Six-Time Ironman World Champion Mark Allen Shares His Secret to Success
Originally published in Santa Cruz Waves Magazine.
To win the Ironman World Championship, Mark Allen knew that he had to try something different. His previous six attempts at the grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race, and 26.2-mile marathon on the Big Island of Hawaii had brought him to the podium, but a first-place finish remained out of reach.
“The energy of the island is very powerful and raw,” Allen says. “I was always trying to push that energy away…to adopt this super strong and intense kind of confidence, and it wasn’t working.”
Shortly after arriving in Kona for his seventh attempt, Allen entered a tiny blue church on Ali’i Drive along the run course. He carried a handful of reeds, gathered from a favorite route in San Diego, as an offering to the spirits of Kona. He said a humble prayer: Big Island, let me honor you. Closing his eyes, he says that he saw visions of Hawaiian elders and heard them speak: You can win the race, but it will take courage.
According to Allen, the Ironman World Championship on Oct. 16, 1989, “became one of the greatest races of all time.” Dave Scott, who had already won the Ironman World Championship six times and held the world record, stayed neck and neck with Allen as they swam across Kailua Bay, cycled 5,678 feet of elevation to Hawi, and ran along Ali’i Drive.
“Mark was a ferocious competitor,” Scott says of Allen. “He didn’t show emotion while racing; he didn’t show weakening or give anyone the chance to overtake him.”
Scott set the pace during the marathon, matching Allen step for step.
“I was hanging on, but I was having a hard time,” Allen recalls. Plagued with physical discomfort and mental chatter, he questioned whether he could keep going—then, something remarkable happened.
“My mind went completely quiet, because it took all the energy I had just to keep [Scott] from gaining an inch or a second,” Allen says. That was when he saw a vision of a shaman floating above the lava rocks.
The shaman was Don José Matsuwa, a 110-year-old Huichol whom Allen recognized from an ad in a Yoga Journal magazine. “I could feel his energy pouring into me,” Allen remembers, “and I realized I really can win this.” With a mile and a half to go in the race, he sprinted up the last hill, broke away from Scott, and won the race, setting a new world record that stood for 27 years.
A few months later, Allen attended a Huichol retreat in Mexico led by Brant Secunda, the adopted grandson of Matsuwa. There, he took part in Indigenous traditions such as honoring the harvest of corn, and he began learning how to quiet his mind.
“Mark focused on becoming a whole person, and it made him a better athlete,” Secunda says.
Allen went on to win five more Ironman World Championships, crediting much of his success to the Huichol practices of dispelling negative emotions, interpreting dreams, making offerings and praying. In 1995, he finished the bike course 13.5 minutes behind Thomas Hellriegel, a wider gap than anyone had ever closed in the event. As he ran past his hotel during the marathon, Allen considered calling it a day. However, once he let go of winning and simply made the commitment to finish, everything changed.
Allen remembered something Secunda told him just before the race: Call out to the Big Island if you need help. The island is alive, and it will hear you. Following Secunda’s advice, Allen implored the land for something extra. At mile 23, Allen made the final pass of his Ironman career, achieving what many called the greatest comeback in the history of the event.
At 63 years old, Allen is retired from racing, yet he remains committed to the spiritual practices that propelled him to the pinnacle of athletic success. As someone who spent a large part of his career measuring watts, seconds, and calories, he now focuses largely on elements that are not measurable.
“You can’t measure trust, love, community, or surrender, but these are all things that affect us,” Allen says. Huichol art decorates the walls of his home in Santa Cruz, where he has lived since 1999, and he continues to incorporate Indigenous wisdom into athletic training through “Fit Soul, Fit Body,” a book published in collaboration with Secunda, with accompanying workshops held throughout the year.
When Allen isn’t leading group rides on Zwift or training athletes through his business, Mark Allen Coaching, he is usually out surfing at Pleasure Point. He learned to surf at the Hook in 1975 and found himself immediately drawn to the sport.
“We can’t measure the positive impact of being in nature,” Allen points out. In his opinion, surfing is the ultimate way to keep your brain pliable: “You have to surrender; you can’t script it.”
MARK ALLEN’S CAREER ACHIEVEMENTS:
2014 — Inducted into the ITU Hall of Fame
2012 — Inducted into the USAT Hall of Fame
2012 — Voted Greatest Endurance Athlete of All Time in a worldwide poll conducted by ESPN 1997 — Inducted into the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame
1997 — Outside magazine: The World’s Fittest Man
1995 — First place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 8:20:34
1993 — First place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 8:07:46
1992 — First place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 8:09:08
1991 — First place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 8:18:32
1990 — First place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 8:28:17
1989 — First place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 8:09:14
1988 — Fifth place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 8:43:22
1987 — Second place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 8:45:19
1986 — Second place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 8:36:04
1984 — Fifth place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 9:35:02
1983 — Third place. Ironman World Championship, Kona, Hawaii. Time: 9:21:06
TIPS FOR TRIATHLETES FROM MARK ALLEN:
Find a mentor: Connect with a triathlon club or coach that knows the sport.
Start short: Compete in local, shorter-distance races like the Half Ironman in Santa Cruz.
Live the lifestyle: Make training part of your daily practice.
Train the triad: Take time to develop running, biking, and swimming skills.
Be mindful: Slow down to get faster.
Get strong: Build muscle with a consistent strength-training program.
Invest in rest: Sleep is an essential element of recovery.
Eat clean: Moderate carb intake and manage protein.