Editorial Director T.J. Murphy gives his take on what exactly it will take to beat reigning Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington.
Written by: T.J. Murphy
Five years ago Chrissie Wellington’s endurance career consisted of occasional mountain bike rides (granted, these were above 10,000 feet of altitude in Nepal). Now she’s a three-time Hawaii Ironman champion who is poised to win her fourth. Remarkably (‘remarkably’ is a word one might use often in a conversation about Chrissie’s exploits) she’s won every Ironman she’s ever entered. Ironman Australia, Quelle Challenge Roth, Ironman Europe and Ironman Korea with repeats mixed in. That’s 8 Ironman victories in 8 tries. No one is supposed to be able to do anything like that. The last victory, Challenge Roth, she clocked 8:19, opening up fresh territory for what we can only expect to be more.
It’s not difficult to imagine the psychic pain that her chief competitors experience. How do you beat this woman? The only way to beat Chrissie is to begin by believing you can beat her. Here are some additional thoughts on the getting a shot at taking down the champ:
1. Be a member of TeamTBB and be coached by Brett Sutton. Of course, Sutton is the one who put Chrissie on the path of cracking open her unfathomable talents. Sutton is brilliant, works night-and-day to make you great, and wants to win more than anyone in the world, hence an athlete like Chrissie, with talent, ambition and the willingness to live and train at a high-level, is going to fly into the sport like she was shot from a cannon. Sutton is also a master psychologist so when you train with Sutton you’ll ultimately believe you can win anything.
2. Be willing to make the necessary sacrifices. This goes along with being coached by Sutton. You have to be someone who not only doesn’t mind but also loves living a simple, undistracted life where everything is in sync with winning the Ironman. When Wellington was training with Sutton in the Philippines, her largest distraction was flipping open a novel from time to time. Everything else was training, eating, training, sleeping, training and doing what you were told. The volume was high—Sutton says that the volume has to be off-the-charts in order to beat any potential drug cheats in the sport—so a lot of your off-time is hitting the hay (and hitting it pretty hard).
3. Don’t let anyone brainwash you into thinking Chrissie is unbeatable. This chief lesson was gained via the epic Mark Allen/Dave Scott rivalry of the 1980s. Dave beat Mark year after year after year. But Mark never let go of a belief that he should be winning. The result was that these two pushed through the sound barrier of the sport, peeling off marathon splits close to 2:40. Anyone who thinks this wasn’t mind against matter should talk directly with Dave Scott about his running form—he’ll be the first to tell you he is the antithesis of the born runner. It drives him crazy that the more talented athletes since his reign have rarely closed in on the 1989 times. So look at Chrissie’s time and train to match or beat them, and drive back all fear and doubt pertaining to them. Like Mark Allen, believing you should be able to beat Chrissie is the first step to finding a way to do it.
4. Exploit every conceivable ancillary avenue. This is tough to do better than Chrissie because she’s smart as hell, super determined and works all the angles. But an athlete wanting to beat Chrissie should know, first and foremost, the sport of triathlon is very young (three decades) so there’s plenty to still be uncovered in how we excel. The fields of performance sports nutrition, core strength, plyometrics, efficiency, technique, power, aerobic capacity and recovery and restoration are just a few of the gold mines that can be cut into to help you get the most out of your training efforts. There are also the more intangible fields, like sports psychology, character, values, desire and confidence. The woman who can go toe-to-toe with Chrissie will have tapped into these areas with intelligence and conviction.
5. Have no weakness. One breathtaking fact about Chrissie is how she transcended the development of former champions like Natascha Badmann and Lori Bowden, two great triathletes who earned Ironman championships despite relatively weak swim legs—often over an hour. Chrissie has always been tremendous on the bike and in the run, and her swimming is now on equal ground. In other words, if you can pop off a sub 3-hour run it won’t matter if you can break an hour in the swim. In the age of Chrissie Wellington, weaknesses are not allowed.
6. Just because Chrissie is ahead of you and doesn’t look like she’s hurting, don’t assume she’s not. At her first Ironman Australia win, I watched Chrissie sail around the course waving and smiling and gunning it, crushing all competitors. But interviewing her afterwards she spoke of how her calf and hamstring were on the verge of complete blowout—they had been killing her the entire day. I was stunned to learn this. The lesson? Chrissie is human after all, and despite her towering record, the Ironman code applies to her as it does to all: On race day, anything can happen. The most likely way that Chrissie will get beat this year is if she makes a key mistake (however unlikely) or bad luck strikes, and you have been patient and tenacious enough—and prepared—to capitalize.