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Chrissie Wellington: Lessons for motherhood from endurance sports

Posted Apr 30 2012 12:00am
I thought about Chrissie Wellington, the four-time Ironman World Champion as I was racing my 10K on Saturday. My thoughts turned to her around mile four; that place where you're more than halfway done, and yet, still have two more miles to run as fast as you can.

Chrissie Wellington has been on my mind the last few weeks because I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of her new autobiography, A Life Without Limits: A World Champion's Journey . I thought specifically of her last World Champion win last October, which she won coming from behind (usually she wins handily, and by win, I mean every ironman--2.4-mile swim, 112-mile-bike, 26.2-mile run--she has ever entered, which is 13 total). She was a little slow to start in that race because her body was ravaged by road rash, among an assortment of injuries she suffered in a bike crash just weeks before the race. When I think about the pain she overcame not only to finish the race, but to win, well, my "suffering" at mile four became wildly insignificant.

To understand how that feat is possible (Wellington winning that fourth World Champion title, not my 10K finish, which was a great race for me, thanksforasking) is to know who Wellington was before she became a triathlete. Before Wellington discovered triathlon, she spent years as an advisor in international development for the UK Government, even rolling up her sleeves to aid people in third-world countries. No doubt, her perspective on human suffering impacted her personal capacity for physical suffering.

I asked her about this, along with a few other questions, for Innovation for Endurance and still more for an article over at GOTRIbal . She has quite a story to tell and while her story as a professional triathlete is intriguing, I find that her life before she discovered she was a world-class triathlete is just as extraordinary.

I don't think you can separate your past experience/history/baggage (whatever you want to call it) from who you are as an athlete, just like I've discovered that my experiences as an athlete influence my life outside competition. Most definitely, my experiences finishing two ironman races set me up to survive mothering three babies under age two. I vividly remember that realization; I was under the kitchen table wiping up crusted apple sauce, saying a little prayer that my newborn would keep napping despite the shrills of laughter coming from behind the bathroom door where my twins were scooping out water from the toilet with their play pots and pans. Right then and there I made the connection that I had been here before. "Here" was at the end of an ironman-distance race where I began to physically continue on despite my mind saying, "Whoa! We've never done anything like this! How about we just stop now. Too scary. Too hard." But that's when the good stuff happens, if you let it. Here's where you get to define who you're going to become; how you'll know yourself forever more. 
Of course motherhood tests you in completely different ways, but having arrived at those difficult mommy moments I have remembered that stripped-down feeling I get during an endurance event and I realize--this is it!--with intention I can make choices that will not only make me the kind of mother I want to be but allow me to grow and expand the definition of who I am.
I have yet to go back to endurance training and racing, with the exception of that one marathon in 2006, when my twins were 3-years-old and my youngest daughter was one. It was a disaster. You know why? Because I was already involved in another endurance event: motherhood.
In preparing for my interview with Chrissie Wellington I read a number of articles about her and came across her thoughts on motherhood (she is not a mum as yet) from The Telegraph :
What about children? Does she want them? Would she continue racing if she became a parent?
"I definitely wouldn't have children and carry on," she says. "Some athletes have shown that it's not impossible to juggle Ironman with children, but I think it is too time–intensive and energy–intensive for me to be an effective mother and race to the level that I would want. It would compromise my racing, which I'm not prepared to do."
Chrissie Wellington doesn't have limits but she's clear about boundaries. She's right, plenty of moms can juggle this--I'm friends with a lot of them--but we're all different and it's not about what's right or what's wrong for all moms, but knowing what works for you; setting the boundaries that help us live the life we want. 

If Chrissie does eventually take on motherhood, she'll likely discover that being an endurance athlete will come in handy. Maybe she won't compete in ironman-distance races, but I'm here to tell her there's a lot of satisfaction in a sprint triathlon or the local 10K. (Mostly because you can race your heart out and still have the energy to play with four kids in the afternoon.)
In her book, she says this about racing, but doesn't it apply to anything?
You will remain the same person before, during and after the race, so the result, however important, will not define you. The journey is what matters.
Want to ask Chrissie Wellington questions of your own? You can, just head to the GOTRIbal facebook page and she'll be there starting at 2 pm PST. 
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