On Oct. 8, 2011, an uncharacteristically nervous Chrissie Wellington prepared to dive into the waters of Kailua Bay to contest the Ironman World Championship. Her nerves had little to do with hopes of winning the race. At that moment, Wellington was simply worried about making it out of the water. A pulled pectoral muscle, not to mention numerous other injuries sustained in a cycling crash 14 days earlier, challenged the champion’s usual confidence. Here, Wellington tells the story of how she fought her way through a roller coaster of pain and fear to claim a fourth Ironman world title, 8:55:08 later.
The mental roller coaster started the day I crashed, with thoughts of broken bones preoccupying my mind. When the X-rays were clear I thought: It’s just road rash. I can race with damaged skin. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad. I even went for a two-hour walk the next day, holding ice on my leg to reduce the swelling, but by the next morning I was totally immobilized. My entire leg was horribly infected. A few days after the crash I thought: OK, I’ll swim. I don’t know what possessed me, when I couldn’t even walk, to think swimming was a good idea. I couldn’t even stand on one leg to put my bathing suit on. I managed two lengths. They had to carry me out. I sat on the pool deck crying.
It took every ounce of mental strength to get through that period, and especially the race itself. I deployed an arsenal of tools and strategies I’ve honed over the years, along with a heavy dose of stubbornness, perseverance and self-motivation—qualities I’ve had since I was a child.
I recalled races where I’ve hurt. For almost every Ironman, I’ve not been in as good shape as I’ve pretended to be and had to endure injury, pain or discomfort. In Roth last year I had a broken wrist—no one knew. In Kona 2008, it was a stress reaction in my shin and in Kona 2009, a hamstring tendinopathy. At the time I thought: This is going to hurt so bad. I’m not going to be able to finish. And yet I’d gone on to win. I recalled those races, and visualized myself overcoming discomfort and being strong and successful.
I ran and biked parts of the Kona course with music, identifying landmarks with favorite songs that I later summoned during the race. I read about other athletes who had overcome adversity. Steve Redgrave, Kelly Holmes—British Olympians who overcame illness and injury and went on to win gold medals. Their experiences gave me the confidence that I could still finish the race. I also reminded myself: No matter the outcome, retain perspective. My results should never define me.
Physically and emotionally, I felt like a yo-yo. There were times where I convinced myself—or let others convince me—that I would be OK, but mostly I was riddled with self-doubt. I had days where my body was relatively pain-free, and days where it felt absolutely horrendous. On the Tuesday before the race I swam 1K. The pain was so intense I was crying into my goggles. [My boyfriend] Tom had to lift me out of the pool and I headed to the hospital. There they tested for pulmonary edema and did a CT scan of my chest. They pulled the bandages off my leg and recoiled at the stench of the infections. The next day I met with a burn specialist who said that the road rash was akin to third-degree burns. He scrubbed and redressed them and told me not to swim before the race.
My DNS the previous year had made me realize how important being world champion was to me. Not just winning, but the privilege and the responsibility to represent our sport. I felt so frustrated and angry that the chances of regaining the crown were slipping through my fingers. I did expect to finish, as long as I made it past the swim, because I knew that I would crawl the marathon if I had to. I told myself: Just finishing, crawling if need be, will be as inspirational as anything to other people. But I definitely modified my expectations. Not that I ever take a victory for granted, but I went in expecting not to win.
I was actually quite calm on race morning. This sounds contrary to what a competitor needs, but I was almost resigned, at peace. But if I’m brutally honest, I also had a caveat. No one expected me to win, so I had an excuse not to. The pressure—internally and externally—was off. Just before the start, we sat around the pool at the King K Hotel. Jo Lawn, Rinny [Carfrae], Linsey Corbin and a few others were there—the big names. I remember thinking: They look so strong. I feel so weak. I’m not going to be able to do this. My heart plummeted again.
[My coach] Dave [Scott] had told me to take it easy in the swim. “If you come out in 0:55, come out in 0:55. If you come out in an hour, come out in an hour. Just come out,” he said. I was very apprehensive at the start—about someone hitting my elbow, or getting kicked—and I paid the price. I didn’t fight hard enough to get into a fast pack. But when I exited the water (for me a very slow 1:01 later, in 22nd place and nine minutes off the lead) I filled my mind with positive thoughts: Awesome! The pain is bearable. Game on! I always do that; I try to remain “cup half-full” mentally and stay in the moment. Instead of wondering: Will I fall apart on the run? I thought: Just get on the bike. You’re in 22nd place. Get to 21st. Then: Get to 20th. Then: 19th. The discomfort was constant, but not in a constant place—it ebbed and flowed. But as I gained position, I gained in confidence.
I feel pain, but I disassociate from it. I override it and ignore the signals. I think: F-you, hip! Knee, stop being such a pain in the ass. I make a conscious decision before a race: What’s the thing that would make me quit? A broken leg? Well my leg’s not broken, so I’m carrying on! I recall times when I’ve hurt, convincing myself that pain is temporary. It comes and goes, and it need not always be debilitating. I also put it in perspective.
I think: I haven’t got ALS like Jon Blais. My pain is nothing compared to what he went through.
There have been times in races when I’ve thought of quitting. Races where people think it’s gone so well, like in Roth. I’ve thought: This race is going to be horrendous. It’s not my day. Why don’t I pull over to the side? But at those times I also recall the reasons I do the sport. We’re all motivated by carrots and sticks. The carrot of winning is a huge motivational force. Being a fierce competitor motivates me. Racing for a cause motivates me. But I’ll admit I’m also motivated by fear. It’s a stick, beating at me. The fear of someone thinking me weak.
On the bike in Kona last year I gained a mental boost from overtaking Rinny, whom I saw as my biggest—although certainly not my only—threat. Julie [Dibens] biking as she did didn’t overly concern me, because she was open in divulging that she had a foot injury and didn’t know if she could run. So when I came off the bike :22 down, knowing the competitors ahead and what they had run in the past, I thought I could make up that gap. But only if my body held together.
I went out fast from T2, and I didn’t feel too bad. But about 3 miles in, my body rebelled. I thought: I cannot do this. I cannot cope with this pain for another 23 miles. That voice was in one ear, and in the other I heard: Chrissie, don’t be so damn weak! Of course you can cope. Then I saw my family. I smiled at them like I didn’t have a care in the world. My spirits rose. I relaxed a little. As I gained on the leading girls I gained in confidence. Rinny, only three minutes back, was the one person I still didn’t think I could beat. Then I heard that I was gaining time on her, and when we crossed on Ali’i Drive she had a very focused “game face” on. She didn’t look as comfortable as I might have expected.
I started thinking: I’m in sixth place, this is awesome! I’m in fifth, this is awesome! When I overtook Rachel [Joyce] I thought: I’m in third. This is amazing! My spirits lifted every single time, as I exceeded what I thought was possible. But it was only in the Energy Lab, when the gap to Rinny was still at four or five minutes, that I thought: Maybe I can actually win this. Then my body really started to fall apart. Everything hurt so badly. But you can’t let your head drop for a second. Not a single second. I kept recalling the words of Rudyard Kipling: Keep your head, keep your head. Fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run.
It was only when I reached the top of Palani Road that I knew I could win. The downhill gradient and the energy of the crowds carries you. I got an e-mail from my friend Matt before the race. He said, “If you can finish the race it will be amazing. If you can win it, that will be absolutely epic.” I remember thinking: This is epic! I was scared to high-five people, because I was scared that if I hit someone I’d crumble. My body was that broken. And although I was almost sure of the victory, I did recall Julie Moss’ collapse back in 1982, when she was overtaken by Kathleen McCartney in the final meters. It really isn’t over until you cross that line.
It was the race I had always wanted. The race within myself—where I gave absolutely everything—and the race with my competitors. The “war” that my competitive spirit craves. I couldn’t have done it on physical strength alone. It was a true test of mind.