Mark Allen will forever be linked with the Ironman World Championships, which takes place Saturday on Hawaii’s Big Island.
Allen won the race six times, most memorably in 1995, when he came back at 37 after a one-year hiatus and improbably made up more than 13 minutes on the leader in the marathon leg.
“I knew it was my last race,” Allen said this week in an interview from Kona, where he will commentate on the digital stream of the event. “That freed me up because I knew there were no more tomorrows.”
These days Allen, 61, coaches amateur triathletes looking for an edge. With Dave Scott, a chief rival back in the day, he put together a 10-episode series about their epic race in 1989, when Allen finally beat Scott after finishing second to him in 1986 and 1987.
Allen spoke with The New York Times about what it takes to win one of the toughest championships in the world and why Americans have struggled to win the event in the 21st century.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.
You’re back in Kona. Any desire to hop into the competition?
I raced it 12 times. I love being here. I would miss it if I wasn’t here. I have no desire to race again. Maybe in my next lifetime.
How did you get the bug out of your system?
The last time I raced was here in 1995. That was my sixth and final victory, and maybe the greatest of all because it was so difficult. When you are younger you can have great races and train all you want. At 37 I had to be much more diligent and careful. Then I came into the marathon 13 and a half minutes behind the leader. There was no way to make up 30 seconds per mile, but the miles kept going. I had a final talk with the Big Island and said “I am going to give this everything I have but I need something extra.” I caught the leader at Mile 23. That is what brings out our best, when things seem impossible.
Did you feel extra pressure to perform well in your last race?
I knew this was my final Ironman. I didn’t have to save anything for another day, another race, another time.
Why had you walked away previously?
My son was born a month after the 1993 race. I wanted to have more time to be a father and spend time with him.
There is irony in that because I know a lot of people who use triathlon training as a way to hide from their families.
That’s true. For me it was my profession. I wanted to take time away from super-long training.
How has the sport changed since you were on top of the hill?
There have been huge technological advances, with Garmins and GPS and power measurements on your bike. We just had stopwatches. Also, the sport has become more of a global brand with top athletes from everywhere in the world. No one place has a stranglehold on elite athletes. It has grown up.
Why can't Americans win this event anymore?
It’s been 17 years. In a lot of countries there is broader support for the development of Ironman champions. In Europe, a lot of countries have a strong club and federation system that helps them with training and coaching, and in the United States there is some support for kids interested in Olympic triathlon but not a lot for those who are trying to win at the Ironman distance.
You have mentioned the importance of tuning into your “inner space.” What does that mean?
How do you quantify fear or self-doubt or passion or commitment. There are words where, if we are in those spaces in competition that will affect our race. It’s being able to deal with the things that are not going to show up on a Garmin.
How do you do that over the course of a 141-mile competition?
This island is very powerful. There is a spiritual power. You feel this energy. You can’t grasp it in your hand but you feel it when you get off the plane. I began to understand this when I studied Shamanism, with Brant Secunda. He got me to learn how to get to the start line and have the gun go off and let me surrender to whatever the day is going to bring.
How does that jibe with an intense desire to win?
That is the peak performance paradox. During every one of the six championships I won there were hundreds of moments where it didn’t feel possible. You get into negative space and you have to draw back and regroup and take a breath and say, “What can I do?” And then focus on your rhythm and breathing, looking around at the lava and the beauty and the ocean, and then everything loosens back up. Those are amazing transformations when they happen and those are the moments that are like life. Life doesn’t say, “If you give everything you have you will have a guarantee of getting what you want.” Life says, “Give everything you have and then let’s see what happens.”
Do you miss the competition like so many retired athletes do?
I would not classify myself as a classically competitive person. Sport was a way for me to evolve as a person. Once gun went off it was sort of like floodwaters going over the levee. There was nothing that was going to hold me back from giving my best.
Which is different from a burning desire to win.
It is. If only one person wins does that mean everyone else is a loser? Absolutely not. Now, I think people who say they are only racing themselves are full of it, but you can be in cooperation with your competitors and see them as helping you to do your best.
Do you coach any of the top athletes?
My real passion is age-group athletes. If you change one or two things they are doing in training their performance goes up incredibly. Elite athletes are already getting 99 percent out of their D.N.A. They usually don’t want to change and come to me thinking some magic will rub off, and it doesn’t work that way.
Are you amazed at the massive popularity of what was once a fringe endeavor?
It’s been a slow, natural progression but over the span of time it’s mind-blowing how big it’s become.