Undaunted: A Profile Of Mary Beth Ellis

A seven-time Ironman champion, Ellis got a taste of the Hawaii podium, which has only made her hungrier for the Kona crown.

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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.

RELATED: Mary Beth Ellis Will Try For Kona Start Despite Injuries

Should there be any question whether Ellis’ rapid-fire Ironman three-peat was a fluke, consider this: Her Austria race marked the fastest ever female Ironman debut (8:43:34), set a new women’s American Ironman record and broke the previous course record. In Regensburg, despite a nagging glute injury, Ellis’ 9:18:55 was good enough for the win by a 10-minute margin. And in Canada, she handily slashed a course record that stood for more than 20 years, clocking 9:03:13. Yet piling another 140.6 miles atop that already hefty tally, a mere six weeks later, proved a bit much even for Ellis.

“I was so fried, physically and mentally,” she recalls of her 2011 Kona race. “I don’t think anybody, until they’ve done an Ironman, really understands ‘going to the well.’ Each race takes a piece of you. Deep down, I struggled with the fact that I was going to have to hurt myself as bad as I had in Canada again so soon. In Canada I was trying to prove to my coach that I wasn’t a soft biker. So I biked harder than at any other race, and then on the first mile of the run I was like: Uh oh! I’m in for a long marathon. But it’s a lot easier to deal with that when you’re winning. In Kona I was like: I’m in for a long marathon—and I’m 30 minutes behind!

“But I’m glad I didn’t stop,” continues Ellis, who posted a so-so swim, struggled through vomiting and a flat tire—which she rode the final 11 miles into T2—on the bike and survived the run, finishing a disappointing 15th. “The only thing worse would be if I hadn’t finished. It was pretty abysmal as it was, but it could have been worse.”

While Kona 2011 came as an afterthought for Ellis, Kona 2012 served as a focal point, with a far more forgiving lead-up schedule. And with wins thus far at Ironman Texas, the Ironman U.S. Championship and Ironman 70.3 Singapore, two second-place 70.3 finishes (St. Croix and Mooseman), Ellis easily qualified for Kona. Yet the question remains: Has Ellis’ zealous over-training tendency been resolved with the help of her new coach?

“Brett’s background is in training racehorses,” says Olson. “And MB is exactly like a racehorse. A racehorse can’t tell you when it’s tired—it will go and go and go until it’s broken. Brett has this innate sense with his athletes, and I’m sure it was the same with his horses. If MB needs to be pushed, he’ll push her. If she needs to chill out, he’ll tell her to take a day off, whereas she never would have taken that day off on her own.”

And while Ellis no longer sneaks out of a dorm window to log extra laps, it took some time before she accepted Sutton’s credos.

“I came in categorized as injury-prone, so initially he took a really conservative approach. I was one of those people that if I wasn’t hurt, I would run every single day. Brett said, ‘No, you’re not running every day.’ And I was like: Yes I am! I wasn’t skeptical exactly, but I wasn’t ready to fully drink the Kool-Aid. But the longer I’ve been with him, the more impressed I’ve become. I listen to things he says, predictions he makes or things about me, and they come true a month or two later. He’s good at knowing when to hold me back. Also, seeing my training partners doing so well,” says Ellis, referring to teamTBB stars such as Caroline Steffen and Nicola Spirig, “gives me even more confidence that I’m on the right path.”

Sutton also believes that Ellis is headed in the right direction.

“What I saw in MB, that made me want to help her, is the very thing that makes her good and also destroys her,” explains Sutton. “Most don’t realize that the ferocious will to win can sometimes be one’s fiercest opponent. MB had not been taught to harness hers for good, but instead fanned it until it became her biggest enemy. Knowing when to push on and when to pull back can be an unclear thing to a person who wants it so bad it hurts. I’m not frightened to tell it how it is, and I thought: If she’s not frightened to listen, we can make her good again. And possibly, if she keeps listening, great. Five Ironman wins later, I still think we are a work in progress.”

It’s a work in progress marked by milestones of success. Aside from the 2011 and 2012 wins, there are day-to-day training gains where Ellis is forced to test her toughness.

“Once last winter at camp in Australia, Brett dropped MB and the guys on the squad off in Noosa and told them to run to Mooloolaba. That’s 45K,” says Olson. “Afterward, Scotty DeFilippis [another TBB athlete] told me, ‘Your girl smelled the barn with 10K to go. She dropped it to a 6:30 pace and dropped us boys off the back.’ MB told me later, ‘If I ever run over 3:20 in an Ironman you have to shoot me, because we were running a 3:20 marathon pace and we were jogging!’”

At 5-foot-4 this tough-as-nails muscle-packed mini-dynamo is a force to be reckoned with. Olson, an aspiring age-group athlete who trains with Ellis when his schedule allows, tries his best to keep pace with his wonder-wife, who routinely “chicks” him in every pursuit.

“We were in Mexico recently for a friend’s wedding, and everyone asked why they didn’t see us during the day,” says Olson. “It’s because we were busy riding in circles.”

Ellis had a 50-mile ride on her training schedule and dragged Olson along to the only place appropriate for cycling in Playa del Carmen—a one-mile loop, peppered with speed bumps.

“We rode it 50 times,” laments Olson. “She said to me, ‘I have an extreme tolerance for boredom.’ She’s the toughest person I’ve ever met, male or female. She can handle anything.”

It’s a toughness Ellis turns on the instant the race cannon fires.

“She’s incredibly focused when she races,” says Olson. “She truly gives her all the entire way. She just won’t let up. That’s why she rarely has a good finish photo and usually misses the post-race interviews. She’s absolutely toast by the end.” Ellis subscribes to Coach Sutton’s belief that triathlon is akin to boxing; second place means losing. But she’s matter-of-fact in her confidence.

“I think I have to improve, but if I didn’t think I had a shot at Kona then I wouldn’t race,” she says. “What would be the point?”

Ellis acknowledges that Ironman may be the sweet spot in triathlon that suits her abilities perfectly, though she’s not one to close any other door completely, nor will she wax nostalgic once her Ironman chapter is over.

“I kind of always knew that I was a bit more of a diesel than a turbo. But that’s not to say that I wouldn’t mind, depending on the course in 2016—I mean the Olympics is always going to be the Olympics. But I’m not sure if I would have that speed, and for now Ironman’s a good challenge. I like it. And until I have a good race in Kona I’d like to at least go there a couple more times and see if I can crack it.”

“I won’t be like Natascha Badmann though, 45 and still racing triathlon, because I’ll want a new challenge,” she continues, already excited by her future plans. “I’ve always wanted to race the Comrades Marathon [a grueling 56-mile ultra marathon] in South Africa.”

Other adventures on Ellis’ life list include running the Leadville Trail and Western States 100-milers, hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and, at some point, motherhood.

“For now she’s giving triathlon everything she’s got,” says Olson. “But when she gets to a point where she doesn’t feel she can win, she’ll walk away without any remorse, without a single look back.”

But for the time being, Ellis’ gaze is firmly fixed on a line drawn across Ali’i Drive in Kona. It’s a line marked “Finish,” Ellis is striving to reach first.

“I’m excited for another shot,” she says, undaunted as always.

MB’s Clues to Cope With Injury

Keep sight of the end goal.I’ve heard it said that the injury process is like the grieving process. You go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think that’s true with every injury. But you just have to keep your eye on why you do what you do, the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Focus on the positives, and even the perks. “With triathlon, most of the time you can do one sport, if not two. Plus you can make improvements while you’re injured. I turned pro in 2006, but I still worked full-time. In 2007, I finally left my job—and within a week I tore my labrum. I was already questioning whether I should I have quit my business career, and suddenly I was on the injured list. But in retrospect, it was fine. I needed to improve my bike and my swim anyway, so I biked and swam and aqua-jogged for a few months. I even won a race without having run more than 20 minutes, twice a week.”