Fittest Brit is Iron lady from Norfolk
SHE'S Britain's most dominant sportswoman, can justifiably claim to be the fittest
lady on the planet and has a smile brighter than the Olympic torch.
Yet as she heads to Hawaii to seek her fourth world title this weekend on one of the most
testing stages of the world of sport, amongst the UK public, she remains a virtual unknown.
If iron man distance triathlon was introduced as part of London 2012 this nation would have
a gold medal favourite more red-hot than Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah or Sir Chris Hoy.
When this girl from rural Norfolk races, it is not a question of 'Will she win?' it is more of 'By
how much?' and even, as she improves with every outing, 'Will she beat ALL the men too?'
(It's affectionately termed being 'chicked,' fellas.)
Of course, many things can happen over the course of an eight-hour plus endurance epic –
injury, accident, a world-beating day from your closest rival.
The indomitable Chrissie Wellington has faced most of them head-on and the results speak
She has raced 13 times over the 2.4mile swim, 112mile bike and 26.2mile run distance and
has NEVER lost.
And what is also remarkable about this 34-year-old is not that she was some child prodigy,
driven to dominate from the day she could toddle.
There are no Tiger Woods-style videos of her as a three-year-old with a little Lycra romper
suit with pushy parents clocking every swim, bike and run split time.
In fact Chrissie did not even try triathlon until she was 27, and then it was an inauspicious
start – rescued by a kayak as her oversized wetsuit filled with water. Race over.
This iron woman has proved she is a quick learner though.
Less than two years after racing for fun in Shropshire she was taking the world title in the
sport's Mecca of Hawaii's Big Island, Kona.
When The Sun catches up with her in a rented house she shares with boyfriend – and
fellow Brit triathlete - Tom Lowe, in Boulder, Colorado, she is relaxed and tucking into
breakfast - after crashing out a 5,000m swim.
"I didn't want to be a professional sports person," she insists. "Unlike most of the successful
triathletes, who had that as their principal goal.
"I dreamt of driving a combine harvester. Then I wanted to be a PE teacher, then a vet,
then, when I graduated, I wanted to be a lawyer.
"I was always driven, determined and obsessive though. As a child I channelled that into
academia. I always wanted to come top of the task and achieve the best grades. Sport was
something I did for fun."
Chrissie graduated in geography with top honours from Birmingham University before a
Masters distinction at Manchester. She seems to have developed a happy knack of finishing
In between she travelled the world for two years, which gave her the passion to study
international development and, on completion of her studies, set her up for a role as a
government adviser focussing on environmental policy overseas.
Taking a sabbatical in 2004, she moved to Nepal to manage water and sanitation projects
and it was living in the shadows of the Himalayas where she truly realised she had a
passion and talent for ultimate endurance sport.
"Every day before work and every weekend we would go mountain biking," she explains. "I
think I had stamina that surprised the men, these high-altitude Sherpas.
"It made me physically stronger. But more important was the mental strength I gained.
"We rode 1400km from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, over the mountains via Everest base
camp and back to Kathmandu.
"We were going through snowstorms and sandstorms – for fun, on a mountain bike.
"It was a holiday. One of most beautiful parts of the world, the Tibetan plateau was a
phenomenal experience I did not want to miss.
"I think back to challenges we overcame then and the ones I do now pale into
"The poverty and deprivation you witness when you are living in a country like Nepal
teaches you to put things into perspective.
"I try never to lose sight of how fortunate I am, doing what I love to do, when so many are
struggling to survive on less than a dollar a day.
"All you need to get started in anything is some encouragement and the confidence to take
On returning to Britain, the encouragement to take up triathlon came from Paul Robertshaw
of Birmingham Running And Triathlon club, BRATs.
She had been swimming captain of Birmingham Uni and completed the London marathon in
a none too shabby 3hr 8min a couple of years earlier but now, armed with a third-hand
Peugeot racing bike - bought for £300 - she was ready to give the tough multisport a proper
From a disastrous first outing with the water-logged wetsuit in Redditch her rise was
A month later she qualified for the age-group world championships in Lausanne where she
destroyed the competition, winning her category by seven minutes and posting the fastest
overall time for an amateur female.
"I'm a doggedly stubborn person," she reveals. "And this gave me the indication I could be
competitive in elite ranks."
In January 2007, Chrissie was introduced to the controversial Brett Sutton, whose extreme
training methods have become triathlon folklore.
The former Australian national swim coach has been criticised for forcing his charges to run
marathons on treadmills and train without water so their bodies would become accustomed
to dealing with dehydration.
Sutton also pleaded guilty to five child sexual abuse charges in 1999 from a relationship
with one of his teenage pupils and is banned from coaching in Australia for life.
Tackling the moral dilemma of whether to join Sutton's Team TBB, Chrissie explains: "I
made the decision to speak to him and get a first-hand account.
"The key issue was that Brett abused his position as a coach. As a coach you should not
have sexual relations with your athlete regardless of whether it is consensual or not.
"Brett does not deny it and he admits that what he did was wrong. I took a lot of factors into
account when deciding to be coached, not least also the opinions of female athletes and
whether there had been any other improper behaviour.
"I truly believe Brett repents and it beats him up every day and I think the worst thing for him
is knowing his female athletes suffer interrogation over what he has done."
The part of Sutton's character that could not be questioned was the ability to produce
results from his athletes.
With Chrissie a glutton for extreme exercise and relishing the tough sessions, Sutton did not
take long to realise he had an exceptional talent on his hands.
But he also needed to curb her 'bull in a china shop' approach to life and unless Chrissie
could be forced to relax she would never be able to recover well enough in between the
extensive sessions - she swims, bikes and runs every day - to fulfil her talent.
While Sutton was plotting, Chrissie had barely even heard of iron man.
"The only thing I knew was that you had to be crazy to do it," she recalls. "You'll never catch
me doing an iron man. It's absolutely bonkers."
However, after conquering the Alpe d'Huez triathlon in France, which includes a fearsome
bike climb tackled in the Tour de France, she won on Ironman debut in Korea, then
produced one of the sport's biggest ever shocks by taking the world title in Hawaii.
Despite splitting from Sutton in 2008 to be coached by six-time Ironman champion Dave
Scott, success followed success.
Twice she retained the world title and was hot favourite for a fourth crown in Kona last
October before waking with a virus on the morning of the race and taking the wise, if difficult
decision, to withdraw.
A typical training day for Chrissie will see her bike 120km before going straight into a fast
12km run to simulate racing.
Yet she puts her triumphs down to far more than just physical attributes and an incredible
Many of us, having trained for a 5km Race For Life fun run or a first marathon, soon realise
the mental challenge becomes a bigger test than the physical one.
Climbing out of bed for a swim before work, or forcing ourselves to face the gym after a
hard day in the office, is normally way more daunting than the exercise itself. And it is the
mental side where Chrissie excels.
"People always ask how many hours I train a week," she continues. "No one is asking how I
train my mind.
"Your body can be in shape but if your mind isn't then you cannot win the battle."
Being stuck out on out on a race course for up to nine hours at a time - not even hopping off
the bike to pee – certainly requires mental toughness, particularly if that course happens to
be the intense humidity of the lava fields of Hawaii.
"You have to be able to endure boredom and be able to focus and stay in the moment and
you need to practice that," she reveals.
"Sometimes I forget I am racing. So I keep reminding myself to focus, focus, focus on ever
pedal and swim stroke.
Chrissie has various mantras she repeats during a race such as the words to the Lion King
theme song and her favourite poem, Rudyard Kipling's 'If'.
She will write positive messages on her water bottles and in moments of doubt she'll
unearth positive memories of family and friends and of big plates of chips.
Anything to keep the race upbeat and the 'discomfort' - not pain - as her coach Scott calls it,
Whilst Chrissie is at the pinnacle of the sport, lowering her own iron distance world record to
8hr 18min 13sec in Challenge Roth in Germany in July, behind her thousands of lesser
mortals are just trying to complete the increasingly popular challenge.
Races, particularly from the Ironman and Challenge brands, are cropping up across the
world, and in 2011 Ironman Wales and Challenge Henley-on-Thames (see below) were new
additions to the calendar in the UK.
Chrissie is revered in the sport for crossing the finishing line with a log-roll to raise
awareness of the Blazeman Foundation and its fight against Lou Gehrig's Disease, a
degenerative and currently incurable condition that attacks the nerve cells in the brain and
She then waits – sometimes for hours to shake the hands of those that follow her.
"I truly believe that anyone can do an iron man because I have seen them." she says.
"I have seen 80-year-olds complete. I've seen double leg amputees complete. I have seen a
60-year-old guy who pulls, pedals and pushes his 14-year-old son with cerebral palsy
around the course.
"So it's not exclusive to fit, healthy uber-athletes. You have to build up a level of physical
fitness but if you have the strength of mind and the willingness to work hard, finishing an
iron man is within the realms of possibility for most people, it is just the time you are going
to do it in that varies.
"The main obstacle is the fear of the unknown and failure. The 'What if I can't do it?'
Something isn't quite as daunting once you have embarked on the journey to achieve it.
And it truly is an amazing challenge."
For now though, all her thoughts are channelled to towards the world Ironman title in Kona
on October 8 and she is determined to reclaim her crown.
"Peace of mind, focus and preparation are key and the foundations for this race were laid
months ago," she states confidently.
"I do not need to get any faster or stronger from here on in. The really hard work is done
now I've just got make sure I maintain it and stay healthy and fit.
"This is our Olympics. It is where the very best in the world come and it's exciting, amazing
and historical, but ultimately you have got to keep your head, you can't get too carried
Keeping her head whilst keeping ahead seems to be what Chrissie does best.
IF a skinny girl from Norfolk can do it – how hard can it be?
I'd been told Chrissie Wellington was an inspirational character. Given I'd no sooner finished
our conversation than was signing up to attempt my first iron distance triathlon - the
inaugural Challenge Henley-on-Thames – I guess I'm in no position to disagree.
I'd conveniently forgotten I've only just learnt to swim and my biking mainly consists of a
four mile grind to work.
But a bit of bravado, a few energy drinks and the odd banana would surely see me through.
After all it was only a 2.4mile swim in the Thames, a 112mile bike ride in the Chilterns and a
marathon around the trail paths of the town!
Given I'm writing this may be proof I survived, but there were a few dark moments along the
way – particularly as I was up before first light at 4.30am.
Cramping during the last 10 miles of the bike ride and fearing the dreaded 'wall' halfway
through the marathon were the biggest wobbles.
However, it was a brilliantly organised event, I smiled more than I grimaced and managed to
raise a few hundred pounds for youth charity Fairbridge.
Crossing the finish line some 11hr 1min after I started might not make me the next Chrissie
Wellington but it did give a magical sense of achievement - felt by anyone finishing their first
5km rum, first marathon, or any event where they feel they have pushed themselves
beyond their capabilities.
If you've never considered it before, perhaps now is the time to look for the iron man – or
lady – within.
For more info on Chrissie visit chrissiewellington.org or follow her on