Recently, Hawaii Ironman World Champion Mark Allen was voted ESPN's Greatest Endurance Athlete of all Time.
But his success wasn't always so obvious.
In 1989, after seven years as a professional triathlete, he had suffered six straight defeats at the Ironman.
Mark decided to enter one final race before giving up on his dream.
He was lagging just behind six-time Ironman champ Dave Scott and running out of gas. It's an exhaustive race that starts with a 2.4 mile ocean swim, followed by 112 miles of cycling, then 26.2 miles of running.
Mark told me later that as he was about to resign himself to second place, an image of an old Huichol shaman named Don José Matsuwa and myself came into his mind.
Mark had recently seen a photo of us in a magazine advertising our upcoming workshop on shamanism. At that moment, his fatigue disappeared like magic and he overtook Dave Scott for the first time in the race, winning by 58 seconds.
Soon after, Mark began studying lessons I had learned from my own shaman. These teachings, practices, and tools for transformation helped him change pain into joy, inner struggle into gratitude, and impatience and fear into calm and courage.
Mark soon learned how to think of fitness more broadly—in terms of his spirit and emotions—to become the champion he aspired to be.
Here are five lessons Mark embraced from the work we did together.
1. See reward in repetition.
Whether it was exercises Mark did every day to train for an Ironman event, or the never-ending practice of clearing away negative thoughts, he learned that the effect of doing one positive act was profound, but by the hundredth time yielded a far deeper reward. I told him about the pleasure the indigenous Huichol people of Mexico take in planting a steep hillside, one corn kernel at a time. The work is relentless, but in the repetition is the immense satisfaction they know they’ll feel when the entire slope is covered with rows of green spouts.
2. Quiet your mind.
During the 1992 Ironman competition in Kona, Hawaii, Mark was running behind a Chilean named Christian Bustos, known for being a mighty endurance runner. He told me his mind started to race with internal chatter: I can't keep up with him any longer. I don't know why I'm doing this stupid race. I won't win.
Then he remembered the lesson I had told him many times: Quiet your mind. Pay attention to the beauty around you. Mark focused on thinking nothing at all, neither positive nor negative, and looked around at the spectacular natural surroundings. The instant his mind went quiet, he began to close the gap until he was in the lead.
3. Focus on the joy.
When Mark competed in the Nice Triathlon in France, running along the beautiful beach-lined Cote d'Azur, he found himself more than 5 minutes behind the French champion with 10 miles to go in the race. He began repeating the mantra I had taught him: Be fearless in the face of your fears.
Mark concentrated his focus on the nerika, a place in the heart we all have, which the Huichol shamans say is naturally calm. Having practiced this many times, Mark quickly felt peaceful and joyful to be running in this gorgeous spot. With fewer than 400 meters to go, he passed his rival and won the race.
4. Slow down to get faster.
When I met Mark, his training program entailed working out as hard and fast as he could. Yet he was often tired, sick, and depleted after these extreme workouts. The Huichols, I told him, have some of the strongest, fittest elders who, at well over 80 or 90 years of age, can still walk miles every day and carry heavy loads of wood or water up and down the steep hillsides where they live. They never rush, yet they get a tremendous amount of physical labor done.
Mark began slowing down his workouts—using a heart-rate monitor to stay just below his target heart rate. His endurance, strength, and flexibility increased to record levels, and he began enjoying his workouts again, which kept him motivated.
5. Embrace your inner tortoise.
In triathlons, Mark often found that the steadiest athletes—the tortoises—always had the best performances. Yet until he started working with me, he had always charged full steam ahead, and then would need to slow down and recover in races, until he could get up the energy to surge again. I showed him that there is tremendous strength in being steady and maintaining balance. Being steady is one of the secrets to the longevity that enabled my Huichol grandfather, Don José, to live a long and healthy life all the way to 110 years of age!
It took self-confidence for Mark to let others get ahead in the early stages of the race. But once he learned how to stay focused on just putting one foot in front of the other and to have faith in his own ability, he had the key to winning--and doing so consistently.