Mark Allen talks about his sixth and final Hawaii Ironman triumph, the greatest comeback in the history of the race.
Interview By Bob Babbitt and Paul Huddle
In 1995, five-time winner Mark Allen returned to the Hawaii Ironman after a one-year hiatus. Despite his apparent mastery of the race, Allen had turned 37 and was facing an onslaught of young talent, in particular Thomas Hellriegel, a German prodigy known as a hard-training powerhouse on the bike and suitably nicknamed “Hell on Wheels.”
For years Allen has talked about how 1995 was the year he gathered every ounce of his experience and combined it with the most painstaking preparation of his legendary career. In September 2008, Allen appeared on “The Competitors” radio show hosted by Competitor magazine publisher Bob Babbitt and coach and writer Paul Huddle. Allen discussed the many depths and intricacies—of both the lead-up and execution— of a race that is largely considered the greatest comeback in the history of the Hawaii Ironman.
Mark, by 1993 you had won the Hawaii Ironman five times in a row, beating Pauli Kiuru by seven minutes (8:07:45 to 8:14:27) in the last of the five.
Yeah, that’s why I took 1994 off. I was completely fried. I could tell that my body was not absorbing the workouts. I was just tired. It takes a toll on your body, or it took a toll on mine at least–to race that hard, that intensely, in such a long event year after year. So by the time 1994 came, I knew that I had to give the Ironman a break. I had this really cool idea that I was going to try to run a marathon that year, in 1994, and try to do a good time because that was the first year that you could qualify for the Olympic Trials marathon leading up to the Atlanta Olympics. I needed to have a reason to exist in Nike’s eyes, my main sponsor at the time. So I said, “All right, guys, I have this great idea. What I want to do is run under a 2:22,” which would have been qualified me for the trials. I didn’t actually want to go to the trials. I just wanted to say that, as a triathlete, I could qualify. So we came up with a strategy, and the marathon we decided to do was the Berlin Marathon because, historically, it’s dead flat, provides potentially fast times and a super deep field. Regardless of where you are between the winner’s time and 2:22, there is probably going to be someone you can run with. So, in January, when I made the grand announcement to Nike and the rest of the community, it sounded like such a cool idea. I figured that without the swim and the bike, this was going to be a piece of cake. Well, by the time September rolled around and Berlin was looming, it no longer seemed like such a great idea. My body was still tired, and anybody who has run a marathon knows that having a tired body is not the way to go into it.
The marathon…I was trying to stick to my plan. I hit the 10K right where I wanted to be. I was about 10 seconds under, and it felt really easy where I wanted to split. I wanted to negative split it ideally. I hit the 20K mark–right where I needed to be, the half-marathon point–and I was 15 seconds under where I needed to be. And I thought, “Great, right where I need to be. Time to up the pace,” and, just dropping it down a little bit, my legs completely locked up. They stiffened up, and it felt like I was running on two sticks. So I lost everybody I had been running with. Then the women passed me, and then the old guys passed me, and then the old women started passing me, and I thought, “This really sucks.” That’s the only word for it. I looked over, and there was this guy from Holland saying something had happened to him. He had dropped out and was sitting on the side of the road, a guy I had talked to before the race. I then thought, “All right, time to quit.” It was Kilometre 29, and we looked at each other and said, “How are we going to get back to the finish line?” We looked around, and there was a underground entrance that could take us back but, of course, neither of us was carrying any money because we were in the race. So we had to hop over the barrier to get on the underground, and we eventually made it to the finish. Anyway, I had a great half Berlin Marathon experience and that’s as much as I want to talk about that one.
But The Plan was Always To Come Back?
Yeah, the plan was to come back to Kona in 1995, and to charge up in 1994. Matts, my son, was born that year, and I wanted extra time to just be a dad. He was born a month after my race in 1993. Anyway, I had a year to charge up and rejuvenate, and, by the time 1995 rolled around, I was definitely motivated. I knew this was probably going to be my last Ironman in Kona, probably my last Ironman anywhere. So I pulled all the tricks out of the hat that I could think of to get ready that year.
Mark, how hard was it? When you started going in, it’s easy to say, “I was charged up; I was ready to go,” and in January and February it can certainly feel like that. However, having been there before that many times, did there come a time – March, April, May, June, – whenever – where you just said, “Oh boy, here we go again”?
That’s the double-edged sword of the experience. You know what you have to do – there’s no question about it – but you also know what you have to do.
You know what’s looming ahead.
I didn’t know if I could string those workouts together. Even though I was motivated, I could tell something was still not right with my body. I didn’t have that little extra snap that you always feel, the fitness and the strength that normally come around by, let’s say, June. So I had a blood test done, just to see if there was something completely off, and the guy who analysed it said, “You know what, your key hormone levels look like you’re about 60-years old, not 37. Unless you supplement all this stuff, you’re not going to be able to compete against these guys who are 10 or 15-years younger than you.” I said, “Well, based on what’s low, if I take it, is it legal?” He goes, “Well, no…”, and therefore I said, “Forget it.” Am I really going to throw away 15-years of racing hoping that I don’t get caught taking something that’s illegal? Forget it. If I lose, I lose.
So that’s when I really pulled all the stops out, asking Brant Secunda, the gentleman that I studied Shamanism with, for help. He had healed my body of a lot of different things that the Western doctors couldn’t figure out. I had planned to go to a retreat that he gave up in Alaska in August. I would always take off for this retreat right about the time everybody was really starting to gear up for Kona. Everybody’s starting into their biggest miles of the year and I’m going off and communing with nature and doing all that other stuff that charges you up and gets you ready on a very different level. Everybody knows the Ironman is a special race of body, mind and spirit. If your mind isn’t solid, if you can’t quiet it during chaos, if you can’t just turn off all that negative stuff that can go on, it can be the difference between a bad race and victory. Anyway, I had extra time planned with Brant that year, and the first thing he asked when he saw me was, “Are you going to win in Kona this year?” I responded, “Are you going to help me?” He gave me the once-over and said to me, “Boy, you need some help this time.” That’s really the last that we spoke of Ironman, triathlon and racing for the eight days that I was in Alaska with him, and he did a lot of extra things to really charge my body up and bring it around. Then, right before I left for Kona that year, I went up to Santa Cruz a day before and he did one last blessing to really get me ready.
The week leading up to the race, Phil Maffetone helped me out a lot in Kona, just doing some muscle testing. After the race, he told me, “Your body was so messed up every day I tested you before Friday, the day before the race. Then I tested you, and it was 100 per cent perfect, the best I’ve ever seen it the entire time I’ve worked with you. I don’t know what happened between Thursday night and Friday morning. At first I thought you wouldn’t be able to finish the thing, and then I tested you Friday, and I’ve never seen you in this great of shape.”
So, he’s doing muscle testing? Like kinesiology?
Yes, he can test all of your energy systems, like your liver, your adrenal system and all the stuff that has to be working right in order to have a good race. He said it didn’t look promising at all until the day before the race and then, suddenly, it was essentially perfect.
Yeah. There’s so much about Ironman that defies explanation and description. Anyway, I was ready to go by race time.
So, Mark, the Ironman is in October, but in August, you went up with Brant to Alaska and spent that eight-day period, and when you came back, I’m assuming, the training–the swim-bike-run training that you did–was probably not the same. You may have adjusted a few things, but it was similar. What are some of the things that you and Brant did in Alaska that you feel made a difference to bring your body back to the level that it needed to be to handle the training that you were going into?
Well, Brant is a shaman healer, a ceremonial leader in the Huichol Indian tradition from Mexico; he’s like an Indian doctor, basically. He can look at the energy of your body, and then he can just sort of fix you up. He had to do a 12-year apprenticeship to learn how to actually see what’s going on inside somebody’s body like that. Where something’s weak, he’ll find ways to strengthen that area of your body. If there’s a part that’s out of balance, he can balance your body. Basically, it is the original holistic medicine, the type of thing that he does. Anyway, he did a couple extra healings on me up there, and then, the first week or so that I was back, I didn’t feel extraordinary, but I felt solid within myself. Anybody knows, if you at least feel positive about what you’re doing, that goes a long way toward bringing your body along with it.
I had a complete shift in my attitude when I first came back. Then my training started to come around, and, obviously, I was seeing that my body was coming around too. As for the adjustments I made in my training…I realised that I was 37 and that I could not train at the same volume that I had done when I was 30 or 25. I cut back on a lot of the junk that, in the end, you realise are workouts that you’re doing to pump up your self-confidence but do nothing to pump up your body. I probably cut out about 25 per cent of my training volume, but I still did the key long workouts, the real key speed workouts. At the very end of my Ironman block in Boulder, before coming back down to sea level, there’s one run that we do that’s very high on the Switzerland Trail. It’s about 25-kilometres, and I went up and ran it one last time by myself. I didn’t think I was going to do anything extraordinary when I ran that, but I ran it the fastest that I ever had in the 12 years that I had lived in Colorado.
So I knew that feeling fairly at ease and setting a PB on that course meant that I was ready physically. Then it was just a matter of going there and holding myself together mentally and emotionally, holding up to the pressure and whatever could happen during that Ironman.
And then there was having to deal with Thomas Hellriegel, who not that many of us knew anything about going into the race.
I didn’t know very much about him at all. I saw him at the press conference, and I got some stories from people leading up to the race. All I knew was that the guy could ride pretty darn well. You hear a lot of people boast about someone, saying, “They’re going to have a good race.” Some people were saying good things about Hellriegel, and I just kind of thought, “Oh, he’s not really a proven quantity over here yet,” but, boy, did he prove me wrong. He’s not a fantastic swimmer, so he wasn’t with me out of the water, but, right away, on the bike, both Hellriegel and Jurgen Zack, who I did know was a strong cyclist, both passed me at about Kilometre 25. They went by looking literally like they were on motorcycles. I had my nice plan of what heart rates I was going to keep, how I should feel and where I should be in relation to everybody else.
At the point that they passed me, I don’t know what I was doing; I was daydreaming a little bit. My heart rate was low, about 135 beats per minute, and I knew I could sustain about 150 on the bike and still have a decent run. Right away, I picked up my speed, my heart rate went way over 150 and I thought, “This is suicide; if I try to keep up with this, I’ll blow up on the marathon.” You always tell yourself the best scenario to keep yourself positive. I thought, “There’s no way those guys will get much more than five minutes on me by the end of the bike ride, and I know I can make up five minutes on the marathon.” Well, by the time I finished the bike ride, I knew that they had way more than five minutes [on me], way more than 10 minutes, but I didn’t know how much. As I was putting on my running shoes, somebody yelled out, “Hellriegel’s 13.5 minutes ahead of you! Go catch him!”
Yeah, just go make up 20 seconds per kilometre. You’ll be fine… Spectators are the best
Yeah, you want to lynch the guy. It did not motivate me, knowing that he was 13.5 minutes ahead. I did the maths as I was putting on my shoes, as I didn’t have anything else to do. So I thought, “OK, 13.5 minutes, marathon, that’s 20 seconds a kilometre.” There was no way I could wrap my brain around that. [Recovering] 13.5 minutes was out of the question. I started breaking it down; I needed to gain 20 seconds per kilometre. There was no way. I thought, “I’m just going to try to make up an inch or a second, whatever I can, every remaining step of this marathon.” The way I like to run that marathon, ideally, is to ease into it the first mile or two because you get off the bike and everything is stiff – your joints, your back, everything – and if you can ease into it, then you can really take off. Well, I didn’t have the luxury of a few miles to ease into anything. So I took off right away and – you know that course – it was back in the days when we had…
…the pits and all that stuff…up at the Kona Surf, and the whole thing.
Out of the Kona Surf, you run up a steep, long hill with a tailwind and it’s about 100,000 degrees, and you…
Lots of understanding spectators…
Yeah lots of understanding spectators who have seen nothing all day because they’re waiting for you to come in. They are so ecstatic, and they’re smiling, and, for them, the world is perfect. As for you…I was just thinking, “How am I going to do this?” I got to the top of the hill, and I was just trying to draw in all that positive energy from the crowd. There were these three old ladies, and they were looking right at me, clapping and cheering, “Go Mark! Go Mark! Oh wait…he doesn’t look so good.”
They did not say that…
I heard them, and that thought sank in and about a kilometre later, I felt so bad that I didn’t know whether I’d be able to finish. Then all that mental chaos started to happen, and I was telling myself all the stuff that doesn’t help like, “He’s 13.5 minutes ahead; he’s 13 years younger than me. There’s no way I can beat that guy. I’ve won five of these things. I don’t need this anymore. I should just quit.”
You were thinking that? Mark Allen was thinking that?
I thought, “It’s not worth it. It’s just not worth it.” I ran a little bit longer, and, finally, I started to reflect on some of the stuff that Brant had said to me many times. One of the things he said: “The Huichols always say, ‘It’s not over until it’s over,’” and my interpretation of that is that no matter how bad something might be in one moment, it can switch in the next. You just have to hold on until it’s completely over. So that started to put me in a different mindset. Then I thought, “I’ve asked so much of my training partners, so much of my friends; I asked for so much help from Brant to get ready for this thing. If I quit, there is no way that I can take this race to the finish and there is no way that I can honour all that help those people put into me.” And finally, my mind went quiet, and then I finally got the real answer. Something just said, “Take it to the finish. Take it to completion. Take it all the way to the finish of this race.” And of course, the first thought is, “I came here to win; I’m not going to win,” and then I thought about it and thought, “You know, as bad as I feel right now, if there was some way I could get to that finish line, that would be a success on this day.”
I ran about a kilometre farther, and my energy started to come back a little bit and I thought, “I’m going to do it. Even if I have to walk every single mile of this marathon, somehow I’m going to get to the finish line because this is my last one, and I’m not going to quit.” In the instant I said that and committed myself to finishing it, Greg Welch, who was in fourth place about 10 seconds ahead of me up the road, stopped and stretched his back, as it was seizing up on him. I made the first pass on that marathon there, and suddenly it felt like the whole world of opportunity began to open back up.
That is so cool. Welch was one of the guys you were concerned about beforehand because he was coming in as defending champion.
I watched him race in 1994 when he won. His ability to pick up the pace at that point was one of the most amazing moments I’ve seen as far as somebody having confidence in what they’re doing. When that happened, he was in the lead. He pulled away from Dave, who was 40 that year, even as Dave was starting to surge. He was starting to come back, getting within 12 seconds of Welch on the way back into town. I know what Dave is capable of, and I know how strong he is in the closing stages of the race. Welch took one look back, saw that Dave was close and just had this look like, “Enough of that,” and he pulled away. It was one of the most amazing things to see because, other than when I pulled away from Dave there in 1989, nobody else had ever done that. It was truly amazing to see.
Anyway, back to 1995, Welch was ahead of me. We came off the bike together, and he got a good start out onto the marathon; I wasn’t closing any time on him. I wasn’t closing in on anyone in the first few kilometres. Finally, I thought to myself, “Are you going to give up or keep going?” and I decided to keep going. With that thought, the energy started to come back. I passed Welch, and then I worked my way up from third, passing Jurgen Zack out on the lava fields, to move into second. Then with 12-kilometres to go, I got a time split, and I was told that I was four minutes behind Hellriegel. You could see that I was making up 20 seconds a kilometre, but I was still only on pace to catch him at the finish line, and that’s definitely not a good place to catch a young guy when you’re going for the sprint. So I thought, “I need something else, and I don’t have that gear in here. I’m reaching for it, but it’s not there.”
Once again, I had one of those moments where you doubt yourself in the midst of chaos, and I just thought, “I can’t do it. I need something else, but I can’t find it. I’m not making up enough time.” I still couldn’t see the guy. He was four minutes ahead, and I couldn’t gauge how he was feeling. Brant always said that you find your answers to the biggest questions when your mind is most quiet. That was one of the things that he really emphasised and helped us practise when we were up in Alaska: exercises to get you to shut your thinking mind off so that you’re completely aware of everything going on, but you’re not analysing it and saying [things like], “Is this good? Is this not good? Am I running fast enough? Am I not running fast enough?” Thinking takes energy. Another thing that he always says is that the land, no matter where you are, is alive. You can call out for help whenever you need it. I was down in the Energy Lab when I got that split, and I waited until NBC was farther away. I just said, “Hey, Big Island, help me here. I’m giving it all I have, but I need your help. I need something extra. I’m just not closing enough time.” The kilometre after that, I made up about 30 seconds. The kilometre after that I made up a little over 40, and the one after that I made up 1:05. Finally, at Kilometre 30, I could see Hellriegel, and at Kilometre 37 I was closing in on him. So I rested and hoped that I would be able to surge past him and, if he had anything left, if he was saving anything, that it wouldn’t be enough. I thought to myself, “All right, this is it,” and I surged by him, thinking that I had this in the bag, and the guy stuck with me. He stayed with me for maybe 200-metres, but at that moment it seemed like an eternity. It had only been 20 or 30 seconds at that point, but, when somebody is hanging onto you, it feels like they’re going to [pass you]. However, he couldn’t [stay with me], and he dropped off. I knew then that that was it. I was going to win number six.
So, Mark, when you’re coming down Ali’i Drive, knowing that you’ve had this amazing comeback and knowing that this is the last time, what was going through your head?
You spend the whole day trying to keep everything so controlled; you don’t want to waste energy being too low and you don’t want to waste energy being too high because you’re susceptible at that point. When I came down that last stretch, I could just let everything go, and just feel the whole emotion of the day. For me, it was the emotion of the two years since I had raced there, and it was also the emotion of an entire career because I knew it was the last time that I would cross that Ironman finish line. I made a deal with the island. I said, “If you help me out this one last time, I’m never going to ask for your help again, at least to do this race.” I crossed the finish line, and it was the culmination of a lot of things. My win in 1989 against Dave was certainly dramatic, and it was one of the best races of my whole career. That was certainly a big breakthrough point for me after not winning the first six times that I had been there, but the comeback against Hellriegel touched me on a much deeper level. It had taken everything that I had gained and learned, the experience I had had and all of the help Brant gave me to make it happen because it really was impossible. There was no way to make up that amount of time, and there really was no way that I should have been ready [for that race] at age 37, especially after what I had put my body through the other years.
Usually my biomechanics start to break down somewhere around 12-kilometres to go in the marathon, when your feet slip around in your shoes, and you get big blisters because everything is rubbing, but that year, my biomechanics didn’t break down. I was strong all the way through the finish line, I think I had [only] one little tiny blister. Somebody gave me my son, Matts, to hold, I did the NBC interview, and literally the second the interview was over, my arms started to shake. As I was holding Matts, I said, “Somebody has to take him, or I’m going to drop him.” I handed him off and started walking toward the medical tent. I walked about 10-metres before I started throwing up, my legs cramped and my stomach cramped up. It’s wild because I had this window that started sometime on Friday where my body was in perfect balance, in race condition and ready to go, and it held all the way through my last interview. Then it shut down. It’s almost too much [for me] to think about how wild that is, how cosmic that was for me. That was really my perfect race. It challenged me on so many levels that I had never been challenged on before.