Prior to her fifth-place finish at the 2012 Ironman World Championship, where she was also the top American woman, Mary Beth Ellis had lost only one Ironman race—Kona 2011, where she finished 15th. A seven-time Ironman champion, Ellis got a taste of the Hawaii podium, which has only made her hungrier for the Kona crown. And with her dogged resolve, she just might be USA’s greatest hope for the world title. Ellis looked to be out of the 2013 Ironman World Championship after a bike accident that occurred in mid-September. Despite some significant injuries to her right shoulder and collarbone, and a resulting surgery, she’s still hoping to make it to the start line. Learn more about her journey to Kona here. Read a profile of Ellis, which was originally published in the Kona 2012 special digital release of Triathlete magazine, below.
Mary Beth “MB” Ellis has struggled through more than her fair share of injuries and illness in her 35 years. She’s faced the disappointment of a dashed Olympic dream. She’s twice stood in the bridesmaid’s spot at the Ironman World Championship 70.3. “I thought: Should I keep doing this?” admitted Ellis.
On the brink of crafting an exit strategy from the sport following a particularly disappointing 2010 season, Ellis instead went all-in with a renewed—and to some, questionably wise—commitment, signing on with Brett Sutton’s teamTBB.
Ensconced in the ranks of teamTBB, in a notoriously tough training camp tucked away in the Swiss Alps, led by a man who embraces a hard-driving approach many believe borders on unhealthy, Ellis found what would prove to be her best distance: the Ironman, winning her first three attempts at the distance. But long before Sutton helped shape what may be Ellis’ ultimate triathlon triumph, her evolution to Ironman began.
Boarding schools are often hotbeds of adolescent hijinks, with teens habitually busting out of their dormitories after hours, or sneaking in alcohol and members of the opposite sex. But in 1991, Mary Beth Ellis, then a freshman at the prestigious Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, wasn’t looking for trouble when she slipped out of her dorm room in the pre-dawn hours. She was simply looking for more time to train.
“I didn’t know what time we were allowed out. I wanted to run early in the morning, so I snuck out of my window. All I did was run laps back and forth right behind the building!” admits Ellis.
“I would also break into the pool,” she continues. “You were supposed to have a teacher there to lifeguard. Even though I was a competitive swimmer and I begged my teachers to let me swim alone, they said no. So a few times I left a window unlocked during practice, then snuck back in later to swim more laps. But I was too much a goody two-shoes to do that more than once or twice.”
Despite her dismal attempt at delinquency, Ellis succeeded at everything else she pursued. By the time she reached high school she was a finely honed athlete, claiming MVP and all-state titles as an underclassman on the varsity field hockey team, MIP (most improved player) in varsity lacrosse and numerous swimming accolades. And as for track? “I never lost a race,” says Ellis. (She ran the mile, 2 mile, and 800.) Academically she was equally successful, a straight-A student at Lawrenceville who went on to earn a double major in economics and industrial engineering, as well as a graduate degree in marketing at Northwestern University.
And while Ellis credits her parents, Kathy, a nurse, and Stephen, an attorney and Vietnam veteran, with her deeply ingrained East Coast Irish Catholic work ethic, Kathy is quick to deflect the credit for her daughter’s extreme drive.
“She got that on her own,” she says. “We work, but we’re not as driven as she is. I really do think that some people are born different. There’s just something in them.”
Fresh out of college in 2000, Ellis focused her attention on distance running. Her first attempt at the marathon netted a 2:46 (Chicago 2000), followed by a 2:41 (Philadelphia 2001), times quick enough to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials. But 2001 also marked the start of a long period fraught with injury and frustration.
“I would get an injury, get healthy, log about six solid weeks of training, maybe race a half-marathon in the plan of building to a full marathon and then get injured again,” Ellis says. “I had all kinds of stuff—a stress fracture in my fibula, a stress fracture in my heel, plantar fasciitis, a stress reaction in my shin.”
The kicker came in 2005 when Ellis was diagnosed with osteoarthritis.
“They said if I kept running 100-mile weeks I’d need new hips in my 30s,” says Ellis. “I think at the time they were probably being overly cautious, but it scared me enough that I thought my running career was over.”
Rather than follow her doctor’s orders and hang up her athletic ambitions, Ellis decided that cross-training would provide the key to keep her body balanced and strong. Thus she turned to triathlon. Ellis went pro in 2006 and a certain level of success soon followed, with two ITU victories and back-to-back second-place finishes at the 2008 and 2009 Ironman World Championship 70.3. But like many young athletes, Ellis dreamed of being an Olympian.
“When you grow up in swimming and track, the Olympics is everything,” she says.
Having completed the Olympic trials process but failing to qualify for the Beijing Games in 2008, Ellis again focused her training on the draft-legal ITU format throughout 2010, looking toward London. Yet her obsessive drive, coupled with a significant spell of “over-coaching,” nearly proved career-ending.
“I buried myself,” says Ellis. “I had three different coaches, each one treating me like a single-sport athlete. I was doing really hard workouts for all three sports. It was fine for a little while, but after a few months it caught up with me. You just can’t do that.”
The low point came at the ITU World Championship in Budapest, where Ellis’ then-boyfriend Eric Olson witnessed his future wife’s painful struggle to the line.
“I almost pulled her off the course,” he recalls. “I wanted to, and if I didn’t know MB so well and know that she would punch me if I tried, I would have. She was injured, she had fatigue stuff going on—it was a combination of everything. She was in the lead pack off the bike and absolutely melted on the run. Everything caught up with her.”
The “everything” that Olson refers to had a clinical name: Epstein-Barr virus, a disease characterized by debilitating fatigue.
“I’d trained myself into the ground,” Ellis says. “I also had a stress reaction in one of my hips, so I took a whole month off and didn’t do anything. I walked—that was it.”
That’s when Ellis considered quitting triathlon. But her favorite quote, by poster child success story President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hints at what she did next: “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”
By the time she was healthy again, she had been unceremoniously dropped by her team. Trakkers. With no sponsors and none on the horizon, retirement would have been an easy out. Rather than quietly exit the scene, Ellis decided to give the sport one more go.
A round of interviews with potential coaches ensued, and Ellis ultimately landed under the tutelage of Sutton, whose former disciples include four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington and world champion triathlete-turned-coach Siri Lindley. In part, Ellis was drawn to the requirement that teamTBB athletes arrive as a blank slate—after all, she had no existing sponsor conflicts and truly needed support. But more so, she wanted this final fling to be her best possible chance to reach the top.
“I wanted to give Ironman a shot. So why would I go to a second-rate coach when I could work with the one who has coached almost all the top iron-women?” she explains. “They’ve all been coached by Brett, or else by somebody he has coached. It’s like six degrees of separation.”
With Sutton, Ellis seems to have found the path to success in the distance that her body and mind are perfectly designed for. Almost by accident, she powered her way to victory in her first, second and third Ironman races (2011’s Austria, Regensburg and Canada), all in the span of eight weeks. Yet her plan had been only to test the Ironman distance in 2011, then build toward Kona in 2012.
“After Austria, that’s when things changed,” says Ellis after she set the fastest Ironman debut performance ever. “I think Brett was surprised at how well it went.” Sutton sent Ellis for a follow-up performance five weeks later in Regensburg, and she won there also.
“Brett thought that with two Ironman wins, even though I didn’t have enough KPR points [Kona Points Ranking, the world championship qualification system for professionals], WTC [World Triathlon Corporation] would let me into Kona. He told me to lobby for a wild-card entry,” says the admittedly shy Ellis, who struggled to make the request.
The answer came back: no. But with the allure of Kona too tempting to ignore, she did what she needed to do to qualify by the book. She raced and won Ironman Canada.