Issue ID: December 2011
A bike crash in training two weeks before Ironman Hawaii 2011 saw Chrissie’s hopes of reclaiming her title in tatters. But, with broken ribs and a pulmonary embolism, it was on the Lava fields of Kona on that October day that the now-retired Chrissie achieved her greatest triumph. So who better to talk us through that epic feat than the quadruple world champion herself?
I remember telling a friend that I always feel a bit embarrassed after races, ’cause I cross the finish line and I’m dancing around, and I come back until midnight and act like I’ve just done a 5km. I want to cross the finish line feeling like I’ve given it physically and mentally absolutely everything, and that I’m totally spent. This year I got my wish. I couldn’t have given any more.
Two weeks prior I was in the shape of my life. [Coach] Dave [Scott] thought I could swim 55mins, bike around 4:50hrs and do a 2:48hr marathon. The crash didn’t take my physical fitness away, but the injuries did compromise me in many ways.
Ten days prior to the race my leg was so infected that it was double the size and I couldn’t put my foot on the ground. Five days before the race I managed a 1km swim before Tom [Lowe] had to lift me out of the water because my pec muscle was so sore. It felt like I was being stabbed with a needle and I couldn’t take a sharp intake of breath. I went to hospital to be tested for broken ribs and a pulmonary embolism. It’s not that I’m a hero, but my preparation was so sub-optimal that there were times when I wondered whether I could race at all.
Was the fact I didn’t start last year in the back of my mind? My friends and family flew all that way and I let them down. So I had to start come hell or high water. If I have to walk or if I have to bike really slowly, that’s going to be just as inspiring as a victory because people will see me trying to overcome my injuries. Never in a million years did I think I would win it.
My acupuncturist had actually flown out because she wanted to watch the race – luckily she’d brought her needles. I also got a lot of ART (active release therapy) as Mike Leahy, who pioneered that whole technique, was treating me every day. He said that I’d be able to swim, but that I’d torn or pulled a pectoral muscle and that my swim would be compromised.
There were many reasons that my swim time was slow, but I’ll admit that I was incredibly nervous about the swim and the potential pain. I just didn’t swim fast or aggressive enough in those initial stages. I wasn’t in the best position or group, either, so that didn’t help.
At T1 I didn’t know the time difference. I was racked next to Rinny [Mirinda Carfrae] so saw that her bike was gone… in fact, a few bikes were gone! I’d done a slow time but all I knew was that it was nine minutes to Julie [Dibens]. Julie and I are close friends and I knew that she had a foot injury that caused her to pull out of Vegas [World 70.3 Champs, four weeks earlier], so I knew she was going to annihilate the bike because she’d nothing to lose.
I see a lot of my fellow athletes as competitors but Rinny was the principal contender for the victory. When I saw 4mins to Rinny, I thought, ‘Right, you’ve got two options. Go like a bat out of hell to catch her or slowly, slowly keep plugging away.’ I did the latter.
Just before Hawi, I came across Rinny unexpectedly as there was a time lag on the timing splits. I went past her and actually felt quite strong. But then Karen Thürig came past me like I was sitting still! I tried valiantly to stay with her and managed to overtake but she was just too strong.
I was in a lot of discomfort, my hip was hurting and my lower back has being going numb for the past two years on the bike. But with the damaged hip my pelvis had twisted even more – I have a rotated pelvis anyway – that meant my lower back was killing me.
I was in sixth place off the bike and wasn’t overly worried about running down a 20-minute deficit. But there was always a question mark over how my body was going to feel. I was overusing my right leg and starting to experience pain in my calf.
I went like a bat out of hell out of transition. I heard the announcer say, “And there’s Mirinda Carfrae, the reigning champion.” I only had two or three minutes and I thought, ‘Ooh right, well I know this girl can run a 2:53, so I’ve got to put a marker down’. I felt comfortable but my hip really hurt.
Because of the pain and being in a different position, it was a totally different race. I had to keep calm like never before. ‘Don’t panic, keep your head, all will be good.’ That’s all I kept saying. And I just thought if I finish in sixth that would be amazing, or if I finish fifth that would be amazing, or if I finish fourth, ooh wow! At the turnaround I saw Rinny and she looked so dogged, so determined. I was actually feeling quite relaxed and was smiling quite a lot at that point. I felt okay.
When I overtook Julie my first feeling was sadness because she was walking. You want your competitors to be able to complete the race. Then I came up behind Rachel [Joyce] who had a phenomenal race. Her cadence wasn’t that quick but she looked strong. We acknowledged each other and then I set about running Leanda [Cave] down.
I caught Leanda at around mile 12, and I went through the halfway in 1:22hrs, which is close to my Challenge Roth [world record] split. It was pretty darn fast! At that point I thought, ‘This is game on, my body feels okay.’
The wind was actually cooling on the Queen K but it was still really hot because the clouds never came over, so it was hard to get enough fluid in. I was putting ice down my top and carrying it in my hand, squeezing sponges on my head, doing everything to keep cool. The last time I peed was 2km from the end of the bike and then I didn’t pee on the run.
I was getting splits – “You’re two minutes from Caroline [Steffen], 1:30, one minute.” I overtook her at the entrance to the Energy Lab. Then, heading out, I saw Rinny coming the other way and knew that I had four minutes on her. And I started to think, ‘Unless I’m walking, that’s going to be a big task for her to overcome, but nothing is impossible, especially when it comes to her’.
Before the race Dave told me, “Just conserve every ounce of your energy, all your energy needs to go into racing. I know you want to smile but just conserve your energy.” And that’s what I tried to do.
It was at the top of Palani Hill when I knew that I could win. And that’s when the shades went on top of my head and I could start smiling. But that last mile just seems so long.
I remembered a friend had said before the race, “If you can finish this race it’ll be amazing, if you could win it’d be epic.” And I thought to myself, ‘This is epic!’ I was confused and overwhelmed. But then you see the Banyan tree and you start hearing the conch shells…
POSITIONS AT FINISH
1 Chrissie Wellington, GBR 8:55:08
2 Mirinda Carfrae, AUS 8:57:57
3 Leanda Cave, GBR 9:03:29
I was wobbly and dehydrated. I didn’t ask for an IV; they suggested I had one. So I asked, “Am I bad enough to need one?” They were like, “Yes!” They had three goes at getting the IV in me – I felt like a pin cushion. But I started to feel better as soon as I got the fluid in me. Then I had chicken nuggets and chips, which never tasted so good.
I pushed myself to the limit. It was a phenomenal battle. But my time wasn’t a reflection of my physical capability and I think that I, and other athletes, can go significantly faster.
Hopefully people can see it wasn’t easy for me and I can win under different circumstances. I had to dig really deep. I know that Rinny’s coach beforehand said, “Well, Chrissie’s never been tested and how will she cope under pressure? How will she cope if she’s got to chase people down?” And [coach] Brett Sutton always said that as well. The test of you as an athlete doesn’t come from your times, or your ability to break records, it’ll come when people really put you under pressure.
Hopefully this result conveys a message to people. And I don’t see that vulnerability [that I’ve shown] necessarily being synonymous with weakness. It comes from the fact that people have put me on a pedestal and I’ve been called a ‘freak of nature’ or ‘superhuman’. And I’ve always known that I’m human, like everyone else.
And hopefully this has shown that I am human, and you can achieve anything if you have grit, determination, self-belief and the help of others, like Dave Scott, who – oh my God – if he wasn’t a good coach before, he came into his own in those two weeks after the crash.
During the race, I was also thinking, ‘It’s going to be a crappy end to my autobiography if you come sixth. You’ve got to win!’ That’s what I was thinking: ‘This is going to be a great ending.’