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Four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington has stayed busy since announcing her retirement from professional triathlon back in 2012. The British athlete has continued to use her position as one of the top triathletes ever as a platform to drive change through the power of sport and physical activity—most notably as the Global Lead for Health and Wellbeing for Parkrun. Wellington and husband, Tom Lowe (also a former professional triathlete), welcomed daughter Esme in December of 2015. Between balancing becoming a mom and her passion for creating positive change, Wellington has continued to challenge herself in endurance events—but this time around the focus has been on fun. She’s competed in everything from half-marathons to a self-created 4321 Challenge (four friends, running up the three highest mountains in UK and cycling between them, in two days). Back in April, Wellington showed her competitive chops by turning in a 2:49:01 time at the London Marathon to win the 40-44 age group. She followed that with a bit of a last-minute decision to run her first ultra marathon—the 52.6-mile Heineken Race to the Tower, where she finished second overall, first female, in a time of 8:35:35. Here, Wellington chats about her decision to take on the extra-long challenge and shares advice for anyone considering making the leap from long-distance triathlon to an ultra-run.
Triathlete.com: What made you decide to do the ultra?
Wellington: I’m still not sure what came over me, but I decided to Google ultra races soon after crossing the finish line at the London Marathon. I blame post-marathon delirium! Heineken Race to the Tower popped up, and given I have friends who have run and enjoyed Race to the Stones, it immediately attracted me. But, yes, doing an ultra definitely scared me, which is good thing I guess. I like to be pushed out of my comfort zone and do things I think I can’t do. It’s an important message to send my daughter and to others. Contrary to popular perception, Race to the Tower was a huge, huge challenge for me. The longest run I’d ever done was a marathon and, off-road, Man versus Horse in Wales a few years ago. An ultra is something I said I would never do and, to be honest, I was quite worried that I may not even finish.
Triathlete.com: Which was harder, training for the ultra or racing it?
Wellington: Racing it, definitely! I only decided to enter about six weeks before, so I didn’t have too much time to prepare. Unfortunately I got sick with food poisoning a week before, so the preparation wasn’t ideal, but when is race prep ever perfect anyway?
Triathlete.com: How was the training for this different than training for Ironman?
Wellington: Back in 2011, training for four to six hours a day and racing for eight to nine hours was second nature, but I am not a professional Ironman athlete anymore. My husband, Tom and I have a wonderful (and very energetic!) 17-month-old daughter, Esme, a job and a social life…lots of balls to juggle. I do try to exercise for an hour a day, which is mainly running, so even thinking about running for longer than two or three hours was hard to get my head and body around. In terms of training, I just carried on where I left off after the London Marathon, doing a bit more hills and off-road running and with slightly more volume on weekends. I tried to have a massage every two to three weeks, but sleep deprivation is par of the course with a toddler and I didn’t really get that much time to rest and recover from any sessions.
Triathlete.com: Any differences in your nutrition plan?
Wellington: I ate little and often, and used 33Shake gels [editor’s note: these are the gels Wellington is referring to] and also had a few sachets of peanut butter as I found I craved a salty, savory fix later on. I never felt like I was running out of energy, so I must have done something right!
Triathlete.com: What did your long run look like while preparing for the ultra?
I didn’t run longer than two-and-a-half hours, but did do two back-to-back two-and-a-half hourscone on a Saturday and one on a Sunday. After that my legs and mind were definitely wondering what they had let themselves in for.
Triathlete.com: Any plans for another ultra in your future?
Wellington: I’ve learned never to say never!
Triathlete.com: What advice would you give someone considering whether to transition from long-course tri to ultra marathoning?
Wellington: Do it! I really loved the rawness of the event, the fact that I didn’t need much in the way of kit, and the incredibly relaxed atmosphere—the camaraderie between everyone was fantastic. I also really liked not running to pace, and focusing more on the journey than on times, splits, positions, etc. Of course I tried my hardest, but I really couldn’t have specific time or outcome goals, other than to finish, which was very liberating. As long-course triathletes we have the engine and mental strength, we just need the structural ability to withstand being on our feet for that long. In terms of race strategy I slowed down, walked up the steep hills, fuelled early on and learned how to smell the flowers, look around me and enjoy the journey, rather than only the destination.
Triathlete.com: What surprised you most about the ultra experience?
Wellington: That I enjoyed it so much, and felt strong despite not doing a lot of focused training. I really think I proved to myself that I am capable of more than I thought I was.
It really was a fantastic, phenomenal day from start to finish. It was such a privilege to be able to run (and sometimes have to walk) the beautiful Cotswold Way with hundreds of others, and get catered for en route. The route was hugely challenging, with plenty of hills to test the legs and lungs, but the beautiful scenery and sweeping panoramas from the top of those climbs made the effort worth it. The atmosphere was so relaxed and positive, and helped to calm my nerves before the start, and the organization was absolutely exemplary, especially for an inaugural race—professional, with the attention to detail that makes such a huge difference to every athlete’s experience.
It certainly wasn’t easy, and I battled through some tough, dark times but that’s what racing is all about—taking and embracing the lows and the highs. And the finish line, at Broadway Tower, was a huge high, in every respect! I was so happy and proud to cross the finish line as first female, and second overall, and have challenged and surprised myself in the process.
Triathlete.com: If you could do it again, what would you have done differently?
Wellington: I would do a bit more downhill running in training, as my quads were totally trashed afterwards!