TW Interviews: Chrissie Wellington

Chrissie Wellington is arguably Britain's greatest ever athlete. She remains unbeaten over the Ironman triathlon distance and amazingly took her fourth World Championship victory at Kona this autumn, despite nursing horrifically painful injuries from a bike accident the week before.

Then there's her Ironman World Record, which she set on her first Challenge Roth race in 2009 and she has smashed every year on the course since - it now stands at a jaw-dropping 8:18:13.    

We could be forgiven for being just a tad nervous before meeting the superwoman of triathlon - we needn't have been. Warm, unflinchingly honest and unpretentiously erudite, Chrissie is not just a great athlete but a champion of many causes and issues. She revealed to us her deep-rooted fear of losing, her frustration at not being a household name and what this year's Kona victory meant to her.                                                                                                                                                         

You won your fourth Ironman World Championship win this year. What did victory mean to you this time around?

It's probably the victory I'm most proud of because I achieved more than I ever thought possible. I dug deeper than I ever have and I faced my worst fear, which is of losing. I toed the line not expecting to win and that was the hardest thing to have to face. Facing that fear and actually coming through to win was hugely gratifying and it makes me very, very proud.

It seems strange you have such a profound fear of losing, when you keep smashing world records and achieving such emphatic victories...

Maybe that perpetuates it. Each race you win, you get used to it and then the thought of not winning is quite a scary prospect. Not only because you won't do justice to all your hard work but it's also the worry I might lose the platform winning gives me.  

What do you mean by 'the platform'?

I feel really strongly that sports people have a responsibility that goes beyond performing on the pitch. They're an ambassador for their sport and a role model for amateur athletes and the general public. We have a platform and a voice. You can either use that voice to positive effect, null effect or negative effect. I feel very strongly that I have messages I want to convey and issues that are important to me, and I never want to take that for granted.  

Your success has been phenomenal but you're not a national name as you probably would be if you competed in other sports. Does that bother you?

I've been really happy, even over the last couple of years, by the number of non-triathlon media outlets that want to do profile pieces or who want to report on my races. That's pleasing, not in a narcissistic sense because I want to see my picture on the front of a newspaper, but because the increased profile will help to drive the sport. It will attract sponsors, which can help up-and-coming athletes to make a living. Is it frustrating it doesn't get more coverage? Yes, because I feel I invest a huge amount of time and energy into achieving what I have. I've broken countless world records and achieved four World Championship wins, yet I'm not a household name. But I didn't do it for the media coverage, I didn't do it because I wanted to see my name in lights, I did it for my own personal sense of satisfaction of being the best that I could be. What's frustrating is that without the media, I don't have a voice and I need the media to be my voice to have that platform that I talked about. It's frustrating when they don't cover the victory because it means that I can't spread the messages that I want to. However, I think that's changing.

How tough was Kona this time around with all your injuries from the bike accident?

Mentally, as much as anything, it was incredibly difficult. We all like our preparation to be as perfect as possible and any disruption to that routine can really throw you. The accident turned my race preparation upside down, I was in a lot of pain and I couldn't do the training that I wanted. I spent a lot of that week in hospital and that affected my self-belief and my confidence in my ability. However, my spirit was still there - sometimes it was buried very deep inside - but it was still there. The day before the race, I still remember feeling really confident despite everything that had happened. I thought, "All you can do is your best with what you've got."

What strategies did you use on the day? When you got to the run it was by no means guaranteed you were going to win...

The same strategies I'd utilised, developed and honed during my training. I've had to draw on those skills throughout my career, not just at Kona. Although people think it's easy for me, and that other races have been easy because they perceive it to be from looking at me, it's not. Ironman is a long day and there are huge highs and lows in each of my races and I've suffered discomfort, pain and self-doubt. I draw on the strategies I've always drawn on. The most crucial is just to stay in the moment. Try never to let your head drop and you often have to take your mind away and almost disassociate the pain so it's something that's almost external to you. I always have two voices on each shoulder, one is saying, "quit, quit, quit" and the other is saying, "never quit, never quit, never quit" - that one is always louder. I even take practical steps. I write "never ever give up" on my wrist band and on top of my water bottle on the bike, things like that are a reminder of my own mantras. You just have to develop those skills and suffer in training and learn to take your mind away from pain. The more you can endure in training, the more you can endure in a race because you know you've already done it before.

You have a famously high pain threshold. Was it always so high or how much has it changed over years of training?

I don't know if my pain threshold is a physical or mental attribute. I suffer pain like everyone else - it's not that I could touch something hot and I wouldn't get hurt - but I think it's the mental capability to disassociate from pain or to suffer whilst thinking, "this will pass". During a race, the pain ebbs and flows and I guess I try to focus on other things and take my mind away from it. Smiling also helps.

On the next page: Chrissie reveals how many minutes she hopes to shave off her Roth world record, her racing weaknesses and the poem that helps her win.