Most people had lost confidence that Ironman was a good idea for me. Friends, media, just about everyone was suggesting I give up on the idea. They had good reason. I was zero for six with lots of pretty disastrous effects on my body.
Sometimes the final pieces of a puzzle fall into place seemingly by accident, or perhaps by destiny. In the spring of 1989, I trained in New Zealand for six weeks with Scott Molina, the champion in 1988. It was in an incredible natural environment with countryside so beautiful that it just inspired me to be out training. And Molina was hardwired to continually test the limits of what the body can take. Without the usual distractions of home life and with the inspiration Molina provided, we put together strings of workouts that I would’ve thought impossible a year before. Not only did we do unbelievable training, we were absorbing all of it the way we were supposed to.
I learned that if you reduce the distractions and find an environment that inspires you, your training will truly be in line with what Ironman is asking of you in order to have your best race. But I also knew that my body was not the only thing failing me in the race. My mind was a mess as well. When it got tough, the negative internal chatter would completely overpower any self-confidence that was left. I was trying to match Dave Scott stride for stride, strength for strength. But it wasn’t working. When my body started to fail my spirit got sucked down along with it. Intellectually I knew that every Ironman has 1,000 bad patches, and that ultimately, you only need 1,001 good patches to pull off the race of your life. But I just couldn’t find the focus that would free me up to stay calm regardless of how tough it got.
Sometimes the answers to the impossible questions present themselves completely outside the arena where the challenge lives and festers. Two days before the race, I happened to get the last piece. It came in the form of a photo of two great medicine men in a Yoga Journal magazine. One was a 110-year-old Huichol Indian shaman named Don JosÃ© Matsuwa. The other was his adopted grandson Brant Secunda, also a shaman. Their images in the magazine that I just happened to be flipping through shouted out the piece I was missing. They had a look on their faces that was very peaceful yet powerful. To win Ironman you need both of these qualities. Without peace you have no chance of making it over the hurdles that present themselves on race day. Without internal strength and power, the hurdles become roadblocks.
The race came. It was head to head battle with Dave Scott, hour after hour. The tension was incredible. At the halfway point in the marathon, he surged. I was literally one moment away from caving in once again. Just then Don JosÃ©’s image appeared before me, and in the next moment I gained peace and power—and life has never been the same since. Dave and I continued to race side by side for what ended up being close to eight hours. At mile 24.5 of the run I made the break that held, pulling away and crossing the line a mere 58 seconds ahead of the greatest rival anyone could ever have.
Notes to self:
- The race is more than a physical endeavor. You have to learn to deal with yourself.
- Winning the Hawaii Ironman is pretty cool.
Four more Ironman victories for a total of five wins in five straight starts. And there were four more formidable opponents challenging for the title. Scott Tinley, followed by Greg Welch, then Cristian Bustos and finally Pauli Kiuru. No two races were the same. You would think that at this point the formula would be clear and the process a matter of repeating what has worked in the past, but each race was different. Certainly the experience of the past helped each time, but each year the races unfolded very differently. Each of those four competitors had a different strength I had to overcome.
Notes to self:
- Winning is not a given just because you prepare. It must be earned, hard and raw as it always is, on race day.
- Never, ever take it for granted that you have Ironman completely figured out.
I didn’t race Hawaii in ’94. It was the very first time I actually had the chance to watch the race. You learn different lessons watching than you do by racing it. I had a lot of contact with the top folks leading up to the race, which was unusual. Normally we all keep to ourselves. What I saw was truly amazing. They were in that very nervous state that I too had been in leading up to the Ironman. But being a step removed from the event, I could see that most of what they were anxious about was in their minds.
Note to self: 99 percent of the prerace stress is actually about stuff that you fabricate in your mind. Chill out and save all that energy for the real deal on race day.
This was it. I knew going into this Ironman that there would be no more. I asked the Island for one more great race, and vowed that I would never ask for it again. It was kind of my bargaining chip. I was there to give it everything I had, but I also knew that I needed some extra help. This win would not come easy.
I was 37 years old. Until last year (2011), no man had ever won Kona at that age. That was the first level of impossibility I was dealing with. I was trying to win six titles in six starts. No one had ever done that, male or female. That was the second strike going against me. To make the odds against me even worse, I came off the bike 13:30 down on the powerful cyclist Thomas Hellriegel, who was 13 years younger than me. No one had ever made up that gap after the bike to become the world champion. But the Ironman doesn’t care about impossibility. It presents you with the opportunity to go for something incredible anyway.
My fitness was there—that much I knew. I had put together some of the best workouts of my career leading up to the race—not bad for a 37-year-old! But even the best fitness of my life was not proving to be enough. If I ran a normal Ironman marathon, Hellriegel would win. Victory would require something I had never done before. I threw all previous standards out the window and tried to shift into a completely different reality that would enable me to pick up thirty seconds a mile, every single mile, on the young race leader.
I had been studying with Brant Secunda for over five years at that point. So much of what he taught were things that I really needed in 1989 to win. I was lucky enough to put those things in play in ’89 in very rudimentary forms. All that he taught was exactly what would carry me forward now and hopefully past Hellriegel. His teachings foster the ability to quiet your mind, especially when a less-prepared you would get derailed with all that negative chatter. He helps a person develop the ability to feel comfortable in any situation and to stay calm and steady even in the toughest moments. I desperately needed to find that place. Losing even the smallest amount of energy to self-doubt, or letting myself think for a second that I wanted to give up would mean my quest for a sixth title would be over.
Brant emphasizes to keep going, no matter how impossible life might feel at a given moment, because everything can change in the next. At the ’95 race, that critical shift didn’t happen until mile 23 of the marathon, when I finally caught and passed the young German. There were a thousand moments during that race when I had to silence the negative chatter so that the place of quiet and positive focus could return.
If perfection is measured by the amount of time you feel in control of the situation, this was the worst race of my life. But if it is defined by one’s ability to calmly deal with every second that the greatest challenges present—one at a time until the job is done—then this was indeed my finest hour. You would think that after five victories I could sort of put it all on autopilot. But just like someone doing Ironman for the first time, the way to the finish had to be discovered, the challenges embraced, and new parts of your internal character revealed.
Note to self: The best experiences in life are rarely easy.
This original article, “Lessons Learned,” by Mark Allen appeared in the October/November 2012 issue of LAVA Magazine. To subscribe to LAVA Magazine click here.