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Chrissie Wellington took the year off from racing.
But while the four-time Ironman World Champion triathlete was visiting New York City earlier this year to do some early promotions for her upcoming autobiography, she got wind of a little footrace called the Empire State Building Run-Up. Thinking it sounded like good fun to sprint up 86 flights of stairs on a Wednesday in February, she entered on a lark. She was the third woman overall, less than a minute behind the winner.
Welcome to Chrissie’s world.
Since emerging on the Ironman scene from out of nowhere in 2007, the U.K. native has won all 13 Ironman races in which she’s competed, and holds the record for the fastest Ironman-distance race — 8:18 at Germany’s Challenge Roth in 2011 — and the women’s course record at the championships in Kona, Hawaii with an 8:54 in 2009.
Despite her unparalleled success in the sport of triathlon, Wellington’s path to the podium was circuitous. Growing up in Norfolk, England, she was hardly a star athlete. Clumsy and not at all gifted, she writes in her upcoming book, “A Life Without Limits: A World Champion’s Journey,” “When your nickname is Muppet, the chances are you are not a child prodigy.”
Although Wellington didn’t excel in sports, she was nonetheless driven. “I am a control freak basically,” she said. “If there is something you don’t like about your life, then to me it is perfectly possible and logical to change it.” She also admits to having “an addictive personality. Sport is my drug of choice.”
These days, however, it’s her book that is her primary focus. “I didn’t take any time off to write the book, it was a labor of love for one-and-a-half years, but now I’m taking time off to promote the message,” she said. “Mediocrity doesn’t interest me. I couldn’t devote 100 percent of my time to training and racing and the book. So after having the race of my life in Kona last year, it was time to truly celebrate and put my heart and soul into promoting this book.”
The book lays out in detail the challenges that Wellington faced as she prepared to make her return at the 2011 Ironman World Championship. The year before, she was forced to withdraw the morning of the race due to a viral infection, so the pressure and scrutiny last year were heightened. Add to that the fact that two weeks before the race, Wellington had a horrific bike crash, sustaining second-degree skin abrasions on her legs, a torn pectoral muscle and assorted bruises.
Even though excruciating pain left her in an unfamiliar spot — 17th place after the 2.4-mile swim and sixth at the end of the 112-mile bike race — Wellington managed to run down five other women in the marathon to win. “I annihilated myself,” she said. “I fought my own demons and defied what I thought was possible. It was truly a case of mind over matter and overcoming doubts, questions and fears. It was wonderfully empowering.”
That’s the message she hopes to convey in her book as well.
Before becoming a professional athlete, Wellington worked as an adviser for the British government on international development in developing countries. That included a stint in Nepal, which is where she first developed her cycling skills. By sharing her life story, she hopes to inspire young people to chase their dreams. “The messages transcend triathlon,” she said.
So what’s next for Wellington? Once the book is published, she expects to return to racing. “But one needs to be open to opportunities,” she said. “Who’s to say what the future will hold. You need to be prepared for life to take a different course.”
Even so, she expects her involvement in sports to continue. “I’ll always be involved in sport,” she said, “but probably at a more grass-roots level as a tool for development and empowerment.” She also hopes to help bring the sport of triathlon to a more mainstream audience. Right now, she said, the sport is “fringe in terms of public profile, but not in terms of participation. It doesn’t have the remuneration other sports do, and there are many barriers to participation. The races are exorbitant and prohibitive to a lot of people with the entry fees and the equipment they think they need. It’s also still very white middle class and I would like to see that change too.”
“A Life Without Limits” will be published on May 15 by Center Street/Hachette Book Group.