Interview: Chrissie Wellington, world ironman champion

IN THE middle of a central London square, surrounded by grey-looking office workers sitting on benches eating sandwiches indistinguishable from the cardboard they’re packaged in, Chrissie Wellington looks sun-kissed and scrubbed clean.

A little earlier, in the office of her management company overlooking the square, the same issue came up. Wearing jeans and a black scoop-neck top, Wellington looked much leaner than in her kit and her handshake was strong enough to crack knuckles. Given a black hoodie by the photographer, who explained that it was a prop to help Wellington look intense for her portraits, the World Ironman Champion laughed and then looked just a little horrified.

“Oh, I’m rubbish at that. I just do smiling.”

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Is the irony lost on Wellington that a woman who has made her name – not household, perhaps, but revered in the world of triathlon – by excelling at Ironman, arguably the world’s toughest endurance sport in which competitors swim 2.4 miles and cycle 112 miles before finishing with a full marathon (another 26.2 miles), finds a smile to be her default facial expression?

Frankly, yes, it is. Contradictions abound when it comes to Chrissie Wellington.

What is straightforward, though, is Wellington’s sporting achievement: it is extraordinary. She was 30 when she became a professional athlete. Before that she’d been an amateur jogger and a civil servant who commuted across London by bike. That’s overstating it, but only slightly. What is absolutely true is that Wellington only started running because she fancied taking part in the London Marathon. She did so in 2002, finishing in 3 hours 8 minutes. Paula Radcliffe won the event that year in 2 hours 18 minutes. The experience led Wellington to join a running club. She took part in her first triathlon race in 2004 and turned pro in 2007, the same year she experienced her first Ironman event, as a spectator, in Zurich.

In the five years since then she has set world records – not least the women’s Ironman world record of 8 hours 18 minutes and 32 seconds, which is more than half an hour faster than the previous record, which stood for 14 years – and collected four World Championship gold medals (it’s hard not to believe it would’ve been five had illness not forced her to pull out of the 2010 event). She has competed with a ripped pectoral muscle and a misaligned rib. She’s bruised her hip and suffered second degree burns from hitting the Tarmac at speed after coming off her bike. She’s trained with a plastic bag over a cast on her wrist, infecting the stitches beneath and setting back her recovery (“I managed 4K like that,” she says when I mention it). She’s competed, she’s won and, of course, she’s smiled.

Mild mannered, quietly spoken, eager to please Wellington is as tough as they come. But what is much more complicated is what drives her to push herself to her very limits.

Born in Norfolk, Wellington’s family was loving and not in the least sporty. At primary school age, she played a bit of netball and swam at the local club, the Thetford Dolphins, but there was no sign of prodigious sporting talent. In fact, she was a bit clumsy and accident prone, hence her nickname, Muppet. But the desire to be the best was already there.

“I had to be top of the class, I had to get the best mark on any assignment,” she says, explaining that this was an impulse that lasted throughout her school career and on to university (she got a First, of course) and then on to her Masters, in which she was awarded a distinction. “There was no external pressure growing up as a kid to get 10 As at GCSE,” she says. “None. My parents would’ve been proud of me no matter what.”

So what did they feel about the pressure they saw their daughter under?

“Were they concerned about me?” she asks, fixing me with her gaze. “No, because I didn’t share it with them and maybe they didn’t see the negative implications of having that constant pressure on my own shoulders. I don’t think they saw it. I don’t think I ever allowed it to be visible because that would be weakness.”

It sounds harsh, but this is life according to Wellington. Winning is the only acceptable outcome. As to where that came from, she just can’t say.

“I don’t know,” she says with a shrug. “If you met my mum and dad, they’re very lively but they’re not competitive. I just do not know. I don’t know.”

I believe her. There are questions for which Wellington just does not have the answers. And it’s not because she’s not trying to find them. In her searingly honest autobiography, A Life Without Limits, she proves willing to explore control, achievement and obsession unflinchingly. And time and time again as I ask questions, the pause is so long before she answers that I fear she might not speak again. But she always does, no matter how hard the topic.

When Wellington was 17 she found another way to deal with the pressure she felt which she also kept secret. She started to make herself sick. By the time she went to university she was bulimic. After completing her degree then travelling for a year, a time during which she abandoned her plan to become a lawyer and became interested in international development, her body image remained a problem for her. She became anorexic, applying her fierce focus and drive to starving herself. By 2001 (the year before she ran the London Marathon) she was extremely thin, struggling to stay warm and losing her hair. A confrontation with her brother, Matty, and catching sight of herself in a photograph spurred Wellington to ask for help.

“Confiding in [my parents] that I had a problem with body image and food was very, very hard because I felt, and still feel, that it’s a weakness,” she says. “I can’t control it. I’m not strong enough to resist those kinds of problems.”

Prior to writing her book Wellington hadn’t discussed her eating disorders. She’d spoken about how she conceptualised her body as an athlete but stayed light on trickier details. Recently, with several high- profile women athletes revealing their complicated body issues – Jessica Ennis talking about the pressure to be feminine, US Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard revealing her bulimia – I’m interested in Wellington’s opinion on how common eating disorders are among sports people.

“I don’t necessarily think it’s more prevalent in sports people generally,” she says, “but in certain sports, definitely – gymnastics, figure skating, some athletics – because of the need to be very, very lean.”

Wellington says she has to “fight” to stay a raceable weight – heavy enough to be powerful in the swim, light enough for the bike and run – and she doesn’t dispute that her sport functions for her as a way of turning harmful impulses into something healthy. That, she believes, may well be a commonality amongst many athletes. As to whether she’s conquered her own disorders, though, she is much less certain.

“I don’t know if you ever ultimately get over an eating disorder,” she says. “I’m just trying to channel that obsessive compulsive behaviour into something a little more positive.”

You might say.

Wellington watched her first Ironman competition in Zurich in June 2007. Six weeks later, in Korea, she took part in her first event. She won. Six weeks after that, she was on the start line at Kona, the legendary competition in Hawaii. She won in a time of nine hours, eight minutes and 45 seconds. When I ask Wellington what she saw in Switzerland that made her want to compete, her answer makes perfect sense in the context of that little girl who not only needed to be the best, but needed to be seen to be the best.

“I was in awe, excited and attracted to the challenge but also the spectacle,” she says. “It’s not just a race for me, it’s a performance. I like to perform in front of a crowd, the number of spectators, the energy the atmosphere. It was all very attractive to me. Korea was a bit of an anti-climax because it was such a low-key event; I crossed the finish line to almost no applause whatsoever. Although I was really happy, a part of me did want the adulation.”

Wellington acknowledges that for the majority of athletes self-belief is what allows them to perform, but insists that for her it doesn’t work like that. Instead it’s just a willingness to push herself to her very limits, to give absolutely everything.

“I just won’t ever give up,” she says quietly. “I can’t live with myself if I haven’t given everything. There’s something inside that won’t rest, or won’t be content, it’s an internal guilt complex. I feel like I’m being weak, that I’ve let myself down. I’m fiercely competitive with others and with myself. I just wouldn’t say I was ever hugely confident.” She laughs.

In recent years women have built a reputation as a powerful force in endurance sports. Studies have shown that oestrogen might offer protection against damage caused by exercise and other research suggests women have a higher pain threshold than men, allowing them to continue to compete over gruelling distances. Wellington certainly has the ability to push through pain, sometimes to her detriment, but more than that, she says she just doesn’t find competing all that difficult.

“I was always surprised by how comfortable I felt racing. You hear all these horror stories but, apart from self-inflicted injuries, I’ve never felt out of my comfort zone. It’s not that I find it easy, but I find it comfortable. It always surprises me.

“I’d like to think I’m becoming a little bit more disciplined and a little bit better at overriding that urge to push through discomfort. I’m becoming a little bit better at reading my body. When I broke my rib this year I didn’t run and I did stay out of the pool. I did everything on the elliptical.”

I wait for the smile when she says this, but it doesn’t come. This is compromise for Wellington – finding a way to train through a broken rib. That said, there is a distinct feeling that she is at a turning point. She’s decided to take a break from Ironman this year to concentrate on promoting her book and working out how to use the platform she’s made for herself. As you’d expect, it’s a change she’s making with complete conviction. Until earlier this year she was based in Boulder, Colorado, with her partner and fellow triathlete, Tom Lowe, whom she met in 2007. Ask her where she lives now and the answer is straightforward: “Out of a bag.”

She says she feels confident that this change will be just fine for their relationship and it’s clear she is happy with Lowe. She says that after thinking that she might never find anyone with whom to share her way of life, with Lowe it works, at least in part because his placid nature contrasts with her feistiness. She hopes, she says, that they’re both rubbing off on one another.

It may be true, but still Wellington’s view of life is uncompromising and her language can, at times, be shocking in its bluntness. When it comes to competing it’s all about winning. It always has been for Wellington and it seems it always will be; the pressure remains.

“For me, anything short of perfection is weakness,” she says. “For me third is ... failure.” Her eyes flicker to mine. “Second is failure.”

But no pro-athlete can continue forever. How, with such high standards, can Wellington prepare for a time when she won’t be in the physical shape that she’s in now and might have to stop competing? I expect the question to be difficult for her to answer but she’s completely unfazed.

“Triathlon is just part of my life journey, but my life doesn’t stop because I’m not a triathlete,” she says. “Maybe the biggest challenge of all is giving up the sport completely because it involves a loss of control, a change of focus, a change of routine; that might be the biggest challenge to me out of any of it.”

She says that she’s watched other competitors slide down the rankings as they got older. It’s not something that appeals to her.

“I’d want to leave making that conscious decision rather than my body saying you’re too old for this. I’ve seen people who’ve gone from winning to be satisfied with fourth, to tenth.” She shakes her head. Not for you, I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Never. Mediocrity? Never. Not an option.”

For a moment I try to explain to her that fourth in an Ironman wouldn’t count as mediocrity to most people, but it’s clear that won’t make sense. Why would it? Wellington might be the woman who describes herself as “an ordinary girl who can swim, bike and run very fast” but as an athlete she’s utterly ruthless. She has never lost an Ironman in which she’s competed and she has no hesitation in declaring that competitors exist to be “smashed” and winning is the only outcome that matters.

As to how this squares with the person who struggles with her sense of self-confidence and who is warm and gentle in person, I just don’t know, any more than Wellington herself can offer an answer as to whether her talent was lying dormant or just developed late. What she does know is that she only discovered it because her approach to life was one of “trying anything and everything” and that’s the message that she wants to get across in her book and in the events and activities she takes part in this year.

“I want to use what I’ve done to inspire people to take control of their lives. And to take a chance and to take responsibility, especially women and girls and especially when it comes to body image and eating.”

What I know is that it would be a braver person than me who’d bet against Chrissie Wellington achieving whatever she sets her mind to.

Chrissie Wellington: A Life Without Limits is out now, published by Constable, £18.99.