Grit Lessons from a 4X Ironman Champion

Grit Lessons from a 4X Ironman Champion

Chrissie Wellington, the 4-Hawaii Ironman World Champion, is author of the new book,  To the Finish Line: A World Champion Triathlete's Guide to Your Perfect Race. Wellington—known for an exceptional mix of raw talent, work ethic and mental toughness—started off her professional triathlon career by doing something considered virtually impossible: As a rookie in 2007, in her first time racing the Hawaii Ironman, she dropped the hammer during the 112-mile bike leg and ran away with the race to the top of the podium. The only people who weren't stunned were her the athletes who trained her and her coach, Brett Sutton, all who had seen Wellington's abilities up close. In her new book, Wellington lays out the foundational principles that she found to be the most effective in helping her excel as an athlete. Wellington answered our questions recently.

What advice do you give to people who have never been in shape before but want to become motivated and get going?

Follow your passion! Think about what you enjoy and what makes you happy; recalling occasions in your life when you have been happiest, and the reasons behind this. Think about someone who has inspired you or about an activity that has piqued your interest but which you never pursued. There doesn’t have to be a huge flame, a little spark is enough to start a future fire burning. Then vow to take that one step forward and set a new goal. If you try something then you will never look back and think ‘what if’; you’ll never be left wondering.

It’s important to be clear about your underlying reasons or motivations for choosing your goal. For instance, you might decide to complete your first 5k, and the motivational carrots could be to improve your health, meet new people, to prove to yourself that you can rise to the challenge, to honour a loved one’s memory, to raise money for charity, to be there to see your kids grow up. Don’t forget to make that goal and your motivations, tangible. Write it on your wall, tell your friends and family, post it on social media – verbalising your intentions can help make it real, and help hold you accountable when you might suffer from a motivational wobble.

Starting something new – or rekindling an old sporting flame - is often the hardest part. So, do just that. Start. Whether your goal is a short walk around the block, a gentle bike ride with your son or daughter, an open water swim, a long hike, or your first triathlon. Remember, we were all beginners once. Each and every one of us. We all took that very first step.

Try not to see your goal as a huge mountain to climb. Instead, break the journey down into management segments, so that you can have stepping stones of success en route up your own personal mountain. If your goal is a 5k race, perhaps you could start off by trying to run for 500m, followed by a 500m walk. The next week you could try to run 700m and walk 500m, until gradually you run more and walk less. Small steps equate to huge gains.  

Make any training as convenient as possible. For example, find a gym, run track, pool that is accessible and financially affordable; keep your running shoes and clothes visible and accessible so you don’t waste time getting your kit together. If you are exercising outside make sure you dress for the weather conditions, and having a training partner can help hold you accountable and reduce the likelihood of you choosing the lie-in over a run.

Ultimately though, start slowly and choose to pursue something that you are passionate about and that makes you happy. It’s not always easy to start something new, but when you succeed – and you WILL succeed – the achievement is all the more gratifying.

Chrissie Wellington
Chrissie Wellington, riding in a charity event in Ireland in 2016.

What was a key to your mental toughness?

I developed strategies to be able to motivate myself and not let adversity derail me from the pursuit of my goal. I have covered a lot of these strategies in my new book, and they can be used and adapted by anyone – no matter what your background or sporting ability.

I believe that the mind is incredibly powerful, and can be trained just like a muscle. I realised this during my time in Nepal, and specifically when I cycled 1200 kilometers across the Himalayas – encountering the biggest highs (literally – Everest Base Camp at 15,00ft!) and lows in the form of snow storms, sandstorms, horrendous wind and sickness. I developed a huge amount of physical strength whilst cycling there, but while this physical strength can be transient and sometimes lost, I believe that the mental strength from encountering and overcoming challenges and hurdles always stays with you. And by this I mean that you carry with you, deep inside, the knowledge that you have faced your fears and conquered challenges, and with that brings confidence, peace of mind and self-belief that you can meet whatever challenges may face you in the future, during training, racing and otherwise.

Other techniques including singing songs in my head and counting repetitively in time with my pedal stroke or footsteps. I also replace energy-sapping thoughts of “I’m exhausted. I want to sit down and eat a doughnut. It’s raining and my new shoes will get muddy” with positive words, my personal mantra and images of my family. Before a competition, I write ‘Never Ever Give Up and Smile’ on my race wrist-band and my water bottles, and look at these when I need a boost.

I also mentally divide training sessions and races into portions, rather than a more daunting whole, and recall all the times I’ve overcome discomfort and adversity in the past. That’s not to say that I don’t suffer self-doubt. In fact, in every Ironman I’ve done I’ve wanted to quit at some point. There’s that little voice in one ear that says ‘pull to the side, it’s not going to be your day’. But I’ve pushed through, using the strategies I’ve honed to help me overcome these mental and physical hurdles.

I think mental toughness can also come from others and especially being surrounded by positive, encouraging people that bring out the best in you. If I have a mental wobble, I know that my biggest strength comes from admitting that, and asking people around me for help.

Many people wanting to get into triathlon or obstacle course racing or running races are stopped by fear...fear of the unknown, fear of failing, fear of the difficulty. What's your advice?

We are all fearful of something, failure, what people will think, not being able to finish a race, what we look like in Lycra…But ultimately these fears are self-constructed, and can be overcome.

I was scared to try a triathlon in 2004, and I was nervous when I gave up my job to become a professional athlete, but if I’d have let those fears stop me I would never be four-time Ironman World champion, and had the chance to change my life in many wonderful ways.

Like I said before, I would never want to look back and think ‘what if’. I believe that the biggest failure of all in life is the failure to try. So I encourage everyone to acknowledge those fears and then try to defy them, because it’s only by stepping out of our comfort zone or into the unknown that we can seize life’s opportunities and live it to the full.

Ready to conquer your fear. Download the Spartan Way of Life E-book