Spending time with Chrissie Wellington, you could be forgiven for forgetting you’re in the presence of sporting greatness. She’s just so… well, normal. Actually, this is doing her a disservice. She is engaging, open, determined, driven, positive and passionate – all the qualities you might expect from the four-time winner of the World Ironman Championships (widely considered the toughest one- day endurance event in sport, comprising as it does a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run). But she is also modest, spending the majority of our interview regaling me with colourful details of her life, rather than reeling off a list of (frankly amazing) achievements. What’s more, look beyond the world-record sporting ability and, these days at least, she is a woman juggling work, motherhood and an active lifestyle, something so many of us can relate to.
Sport has not always been Chrissie’s top priority. Rewind to her early years and, while she was an active child, sport wasn’t her focus.
“I did sport because I enjoyed it – I had no aspirations of being great at it,” she recalls. “I just had fun. While I’m driven, determined and incredibly competitive, at the time all of that was channelled into academia.”
Indeed, Chrissie excelled academically, going on to achieve a first-class geography degree at the University of Birmingham, where she was also captain of the University Swimming Team. “Or rather, I drank for the University Swimming Team!” she laughs. “If I trained once or twice a week, it was a miracle!”
After graduating, and drawn in by the cache of pursuing a credible career, she opted to study law. But following work placements in London and the offer of a training contract, she deferred her conversion course in favour of travelling – a decision that changed the course of her life.
“It was a revelation. I was doing law because I thought I ought to, but it wasn’t something I was passionate about,” she remembers. “Then in Africa I met this woman, Jude, who told me, ‘Chrissie, just follow your passion’. So instead of coming home after nine months and doing law, I came back two years later and did an MA in International Development at Manchester.”
However, while studying for her MA, Chrissie’s old patterns of obsessiveness and determination resurfaced. “All I wanted was to get a distinction,” she says.
A former eating disorder had also reared its head once more while she was travelling and this, coupled with the huge pressure she was placing on herself, left her, she admits, in not a very good place.
“I had a great social circle, but I was just burdened by this disordered eating and also crushing myself with the weight of expectation to perform academically,” she reveals. “I was a shadow of who I normally am.”
Chrissie initially turned to running as a means of weight control, yet ironically running became the very thing that offered her a way out of the vicious cycle.
“I just loved running,” she says. “Yes, I loved it because it enabled me to control my weight, but also because it was a release from things academically.”
Then a chat with a friend who had grown up with a heart defect dramatically altered Chrissie’s perception, demonstrating to her just what the human body can be capable of.
“My friend had done the London Marathon the year before. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as someone who could ever do that, but speaking to her made me realise, maybe I could.”
On completion of her MA, Chrissie moved to London to work for the government as a policy advisor on international development. She began to take her running more seriously – “although I didn’t know anything about ‘training’. I just went out and ran and ran!” She joined the Serpentine Running Club and gained a charity place in the 2002 London Marathon. She altered her initial goal of four hours, eventually completing it in 3hrs 8mins 17secs.
Spurred on by her impressive first foray into endurance sport, she joined a squad coached by the legendary Frank Horwill, determined to run sub-three at London the following year. But fate had other ideas. Chrissie was involved in a car accident while riding her commuter bike in London just a few weeks before the race, forcing her to pull out. She turned to swimming, because she couldn’t run. “And that,” she states matter-of-factly, “is how I got into triathlon.”
Once recovered, Chrissie returned to running and, because of her improvements in swimming, someone suggested she turn her talents to triathlon.
“I’d never even ridden a road bike before!” she laughs. “I didn’t have any cycle kit, but someone sold me a road bike for about £250. I didn’t have clip-in shoes, I just used my trainers. I was really back to basics.”
She completed a few sprint and Olympic-distance triathlons, fuelling her desire to improve.
“I loved triathlon,” she enthuses. “But did I have aspirations at that point to go professional? Absolutely not. I did OK at Olympic distance, but I wasn’t setting the world on fire.”
Shortly afterwards, Chrissie left the UK to work in Nepal for 16 months, putting her triathlon endeavours on hold. However, during her time away, she spent as much time as she could mountain biking, alongside local Nepali enthusiasts and other Westerners. “We’d go out most mornings and I’d always turn up to work late!” A cycling trip over the Himalayas was an eye-opening experience, highlighting her suitability to endurance sport.
“At that point, it was 60 to 70 per cent off-road and conditions were tough – snow storms, sand storms, the altitude. But it made me realise how strong I was. I could just keep going and going and going.”
On her return to the UK, she decided to take triathlon more seriously. Chrissie started training hard, putting in 25-plus hours a week on top of a full-time job. Despite a rather inauspicious start at the 2006 Redditch Super Sprint (during which she sank due to an ill- fitting wetsuit and had to be rescued from the water), she won her next race, qualifying for the World Age Group Championships. Which she also won.
At the age of 29, Chrissie was faced with a dilemma: to turn professional or not.
“It was really hard,” she says. “People imagine it would be easy. You know, ‘Oh just become a professional, it will be great!’ But for me it wasn’t. I didn’t know much about the professional side of the sport – I’d never even seen a triathlon on TV! It was scary. I was scared of failure, of what people would think of me. I was worried I wouldn’t even make a living.”
Despite her reservations, and driven by her determination to give everything in life her best shot, Chrissie did turn professional. Although she initially planned on competing at Olympic distance, both she and her coach realised it wasn’t where her talents lay, opting instead to target Ironman.
“I’d initially said Ironman was bonkers and I’d never do it!” Chrissie laughs. However, with her coach’s insistence that she was ready, she flew out to Ironman Korea, coming first and earning her place at the start line of the World Ironman Championships in Kona, six weeks later. Not only did she win at Kona, but she went on to retain her title in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
While Chrissie was by then used to pushing herself physically, it was that 2011 Championships that truly pushed her to her limits: a bike crash two weeks before the race left her seriously injured – she could barely walk. “It was the toughest race I’d done,” she remembers. “But in a way, my injury released the pressure from me. Everything being equal, I was expected to win. This time, no one was expecting that, so I could just go out and do the best I could. I definitely didn’t go in expecting to win. However, I’m very good at focusing on the process and breaking the race down into manageable segments. So as the race progressed and I felt pain, but was continuing to do OK, my confidence grew.
Ultimately, I got through it in the same way I get through every race, because every race is uncomfortable. There are points in every race when I’ve wanted to quit. I know I can make it look easy, because I’m smiling and laughing and waving, but it’s never easy. Those are just the strategies I’ve developed to cope.”
Throughout her life, Chrissie has been driven by a desire to implement positive change. Retiring from professional sport in 2012, she now works for parkrun, where she is Global Lead for Health & Wellbeing. Just how important is it for her to be in a position to promote healthy living?
“Oh, it’s vital. That was the whole point of being a professional athlete, to give me a platform to do something like this. When I was in my first few months of being professional, I said to Brett [her coach], ‘I can’t do this’. It feels too selfish. It’s just the pursuit of my own goal. And he said to me, ‘Chrissie, just you wait. Within a few years, through your achievements you will be able to effect more positive change than you ever thought possible’.”
And she certainly does, combining her love of sport with her development work – albeit in a different context.
“Before it was international development, now it’s very much developed-country focused. But nevertheless, it’s encouraging people who wouldn’t normally take part to take part. Whether that’s women and girls or people from areas of social deprivation, it’s about breaking down barriers to participation.”
As an active mum, Chrissie is certainly opening the doors of opportunity for her daughter Esme, 21 months old, for whom seeing her parents partake in sporting activities is very much the norm.
“A big barrier for mothers is often guilt. ‘I shouldn’t be out running, I shouldn’t be enjoying my time when my child should be the priority’.” And I have to admit, I’ve never felt that guilt, because I’ve always felt strongly that I need to retain interests that go beyond me as a mum. It’s important for me that I still have goals. And I think it’s very important for children to see their mum doing sport. You know, Esme sees me each day putting my running shoes on and she knows Mummy’s going for a run. And she points to her shoes and we’ll do a little run together. It’s normalising it for children at a young age and that’s absolutely vital.”
Aware, however, of the need to realign her expectations after the birth of her daughter, Chrissie has scaled back her endurance goals in line with her new life as a mother.
“I knew running the London Marathon was something I wanted to do in my 40th year, but I didn’t want it to be four months after Esme was born. I wanted to give myself time to feed back into it gently and not put any pressure on myself. After the first year of motherhood, it felt like the right time to have such a goal. And whereas before it was always my Ironman goal, this time it was our goal. I saw the 2017 London Marathon very much as our achievement, as a family.”
And an achievement it was – Chrissie crossed the Virgin Money London Marathon finish line in 2hrs 49mins 01secs. “To run that at London was just as challenging for me as previously running 2hrs 44mins at the end of an Ironman,” she says. “Goals can be challenging, even though the time may not indicate that’s the case. Instead, it’s about seeing those challenges in the wider framework and context of your life. So for me, London was a big achievement and something I’m really proud of.”
Not one to rest on her laurels, Chrissie has also recently dabbled in the world of ultra running, taking part in Heineken Race to the Tower, an off-road double marathon, in June.
“It made me realise once again what the human mind and body is capable of,” she says of the experience. “I found it liberating to be off-road, liberating not to be looking at the clock, relaxing to be in a non-aggressively competitive environment and I just really, really enjoyed it. I loved it!”
Ever modest, she failed to mention her impressive finish time of 8hrs 35mins 35secs, or the fact she was the first female to cross the line, finishing second overall. But then that’s Chrissie all over – humble yet determined, modest yet passionate, and ultimately a true inspiration to us all.