Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Chrissie Wellington "A Life Without Limits"

I've just finished reading Chrissie Wellington's autobiography. The first thing that struck me about her book, compared to other sporting biographies that I have read, is that it doesn't talk about sport itself nearly as much as you would expect. In fact, it reads like the autobiography of a successful and interesting person, which is exactly what Chrissie Wellington is. After all, one of the reasons we read autobiographies (at least, I speak for myself) is in the hope that we might learn something. Certainly Chrissie bars no holds in her book and there is as much to learn from her successes as from her mistakes, which she has no squeamishness about revealing. In fact, I don't think I have read a book with less "squeam" than this one: Ironman is a discipline that reduces us to basic bodily functions.

I appreciated the tone of her writing which struck a perfect balance between singing her own praises and being self-deprecating. She comes across quite simply as unashamedly proud of her achievements, whether they were from her pre-triathlete professional life or winning the Ironman World Championships in spite of injury. Although I don't suppose many people would have bought her book had it not been for her accolades in the sporting world, she writes with such straightforwardness that she could equally be talking about winning a local swimming gala. Triathlon is a perfect breeding ground for obsessive attention to detail having three times the number of sports to fuss over (more, if you count the transitions); however, Chrissie seems very level headed about it all, even if she "loses it" at times when pushing her body to new limits. I think that this must be a contributing factor to her success (as well as the readability of the book). My own experience from the Marathon I ran recently tallies with this - I invested my mental energy in overriding my inclination to slow down rather than in  worrying unduly about other details.

Chrissie's story does read rather like a fairy tale. She came from nowhere to winning every single iron distance race she has ever started. Who hasn't had a dream in which you are inexplicably able to run faster and further than anyone else, with no discomfort or pain? Most of us meet our grim reality in the form of a time the we can't improve on, or a person that we can't beat. Chrissie gives the impression that these limits are all in our mind and never makes any reference to any of the genetic advantages that she must surely have. What is amazing to think is that, in this day and age, in the developed world, an off-the-scale athlete like Chrissie almost slipped by unnoticed; it makes you wonder who else might be out there. Sure, she was always a fast swimmer and a fast runner, but nothing really extraordinary: it is really the particular challenge of the Ironman that it seems she was made for. She herself attributes some of her aptitude for the distance to her capacity to endure boredom. I can relate to that.

I found the relationship with her one-time coach, Brett Sutton, very interesting, as well as all the dynamics with the other athletes in the team. It just goes to show that it's not all plain sailing, even if you are the best by a long shot. The chronicles of the three World Championships that she has competed in (and won) are worth the price of the book alone. Even for her, the goal she sets herself is to better herself, she is almost unconcerned with breaking records (which are only temporary, anyway). What really is amazing, is to read how she achieved this with a catalogue of mechanical failures, flat tires and injuries. Again, it begs the question of hoe much of our limits are a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having recently read "I'm here to win" by Chris McCormack, the male Ironman World Champion in 2010, it was interesting to contrast the different approaches and very tempting to extrapolate this to differences between men and women. Chris lifted the lid on the carefully orchestrated "smack talk" before major competitions, where he would try to ensure that all the other athletes were thinking more about him than about their own race. For Chris, the Ironman is a very strategic race in which you cannot afford to give an inch to your opponents. Chrissie's way of not giving anything up is different: never show them how much you are hurting... and smile! Chrissie talks about collaboration and, unlike Chris, regularly trains with people that she will be competing against. A famous example of the sort of collaboration which is rarely seen in a World Championships other than the Ironman is from 2008, when she suffered a flat tyre. Being a bit of a "muppet" (her words) she fumbled the CO2 cannister and let all the gas out by accident, leaving her with no way to inflate her tyre. As accepting outside help can lead to disqualification, she had no choice but to try to beg a spare cannister from another competitor. In the end Rebeka Keat obliged and Chrissie went on to win the race.

One of the themes in the book that she keeps returning to is that of "helping other people". One can't help reading a bit between the lines and sensing a conflict between this desire and the self-absorbed discipline of a professional triathlete. It is clear that Chrissie is building a platform from her success from which she can hopefully make a difference. The question we are left with is, can we look forward to more races from the Queen of Kona or is she already looking to other challenges?

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