And although I never sustained any serious structural or muscular overuse injuries, I did pay a price for all those miles training and racing. It came in the form of low hormone levels and it was dramatic.
The slow, sneaky pressures that caused the collapse of my hormonal system started nearly six years before it actually happened. It began in 1989. I was starting my seventh year as a professional. I’d had six no-win races in Kona going from okay all the way down to absolutely disastrous. In those first six IRONMAN World Championships I’d only been able to run the entire marathon twice. And twice I was reduced to completely debilitated walking. And one of those two landed me in the hospital immediately after the race with internal bleeding.
1989 was a turning point though. In late February that year I journeyed to New Zealand to train for six-weeks. It was an eye-opening window of time. I finally saw the amount of training I could do and absorb when I eliminated all the normal distracted and obligations of my regular life back in the States. It became the foundation of discovery that finally propelled me to the top of the sport and the top of the podium at the IRONMAN in Hawaii.
In 1989 I won both the inaugural ITU Olympic Distance World Championship in Avignon, France and the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona. I went five for five in Hawaii from that year on through to 1993. That final year I tallied one of the greatest trifectas possible in endurance sports winning the Zofingen Duathlon (the most physically demanding race I ever attempted), the Nice International Triathlon and the IRONMAN World Championship all in the same year.
But I was starting to feel a shift in my ability to recover. By the end of 1993 I was feeling severely exhausted. I’d ridden an amazing five-year wave of success, but I knew it was time to back off.
In 1994 I didn’t race in Kona and only half-heartedly trained for an IRONMAN in Germany early in the summer. In that race I was so drained that I could only get my heart rate up to 150 bpm on the bike for a few minutes at a time, then it would slip back down under 140 for huge chunks of the ride. Needless to say I was not even close to being a factor at the front of the race. I finished in 9th place, 22-minutes off the champ Jurgen Zack.
I was hoping that as the calendar turned over another year that 1995 would be a different story. But it wasn’t. By mid-summer I’d only logged a handful of days where I felt normal. I race IRONMAN Japan in the early summer and came away with a victory. But my performance was very unspectacular. I was beginning to wonder if I had some kind of serious disease. Was I dying of cancer or something? That’s how bad off I was.
Trying to honor that fact, I’d cut way back on the overall volume of training I was doing hoping that things would bounce back. I could feel the weight of my final Kona looming closer each day. At the time of the blood test I had about three months left to pull it together. But with the trajectory I was on, I knew unless something dramatic changed I had absolutely no hope of a win in what I also knew would be my final appearance at the start line in Kailua Bay.
He said, “Your testosterone is extremely low. There’s almost no Human Growth Hormone present. Your DHEA levels look like you are about sixty, not like someone in their thirties, and your Cortisol is through the roof.” He said that basically I had no hope of being able to race in Kona unless I did something about it.
I asked him what my options were. He said, “Well you could supplement with hormone therapy.”
“Is it legal,” I asked?
The response was what I expected. “No.”
If I was someone doing the sport just for fun I would have had two very good options. The first, and the one I would likely have chosen, would be to just stop racing and rest. Let my body recalibrate and balance out by doing active recovery type training until my hormone levels did indeed come back up They would over time if I backed way down. The other would have been to do hormone therapy, which was a surefire way to very quickly guarantee that my levels would be back to normal. But even if I were an age grouper going this route I would not have raced. It’s taking banned substances.
But neither option worked. I had three months until my final IRONMAN. The training would need to intensify even more, not back down. But taking hormones that were on the banned substance list was also not an option for me. Yes, I knew there were likely ways I could do it and not get caught in a drug test, but that is just not how I am hardwired.
Think alternative therapies. Look outside the western medical microscope. I’m sure being depleted has not just popped up in the past few years. It has likely happened for centuries, so there must be a way to slay this beast that is well within the guidelines of drug testing. Two hundred years ago there was no hormone therapy, but I’m sure the problem was tackled and solved somehow. The solution would need to be a natural and legal solution. It will likely take effect more gradually than hormone therapy. I may not even get the desired outcome before the IRONMAN would take place on October 7, 1995.
There was only one place to go for help. I would ask for help from Brant Secunda. Brant is a shaman and healer from the Huichol Indian tradition of Mexico. I’d made a connection with him in 1989 and studied with him for five years at that point. In the Huichol culture Brant is among other things the equivalent a doctor. The Huichols have a deep and rich tradition of health and healing that has been developed and practiced for thousands of years. It’s ancient. It works. And Brant had that knowledge.
He’s healed people of cancer, of neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, infertility and psychological problems. Brant had healed me of lots of the sports issues that crept up over the years like hamstring pulls, unstable ankles that kept getting twisted and sprained, rotator cuff tears and even a broken collar bone in 1992 that almost ended my season.
I was scheduled to join Brant at a retreat a week after I received the stunning news from my blood test. It was going to be eight days up in the wilds of Alaska outside of Juneau. I would spend those days the first week of August without any swimming, cycling or running.
You have to understand that this was when all the other IRONMAN triathletes were going to start ramping up their training for Kona. It was a huge risk if looked at from a western scientific viewpoint. But I knew it was my best chance to regain my hormonal equilibrium. Brant did several healing on me during that time, and then one last healing for me the day before I went over to Kona for the race.
My body did start to turn around. I began to feel normal again. My last test in my IRONMAN training block was a 15-mile run high in the Colorado Rockies. It was a demanding run that I did only a couple of times each season because it was so difficult. But with the hills and undulations it was the perfect run to build the strength I needed for Kona. This year, my final IRONMAN year, on my last run on the Switzerland trail as it has been named, was the fastest I’d ever run it in all my years training in Boulder. And it felt easy. I knew I was ready!
It was my greatest IRONMAN ever. And one metric I base that on is what happens to my biomechanics late in the marathon. In all other races I did in Kona, things started to breakdown around the half marathon point. My stability on and off my feet got sloppy. I started to slip in my shoes, which eventually led to getting tremendously painful blisters that often popped even before I finished the race.
This year my biomechanics were perfect all the way through the finish line. I only ended up with one small blister and it certainly did not pop! I was strong all the way through to the end of the race and was able to close a gap that had opened up on the bike of 13:30.
That day I was crowned for the sixth time in six starts as the IRONMAN World Champion. No one, not even Dave Scott won that many without a loss. I became the oldest champion at that time at age thirty-seven. I closed the biggest gap ever to that date starting the marathon to become the champ. And I did it without drugs, without substances that could have helped me but that were illegal because they are performance enhancing.
We all have this choice don’t we? We can go the easy route that may be illegal or we can train and race our best using methods that are fair to all of us. I used traditional ancient methods for regaining health and balance and energy. And best of all, it’s an example for anyone faced with a tough choice. Will you do something guaranteed to help that is illegal or will you do something that is completely legal that may not get the job done in the time you need? The answer was very clear for me. I hope it is for you as well.
Join Brant Secunda and me at our next Fit Soul, Fit Body retreat and experience how you can regain that essential balance naturally.
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.