Going beyond all limits often gets equated to amazing athletic performances. But it can also mean someone went into the red zone that was life-threatening.

I usually thought of going beyond all limits in sport as the goal. Rise up and set a new standard, whether that was on a world-class level or on a very personal level. It was like a badge of glory to know you were going beyond all limits.

I’d been inspired by athletes my whole life who did that. Watching the distance swimmers in the Mexico City Olympics going beyond all limits and setting new records inspired me to become a swimmer as a young boy. Watching the IRONMAN finishers in the 1982 IRONMAN World Championship clearly going beyond all limits I thought were humanly possible inspired me to take up triathlons.

The Nice International Triathlon in 1983 would be one of my chances to go beyond all limits. But little did I know that it would be to a point that took me into a zone I never, ever wanted to reach again.

The race changed its distances from the first year in 1982. This year it was to be a 3,000m swim, a 120km bike and a 32km run. Chopping 10km off the marathon that we ran in the first edition of the race sounded, well, relatively easy. I set it in my mind that I could run pretty fast for 32km without having to worry so much about overall pacing. I also felt I didn’t need to be quite as precise about my nutrition or hydration. Anything less than a marathon and it sounded like I could adjust on the spot fairly quickly and rebound if I ever got into a bad state. How wrong I was!

The race was in September, which I was also pretty excited about.

It would warm rather than freezing as it had been the first year when it was held in late November. I was coming back as the defending champ. All the changes were giving me even more confidence of having another great performance in Nice.

The previous year I’d stayed in one of the world-class chain hotels along the Promenade des Anglais. It wasn’t what I would call a true French experience though. Yes, the food was French and the people working there were French, but everything else about it could have been in just about any big city in the world.

This year Team J David’s heads decided we would stay at The Negresco. It’s probably the most well-known hotel on the Promenade des Anglais. It’s just across the street from the ocean, and there was nothing about it that I would think I could find in any other hotel in the world!

Signature style at the Negresco Hotel.

We were greeted by a concierge in classic high hat and cloak fashion. When I unlocked to door to my room and opened it, I was welcomed with leopard spotted wall paper and a whole host of other wild game memorabilia that for sure immediately made this a room to remember! It all felt like it was lining up to be another amazing race for me!

Amazing and memorable can be too very different worlds though.

The field was as packed as the first edition of the Nice Triathlon one year earlier, with one exception. Dave Scott was here this time. His presence rounded out the field and made it the most competitive long-distance race sport had seen that year.

The Mediterranean was warm and blue and welcoming. It was hot. No worries hypothermia this year! The bike had added an additional 20km of hilly climbs and very technical descents.  But the roads were beautiful. I was trying to take as much of it in as I could during the race without crashing.

The ride in Nice is in one way similar to the bike in Kona. It’s away from town with only a smattering of people watching on many of the stretches. It has its own serenity that allows you to focus on your own rhythm and cadence and timing. But when it comes back into town, the crowd, just like Kona, is a welcome sight!

I was strong and relaxed. I didn’t hurry through transition, but I didn’t wait either. The main person weighing heavy on my mind was Dave Scott. This wasn’t Hawaii, but then he’d proven he could win at any distance anywhere in the world. He was behind me by a comfortable margin, but I knew I had to try to cushion that just in case he had a signature steamroller of a run and came on strong in the last hour of the race.

Going beyond all limits can be something that sneaks up on you with a very slow, strangling ever-tightening squeeze.

One of the most devastating collapses in my triathlon career, all within sight of the finish line.

You don’t know it’s beyond the limit until it gets so bad that you suddenly realize there’s no correction, no adjustment that’s going to bring you back into the realm of what you think you have a thread of a chance of managing.

I was leading as I came back onto the Promenade des Anglais for the final few kilometers of the run. Just as I was getting within 2km to the finish my body went from running to feeling like someone had yanked the plug out of the electric socket. I went from running to decelerating to a fast walk within what seemed like steps.

I’d bonked before and knew what that was like. You can feel it coming. This gave no warning. It took all my focus just to keep conscious and moving forward.

I tried to run but stumbled, ending up stopped and propping myself up on all fours. I hadn’t gone completely to the ground, but I was as close as possible without actually hitting it with my body.

Somehow, I stood back upright and started again. All I could feel was Dave Scott chewing up what little pavement separated us. I was so close, I had to keep going. But what could I do to hold him off? I managed a wavering jog, which was better than a walk but not much. He was closing, I was losing chunks of advantage.

I could see the Negresco and the finish line. No matter what, I had to make it there as fast as I could anyway I could. I struggled. I nearly collapsed before I crossed the line but had just enough left in my brain to make sure I broke the tape before I let down.

Back in my hotel room later that day with my close friend George Hoover I began to sob. I confessed that the experience scared me.  I told him I never, ever wanted to repeat that again, EVER!

In my mind’s eye, going beyond all limits was heroic but with no real danger to your life. This felt like I’d pushed myself to a point where I was so very close to death. I still don’t really know exactly what happened that day. If it was a bonk, then it was the greatest bonk of all time. It must have been something more. Perhaps it was the heat of the day combined with running out of gas and then amplified by indeed pushing my body to its limits.

Dave Scott came in 3:19 behind me. Even another 500m and he would have caught me for sure. The victory was great, but the price was immense.

A complete breakdown at the end of the race was devastating physically for me.

As an athlete I cherish the abilities of my body and don’t take its health or capabilities to perform for granted for one second. It felt like I’d put the main thing I have that enables me to do sports, my body, in tremendous jeopardy that day. I would indeed have two more times during my career when I crossed the line that separated safety and sanity in search of victory (IRONMAN World Championship 1984, 1987). But on this day I vowed to myself to never go this deep ever again.

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About the author Mark Allen More information on the author

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.

2 Comments

  • Great write up Grip! I can relate to it in some of my races, it’s like you are there in the moment but you are in unconscious state. It’s like Pink Floyd’s song , Comfortably Numb. Thats is what you and Dave Scott were such phenomenal Triathletes!

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