Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Legend: Mark Allen!

By: John Paul Severin

The Grip. 10 times Nice Champion, 6 time Ironman World Champion, Winner of the most epic triathlon ever (1989 Ironman Hawaii… if you don’t know, you should), Winner of the inaugural ITU world championships in 1989. I could go on, but you’d probably prefer to hear from the man himself. We are here with a two part interview with absolute legend and pioneer of the sport, Mark Allen:

JP: Mark, thanks for taking the time. First things first, will you take us back to your first race. How did you get into the sport and what was your first go around like?

MA: The first time I ever saw anything about triathlons was in 1982. I was watching Wide World of Sports and it was the dramatic finish between Julie Moss and Kathleen McCartney. I was so drawn into the event that I thought I just had to go to Hawaii and see if I could cross that finish line.

Julie Moss crawling to the finish line. An image that defines Ironman.

I came from a swimming background so I had the engine, but not skills in cycling or running. But that didn’t worry me too much. I was 24 years old and not really thinking it would be an impossible task to get ready for an IM in about 6 months. But I knew I needed to do some races before then to just get my feet wet and gain experience in the sport.

So, in June I entered my first race, which was USTS San Diego. It was slightly longer than the current Olympic distance races. I ended up finishing in fourth, which was fantastic. But even more intriguing was that the three guys in front of me just happened to be Dave Scott, Scott Tinley and Scott Molina. Together we ended up being called The Big Four, because for a number of years if we were in a race together chances were that one of us would be the champion.

Anyway, even though I raced well, I was so completely wasted and exhausted for weeks after it that I was really reconsidering if I could possibly do an Ironman in October. But forge ahead I did…fortunately!

JP: When did you realize that this was going to be a legit career for you?

MA: The thought of a career came in November of that first year. As I said I was 4th in my first race, 3rd in my second, and then I won my third event, which was a half Ironman. I also beat Scott Tinley and Scott Molina in that race, which set the stage for Kona where I would go head to head with Dave.... until my derailleur broke just past the turnaround at Hawi.

But after all of that, I was asked to be on a triathlon team that was being formed in San Diego by the now defunct J David investment company. They gave me a salary and I was on my way. Then, shortly after that, Nike stepped in and became my main sponsor.

JP: What would you have done if not for triathlon?

MA: Well, I have a degree in Biology from UC San Diego. But what I would have ended up doing with that is really a complete unknown. I certainly could not have known that I would become a professional athlete in a sport that I only learned about at age 24, and it will remain an unknown what I would have done otherwise. I am just grateful that the sport fell in my lap and that I pursued it without much logical reasoning behind it. It just felt right to do.

JP: Let’s talk about Nice, which was a race that was as prestigious as Kona back in the day. You dominated that race for an entire decade. Amazing. How were you able to continually defend your title at such a world class event?

MA: One race at a time! I really felt at home in Nice and completely accepted by the people there. For some reason it was just easy for me to put out my best each year there. Well, it was certainly not easy, but it always worked out in the end. I raced it 10 times and won it 10 times, which in many ways is even more incredible when I look back at it than what I did in Kona. There is so much that can go wrong in Nice, especially on the bike where crashing took a number of top athletes out. But I was just always able to muster up the energy it took to win.

JP: Shifting gears to Kona, which race stands out to you as being your absolute best on the big Island?

MA: There were two that really stand out: my first win and my last. The first was so dramatic because of how it unfolded with Dave and I side by side for almost the entire day. It was not until about 8 hours into the race and the final uphill on the run course that I was able to pull away and go on for my first win. It also came after six defeats, so that made it a moment that I still savor.

But perhaps even more satisfying on a deep, deep level was my final victory in 1995. I was 37 years old, which was well beyond what most would consider your prime. I had taken the previous year off from Ironman because I was just really burned out and didn’t have the internal energy to put in the training necessary. And all the young guys were gunning for me. They new it was most likely their last shot at taking me down.

What made the day so incredible was that the challenge as the race unfolded was beyond anything I had ever seen. I was over 13:30 behind the leader off the bike, Thomas Hellriegel. He just blew us all away. No one had made up that much of a time differential, ever. So it looked completely impossible. In fact, from a numbers perspective, it was impossible. I needed something different. But I had that something different, and it was time to use it.

Let me give you some history to explain it. Part of how I ended up turning the race in my favor in 1989 was by a fluke incident that happened a few days before the race. I was looking through a magazine without paying attention to anything. That was until I saw an ad that was speaking about a workshop that was going to be teaching about a way of life from a group of Indians in Central Mexico called the Huichol Indians. But what really caught my attention was the picture of the two shamans or medicine men that were going to be leading the workshop. One was 110-year-old Huichol named Don Jose, and the other was his adopted grandson Brant Secunda. They both had a look on their face that said “I am happy just to be alive!”

Well fast-forward to the half marathon point in that epic battle with Dave. He started surging and dropped his pace down to a 6-minute mile. I was almost ready to give up because that was totally insane, especially because I had a strong sense that he was going to run that fast for the remaining half marathon. It totally blew my mind. Moments before I was going to just give up and toss in the towel, I remembered the pictures of those great shamans, and somehow that feeling of just being happy to be alive permeated my being. Suddenly I was just happy to be in the race next to the best in the world. No shame in that! And suddenly my energy started to come back. And then the whole dynamic began to switch. It was at that moment that I knew I could win it.

Well, shortly after that race I met Brant Secunda and had one of the most incredibly transformative experiences of my life at a retreat he lead in Mexico. I have now studied with Brant for about 20 years, and continue to use his teachings as a source of inspiration and deep learning.

But back to 1995, in the months leading up to the race I could just tell that my body was still tired. I had a blood test done and indeed the results did not bolster my confidence. In fact, from those tests I was told that all my hormone levels were depleted, by body was deeply stressed out and that the only way to correct it was to rest for a few months. Well, I had an Ironman to hopefully win in a few months. No time for a vacation!

Fortunately, Brant did a number of healing ceremonies for me that brought my body back around and really helped charge me up for the task at hand. Then in the race, in the defining moment when I left the transition area from bike to run and was told that Hellriegel was 13:30 ahead, it was one of Brant’s many words of wisdom that gave me hope to continue. He always says, “It’s not over until it’s over” meaning no matter how impossible something might look right now, keep going because in the next moment things could change.

Well, that moment of change didn’t come until about mile 20 of the marathon when I could finally see Hellriegel in the distance ahead of me, but it was Brant’s words and his many blessings that gave me the strength to just keep going and give it everything I had even though victory looked totally impossible.

I passed Thomas at mile 23 of the marathon and went on to win by about 2:30. That victory took all I had learned in 15 years of racing and all that Brant could give me to get me across that line as the victor in my sixth and final Ironman.