Chrissie Wellington OBE shares how embracing the unknown took her from running novice to four-time World Ironman Champion.
"I am not an extraordinary person in my ability to endure,” says Chrissie Wellington, University alumna and four-time World Ironman Champion. “I believe that we can all endure; there are strategies we all use and can develop to thrive on this rollercoaster of life.
One strategy that works for Wellington is connection: a recurring theme in her journey to date. It’s also at the heart of parkrun, the global health and wellbeing charity she’s been involved with since retiring from professional sport. “People can participate [in parkrun events] in whatever manner suits them,” she explains, including volunteering.
“To us, this is as an important form of participation as walking and running; you’re connecting with others, with your environment, you’re connecting with yourself.”
Growing up Wellington was “incredibly studious” and despite a love of swimming, she was “consumed by the ambition to achieve the best grades”. This mindset stuck throughout undergraduate study: “I was determined to get a first-class honours [degree]. I joined the swimming team… but I hardly swam. I definitely didn’t explore my potential.”
After graduating – with first-class honours in Geography – she went travelling and began to reflect. “I started to go through this process of introspection about where my life was heading,” she explains. “I had signed up for a corporate law firm in London but [started] to question whether or not I wanted to go into law, and what my passions were.”
Wellington started powerwalking to create space for her thoughts: “I was conforming and performing, rather than following my own authentic life, anchored around what mattered to me.” What mattered, she realised, was philanthropy – a passion that had emerged during childhood when the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s “gripped the public consciousness”, and she started fundraising to help the cause.
Nearly 20 years later, Wellington set her focus on international development. She got a place on a master’s course at The University of Manchester and moved to the city within weeks of returning from travelling. “I chose Manchester because it offered a course in the subject that I cared passionately about, and it was a reputable university with a strong history and creditability in the topic.”
I am not an extraordinary person in my ability to endure.
A marathon journey
During her time at the University, Wellington reconnected with a childhood friend who despite a heart defect had gone on to run the London Marathon.
“I thought, ‘wow, if she can do it, what’s stopping me?’ ” That’s the thing about this Ironman world record-holder – once she sets her mind to something, she’s going to give it a shot.
“Reflecting on my life, the root of my success is having the courage to try new things… step out of my comfort zone and be the person I want to be.”
While instinctive – “I’ve always had the confidence to explore” – Wellington believes this attitude can be nurtured in the right environment. “An institution [like the University] can empower people to be the individuals that they want to be, but within a supportive collective.”
Wellington secured a place in the 2002 London Marathon and started training around her studies. “It [Manchester] was where I started running… and embarked on what was to become my journey of endurance.”
Fork in the road
Armed with a Distinction in her Economic Development Studies MA, Wellington began working in the Civil Service, which included a year in Nepal helping to deliver a water and sanitation project.
A few years later she entered her first triathlon and, after catching the competitive sport bug, was faced with a choice: continue down her current career path or change direction and become a professional triathlete. “Making any change is scary; for every choice you make, there’s a [decision] not to do something else.” What made her take the leap? “I have a fear of not knowing what my potential might be… I never want to look back and be left wondering.”
Reflecting on my life, the root of my success is having the courage to try new things… step out of my comfort zone and be the person I want to be.
In 2007 Wellington rewrote sporting history, as the only triathlete, male or female, to gain the Ironman Triathlon World Championship title less than a year after turning professional. She won every subsequent Championship race she entered (2008, 2009 and 2011) and at one point, held all three World and Championship records related to Ironman triathlon.
“Sport gave me this phenomenal connection with myself, my environment and with some amazing people,” she reflects.
“People see triathlon as a very individual sport and I suppose on the face of it, it is. We compete independently, but so much of what I achieved was done through interdependence… We hear a lot about self-care [and] the implication is it’s up to us to take care of ourselves, but I think the root of self-care is connection.”
Beyond the finish line
Wellington retired in 2012 after “having had the race I always dreamed of”, and although the choice was hers alone, she admits it was difficult. “I questioned who I was, how I was going to make a living. I had to decide what the next stage of my life would look like. Again, I went through that process of introspection.”
Combining her sporting experience with the passion for international development that started at Manchester led Wellington to parkrun. Its Founder, Paul Sinton-Hewitt, asked her to help expand the junior parkrun series, but as the organisation’s mission evolved, so did her role.
A new direction
“We [parkrun] realised we’re so much more than a sports event; we’re a public health intervention,” she says of the evidence that built during the charity’s first decade. This realisation inspired the 2015 mission shift from ‘a parkrun in every community’ to ‘a healthier and happier planet’.
Now, as parkrun’s Global Head of Health and Wellbeing, Wellington develops interventions to engage as many people as possible, removing barriers for event delivery and participation. “[parkrun] is empowering people to take control of their health and wellbeing in a welcoming, supportive, safe environment,” she says.
Something she feels is more important than ever.
“There’s a lot of guilt woven into the health and wellbeing movement. We’re made to feel that if we make a bad choice, we’ve failed,” she explains. “For me, it’s about behaviours that take you in the direction you want to go. ‘Where am I now? Where do I want to be? Can I focus on some simple steps to take me in that direction?’ ”
“There’s no silver-bullet solution, but I advise people simply to try. I sit here now in this blessed position of being a World Champion thinking ‘What if I’d never said yes to my first triathlon?’ That’s the inspiration I need every day just to try.”