Chrissie Wellington’s boyfriend Tom Lowe put it best: “It’s a sign of a true champion that she can pick herself up after something as painful as her withdrawal at Hawaii. Six weeks later, all the issues from Hawaii were behind her, and today she was phenomenal.”
Phenomenal might have been an understatement.
Six weeks after a wicked fever led to her dramatic withdrawal the morning of the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, Chrissie Wellington won her 8th straight WTC-brand Ironman race at Tempe, Arizona. That total is augmented by two world-best Iron distance smashing performances at Challenge Roth and her ITU long course world title. At any race over a half Ironman, Wellington remains undefeated.
At Arizona, she showed just how ready she had been to attack her own Ironman Hawaii race record set in 2009. And while her amazing 8:19 mark at the Challenge Roth Iron-distance race this July was safe, she attacked the more difficult course and windy race conditions at Tempe with a ferocity that showed she was far, far away from the downside of her amazing career. After a PR 51:56 swim that was just 43 seconds slower than the fast girls, she posted a 4:47:06 bike that included running 2 miles on a flat – still 11 minutes faster than her closest pursuers. Then she polished it off with a 2:52:55 marathon that was a few seconds faster than Mirinda Carfrae’s record run at Kona -- albeit 5 minutes slower than her own Roth run.
Her 8:36:13 overall time beat Samantha McGlone’s 2009 Ironman Arizona race record by 35 minutes, and 2010 runner-up Linsey Corbin by 29 minutes. Wellington also topped the official WTC brand Ironman women’s record by an equally astounding margin.
It was a sign of her character that she properly seemed more excited about the third place finish by boyfriend Tom Lowe in his Ironman debut against a tough field. And Lowe was equally appreciative that he was fast enough not to be among the 2,690 or so men who had been chicked by the Duchess Wellington.
Slowtwitch: What led you to race Ironman Arizona after your deeply disappointing last minute scratch at Kona?
Chrissie Wellington: I knew I was fit enough to be competitive at another Ironman. So I put the disappointment of Kona behind me, and set about trying to get physically and mentally strong again. I felt that Ironman Arizona offered me the opportunity and enough time [six weeks] to get healthy again. Also it meant I could race an Ironman on the American mainland, which is something I haven’t done. And the three-loop bike course and three-loop run at Arizona is something that really attracted me because I thrive on the crowd support.
ST: Does this give you some idea of how you might have done at Kona? Or do you subscribe to the notion that there are no if onlys – that the first leg of a triathlon is getting to the start line healthy and fit?
Chrissie: it’s not at all the same as racing at the World Championships. And in no way do I want to detract from what Rinny and the others achieved. My race in Arizona was a display of all the hard work that I put in and a means of vindicating all the effort, time and the energy I devote to the sport.
ST: Some say under ideal conditions this is a sub-9 hour course for women and a sub-8 for men. But today’s conditions – cold swim and substantial, shifting winds on the bike and run -- were very rough. How hard was it out there?
Chrissie: The swim was actually a lot nicer than I had been led to believe. It was cold [advertised as 61 degrees Fahrenheit] of course. But it wasn’t as cold as I feared and I had a good swim. Dave [Scott, her coach] and I have been working very hard on my swim and that showed all this year. I am really proud that I came out within fighting distance of Leanda (Cave) and Rachel (Joyce). [Wellington’s 51:56 swim was 53 seconds behind Cave and 35 seconds behind Joyce].
ST: Did the weather negate the inherent speed of a flat course?
Chrissie: It was actually really challenging. People look at the course and its profile is quite flat compared to some races. But it is really quite a difficult race. The conditions on the bike were incredibly difficult. The wind was coming in a different direction each lap. And all credit to Leanda and Rachel -- they really made me work the first lap of the bike. But yeah, the incessant wind and the changing direction of the wind was very physically and mentally challenging.
ST: Despite all that, your bike split [4:47:06] was great. Could you have gone faster?
Chrissie: I got a flat tire about 7 minutes from the end and I just ran on the rim. It was totally flat, but I just managed to ride the rim. I was just a little bit careful and came up on the hoods because I was little bit concerned with the age group athletes and potentially not having as much control myself. But luckily for me I was within a mile from transition.
ST: It was hard for you to recover your fitness after your illness in Hawaii. But what do you think about Leanda Cave’s 10th at Hawaii, 1st at Miami 70.3, 2nd at Clearwater and 3rd here?
Chrissie: Leanda is a racing machine. For her to come out here after racing Kona, Miami and Clearwater in the past six weeks is really phenomenal. She really took it out. Rachel [Joyce, who was 6th in Kona] also stuck with me, legally, for a lap and that was great. Someone told me just now that Rachel had a crash. So I really hope she is OK. I heard she started running again, so that is good.
[Joyce collided with an age grouper on the last bike lap, but managed to gather herself and finished the bike in 5:17:58. She started the run, but did not finish]
ST: You apparently unleashed the monster within on the run?
Chrissie: I was slightly concerned that I’d pushed too hard on the last lap of the bike. We did have a slight tailwind going up towards the turnaround. So I just was determine to make hay while the sun shined and used that to get some good speed up because I knew that coming back we were being buffeted all over the place.
ST: How was it negotiating past and around the large age group field on a multiple loop course?
Chrissie: You really have to keep your wits about you on this course. It was not unsafe at any point, but you definitely have to be aware and anticipate what the other athletes are doing.
ST: How did you have enough energy left to run 2:52 after fighting the wind?
Chrissie: That's why I train so hard. I work incredibly hard. Hopefully, [her coach] Dave [Scott] and I have nuanced my program this year. We’ve built on what I learned under Brett [Sutton, her first coach] and what I enjoyed doing under Brett. So we’ve changed things -- not considerably – but what we have done is reduce my run volume quite a lot and increased the intensity. We’ve been working very hard on that. Dave has been very patient with me because it's been a little bit of a change from what I was used to and I think I’ve shown it’s been working this year with my faster run splits across the board.
ST: Have these changes been a short term fix or are they part of a long range strategy?
Chrissie: Particularly as I am going into my fourth year in this sport I think you do need slight changes to your program and I can’t always do the volume I’ve done before. I need to accept that and I need to realize that perhaps a slightly different style of training is suiting me better. You know I do work hard and I train myself to run hard off the bike. I like the hurt.
ST: Was your run all calculated, or were you running on emotion at any point?
Chrissie: I probably went out a little bit too fast on the run. I was on sub six minute pace [2:37 marathon pace] for the first couple of miles. After that, I thought I faded more than I actually did. My run split here is second to Roth [her record marathon split at 2010 Challenge Roth was 2:48] which was the fastest Ironman run I’ve done. So this run makes me incredibly proud. Especially on this course, on this day. Running into a headwind is really hard, especially after struggling through that headwind on the bike. And the twists and the turns on the run course disrupt your stride pattern and stride rate. Stride rate is not something I count or and conscious of. But when you are making so many turns, it is slightly disruptive. But then in many ways it gives you a bit of a breather and it is a relief to change your muscle recruitment slightly.
ST: Were you aiming at 2:52?
Chrissie: I didn’t expect to do 2:52. I think I told someone it would be 2:54 or 2:55. So yeah, I went slightly faster.
ST: And slightly faster than Rinny’s 2:53 at Kona.
Chrissie: Well it’s a different course, a different day and comparisons like that are not really meaningful. And I never want to take anything away from what Rinny achieved. She is world champion and she is a worthy one and I wasn’t healthy enough to be on that start line at Kona.
ST: What does this official Ironman race record of 8:36, which broke the old mark by about 12 minutes, mean to you after your non-brand Ironman distance world best of 8:19 at Roth?
Chrissie: Records are not something that I focus heavily on. But records of any kind are important to me. Not because of the personal gratification, although there is an element of that, CHUCKLES. But their true importance is the fact that they raise the bar. Breaking records show more is possible than others could have believed. And hopefully myself and others including Rinny, Julie [Dibens] and Caroline Steffen – there are so many phenomenal women athletes around at the moment. We are all raising the bar.
ST: What does the rising tide of top women triathletes mean in the big picture?
Chrissie: By breaking records, we are narrowing the gap between the men’s winning time and the women’s winning time. I have been criticized for saying that women can do more and that I like beating the men. I think people take me out of context. All I want to say is that women are capable of more and we are achieving it. Yes, by narrowing the gap between the men and the women, I think you give up-and-coming athletes and future generations something to aspire to. And that is so incredibly important.
ST: Your boyfriend Tom Lowe didn’t get chicked today!
Chrissie: Tom’s had a good teacher. CHUCKLES. No. I am so proud of Tom. He is the love of my life. And he has sacrificed so much the last couple of years to make our relationship work. There have been compromises on both sides, of course. But he has compromised a lot more than I have. And coupled with that, he has worked incredibly hard. He has changed his lifestyle. He has become a complete professional triathlete. I am so proud of what he’s achieved today. And I am more than happy to do the washing up and the cooking for the next year.
ST: So who wins the household honors?
Chrissie: Because he beat me at my run split? [2:48 top 2:52] Yes. And he is improving all the time [7th at Eagleman, 9th at Boulder 70.3, and 2nd at Branson 70.3]. The best is yet to come. He is working with Dave [Scott] on his swim and he hasn’t come from a swimming background at all. So his swim time [56:37] is pretty reasonable. And he is going to be happy with that.
ST: Might this be the high point for him?
Chrissie: I think he knows there is definitely room for improvement, which is exciting for both of us. There is nothing I like more than to share this moment with my boyfriend and with my family and friends. For me, he won the race today. It’s a huge victory for him and I hope it is the start of something very very special. It's such a wonderful moment and triathlon is such a wonderful sport. And to be able to share it with those you love is very important.
ST: This was quite smaller, but one of the best fields outside of Kona. In fact Tom passed Rsasmus Henning and held second place until Henning repassed him with 4 or 5 miles to go. Tom ran past a lot of excellent triathletes and had a fine race.
Chrissie: He had a great run and great bike. His intention was to go as hard as he could on the bike and hang on, in his words, on the run. I think he more than hung on. He showed exactly what he is capable of and I do think he has so much more to come. But that is his stage. I don’t want to put words into his mouth. It is a great day and it's very special for me to be able to share it with him.