On November 20, 1982 I would run my first marathon. It would be the final leg of the first Nice International Triathlon. I was terrified of it to be honest. In my mind I’d built it up to be this ominous, messy, painful, muscle searing experience. I didn’t want to fall apart. The one and only goal I had for it was “efficiency”.

Nice, France and the blue of the Mediterranean.

The end of November was cold on the Cote D’Azur. Snow already covered the back peaks in the Maritime Alps where the bike course would wind through. The Mediterranean was far from its summer balmy warm where you could float in it forever. The ocean temps were hovering around 57F (14C), which necessitated cutting the swim down to 500m. It was in the days before wetsuits so even that was a huge stretch.

Even though the swim was short it was tough. I was happy just to make it out of the water. A month earlier I’d been forced to drop out of the Malibu Triathlon due to hypothermia in the swim. My muscles just stopped working. I couldn’t coordinate them and was forced to frog kick on my back to keep from drowning. I eventually made it to shore and into the transition area, but couldn’t find my bike. I was yelling, “Where’s my bike!” A volunteer told me I was standing right in front of it, but I couldn’t see it. I was blind in my vision directly in front of me and could only see things in my peripheral site. Yes, it was too dangerous to try to ride.

The Malibu Triathlon 1982. No wetsuits and an extremely cold ocean. Mark was forced out with hypothermia after the swim.

But back to Nice. I could see my bike and I could ride. I took time in transition before heading out to put on tights and a jacket. I’d toss the tights later if I ever got warm, but I needed to get my core temperature back up to have any hope of actually racing.

Scott Molina was out of the water with me but got a huge jump out on the bike. He went minimalist and didn’t take time to layer up as much as I had. Half way through the bike I finally started to warm up, and then eventually sweat. I stopped, took off the tights and tossed them. It was another 3-4 minutes lost, but I felt it was the best choice.

Molina lead by quite a bit going out onto the run. It took me nearly eight miles to finally close the gap and catch him. I had no real idea what to expect for the remaining eighteen miles. That October I’d raced the IRONMAN World Championship for the first time, but was forced out half way through the bike when my derailleur snapped and broke. I never made it to the marathon. Molina had run a bunch, both straight marathons and a few more in Ironman races. He knew what the distance felt like both fresh and doing it after a swim and a bike.

This was unexplored territory for me. I was just trying to conserve my energy and avoid pounding to prevent muscle breakdown.

To that end I was trying to run as flat as possible horizontally keeping my up and down motion to a minimum. I could feel I had this sort of loping stride that probably looked like I was over-striding because there was almost no vertical component to my form. The top half of me looked like I wasn’t going anywhere. The lower half looked exaggerated in comparison. It was my attempt at economy of motion.

Molina’s form was nothing like it. He was hitting the ground hard with each step and had a good amount of vertical motion. When I passed him I said, “Keep from bouncing, you’re going to get tired”. Needless to say, he was in no way appreciative of advice on his run form in the middle of the race from a guy who’d never run a marathon in his life!

My strategy seemed to work though. I won by a decent margin and held pace pretty much the entire marathon. It became my signature style. But was it the way to run the fastest? The answer is complex! Here’s why.

Economy of form with little vertical movement hid the speed Mark was actually running.

Humans can run fast because we hit the ground and load our Achilles tendon with force. When it springs back we get a lot of that force back. It’s what gives us such economy of motion when we run. We lose very little of that load energy and get most of it back in the form of propulsion. The greater the load, the more recoil the Achilles gives. Running faster and faster requires giving the Achilles greater and greater load. One way to do that is to hit the ground harder and harder. Sprinters play this out. The force they hit the ground with is tremendous when at top speed compared to someone just jogging slowly.

The catch is that depending on how you create that load, there can also be a greater and greater amount of pounding that goes up into the legs, which causes muscle breakdown.

When the amount of breakdown reaches a critical point the survival part of our brain kicks in and tries to get us to slow down to preserve the leg muscles.

Anyone who’s done long runs or really fast running knows this sensation. We have an override switch that can keep us going even to the point of death if necessary once that critical breakdown starts to happen. This creates a complex question about how to run fast for a long period of time.

No stranger to sprints, the Gomez/Brownlee duel.

If you create load by hitting the ground hard, you will get a huge recoil and go faster, but you’ll also get greater muscle breakdown with each foot strike. That translates to an earlier point in the run where you will need to use more brainpower to override the survival genetics that tries to get you to slow down to preserve the system. This override takes a huge amount of energy as well. It may feel like you have to really concentrate to keep going. But it’s just that the brain is having to use its energy systems at a very fast pace, similar to how when you run fast you use up your muscle’s energy quicker as well. It’s very easy to hit the point where your brain runs out of energy to keep overriding the slow down switch and you do end up falling off pace.

So the balance offset would be if you could create load without the impact. If you could, you’d get the greaeter recoil from the Achilles, which translates into faster running, but with less muscle breakdown than you would get if you were really hitting the pavement hard to create the load. By accident, that’s what I did in that first marathon.

With virtually no vertical component to my running I had very little pounding impact that traveled up my legs to tear down muscle, but I was getting a lot of load on the Achilles with my loping stride that put extra stretch to it at the back of the push off. Thus the increased load without increasing the impact.

The trick to this is to make sure that the lope comes in the back half of the stride and doesn’t continue on to the front part as well. If that happens then you start over-striding, which in essence puts the brakes on every time your heel hits the ground out in front of the midpoint of your center of gravity.

Mark winning his first of ten Nice International Triathlon titles in 1982. Photo Courtesy of FFTrI

This too was something that happened that fateful day in Nice. With the cold weather my hamstrings were just a bit shorter than they normally would be in a warm race. My legs didn’t extend out forward as far as usual so I wasn’t over-striding out front. But the back half was easy to open up because that area, which is controlled by my core and the psoas muscle, stayed loose because I’d taken the time to put on tights and jackets and got my core temperature up on the bike.

So by accident I hit upon what seemed to be a winning way to solve the load verses impact breakdown dilemma that we all face in fast, long racing! Was I sore? Absolutely! But it became a style of running that I tried to perfect for my long races throughout my career. It became my first of ten wins at the Nice International Triathlon in ten starts, and the first marathon I’d ever run in my life.

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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.