There’s IRONMAN history that started in 1978 and now spans 40-years. Each era has overlap between what came before it and what will take over going forward.
My name, Mark Allen, became synonymous with the modern era where this yearly gathering of endurance fanatics changed from just trying to survive to actually racing full bore for over 8-hours. That wakeup call happened in 1989 when Dave Scott and I shuttled side by side for over 8-hours, then finally separated in the closing mile of the marathon. Yes, IRONMAN could be raced.
That mindset started to take on character and tactics. How to race the IRONMAN World Championship had just about as many permutations as competitors who toed the line. Some swam their hearts out and held on. Others tiptoed ahead on the bike knowing there was a marathon waiting. But 1995 was another epic transition in what athletes were willing to do to try to win. No longer would everyone be waiting for the marathon. The bike took center stage. And the athlete who shook it all up was a German named Thomas Hellriegel.
He was called Hell On Wheels for good reason. In 1995 Thomas Hellriegel opened up a gap of thirteen minutes and thirty seconds on me with a blistering bike.
Thomas was in and out of transition long before I finally, painfully finished the bike. I’d later learn he put almost another minute on me in the first couple of miles of the marathon. That big of a gap had never been closed at that point in the history of the race. It looked very strikingly like someone was going to with the IRONMAN that year whose name was not Mark Allen!
Hellriegel’s ride marked the beginning of a new era with a new strategy: crush the bike so that not even a great runner has a chance to catch you by the finish.
In the past I hadn’t worried about the real estate between me and the boys who wanted to open up gaps on the bike. Their buffer was never enough to really worry me. I knew that if my run pulled through I’d be able to regain any ground lost. But this seemed impossible.
At the start of the marathon I had to make up 30-seconds a mile every single mile of the run to catch Hellriegel at the finish line. With 8-miles to go in the race the gap was down to 4-minutes. So yes, I was closer, but the relative distance between us was still the same. I was still only on pace to catch him at the finish. And that is not a good place to catch a guy who is 13-years younger than you when you are both sprinting for the IRONMAN World Championship.
Fortunately, for me the race began to shift back in my favor coming up out of the Energy Lab.
Finally at mile-23 of the marathon I closed the last sliver of space and surged past Hellriegel. That was the final pass of my IRONMAN career. It was one that took all the experience of eleven previous IRONMAN World Championship races and a whole lot of life experience to pull off.
Hellriegel was asked if people were telling him I was coming. His answer was simple:
“I didn’t need to have anyone tell me he was coming. I could feel him coming. He was like a man eater!”
It was a Top-40 Greatest Moment At IRONMAN because it did signify a real shift in the competitive environment from the old guard to a new breed. There would be more go-for-broke bike antics to come, some resulting in great victories. Others would be the fuel for epic meltdowns. But from that race forward, no one took the breaks made on the bike as anything other than true treats that could shape a World Title.
The full story of this IRONMAN is one that is precious to me.
I have shared the tense details of the day in IMX12-My Stories From Kona. You can read that one HERE.
Thomas Hellriegel came in second in 1995. He’d backed that up with another second place in 1996. Then in 1997 he won the race on another very challenging, windy day by, yes, using the bike to set a gap big enough that none of the better runners could close. It cemented charging the bike as a can-win strategy that everyone takes very seriously to this day.
Here is one final thought on the day that I shared many years after my final IRONMAN on one piece that made the day so special:
Follow Thomas Hellriegel on Facebook by clicking HERE.
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I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.