seen. Of course, being in July/August, the Olympics fall right slap bang in the middle of Kona prep, and so any presence at the Games would have compromised my training, and that is something that would have been unacceptable to me. All or nothing, as I said. 

Right now, I am not sure what, if any, official role I will have at the Games. I know I will be doing some work with TYR, and other sponsors like Oakley, and there may be opportunities for media work, but that is currently being finalized. Whatever happens I want to be in London for the Olympics and, if possible, the Paralympics – even just as a spectator. I am fortunate to already have a few tickets to the triathlon, where Great Britain will hopefully scoop some medals, of the shiny gold variety!

ST: Of course you made this decision on your own. But whose advice might have been most valuable in reinforcing your decision?

Chrissie: As I said, it was an incredibly difficult decision to make, and I did seek the counsel of various trusted people including Tom [Lowe], my family, Dave [Scott], [first professional coach] Brett [Sutton], my manager Ben [Mansford], as well as other close friends beforehand. All were incredibly understanding and helpful: prompting me to ask the questions I needed to ask myself or simply being receptive to my brain dumps. Of course Dave’s first hand experiences have meant that he can empathize with how I am feeling, and advise me on all the possible options, including the related emotional and physical factors that do come into play. Brett can also read me like a book - and I think he knew what I was going to say even before I opened my mouth. Most of my friends and family just allowed me to express my feeling and emotions. I came to the conclusion on my own, but it would have been much harder without these sounding boards.

Everyone close to me understands my craving for new challenges, so they were not really surprised by my desire to have a change. In fact, they almost expected it. Triathlon is an important and wonderful part of my life, and always will be, but like I said, I also need to give myself the chance to seize other opportunities, and truly celebrate everything I have managed to achieve in this great sport, without always looking to the next sporting goal. It’s not the end, merely the opening of a new chapter, and all my friends and family, as well as my great sponsors, have been incredibly supportive, positive and encouraging.

ST: Your dedication to the Blazeman Foundation to aid ALS research is most admirable. Does contemplation of Jon Blais’s life cut short influence your life decisions, this decision?

Chrissie: Of course, I look to people like Jon who lived life to the full and embraced every opportunity with open arms. But he didn’t just seize opportunities, he created them for himself, and that is the way I want to try and live my life. Not to be scared of the unknown, not to be scared of trying new things, and not being scared to make mistakes or fail. The only failure is not to have tried something. I have talked to Mary Ann and Bob [Blais] about this over the past few days, and they have shared some of Jon’s words and thoughts. It gave me the confidence to follow my heart.

ST: Does this seem like a good time to marry Tom Lowe and have a proper honeymoon?

Chrissie: I am not hanging up my Lycra just yet, and Tom certainly plans on racing for another few years. But I would never say never to nuptials and - given it’s a leap year – maybe I am the one who has to take the bull by the proverbial horn!

ST: The very best to you.

Chrissie: Thanks so much Tim – and to everyone out there who has supported and believed in me. I look forward to seeing you all at the races, and maybe this time being able to share a beer!