Mark Allen became one of Ironman’s greatest athletes when he stepped onto the spiritual path that made him a winner
In 1995, something very special happened in Hawaii. 37-year-old Mark Allen, a five-time winner of Ironman’s World Championship, stepped up to the start line for the final time. In his sights was Dave Scott’s record of six victories on the Big Island. With his fiercest rival long since retired, it seemed there would be a fairytale finish to Allen’s distinguished career. As the starting gun fired, the triathlon world held its breath.
Allen had not raced in nearly two years. He’d only done a fraction of the training of his younger rivals and he was not in great shape. Six months earlier, doctors had told him he had the body of a 60-year-old. The stage was set for one of the most remarkable races of all time – and Allen had been involved in a few in his time, not least his infamous 1989 Hawaii battle with Dave Scott.
“The challenge that I faced in 1995 was so daunting,” Allen says. “I came off the bike 13-and-a-half minutes behind leader Thomas Helreigel. Nobody had come from that far down to emerge as victor.”
It was, he claims, his greatest ever test in Hawaii. “Throughout the whole race there were thousands of times where I wanted to give up, but I said to myself that I had to keep going no matter what.”
You’ve Got To Have Faith
And he did. Harnessing 15 years of experience and the spiritual teachings of his friend Brant Secunda, a Mexican spiritual healer from the Huichol Indian tradition, Allen set his sights on clawing back the young Helreigel.
“At the beginning of the marathon I had to make up 30 seconds a mile,” he says. “With eight miles to go I got a time split and Helreigel was four minutes ahead of me. I was making up time, but I was only on pace to catch him up on the finish line. Brant always says that everything is alive – all the plants, rocks and animals around us have a consciousness, so if you need help, call out.
“So I waited until the NBC cameras moved away and just said, ‘Hey Big Island, help me, I need something extra, it’s not enough.’ The next mile I made up about 40 seconds, the one after that 50, the next one a minute 15 and I caught Helreigel with a mile and 23 to go and went on to claim my sixth and final victory. I’d pulled all of the tricks out of the hat, knew that was the best I could be and that was time to call it a day.”
For Allen, it was the culmination of a staggeringly successful triathlon career – one that saw him achieve top three finishes in 90% of his races, win the Nice International Triathlon 10 years on the bounce and claim the inaugural ITU Olympic distance World Championship title in 1989. He retired as one of only two men to have emerged victorious six times in Hawaii and, at 37 years of age, the oldest man to win the title.
A Star Is Born
Almost two decades on from his Hawaii heyday, Mark Allen is still widely considered to be one of triathlon’s greatest ever athletes. Now a world-renowned coach, he looks back with fondness on a 17-year career that saw him become the sport’s most dominant long distance racer. Yet he wasn’t always so good. By his own admission, the early part of his career was filled with frustration and disappointment. It took a lot for him to become a near unbeatable legend in Hawaii, and not merely a relentless training schedule that would make even the most hardened elites wince. His story is of the victory of mind over body, or, as he puts it himself, the fusion of “fit soul, fit body”. And it’s more than a little unorthodox.
He first got hooked on triathlon in 1981, when he saw footage of the Ironman Hawaii on television. At the time, he was working as a lifeguard on the beaches of California, having recently graduated from UC San Diego with a degree in biology. He was drifting through life, unsure of what career path to tread.
“I guess you could say I was at a point of career crisis. I really had no idea what I was going to end up doing for a living,” he says. “So I thought I’d train for Ironman for six months while I was lifeguarding. That would take up all my time and I wouldn’t have a moment to really think about what I was going to do with my life. So it was really just one long procrastination.”
Before heading to Hawaii in 1982, the then 24 -year-old Californian entered some shorter races. He won the third of these, a half-Ironman distance event where he beat the then impressive Scott Molina. He headed to Kona in confident mood.
“I came out of the water in second place,” he says. “The guy in front of me was Dave Scott. He was by far the best Ironman athlete in 1982. I stayed with him for the first half of the bike, and we turned together at Ha-Vee. Shortly after the turn he put it into a big gear and tried to take off, so I thought I’d try and stick with him. I put my bike into a big gear and my derailleur broke, so my race was over. But I’d been with the best guy in the world for four hours, so I thought I should give this another try.”
His impressive debut form didn’t go unnoticed, and he was quickly invited to compete in the Nice International Triathlon, which at the time rivalled Hawaii as the tri circuit’s biggest race. Soon after, he was invited to become part of a new professional triathlon team being formed in California.
“They were going to pay the athletes a stipend in order to live, and I thought I just couldn’t beat that,” he says. “That really kicked things off. Just after that Nike picked me up and it built from there.”
Success in Nice soon followed, as did victories at other notable races. He was making steady progress, yet the Hawaii victory he dreamed of didn’t materialise. Between 1982 and 1988 he improved his results year on year, climbing into the top three and edging ever nearer to the top man, the seemingly unbeatable Dave Scott.
“I was proving that I had what it took to win a long distance race, and to beat the best,” he says. “I could race in the heat in other races, and I could race long distances, but I couldn’t put it together in Hawaii. Every kind of strategy that I could come up with simply wasn’t working. So I was happy that I was progressing, but I was frustrated that was not enough to put it together in Hawaii. And that’s a very hard race to get right.”
By 1987, Allen’s rivalry with Scott was becoming the stuff of legend. Each year the two would go toe to toe in Hawaii, battling it out for eight gruelling hours over the lava fields. Sometimes Allen would make the running, other times Scott, but each time the reigning champion was victorious. The rivalry would produce some epic races, and the constant tussling between the top-two would be dubbed “The Iron War”.
“I always knew I was ready for that race physically, but mentally I would cave in any time it got hard and Dave Scott started to put the pressure on,” Allen says. “I could see that I needed something else, and I didn’t feel very comfortable when I wentthere, which is funny because I love Hawaii. When I stepped off the plane in Nice I always felt really comfortable – it was easy for me to feel good and strong. But not in Hawaii.”
It got worse for Allen in 1988. With Scott out of the race due to an ankle injury, he was odds-on to claim his first title. Once again, disaster struck, with a series of punctures denting his challenge. He ended up finishing fifth. It was a crushing blow.
“At the time I was so frustrated and thought what kind of bad luck do I have on this Island – Dave’s not in it and I can’t even win it,” he says. “But now I look back and think that it was a great thing that I did not win that year.”
A Time For Change
Perhaps it was fate. As it turned out, that 1988 failure was the precursor to one of the most dramatic and exhilarating Ironman races ever seen in Hawaii. It was to be the moment when Mark Allen finally became World Champion. But before that could happen, Allen still needed some inspiration to overcome the mental issues he was wrestling with on the Big Island.
“Before the race in 1989, I was flicking through a magazine and I saw an ad for a workshop that was going to be taking place in Mexico, speaking about a way of life that came from the Indians in that area,” he says.
“What really caught my attention was the picture of the two medicine men, the two shamans who were going to lead that workshop. One was Brant Secunda and the other was his grandfather Don Jose. They just had a look on their faces that was peaceful but powerful. Certainly that’s something you want to feel when you’re racing the Ironman. You want to feel peaceful, but also feel the strength and energy in your body. So this ad grabbed my attention, but I kind of forgot about it.”
The 1989 race unfolded like many of the others that had preceded it, with Allen and Scott locked together throughout. Once again it looked as if the six-time champion would break his young rival on the latter stages of the marathon.
“At about the half-marathon point Dave changed his pace to around a six-minute mile,” Allen says. “At first I thought it was a surge, but then I realised that was the pace he was going to run at for the next 13 and a half miles and it completely blew my mind. I thought I couldn’t do it, I hadn’t done the right training, I’m not going to win – all the kind of stuff that doesn’t help you at a moment like that. Literally, I was moments away from just giving up, and it took so much energy to keep up with him that I couldn’t even hold on to the negative thoughts anymore.
“My mind went quiet, and the moment my mind went quiet Don Jose’s image came to me. I just thought, I bet that old guy doesn’t need to win an Ironman to feel good about his life. Suddenly I was happy just to be there. I was next to the best guy in the world who had won the race six times, there was still 13 miles left and something might change – and indeed it did. I felt like I’d received all this energy from Don Jose. I ended up breaking Dave on the final uphill into town and beat him by 58 seconds.”
A new champion was born, and for the next five years he would not be beaten in Hawaii. Dave Scott may have won many of the battles along the way, but Mark Allen won the Iron War. A lot has been made of the rivalry between long distance triathlon’s two most decorated men, but Allen is at pains to point out that there was no bitterness there.
“I think it was a healthy rivalry, because at the end of the day we respected each other for the level to which we took the sport,” he says. “There wasn’t that trash talk, and we were relatively friendly to each other even in the years where we were battling it out. If Dave hadn’t raced as well as he did for so many years, there’s no way I would ever have risen to that level of performance, and so he inspired a whole new level of performance in me.”
For Allen, there’s no doubt what made the difference in 1989, and what later enabled him to keep winning in Hawaii. Following his victory over Dave Scott, he booked himself into a workshop being run by the medicine man he’d seen in that magazine advert. Ever since, the two have been great friends. They’ve written a book together – Fit Soul, Fit Mind – and Allen still studies Secunda’s spiritual teachings.
“It was a piece of the puzzle I was missing,” he says. “For six years I tried to win Ironman and I couldn’t. I made a connection with Brant and Don Jose, started studying and I won six in a row. During that period I was putting a lot of my efforts into racing and racing is very quantifiable – either you’re racing fast or you’re not, either you’re winning or you’re not – so the positive impact he had on me as a person resulted in my racing better.”
Allen is a great believer in the power of spirituality and its positive effects on athletic performance. It’s an unorthodox approach that would leave most sports psychologists – not to mention many athletes – completely cold.
“Psychology can certainly help people through mental blocks or whatever, but the spiritual approach really starts changing who you are as a person from the core,” Allen says. Some 21 years on from his most famous moment, Mark Allen seems the happiest and most content he’s ever been. He divides his time between coaching, writing, motivational speaking and hosting workshops with Brant.
At 52 he’s still in impeccable shape. He says he works out for fun and to help maintain a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life that would put many former elites to shame. He still looks back fondly on his career, though, and has few regrets.
“In the years when I did not win Ironman, I learned a lot about how to keep your focus in a positive direction even when things aren’t going the way you hoped,” he says. “Had I won early I don’t think I would have had that knowledge or all those lessons to apply.”