American Mary Beth Ellis only discovered the Ironman distance a little over a year ago, but she's already a five-time champion.
“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that features pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com.
Catching up with Mary Beth “MB” Ellis isn’t easy – just ask the pro field from Sunday’s inaugural Ironman U.S. Championship, where Ellis raced to her fifth career Ironman victory. But I happened to call Ellis during some downtime a few evenings after the race, when she was eager to talk about her race day accessories, her Ironman podium partner and a few other choice topics.
Triathlete.com: You deploy some interesting tactics, including racing with a trucker hat and using your cleavage as a water bottle holder. Talk about these techniques and why they work for you.
Ellis: The trucker hat was new. First Endurance [MB’s nutrition sponsor] had mentioned me possibly wearing it. I was considering it, because the running hat I wore at Ironman Texas was what I call “aerobics turquoise” and didn’t match my kit, and I couldn’t get a white one. Then heading to the swim start, I realized I’d actually forgotten the turquoise hat. Eric [MB’s husband] had the trucker hat with him, so I figured I’d try it. Once I got it all wet it was perfect. It worked out really well, and I actually thought it looked kind of cool!
The water bottle technology I’ve been implementing for many races now. I don’t like having anything around my waist bouncing, so I’d rather carry it up closer to my center of gravity. I’d rather carry the weight like a camel boob. I had a banana down there, too. I don’t know if you saw that? I usually have all sorts of stuff in my cleavage. There’s plenty of room there!
Triathlete.com: During the marathon in New York, you were led off course by the lead bike and actually chased down by Eric, who got the cyclist headed back in the right direction. What was it like to experience that stress mid-race, and were you worried the mistake might compromise your lead?
Ellis: It wasn’t really that bad. In the heat of the moment I did let a string of obscenities fly at the biker, but we didn’t go that far off course. It was more the whole principal: the lead biker’s sole purpose is to lead you in the correct direction on the course. But really, it was fine. It was less than a minute of lost time. Though I do I think I ran 26.3, maybe 26.35 miles.
Triathlete.com: Am I right that this is the third Ironman podium you’ve shared with Jordan Rapp? Do you guys call each other beforehand to strategize?
Ellis: We’re three for three! The Ironman races I’ve done that he’s been at, we’ve both won [Ironman Canada 2011 and Ironman Texas 2012, in addition to Sunday’s race]. I think he’s my good luck charm.
Triathlete.com: And you’re both racing Kona?
Ellis: Yup. He wasn’t going to, but he qualified with this win.
Triathlete.com: Your coach, Brett Sutton, and his athletes are on quite a tear, racking up high-profile race victories right and left. Nicola Spirig won Olympic Gold, Caroline Steffen won the ITU Long Distance World Championship, James Cunnama won Challenge Roth, you won Alpe D’Huez and the Ironman U.S. Championship and there have been many other significant accomplishments. What’s it like to be a member of Team TBB right now?
Ellis: It’s great! The team has been doing so well. I think it all started with camp this spring in Australia. Everyone’s attitudes have just been great all year long. It really starts with the training atmosphere and building momentum there. Having everybody do their best in training leads to everyone doing their best on the racecourse.
Triathlete.com: From an outside perspective, you seem to be fully firing on all cylinders. But triathletes are almost always self-critical. If you had to pick one thing to work on between now and Kona, what would it be?
Ellis: I think I have things I can improve across the board in all three sports. The plan all along, all season has been to add little building blocks, moving everything in the right direction. So now it’s just to keep adding those baby steps, keep putting in the hard work and know that it will show up on race day.
MB was kind enough to share her Ironman U.S. Championship speech. Read it in its entirety below:
I want to talk a bit about what it means to be an Ironman…
There was a story in New York Times yesterday about an athlete named Chris Clearly. Chris was hit by a car, fractured his skull and nearly died. His doctors called his wife to tell her he might not make it. And for months after that he withered away in a hospital bed. Doctors again told him, that recovery might be impossible.
Yesterday, Chris became an Ironman.
And there was something that Chris said that stuck with me.
He said: “I think for me when someone tells me I can’t do it, I’m going to try to do it.”
That’s the kind of toughness that makes an Ironman. Because Ironman requires you to routinely do things that your friends and neighbors think are impossible – or at least completely crazy.
While your friends are having barbeques, you’re getting up at 5 a.m. and riding six hours on a perfectly good Saturday morning. When your co-workers are training for a half marathon, you’re running a full marathon after 2.4 miles in the water and 112 miles on a bike (is that even legal?) And yesterday morning, how many of your were asked, “why in God’s name would you ever swim in the Hudson River?”
But we do these things. Every day. Not because we have to. But because we can.
When I was 28, my doctors told me I had to stop running because I had developed arthritis in my hips. It was devastating. But, I wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. So, I shifted from marathons to triathlons and have been blessed with the privilege of doing Ironmans around the world for a living.
I was told it wasn’t possible. But I proved it was.
That’s the spirit of Ironman.
Nowhere is that spirit more rich than here in New York City – a city that suffered through an unthinkable tragedy a decade ago and showed that when things are at their worst, New Yorkers are at their best. This is NOT a city that quits.
Each of you showed that spirit yesterday – and each of you has showed it for many months leading up to yesterday. Ironman doesn’t come easy. It doesn’t come without blood, sweat, and if you’re like me, a LOT of tears. There are moments in training and in every Ironman race where you want to quit, where you doubt yourself – or at least doubt your sanity. A few of yesterday’s hills, particularly around mile 23, almost broke me.
But, in those moments – and in that pain – is where we find strength.
Perhaps the best thing about Ironman, though, is that you don’t leave that strength on the course. You take it with you. You take it to your family, your career and you share it with the world around you.
Whether you’re like Chris Cleary and overcame great tragedy. Or, if this is your 10th Ironman… Yesterday, each of you proved in some way that you could do something most people think is insane.
You are an Ironman now. Take that spirit into the world, and show the world that, no matter how difficult the challenge, you can do anything.