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Inside the Mind of an Ironman

Can inspirational quotes make you a champion? It worked for six-time Hawaii Ironman champion Mark Allen—and he wants to share his moral support with us mere mortals.

The legendary triathlete's new book, The Art of Competition, combines scenic photographs with Allen's own spiritual thoughts. The finished product reads in bit like a series of inspirational posters, but also as a serious reflection on healthy competition.  

We talked to Allen about the book, triathlons, and the spiritual work he does with Shaman Brant Secunda.

OUTSIDE: What made you decide to write a book of inspirational quotes?
ALLEN
: For years, people asked me, 'What did you think about during races? How did you hold it together?' I always felt I was falling short of explaining the essence of what I was doing.

How did you begin to compile the quotes?
I was on a retreat with Brant Secunda in Japan. I was lying down and these quotes just started coming to me, out of thin air. It was like a faucet. By the next day, I’d written down 35 to 40 quotes. I thought, these are pretty cool, but I didn’t have a vision for what to with them. Five years later, I decided that I needed to pair them with photographs from nature.

Why is nature such an important part of the book?
We are hard wired to feel good in nature, and the quotes have everything to do with us feeling good in life. That is how I raced best; when I felt good about life. I trained in San Diego in the winter and Boulder in the summer and I just loved those environments. You’re running by the ocean and then riding in the foothills of the Rockies. It doesn’t get any better. Nature has always been a huge part of my training. When you go outside and immerse yourself in nature, you inherently feel better.

Did you write this book for triathletes?
I wrote this book for everybody. There’s not one photo of an athlete in it. There are no numbers or formulas. It’s meant to test people on a deeper level. Obviously, there’s a sport slant to a lot of it, but it applies to personal challenges in any arena.

Should someone read this book straight through? Or take their time with a few quotes at a time?
When I had put everything together for the book, I sent out a PDF to people to get feedback. One of the guys I sent it to I thought was as far at the end of the spectrum of people who might like it as possible. He finally called me, and told me he’d at last finished reading the book. He’d started reading quotes and flipping through the pages, and then realized he could only look at two or three quotes each day because he would start thinking about each one. I think a lot of people will read a little bit at a time and go reflect on it.

The book contains positive quotes, but it also addresses problems such as being stuck, jealous, or grappling with self-pity. Do you deal with all of those?
I’ve had to overcome all of those things. I didn’t want to make the book just about fluffy positive things. I was feeling sorry for myself all those years I didn’t win races. I could be in the lead at hours five, six, or seven, but I couldn’t be in the lead at the finish line. I had jealousy and self-pity when Dave Scott kept winning and I couldn’t. We all have to find a way to move beyond those things.

Your best known race is the 1989 Ironman Hawaii battle with Dave Scott. What did that win mean to you?
It was an amazing race because we were side by side for eight hours. It had never happened before, and it hasn’t happened since. It was a defining moment for me. I made the switch to finally having the race I wanted to have. It was the first time I really integrated the soul-body concept. I really embraced how the internal space dictates what is going on outside of you.

What happened mentally with you in that race that enabled you to push through to the finish line?
Dave was surging at the half marathon point. I remember looking around at the black lava surrounding us, and thinking that it was the most amazing creation nature could make. It was like a cloud had lifted. I stopped thinking about everything and became a vehicle for performance to take place. I think almost all great athletic performances happen when you are in that space.

What was the tougher race: The duel with Dave Scott or your final Ironman Hawaii victory in 1995, when you had to make up 13 and a half minutes in the marathon over race leader Thomas Hellriegel?
I would say the final victory was the hardest. When I was racing with Dave, we were side by side the whole time. There was zero doubt about how he was feeling. With Hellriegel, I was racing a guy who’d passed me on the bike and I didn’t see again for hours. It was very hard mentally to keep going and say this is something that could turn around.

How did you keep going when you were that far back?
I knew I had to make up 30 seconds per mile in the marathon. It seemed so impossible. I threw off my heart rate monitor. It would tell me if I was running out of gas, and I didn’t want to know that.

What made you a great triathlete?
Tons of guys have the same genetics as me. I’m not a freak of nature genetically. There are a lot of guys with better numbers. But the numbers in the logbook don’t necessarily tell what you will do in competition. I discovered how to persevere in difficult moments. When you just want to quit, you have to surrender to the moment, and find a calm.

What did you love about Ironman Hawaii?
I loved that Ironman is such a complex puzzle to figure out. The wind, the heat, the energy of the Big Island. Everyone willing to give 100 percent. I really loved that.

Have you been surprised by the enormous growth in the sport of Ironman?
When I started in 1982, there were 1,000 people in the race in Kona. You didn’t have to qualify. There were very few Ironman races to enter. Now, there are races everywhere. I think people do this sport because of the community of people, and because you test yourself and challenge yourself.

What do you do in the retreats you host with Shaman Brant Secunda?
We teach retreats all over the world. We’ve been doing it since 1998. The Art of Competition is a teaser of what you can get if you develop your mind and body, which is what we work on at our retreats. We get a huge range of people at our retreats. Everyone from world class athletes to inactive, overweight individuals. The way we set up the workshops is so there’s something for everybody.

Do you also work with triathletes?
I do training camps periodically. I’ll be in Boulder in August. I talk about both the physical and mental because there’s a lot of misinformation about training. I believe in getting fit in a way that is healthy instead of burning yourself out. I tell a lot of Ironman stories because it brings to life that even champions struggle.

Do you still do triathlons?
My day-to-day exercise now is surfing. I live in Santa Cruz and absolutely love it. I get out on the water most days. It’s my cardio, my strength, my stretching, and my nature fix. I also run and lift weights.

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The Medicine Ball Wednesday Workout

If you’re going to have just one piece of fitness equipment make it a medicine ball. Nothing provides as much versatility or challenge. This short med-ball session targets all of your muscles (OK, most of the major groups), but with the bonus of having you fight through the pain when they’re zapped—to give you the muscular endurance to finish any ride or run.

Time: 25 minutes

Equipment: Medicine ball

Body Parts Worked: Upper, lower, and core

How to Do It: Complete as many reps as you can of each exercise in 1 minute. Rest 20 seconds in between each move.

Pushups: Do them with your feet on the ball.
Side slalom jumps: Lateral jumps over the ball.
Ball slams: Raise the ball over your head, then slam ball down to the ground in front of you (best used with a soft ball so the ground absorbs the force and doesn’t bounce back).
Alternating lunge presses: Press the ball above your head while rising from each lunge.
Mountain climbers: Do them with your left hand on the ball for 30 seconds (and right hand on the ground), then your right hand on the ball for 30 seconds (and left hand on the ground).
Squat throws: Holding ball at chest level with both hands, throw it straight up as you explode up from a squat.
Ball crunch: Perform a regular crunch while holding the ball straight up over your head. While crunching up, keep the ball pointed toward the sky.
Slow squat: Hold the ball over your head. Take 3-5 seconds to lower yourself into a squat and 3-5 seconds to stand up. Keep the ball over your head for the entire minute.
Throw and chase: Hold the ball between your legs with both hands. Hinge at your hips to squat and thrust up, tossing the ball underhand as far as you can. Run after it and throw from the new spot.
Pushups: Do them with your hands on the ball.

About this Series
The Wicked Wednesday Workout is designed to help you break up your week with a high-intensity, total-body workout of strength and endurance that uses minimal equipment—to help better prepare your body for the randomness of your weekend at play. 
Ted Spiker, who has designed and led backyard and neighborhood workouts for his friends for the past three years, is a journalism professor at the University of Florida who specializes in health and fitness writing. He recommends you pick up a scrap truck tire to add more variety to your workouts.

About this Series
The Wicked Wednesday Workout is designed to help you break up your week with a high-intensity, total-body workout of strength and endurance that uses minimal equipment—to help better prepare your body for the randomness of your weekend at play. 

Ted Spiker, who has designed and led backyard and neighborhood workouts for his friends for the past three years, is a journalism professor at the University of Florida who specializes in health and fitness writing. He recommends you pick up a scrap truck tire to add more variety to your workouts.

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CrossFit, Your Insecurity Is Showing

You do not cross CrossFit. As many in the media have learned, the company behind the fitness craze is not afraid to retaliate—through its enforcers in "informational weaponry," Russell Greene and Russell Berger; its massive social-media following; or, if all else fails, the courts. I knew because I'd read about it and had seen their work on Outside's Facebook wall. But it wasn't real to me. It is now.

Outside has been a focus of CrossFit's wrath since we began reporting on the injured-participant-led backlash in 2013. But I first became Greene's target when I reported on a story about CrossFit's new rival, the NPFL (now known as the NPGL). In the story, NPGL founder Tony Budding said he wanted to create an event that was more spectator-friendly than CrossFit's flagship competition, the CrossFit Games.

Greene took offense to that line. "Tony's statement that the CrossFit Games aren't a spectator-friendly sport is completely false, and deserves critical analysis," Greene wrote. Fair enough. We'd pointed out that "some would argue that the CrossFit Games have been a huge success, selling out tickets, drawing a half-million viewers on ESPN, and winning title sponsorship from Reebok." The story wasn't about taking sides, but about informing readers of the NPGL's existence and what it planned to do.

I suppose I should've remembered that encounter when I applied for a press pass to this year's CrossFit Games. Held annually since 2007, the Games are what makes CrossFit a sport rather than a training regimen. To get to the finals at the StubHub arena in Carson, California, individual CrossFit athletes and teams must make it past open and regional competitions. About 100 men and 100 women face off in a three-day strongman-style competition (think: overhead squats, burpees, and rowing), where CrossFit dubs the winners "Fittest on Earth" and hands them a check for $275,000.

I'd spent the past two-and-a-half years reporting on obstacle racing, a sport whose meteoric growth was greatly fueled by CrossFitters looking for a place to test their strength. I wanted to see what a straight-up CrossFit competition was like. Instead, my press pass was denied.

"Outside Online has published headlines and articles about CrossFit and the CrossFit Games that lead us to question Outside Magazine and Outside Online's editorial intentions," said the email from CrossFit Press, which arrived after we reached out to Greene. The email listed four Outside articles to which CrossFit had taken offense: a report on a Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study that suggested CrossFit has a 16 percent injury rate, a report on the subsequent lawsuit between CrossFit and the journal (published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association), the NPFL story, and another story digging deeper into injury statistics.

No mention was made, however, of the stories we've published trumpeting CrossFit's stars like four-time CrossFit Games champion Rich Froning, pointing readers to the regimen's best boxes, or even promoting CrossFit-inspired training plans. Outside has covered all aspects of the fitness trend since it began.

With that in mind, we asked CrossFit to reevaluate its decision. CrossFit is important to us and to many of our readers. We were eager to cover the games. Again, we were rejected. This time, our email didn't even elicit a response.

Denying our press pass is like the NFL writing, "Dear ESPN, We can't let you cover the Super Bowl, because you covered the traumatic-brain-injury concerns of NFL players." By CrossFit's logic, every major media outlet in the United States should be blackballed, from the New York Times to USA Today, because we've all covered CrossFit injuries. Deadspin must certainly be on CrossFit's s*** list after publishing this gem about the NSCA debacle:

It exposes the fitness company far more effectively than the NSCA study ever did. In the lawsuit, all of CrossFit's neuroses emerge, as does its inner asshole.

The press-pass rejection not only made CrossFit look thin-skinned, it also made it look like the company has something to hide. And barring journalists from something is about the best way to ensure they'll pursue a story. On Thursday evening, I bought a $50 pass to Friday's CrossFit Games and went to see the competition for myself.

StubHub Center, where the event is held, is composed of several venues. There are soccer, tennis, and track stadiums, as well as a tent village where vendors like Badass WOD Wear and nonprofits like Barbells for Boobs hawk their goods.

When spectators walked into the soccer stadium on Friday morning, their eyes lit up. They actually said, "Wow!" The place had been transformed into the world's biggest box, with THE 2014 REEBOK CROSSFIT GAMES printed across end zones and 15 metal trusses cutting the field in half.

I took photos of at least 10 people against that backdrop. They came from all over—Pittsburgh, Florida, Atlanta, Minnesota, Mexico. Most of them seemed to follow a dress code. Booty shorts for the ladies, nylon board shorts for the men, T-shirts repping their respective boxes, and minimalist Reebok CrossFit shoes. The stadium floor was empty, although the Jumbotrons showed a competition taking place: a relay run with competitors tethered together.

Perhaps Greene feared we'd find the games weren’t spectator-friendly. That's because they aren't. Not even to avid CrossFitters. Friday's first two events—the relay run and an erg-jump rope-run combo—were held in the driveway outside the soccer stadium, where few people could tell what was going on.

Some spectators even considered climbing the palm trees lining the road to improve their vantage point over the thousands of others trying to get a glimpse of their friends and favorite athletes. "I'm a huge Rich Froning fan," a 28-year-old CrossFitter from San Diego told me when I asked why he came to the games. "He said this might be his last year as an individual" competitor. It was tough to catch a glimpse of his hero, though, behind two solid rows of standing people.  

"Why didn't they do it in the stadium where people can actually see? I paid $200 to see nothing!" said an athlete from Utah as she stood on an empty Pelican case used to house the camera filming the event. She wasn't mad about it, though; she came for the experience and to support friends who were competing. In that way, she was like everybody else there.

{%{"quote":The rabid attacks on media outlets and researchers suggest that CrossFit is insecure with itself."}%}

{%{"quote":"The rabid attacks on media outlets and researchers suggest that CrossFit is insecure with itself."}%}

The CrossFit Games are like a religious gathering cum high-school track meet, where everyone in the stands (or on the street) is either a zealot or knows a competitor. "This is like a Mecca for CrossFitters," a Canadian CrossFitter told me.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with being at a religious gathering/high-school track meet. In fact, that's what makes the CrossFit Games—and CrossFit itself—special. It brings people of diverse backgrounds together to celebrate health and fitness. I met three generations of people at the games who might as well have been wearing kettlebell halos; they were the nicest sports spectators I've ever encountered, happy to talk about the event and the people close to them who were competing. Just like my mom at my high-school swim meets.

CrossFit should embrace its special community. The rabid attacks on media outlets and researchers suggest that CrossFit is insecure with itself. New competition like the NPGL should energize CrossFit rather than scare the organization into harassing reporters who introduce its rivals. As for that NSCA lawsuit, CrossFit should take a page out of its own book and relearn the art of the spin.

Back in 2005, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman knew how to handle a press that questioned his methods. Just before Christmas, the New York Times published an article about CrossFit's propensity to induce injuries, including rhabdomyolysis, a serious condition that can lead to kidney damage. Glassman’s response: Embrace the danger.

CrossFit had already rolled out a mascot named Uncle Rhabdo, a clown "whose kidneys have spilled onto the floor presumably due to rhabdomyolysis," the Times reported. Glassman also wrote an article titled "CrossFit-Induced Rhabdo," in which he "soberly explained the circumstances of the six CrossFit-related cases he knew about, outlined ways affiliates could lower the likelihood of injury, and announced he would add a rhabdomyolysis discussion to his weekend seminars and to the website," Inc. reported. PR crisis met head-on. Crisis averted.

Sometime over the past nine years, CrossFit, the sport of strength, got weak.

The tiniest amount of criticism sets its enforcers off on a rampage, and it's affecting CrossFit's most devout adherents. You've got a great thing going, CrossFit, with amazing people in your ranks. Bring back the old CrossFit that faced controversy with honesty and humor. Even better: Heed one of your own favorite sayings and HTFU.

Outside's CrossFit Coverage (The Good and Bad)

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Do Siblings Share Athletic Potential?

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