Legendary status is not a prestige that stands in isolation. It’s having one athlete’s performance yardstick brought into focus against all others.
Bob Beamon’s long jump record in the Mexico City Olympics seemed completely amazing when it happened. But just how legendary that jump was revealed itself over time. It took 23-years for someone else to better it. That’s legendary!
In triathlon, one of the standards that hit legendary status was Paula Newby-Fraser’s course record that was set in 1992. She crushed everyone with an 8:55:28. Just like Beamon’s record, the legendary status of that standard grew, year after year. No one was even close to breaking it. After a decade it ceased to be a record that was even talked about as something that would be broken any time soon.
Faster times were eventually posted at other IRONMAN races around the world. But Paula’s Kona record seemed to be off limits. That was until Chrissie Wellington came along.
In 2009 she was on the biggest roll at IRONMAN since Natasha Badmann. Chrissie was coming into the race that year as the two-time defending champion. If she could win a third, she would join Badmann and Newby-Fraser as the only women to win three consecutive titles.
But something else was brewing. In 2008 Wellington broke 9-hours at the IRONMAN European Championships in Frankfurt clocking an 8:51: 27. She knew what a sub-9 hour effort felt like. Then in the summer of 2009, Chrissie Wellington blew the doors off the course record at Challenge Roth. The time was a jaw dropping 8:31:59! If she could follow that up in Kona with anything close, the longest standing women’s record looked to be in jeopardy.
And follow up she did. Chrissie swam an impressive 54:31. She flew on the bike on a windless day and came in with a split of 4:52:07. But then the run came. She’d been nursing a pesky hamstring that just wouldn’t fully loosen up, and it concerned her.
“By the time I was setting out on the run, I had a big buffer on the nearest women. This is what usually happens, but I was particularly grateful for it this year, because I had so little confidence in my hamstring. I hadn’t felt it on the bike, but it had been ever-present in my mind. Now it took center stage physically.”
“The constant tug of the muscle grew tighter as the race wore on, but so did the realization that I could run through it. By halfway I knew at least that my body was going to hold up. Still, the landmarks on the course were taking an age to loom into view.”
“Never had I had to dig as deep in a race as I did on that marathon. The last 6 or 7km really did feel like a death march. My rhythm was shot to pieces. My legs were seizing up. This stage of ironman is never easy, but I am good at making it look as if it is. This time, that feat was beyond me. It was clear from the look on my face and the crabby nature of my stride that I was in real pain.”
“I remember taking great strength from the memory of my grandfather Harry, who had died the year before, aged 101. He was a man of such fortitude. I wanted to make him proud.”
“I was fatiguing fast. My form had gone. It had been the hardest fight of any of my races – the hardest fight between my body and my mind.”
“Never had I been so relieved to see a finish line. It was a sight blurred by fatigue, blurred by tears. I approached it with laughter and relief tumbling out of me, as you might an oasis in the desert. Mike Reilly, the Voice of Ironman, whooped and hollered that I had broken the course record, as I reached out for the tape and with one last effort raised it high above my head. When I stepped back and lay down to perform my Blazeman roll over the line, I paused on the ground, exhausted.”
“Jon Blais had never been far from my thoughts on that run. A few weeks earlier, his parents had given me the incredible honor of scattering his ashes in the New Hampshire countryside just before the Timberman half-ironman. If ever a tight hamstring needs a bit of perspective, there are so many tales of heroism against the odds that will render it laughable, and Jon’s is one of them.”
The run was indeed scorchingly hot. But Chrissie Wellington was still able to put together a marathon time of 3:03:06. Her total at the end was a record-setting 8:54:02. Newby-Fraser’s 17-year old legendary record had finally been broken.
Here is the joy Chrissie shared with the crowd as she came in for her record-breaking performance:
Her finishing time makes this a Top-40 Greatest Moment at IRONMAN. But what immediately catapulted Chrissie’s time to top tier legend status was just how dominant she was that day. Second place was Mirinda Carfrae who finished back in the distance with a time of 9:13:59. That was three-seconds shy of a 20-minute gap. At that time the only bigger winning margin was set by, yes, Paula Newby-Fraser back in 1982 when second place came in 26:12 behind her.
Chrissie Wellington wasn’t a legendary IRONMAN Champion because she had always dreamed of winning the IRONMAN. She wasn’t inspired as a young woman by a broadcast, or a magazine story. She hadn’t slugged her way up through the age groups for years to get to her first IRONMAN. Chrissie Wellington was one of the few champions who didn’t come to beat anyone. She came for the adventure.
A the pre race meeting in 2007 no one even knew if she was racing as a pro. Sure she’d placed third at the Singapore IRONMAN, but that was Singapore, not Kona. The other female pros at that meeting would have been even less concerned if they knew what Chrissie had been doing just three short years before when she was working for the Rural Reconstruction Nepal (RRN), a Nepalese development NGO. Based in the capital, Kathmandu, she managed a community-led total sanitation scheme in Salyan, a conflict-affected district in the west of the country. After that she travelled to New Zealand, Tasmania and Argentina before returning to her old job at DEFRA in May 2006. She left this job in February 2007 in order to become a professional triathlete.
To put this in perspective, while Chrissie Wellington was managing sanitation in Nepal, Natascha Badmann was winning her fifth IRONMAN World Championship, and was in the tenth year of her career as a professional in triathlon. Chrissie Wellington had not done a triathlon before 2006.
Here’s an overview of Chrissie’s amazing racing at the IRONMAN World Championship:
To see what Chrissie is up to these days click HERE.
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I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.