Foreword by Lance Armstrong
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Wellington’s first-hand, inspiring story includes all the incredible challenges she has faced–from anorexia to near–drowning to training with a controversial coach. But to Wellington, the drama of the sports also presents an opportunity to use sports to improve people’s lives.
A LIFE WITHOUT LIMITS reveals the heart behind Wellington’s success, along with the diet, training and motivational techniques that keep her going through one of the world’s most grueling events.
To my family. My foundation.
My victories are also yours.
Constable & Robinson Ltd
55–56 Russell Square
London WC1B 4HP
First published in the UK by Constable,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2012
Copyright © Chrissie Wellington, 2012
The right of Chrissie Wellington to be identified as the author of this
work has been asserted by her in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication data is available from the British Library
ISBN: 978-1-84901-713-8 (HB)
ISBN: 978-1-780033-671-8 (TPB)
Printed and bound in the UK
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
1 The Ironman
2 Out of Norfolk
3 In Search of Myself
5 Summits and Volcanoes
7 Prem and I
8 The Wizard of Oz
9 Face to Face with the Ironman
10 A Triathlete's Life
11 Wearing the Crown
12 My Own Two Feet
13 New Records and a Vicious Virus
14 The Heroes of Ironman
15 Rising from the Crashes
My life has been shaped by so many amazing people. I have been able to include many of you in this book, but by no means all. I am indebted to each and every one of you for your unconditional friendship, advice, tough love, inspiration and guidance.
In particular, I want to give thanks to my wonderful mum and dad, my brother and sister-in-law, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle and cousins for providing me with a family cocoon of love, support and encouragement; to Tom for teaching me the meaning of true love; to my friends around the world, most of whom have known me long before triathlon, and whose support means more to me than they could ever know. To Brett for trusting in me and in himself when all around might have doubted, to Dave for refining me into the athlete I am today and to Frank Horwill, Don Feltwell and Jon Sadler who taught me always to try and never to stop believing in the power of my dreams. Since the writing of this book, Frank has sadly passed away. He was a true legend in British athletics, and his loss leaves a large hole in the sport, as well as in the lives of so many athletes, mine included.
To Paul Robertshaw and all at the BRAT Club, as well as my first triathlon coach, Tim Weeks, for introducing me to this wonderful sport and in so doing changing my life beyond recognition. And to my manager, Ben, for showing me that it can be 'show-friends', not simply 'show-business'. Of course, my incredible sponsors deserve a special mention. You know who you are, but, in particular, I'd like to thank Ryan and Matt at TYR, who have been there from the start, and Brooks, Cannondale and CytoSport – our long-term partnerships have powered me to heights I could never have imagined.
We are privileged in triathlon to have our sport driven by the most enthusiastic and inspiring participants, both the spectators and the competitors of any age or ability. I am constantly inspired by the time and energy people devote to the sport, as well as by the emails and tweets I receive in the way of personal support. On race day, sharing the highs and lows with so many thousands of age-groupers is always a joy. But a special thanks, too, to my professional competitors and training partners, whose talents have given me the kick up the butt to be the best I can be and whose generosity of spirit knows no bounds.
I would also like to thank the charities for which I am honoured to be a patron, including Jane's Appeal, The Blazeman Foundation for ALS, Challenged Athletes Foundation, Envision, Girls Education Nepal and GOTRibal. I am honoured to be involved with your wonderful work and will do what I can to support you in whatever ways I can.
For the production of this book, my deepest gratitude goes to Andreas Campomar and Nicola Jeanes of Constable & Robinson, Rolf Zettersten and Kate Hartson of Center Street, Jonathan Conway of Mulcahy Conway Associates, Jonny McWilliams of the Wasserman Media Group and to Michael Aylwin for enabling me to put my life into words.
Your support has enabled me to live a life without limits and for that I am so sincerely grateful.
I'd been cycling at a steady pace for nearly a hundred miles. The barren road knifed through thick, black lava fields that tolerated little in the way of life among their rocks. Every now and then a bougainvillea bush would appear in splendid isolation on the roadside, but otherwise I had just the long white line I was following on the side of the road for company. The tropical sun was high overhead, so high that my bike and I cast barely any shadow. And the road stretched out ahead of me, now empty of cyclists. I was in the lead.
I took a moment to allow this to sink in. I wasn't sure who the two girls I'd just passed were, because I knew barely anyone in this race. It might have been the World Championships of the most gruelling single-day event in sport, but this was all new to me. The Pacific Ocean was royal blue to my right, and to my left rose the volcano of Hualalai, shrouded in cloud. If you're lucky, the cloud cover extends down to the coast, but we were having no such luck, and the heat hung over the tarmac like a wicked spirit distorting the way ahead.
It was just past midday. Five and a half hours earlier our race had begun in the waters of that ocean. If everything went well, I could expect another four until the finish line. Officially it was up past ninety in the shade, but out here on this stark naked road it was over 100. And the wind was ferocious. Coming down off the volcano, it had already forced me once onto the rumble strips at the side of the road. It was frightening to cycle in such a crosswind, but it stripped you bare as well. This was like racing in a blast furnace. In a couple of hours' time I would be back out here, this time on foot, well into the marathon that completes the day's activities. By then it would be even hotter. Would I still be in the lead?
This was an ironman triathlon, the Ironman Triathlon. Every October, the World Championships of the sport are held in Kona on the Island of Hawaii. An ironman is the longest distance of triathlon – a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles on the bike, and then you run a marathon.
Unbeknown to me, four previous champions had by now dropped out of the race. In an ironman, even the world's best face a challenge just to finish. I was in pole position. This didn't seem real.
I don't think I'd ever struck anyone as obvious world-champion material. For a start, there's my nickname. It's Muppet. And, yes, it's for pretty much the reasons you would think. I have always been accident-prone and low on common sense. I was sports-mad as a kid, but there was no sign of any unusual talent.
But I've also been driven, for as long as I can remember, by a fierce determination to make the best of myself and to try to make the best of the world around me. Eight months earlier, I had given up my job in the Civil Service to become a professional triathlete. International development was my passion, but when bureaucracy and red tape started to get me down, sport offered itself as the perfect way to get things moving again – both in terms of my own development and my ambitions to help others. I have seen how sport can empower people and cross boundaries.
It has always empowered me, but only now, with that road stretching clear ahead of me, did I start to sense what a chance I had. The girl who had come from nowhere, the muppet who had taken the lead! I had to make sure that this was just the beginning. There was a hell of a long way still to go, so much more to overcome. But if I could do it . . .
The ironman. Just the name excites me. It is one of the most awe-inspiring events in sport. I fell in love with it the first time I attended one – and that was as a mere spectator, less than five months earlier.
It's a question of scale. Biggest is not necessarily best, they say, but it is when it comes to endurance sport. There is a special mystique about the marathon, for example, because of its length – but that's just the bit you do at the end of an ironman.
That first taste I had of an ironman was in June 2007, at Ironman Switzerland in Zurich. I was there because the day before I had competed in, and won, an Olympic-distance triathlon (in length, less than a quarter of an ironman). Immediately, I realised that the ironman was the main event. The sense of occasion had risen with the length of the race.
There is a special buzz that hangs in the air, like when the best team in the world comes to town. The occasion inspires extraordinary things in people – extraordinary excitement in those watching, extraordinary levels of performance from those competing.
But what raises ironman above other sports is the visceral nature of the contest against a fixed and unyielding foe: the contest against the race itself. You see humanity at its rawest, at its best and its worst. The ironman brings that out in you. Finishing it is a victory. People vomit at the side of the road, they lose control of their basic functions, they collapse, they become delirious, desperate to reach the finish line, when sometimes that finish line is still miles away. It evokes such emotion and requires you to dig to the depths, physically and mentally. And then there is the euphoria and relief of making it to the end. Inspirational is the only word to describe it. You don't get that from a game of cricket or football.
The first ironman triathlon took place on my first birthday, 18 February 1978. It started life as an argument. Who were fitter, runners or swimmers? The debate raged around one table at an awards ceremony after a running race on Oahu, Hawaii. John Collins, a US Navy commander, threw cyclists into the mix, having read that Eddy Merckx, the Belgian cyclist, had the highest oxygen uptake of any athlete ever measured. There and then, it occurred to him that, if they combined the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon, they would have the perfect test to settle the argument. The first to finish would be called the Ironman. He leaped onto the stage, grabbed the microphone and proclaimed his idea. They laughed at it.
Nevertheless, a year later the first 'Ironman' was contested by Collins and his friends. Fifteen competitors started; twelve finished. The winner was Gordon Haller, a taxi driver, completing the 140.6 miles in a little under twelve hours. Collins finished in seventeen hours.
The following year's race attracted the attention of a passing journalist, who wrote an article for Sports Illustrated describing what he saw. This inspired hundreds to compete in 1980. In 1981 the race was moved from Oahu to its current home, the less-populated Hawaii Island, or 'the Big Island', as it is fondly nicknamed. The US network ABC expressed an interest in covering the race. And in 1982, its legend was sealed.
That year, a young student called Julie Moss decided to compete in the Ironman as part of the thesis for her degree in physical education. Apart from a passion for surfing, she had little experience of competitive sport, but, incredibly, she found herself leading the women's race by mile eight of the marathon. The longer she held the lead, the more determined she became to win – and the less able to carry on. With each step she was reaching deeper and deeper inside herself.
She collapsed for the first time a few hundred yards from the finish. She managed to get back to her feet and carry on, with the nearest female competitor still a few minutes behind, but her body was shutting down. The crowd formed a tunnel, urging her on, while volunteers rushed to her aid. She fended them off, knowing that their support would disqualify her. Night had fallen, and the merciless lights of the ABC cameras captured her struggle. She collapsed again only twenty yards from the line. Volunteers tried to lift her to her feet, but she would not be helped. At that point, Kathleen McCartney, the second-placed female, ran past, oblivious, and trotted to the finish line where she was pronounced champion. Moss crawled the remaining yards to the line on her bloodied hands and knees, reaching it twenty-nine seconds later, after more than eleven hours of racing.
It was a drama that captured the imagination of millions of Americans and has become a part of the sport's folklore. Now ironman races proliferate around the world. The original race has turned into the annual World Championships, contested by 1,800 athletes, cheered on by thousands of spectators in Hawaii on the weekend of the first full moon in October. More than 50,000 hopefuls try to qualify for it each year.
The buzz at any ironman, let alone the World Championships, is palpable. Among the athletes it is born of a nervous excitement about what might lie ahead. For the elite the question might be, will I win today? But, even for them and certainly for everyone else, the main question is, will I finish and at what cost? Even if your body does not break down through sheer fatigue, there is ample scope for an unsuspected injury, be it in the mass brawl that is the swim, the high-speed road race on the bike, or the relentless pounding of the streets as you drag yourself through the marathon. The effects of any illness are magnified in bodies that are being pushed to their limit. And then there is the perennial threat of mechanical failure on the bike, gastro-intestinal dehydration or overheating.
As a result, the rituals of the ironman athlete are meticulous. From the pre-dawn breakfast, it is down to the start with hundreds of other athletes to begin the extensive application of Vaseline. It pays not to stand on ceremony. Chafing is one of the ironman athlete's worst enemies. It may not stop you, but it hurts like hell, mostly round the crotch, the underarms and the nipples. These areas need copious amounts of lubrication. The less shame you have about it the better for your race.
Ideally, you take to the water and warm up about fifteen minutes before the start. Ironman swims are almost always conducted in open water. The temperature determines whether you are allowed a wetsuit. As the start approaches, you scull in the water, lying on your front, staying afloat, waiting for the gun. At some races, as in the tropical waters off Hawaii, this can be one of the most beautiful, sublime moments of your year – certainly of your day.
Then the gun goes off, and all hell breaks loose. The idea is to get 'on the feet' of the fastest swimmers, in other words to move in behind them and take advantage of their slipstream. It is, effectively, a fight. Limbs flail and can catch you anywhere on your person. People might swim over the top of you. The water churns up, making it difficult to breathe. If the sea is choppy it is worse still. You are in a washing machine.
For the elite, this will go on for around an hour. For anyone who wants to continue beyond the swim, it must not go on for more than two hours and twenty minutes. Here is another cruelty to contend with – the cut-off times. If you do not complete the 2.4-mile swim in that time, you are not allowed to continue. The same applies to the other two disciplines. If you are still cycling ten and a half hours after the start, you must stop. And at midnight, seventeen hours after the start, the officials head out onto the course to round up those still pounding the streets to tell them they haven't made it.
The resultant scenes are heart-rending. You might think that people would feel relieved to be spared further punishment on a course that is so clearly beating them, but no, that is not the ironman way. They are distraught, inconsolable that they will not be allowed to finish what they had started, not just a few hours earlier when they began the race but years earlier when they began to dream. Everybody has their own reason for taking on an ironman; nobody enters into it with anything less than all their heart.
Once you've found your bike in the area known as 'transition' (this should take you around two minutes), it is out onto the open road, where the best will take the next four and a half to five hours to complete the 112-mile bike course. The sun rises ever higher during this stage. In hot countries, this is when the race becomes truly punishing. But rain brings its own problems too, and wind, particularly when combined with either of the above, can play havoc. A tailwind is all right, but riding into a headwind is much the same as riding up a hill. Crosswinds are even worse. If they are strong enough they are quite unnerving, making the bike difficult to control and sometimes blowing you off the road.
It is on the bike that you may first develop a need for the toilet. Again, it pays not to be squeamish. There is the occasional Portaloo on the course, but the most time-efficient solution, I find, is to go in my pants. If you're on the run, a quick crouch over a roadside ditch is acceptable. But on the bike, unless a flat tyre causes a natural break, going on the saddle is the best way. This is when the earlier application of Vaseline really comes into its own. And don't underestimate the use of urine as a weapon. On the bike it is forbidden to take advantage of someone's slipstream, even though it is allowed in the swim. We call it drafting. To get too close to the bike in front is not only dangerous but cheating. There are a series of official penalties for anyone caught doing it, but people still do. If anyone does it to me, I let off a warning shot, and they usually back off. It is yet another reason to keep yourself hydrated.
The final leg is when even the best start to wrestle with their demons. After 112 miles sitting on an unforgiving saddle, crouched low over the handlebars to maximise your aerodynamics and pumping your legs remorselessly, taking to your feet for the marathon can be a strange sensation. Your legs will feel like jelly for the first few minutes, but that will pass. Soon they will feel like lead.
It is impossible to swim, bike and run for the best part of a day and not experience bad times. Illness, dehydration and physical niggles, not to mention full-blown injuries, come and go throughout. There is also the mental anguish – that long road stretching out ahead of you, the landmarks that just won't come quickly enough. You can't listen to music; you have only the throb of blood through your head for company, and the screams of every unthinking fibre in your body that they want to stop. This is when the mind must take over. Ironman is as much a mental game as a physical one.
Everything is redeemed, though, by the sight of the finish line. The crowds, whose exhortations around the course lift many a flagging body and soul, focus all of their energy around the final few yards. Whether you finish first or 1,001st, they make you feel like a champion. Your body may be wrecked, muscles cramping, skin chafing, toenails falling off and feet blistering, but you have joined a special club. After all of my races, I stay at the finish line all night to welcome people home. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. We professionals do nothing but eat, sleep and train for these events, but it's the thousands who take on an ironman for the love of it who inspire me the most.
Julie Moss was the first great hero of the sport, but there have been countless others since, and most of them get nowhere near the podium. People fighting old age, illness and disability, those recovering from horrific injury, others simply wrestling with the demands of a day job – these are the heroes of ironman.
Sport has a unique ability to inspire and empower. If used correctly, it can be such a force for good. Ironman is a relatively new pursuit and, although it grows exponentially each year, it is still a 'minority' sport. Maybe this freshness is what gives it its energy, but there is something about its gruelling nature, as well, that inspires people to find the best in themselves and in each other. Because, make no mistake – that is what it does. The ironman walked into my life quite suddenly, and changed it for ever.
Out of Norfolk
It's at this point in a sporting autobiography that the author traditionally launches into an account of the brilliant athletic achievements of their youth, of how they were always destined to become a professional athlete. Unfortunately, I have no such tale to tell.
I did play wing attack in the Downham Market High School netball team that won the Norfolk Schools Championship in 1993. And I wasn't a bad swimmer. I won the odd race at the Thetford Dolphins Swimming Club, although Julie Williams would usually beat me.
And that's about it in terms of sporting achievement for the first twenty-five years of my life. Mine really is the story of the accidental athlete. When your nickname is Muppet, the chances are you are not a child prodigy.
But if there was one thing that marked me out as unusual it was my drive. I would go so far as to describe it as obsessive-compulsive. I have, and always have had, the most powerful urge to make the best of myself. At times I have not been able to control it; at times it has taken me to some unpleasant places; but it is also an essential part of who I am, and I cannot make any apology for this.
My early sporting career might have been modest, but my academic career was more impressive. I attribute that to my determination, as I do the success I enjoyed as a civil servant in my career before triathlon. But, as a sensitive soul who has always worried – too much most of the time – about what other people think of her, this obsession with self-improvement has often spilled into other less positive preoccupations.
My relationship with my body has been a difficult one over the years. At times I have loved it, at times I have despaired of it, at times I have seen it as little more than a plaything to be bent to my will, as if it were somehow separate from me.
It's a control thing. I am a control freak, basically. Which is good and bad. If there is something you don't like about your life, then to me it is perfectly possible and logical to change it. That's the good side. The bad side is that hideous feeling of panic and anger when you come up against something you can't control. And then there is the danger that the idea of being in control itself gets out of control, so that it becomes an end in itself and causes you to lose sight of everything else. Addiction might be another way of putting that.
"What emerges from this book is the portrait of a thoroughly nice woman. Her exceptional qualities have led her to achievements that her readers can scarcely imagine. But she still remains touchingly connected to that ordinary girl from Norfolk. It's a winning combination."
---Jane Shilling, The Daily Mail
"What amazes me about Chrissie Wellington is not that she wins, but by how much...Like Usain Bolt, Wellington has burst on to the scene and destroyed the opposition. Those within athletics said that Bolt was coming but Wellington came from nowhere and wins by a relatively greater margin."
---James Cracknell, two time Olympic gold medalist, and adventurer
"Empowering and suitably commemorative."
- On Sale
- Apr 23, 2013
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Center Street