by Mark Allen
Have you ever asked yourself why you race, especially a triathlon as grueling as an Ironman? I have, partly so I can remind myself of my own motivations and partly so that I have an answer ready when people ask me. "I love being in great shape" sounds like an overdose of overkill to someone who confides in you that their fitness is limited to walking Fido when their kids have too much homework to take him out. "I race to test myself" does little to connect the incredible feeling you get completing an Ironman with an inquisitive out-of-shape coach potato sitting next to you on a plane.
So why do we race? What is so fun about keeping going when your body is screaming for you to stop? What's so fulfilling about ending up with blisters and walking funny for a few days? What is it about crossing a finish line that has us replaying that moment and all the day's journey over and over in our mind's eye and to our friends? It might be as simple as that it feels fantastic to be that fit. It definitely has to do with being involved with a great community of people. Here are some additional reasons and theories. Read on and see if any of them are ones that are your reasons for racing as well.
We all have some kind of moment where it all crystalized, where you made the decision to do a triathlon. For me it was watching the Ironman on television back in 1982. It was the impossible-ness of the task that intrigued me. I love a physical puzzle that clearly has a solution, yet seems to lie way outside my realm of experience. It's the kind of thing that is energizing to see, and if watching it calls to you, it's even more energizing to experience.
I had a similar feeling when I watched the distance swimmers in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. To me--someone who could not even make it once across the length of a 25-yard pool--their feats seemed impossible; yet they were doing it. It called to me, and a few months later I joined a local swim team and started what would become a 12-year stint as a swimmer. Watching the 1982 Ironman had all the same trimmings–-another sport way outside my realm of experience with the impossible physical puzzle that clearly had a solution. And I was called once again. A few short months after that I was training for what would become the first of 12 Ironman races in Hawaii.
What was your initial inspiration?
There are few people I have encountered who did one and only one triathlon. Perhaps it's the circles I keep, but my guess is that it's because there indeed are only a few who fall into that category. Remember how great it was to cross the finish line in your first race? A few days later were you thinking it might be even more fulfilling to do it just a little faster with a whole lot more grace and ease in your stride!
Proficiency just feels good, doesn't it! Regardless of what your starting point is in the sport, there is going to be a learning curve your body goes through until you reach your best, most proficient efforts. And each notch up is inspiration to go the next and the next until you gain a level of efficiency and fluidity where your training and racing start to become something that no longer have an accent to them. Your body becomes fluent "speaking" the language called triathlon.
Some people have said that triathletes love to suffer and that is why they race: to suffer more than anyone else. Granted, a triathlon comes with its share of pain, but is that really the magnet that draws us back over and over? I don't think so.
I think we get a taste of something in small morsels both in training and racing that I call "perfection" that becomes what endurance aficionados crave. It's those moments where everything about you unifies and there is no longer a separation between your body, your thoughts, or your environment. One researcher I spoke with several years ago explained it this way: He said that normally there is a time lag that takes place between all parts of the body. So for example, if you think, "speed up" there is a specific time lag before that impulse in the brain makes its way to the legs. The lag is infinitesimal but it exists. The same lag exists when the outer environment transmits a signal to your body and you react. You know this for sure if you have ever had your front tire blow at high speeds. You are going down before you know what happened.
He went on to explain that there is something incredible that can happen where, rather than communication depending on chemical transmissions along your nervous system, there is a completely different mode that people switch into where communication happens through some primitive energetic force that influences every single cell in your body at the same time. He explained it to be a form of communication that is instantaneous and globally understood, and it can be measured to be without the normal lag that was previously thought by science to be necessary for messages to communicate across your nervous system and through your body. It's the ultimate perfection that athletes hope to arrive at in the moments that require it most.
In very common terms it's when you just feel things are clicking for you, where you don't have to focus to push, you just are. It's when you are running but forget you are running. It's when you are racing and 10 miles go by on the bike yet it feels like one. It's that state where you can sense how your competitor is doing without needing to ask. Skill sports call it "flow." I call it perfection. It is energizing beyond anything else to experience. It's wanting to experience this incredible state where the communication in your body and with your environment is instantaneous that draws us back over and over to train and race. It's total perfection of movement. It's freedom from needing a finish time or place to feel the day was complete and perfect. It's inspiring for others to watch, and incredibly energizing to experience.
We don't have a word that adequately describes what this perfection is. Ballet dancers, musicians, athletes, and just about everyone else have experienced it at one point or another in those times where you become completely absorbed in the task at hand and the world seems timeless. It's fun! It's perfection. It's one of the best things about racing. Why do you race?
No triathlete has gained the recognition or success that Mark Allen has. After competing and losing in the Ironman Triathlon Championships six times, he emerged victorious in 1989, winning the most difficult one-day sporting event in the world. It would be the first of six Ironman victories for Allen, the last coming in 1995 at age 37, making him the oldest champion ever. He has also excelled at the Olympic distance, winning the sport's inaugural World Championships in 1989 in Avignon, France, by more than a minute. He went undefeated in 10 trips to the Nice International Championships, and from 1988-1990 he put together a winning streak of 20 races. Over the course of his racing career, which ended in 1996, he maintained a 90% average in top-three finishes. He was named Triathlete of the Year six times by Triathlete magazine, and in 1997 Outside magazine tabbed him The World's Fittest Man.
1989-1995 Ironman Champion, Mark runs www.markallenonline.com, a online triathlon training system for athletes.