Legendary triathlete Chrissie Wellington tells Euan Crumley why taking on the London Marathon again is about much more than covering 26.2 miles
In comparison to the inexperienced 25-year-old who joined the throng on Blackheath Common back in 2002, largely unaware of the athletic potential she possessed, it will be a very different Chrissie Wellington who sets off to tackle the Virgin Money London Marathon on April 23.
A lot has happened since what has proved to be a very fateful day for the Englishwoman 15 years ago. Having trained in “old clothes and old trainers”, Wellington surprised herself somewhat by covering the famous 26.2-mile course in just 3 hours and 8 minutes.
That performance lit the fuse on what has become one of the most remarkable careers in endurance sport. After London, she joined the running group led by renowned coach Frank Horwill. One sporting thing led to another and, in 2007, Wellington took the plunge and became a professional triathlete.
It proved to be a wise decision as she proceeded to win no fewer than four world Ironman titles, each involving a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a marathon distance run.
She revelled in the cycle of training and competition, a particularly busy lifestyle when you are juggling three disciplines. The goals were tangible, the feedback constant, the rewards immediate. So, when retirement came calling in 2012, there was a substantial void to fill and a new reality with which to become accustomed.
“I want to do the best I can, but I want sport to exist within a much healthier framework and lifestyle”
Various work projects came along – Wellington is now head of participation for parkrun – as did her daughter Esme. But, when it came to staying fit, the events Wellington entered were either lower-key or more challenge orientated, involving far less pressure. Interestingly, for someone who had conquered the world, there was an element of fear about keeping up athletic appearances.
It is something she speaks openly about as London approaches, illness having hampered training a little. The 40-year-old is, however, coming to terms with what ‘success’ now represents and it’s something she feels many others would do well to consider.
“Training for London has been an interesting process,” says Wellington. “I think for me – and many professional athletes might feel this – you put a lot of pressure on yourself and there is quite a bit of external pressure to be the athlete that you were.
“I think I shied away from that. I think I was so scared to enter things because of what people might think. I was so scared to enter things because I wouldn’t be as fast as I used to be and that would embarrass me.
“My reputation is based on excellence and I think that if you don’t then meet the standards that you set yourself before then you’re somehow letting yourself down.
“I think, now, I’m getting my head around what success means. What is a realistic but ambitious goal for me in the context of my life now? And, to be frank, sod what everyone else thinks because I will never be as fast as I was as a professional athlete because I don’t want to give my life over to sport any more.
“I want to do the best I can, but I want sport to exist within a much healthier framework and lifestyle. So I’ve had to kind of modify my expectations based on that and be happy with them.”
There is no getting away from the fact, however, that there will be those keeping a keen eye out for her finishing time. But beating the clock is no longer top of Wellington’s priority list.
“There’s a lot of expectation for me to run around 2 hours 40 I guess,” she says. “People will say ‘well, you ran 2:44 in an Ironman, surely you can run faster than that without the swimming and cycling first’.
“But it’s been five years since I retired and I’ve had a daughter. I think part of this process is the challenge of coping with a goal that previously wouldn’t have been that ambitious for me but now is.
“My goal, before I got sick, was to run around 2:50 which for me is pretty ambitious and has been quite tough actually. But only I – and those that are around me – understand that. People who look at my performance from the outside might not necessarily appreciate the challenge of trying to reach that goal.”
She may not be reaching for the same heights she once attained but the fact she is still extending herself is crucial.
“I think it’s an important message, in that success can come in various forms,” continues Wellington. “For example, my last Ironman was not very fast, yet I won it. I won it as world champion but my time was not very fast. That was because I’d had an accident two weeks before and I can’t measure success based on the time on the clock. It’s the same with any athlete – you get injured, your child gets ill or doesn’t sleep, something happens to a family member or you get stressed with work – you have to see success within the context of a wider life.
“I think it’s an important message because everyone gets so wedded to the time on the clock that they lose sight of the wider picture.”
“You have to see success within the context of a wider life”
Fundamentally, the London Marathon is an event and an experience to savour. It’s one that few who have taken part can ever forget – and is usually of great personal significance. As well as focusing her mind on the challenge ahead, signing up to run it again has allowed Wellington to remember her past and where it all began.
“I ran a little bit at school but I wouldn’t say I ran until 2000,” she says. “I really only started running when I was doing my MA and used it as a means of weight loss and a respite from academia.
“Then I was chatting to a friend who had a heart defect and she’d run London the year before. I thought ‘well if she can do it, so can I’. So that’s where my entering the London Marathon came from but I didn’t really have a clue. I hadn’t ever been a member of a running club, I didn’t know anything about interval training, hill training, strength and conditioning… I just went out and ran in old clothes and old trainers.”
There was nothing jaded or tired about her performance come race day.
“I remember really enjoying every single minute of it and, not wanting to sound arrogant, but I don’t remember it being as painful as I’d imagined it to be,” she admits. “Obviously there must have been discomfort but that wasn’t an enduring memory.
“In retrospect, I remember the naivety. I didn’t even have a running vest so I bought one at the expo a couple of days before! I really didn’t have a sense of what I was capable of and I think that was quite liberating. To run 3:08, though, was something I could never have imagined.”
“It was the first endurance event that I’d ever done and that mattered to me. It was almost like coming full circle, in a way”
The thought of coming “full circle” and experiencing London appealed to Wellington. The opportunity to share another big event experience with her family again – she is hugely grateful for the support of her husband Tom – is one of the many things she’s looking forward to.
“Being in a race environment, having a goal, having that challenge, sharing it with 30-odd thousand people and having my family on the sidelines,” replies Wellington when asked what she is most keenly anticipating about race day.
“As an athlete, it was so wonderful and such a family journey to get 20-odd people – sometimes even more – coming to watch my races and just to be able to share it with them was what was so special. So, this time, even though I’m not racing as an elite and I guess it’s a different type of race and a different type of athlete that they’ll be watching now, it won’t be any less enjoyable to have everyone down there waving banners.
“That’s what is so great about sport. To have everyone together at my races was amazing and they’ve got memories from spectating that they’ll never forget. With me racing again hopefully everyone will come together and we’ll have a really good party as well.”
She adds: “For me, London made sense for so many reasons. I love larger events with more competitors and bigger crowds – that just suits me.
“As a professional I was always enjoyed ‘performing’ in front of a crowd – I almost saw it as similar to being an actor on a stage. You’d worked so hard and here was your opportunity to touch as many people as possible through your performance.
“It was the first endurance event that I’d ever done and that mattered to me. It was almost like coming full circle, in a way.
“I did it in 2002 as someone who had really no clue about structured running training – I just went out and ran at the same pace for an increasing amount of time. That strategy worked very well then but I’ve learned a little bit more in the 15 years since!”
As she openly admits, in fact, Wellington is continuing to learn about herself.