From the Archive: Chrissie Wellington’s Mind-Over-Body Battle
Wellington tells the story of how she fought her way through a roller coaster of pain and fear to claim a fourth Ironman world title. And pros share their mind-over-matter tips.
This article was originally published in the September 2012 issue of Triathlete Magazine.
On Oct. 8, 2011, an uncharacteristically nervous Chrissie Wellington prepared to dive into the waters of Kailua Bay to contest the Ironman World Championship. Her nerves had little to do with hopes of winning the race. At that moment, Wellington was simply worried about making it out of the water. A pulled pectoral muscle, not to mention numerous other injuries sustained in a cycling crash 14 days earlier, challenged the champion’s usual confidence. Here, Wellington tells the story of how she fought her way through a roller coaster of pain and fear to claim a fourth Ironman world title, 8:55:08 later.
The mental roller coaster started the day I crashed, with thoughts of broken bones preoccupying my mind. When the X-rays were clear I thought: It’s just road rash. I can race with damaged skin. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad. I even went for a two-hour walk the next day, holding ice on my leg to reduce the swelling, but by the next morning I was totally immobilized. My entire leg was horribly infected. A few days after the crash I thought: OK, I’ll swim. I don’t know what possessed me, when I couldn’t even walk, to think swimming was a good idea. I couldn’t even stand on one leg to put my bathing suit on. I managed two lengths. They had to carry me out. I sat on the pool deck crying.
It took every ounce of mental strength to get through that period, and especially the race itself. I deployed an arsenal of tools and strategies I’ve honed over the years, along with a heavy dose of stubbornness, perseverance and self-motivation—qualities I’ve had since I was a child.
I recalled races where I’ve hurt. For almost every Ironman, I’ve not been in as good shape as I’ve pretended to be and had to endure injury, pain or discomfort. In Roth last year I had a broken wrist—no one knew. In Kona 2008, it was a stress reaction in my shin and in Kona 2009, a hamstring tendinopathy. At the time I thought: This is going to hurt so bad. I’m not going to be able to finish. And yet I’d gone on to win. I recalled those races, and visualized myself overcoming discomfort and being strong and successful.
I ran and biked parts of the Kona course with music, identifying landmarks with favorite songs that I later summoned during the race. I read about other athletes who had overcome adversity. Steve Redgrave, Kelly Holmes—British Olympians who overcame illness and injury and went on to win gold medals. Their experiences gave me the confidence that I could still finish the race. I also reminded myself: No matter the outcome, retain perspective. My results should never define me.
Physically and emotionally, I felt like a yo-yo. There were times where I convinced myself—or let others convince me—that I would be OK, but mostly I was riddled with self-doubt. I had days where my body was relatively pain-free, and days where it felt absolutely horrendous. On the Tuesday before the race I swam 1K. The pain was so intense I was crying into my goggles. [My boyfriend] Tom had to lift me out of the pool and I headed to the hospital. There they tested for pulmonary edema and did a CT scan of my chest. They pulled the bandages off my leg and recoiled at the stench of the infections. The next day I met with a burn specialist who said that the road rash was akin to third-degree burns. He scrubbed and redressed them and told me not to swim before the race.
My DNS the previous year had made me realize how important being world champion was to me. Not just winning, but the privilege and the responsibility to represent our sport. I felt so frustrated and angry that the chances of regaining the crown were slipping through my fingers. I did expect to finish, as long as I made it past the swim, because I knew that I would crawl the marathon if I had to. I told myself: Just finishing, crawling if need be, will be as inspirational as anything to other people. But I definitely modified my expectations. Not that I ever take a victory for granted, but I went in expecting not to win.
I was actually quite calm on race morning. This sounds contrary to what a competitor needs, but I was almost resigned, at peace. But if I’m brutally honest, I also had a caveat. No one expected me to win, so I had an excuse not to. The pressure—internally and externally—was off. Just before the start, we sat around the pool at the King K Hotel. Jo Lawn, Rinny [Carfrae], Linsey Corbin and a few others were there—the big names. I remember thinking: They look so strong. I feel so weak. I’m not going to be able to do this. My heart plummeted again.
[My coach] Dave [Scott] had told me to take it easy in the swim. “If you come out in 0:55, come out in 0:55. If you come out in an hour, come out in an hour. Just come out,” he said. I was very apprehensive at the start—about someone hitting my elbow, or getting kicked—and I paid the price. I didn’t fight hard enough to get into a fast pack. But when I exited the water (for me a very slow 1:01 later, in 22nd place and nine minutes off the lead) I filled my mind with positive thoughts: Awesome! The pain is bearable. Game on! I always do that; I try to remain “cup half-full” mentally and stay in the moment. Instead of wondering: Will I fall apart on the run? I thought: Just get on the bike. You’re in 22nd place. Get to 21st. Then: Get to 20th. Then: 19th. The discomfort was constant, but not in a constant place—it ebbed and flowed. But as I gained position, I gained in confidence.
I feel pain, but I disassociate from it. I override it and ignore the signals. I think: F-you, hip! Knee, stop being such a pain in the ass. I make a conscious decision before a race: What’s the thing that would make me quit? A broken leg? Well my leg’s not broken, so I’m carrying on! I recall times when I’ve hurt, convincing myself that pain is temporary. It comes and goes, and it need not always be debilitating. I also put it in perspective.
I think: I haven’t got ALS like Jon Blais. My pain is nothing compared to what he went through.
There have been times in races when I’ve thought of quitting. Races where people think it’s gone so well, like in Roth. I’ve thought: This race is going to be horrendous. It’s not my day. Why don’t I pull over to the side? But at those times I also recall the reasons I do the sport. We’re all motivated by carrots and sticks. The carrot of winning is a huge motivational force. Being a fierce competitor motivates me. Racing for a cause motivates me. But I’ll admit I’m also motivated by fear. It’s a stick, beating at me. The fear of someone thinking me weak.
On the bike in Kona last year I gained a mental boost from overtaking Rinny, whom I saw as my biggest—although certainly not my only—threat. Julie [Dibens] biking as she did didn’t overly concern me, because she was open in divulging that she had a foot injury and didn’t know if she could run. So when I came off the bike :22 down, knowing the competitors ahead and what they had run in the past, I thought I could make up that gap. But only if my body held together.
I went out fast from T2, and I didn’t feel too bad. But about 3 miles in, my body rebelled. I thought: I cannot do this. I cannot cope with this pain for another 23 miles. That voice was in one ear, and in the other I heard: Chrissie, don’t be so damn weak! Of course you can cope. Then I saw my family. I smiled at them like I didn’t have a care in the world. My spirits rose. I relaxed a little. As I gained on the leading girls I gained in confidence. Rinny, only three minutes back, was the one person I still didn’t think I could beat. Then I heard that I was gaining time on her, and when we crossed on Ali’i Drive she had a very focused “game face” on. She didn’t look as comfortable as I might have expected.
I started thinking: I’m in sixth place, this is awesome! I’m in fifth, this is awesome! When I overtook Rachel [Joyce] I thought: I’m in third. This is amazing! My spirits lifted every single time, as I exceeded what I thought was possible. But it was only in the Energy Lab, when the gap to Rinny was still at four or five minutes, that I thought: Maybe I can actually win this. Then my body really started to fall apart. Everything hurt so badly. But you can’t let your head drop for a second. Not a single second. I kept recalling the words of Rudyard Kipling: Keep your head, keep your head. Fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run.
It was only when I reached the top of Palani Road that I knew I could win. The downhill gradient and the energy of the crowds carries you. I got an e-mail from my friend Matt before the race. He said, “If you can finish the race it will be amazing. If you can win it, that will be absolutely epic.” I remember thinking: This is epic! I was scared to high-five people, because I was scared that if I hit someone I’d crumble. My body was that broken. And although I was almost sure of the victory, I did recall Julie Moss’ collapse back in 1982, when she was overtaken by Kathleen McCartney in the final meters. It really isn’t over until you cross that line.
It was the race I had always wanted. The race within myself—where I gave absolutely everything—and the race with my competitors. The “war” that my competitive spirit craves. I couldn’t have done it on physical strength alone. It was a true test of mind.
Train Your Brain
Triathlon is arguably equal parts physical prowess and mental mettle. Train your brain to think like some of the finest talents in our sport, and you may well be halfway to having your best season ever.
I envision the race as a puzzle with many small pieces—that way it never seems overwhelming. When I pass 10 more miles on the bike or run to the next aid station, that is one more puzzle piece in place. I don’t think about the whole bike course or the whole marathon until I’m near the end. It’s not a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle during the race. Instead it’s: Where’s the next edge piece?
I used visualization when my hamstring was injured last year. I worked with a sports psychologist who told me to visualize my muscle being rebuilt. Every morning I’d lie in bed and picture my hamstring starting out as small as a spaghetti noodle, then rebuilding muscle fibers, adding noodles until I had a whole healthy hamstring. I’d talk to my leg out loud—you have to do it out loud—using positive affirmations. I’d say, “OK, we’re gonna go for a run and we’re a team!” It was so stupid! But I was so desperate I didn’t care.
Sometimes when I run and there’s long grass beside the path, I high-five the grass like it’s the spectators in the finish chute, visualizing having an awesome race and winning Kona. I also visualize giving a winner’s speech, thanking all the people that made a difference and helped me get there.
I run through each stage of the race, probably two days before. I think about the start and try to remember how it feels, so it’s more familiar when I’m doing it and I’m not panicking about being bashed around the head! I mostly visualize the bad bits. If I lose my goggles I’ve thought in advance about what I’ll do. It’s easy when it’s going well, but you need to think about how you’ll feel when you’re having a bad patch, and then how you’ll combat that in a race. Otherwise it can spiral down and your race is over. In reality, almost everyone has a bad patch. It’s just about managing that and then coming through it.
As a collegiate Division I field hockey player it was engrained in my head to anticipate the needs of my teammates on the field and always keep my eye on the ball. I constantly envisioned a potential assist, goal or tackle before they even happened. In triathlon, I use the same visualization strategies. The ball is the finish line. It’s helpful to go over the play-by-play of the race in your head in order to keep everything dialed. It’s important to picture yourself swimming in open water and rallying through swells, keeping relaxed in an aero position on the bike while hydrating and fueling and then going through the same motions on the run—all while keeping your eye on the end goal: the finish line.
My team now is my husband, coach, sponsors, family and friends. In training and racing, I visualize my team wherever they may be, cheering and smiling from afar. I imagine seeing their happy faces on the course and especially at the finish line. I picture my best friend’s little ones sitting at the computer on race day, watching ‘Auntie Mer’ and wondering why on earth she is wearing a seal suit or has on a pointy helmet!
I use visualization in a positive and negative way. I think about how I’ll feel winning the race. It gets me fired up if I’m having a hard training day. I also think of the negative things that can happen—a flat tire, a bad swim, a mechanical—so when it does happen I’m prepared and can feel that I’ve done this before. It’s amazing when people get a puncture for the first time in a race how much time they lose, as they don’t get their head around it and move on.
The most vivid example of visualization I’ve experienced was on the run course of a race. I was thinking back to an intense treadmill session with my running coach. I knew I was tiring in the race so I focused all my energy on imagining I was back on that treadmill. I could hear my coach’s voice, I could hear his technical cues and I could almost feel the treadmill beneath me! This totally distracted me from the physical pain and gave me the added bonus of improved run form in those vital moments. Ever since I’ve been wholly convinced of the power of mind over body. That moment came at the end of Ironman 70.3 Mallorca in 2011—my first 70.3 victory. Now I’m a four-time 70.3 champion!
When preparing for a race that I’m familiar with, I imagine running or riding a particular section of the course, even though I’m training at home. If I can put myself in the mindset of being on Ali’i Drive, for example, when I’m actually on the Boulder Creek Path having a killer run, then when I am actually on Ali’i, I can think back to that particularly good training session.
MELISSA (ROLLISON) HAUSCHILDT
During a hard session sometimes I visualize to keep pushing myself. I could be running a 1km rep and feel myself falling off the pace. If I hear a car coming up behind me, I visualize that it’s my competitor running me down. Obviously the car is a lot faster than me, so I pick a tree or a landmark up the road and race the car to that point. If I win, I’m back on pace. If the car beats me, I have to push even harder to catch back up to my competitor.