Ironman Changes - Mark Allen reflects on Kona's evolution

From training to equipment to nutrition, a lot has changed in the sport of triathlon since the early '80s. What hasn't changed? 140.6 miles of heat, wind and humidity in what is perhaps the greatest one day sporting event in the world.

  • Mark Allen Kona

The early years of Ironman on the Big Island were incredibly raw. Training methods were just a haphazard mix of swim, bike and run workouts pulled from the three individual sports. There were no triathlon coaches to tap into to help you avoid the endless list of pitfalls that are waiting if you didn’t train smart. I fell into just about every one of them during those early years!

In the early ‘80’s most of us thought that to run an effective Ironman marathon you needed to do that distance in training, at least once. We didn’t understand the value of using over-distance training on the bike to develop the endurance you needed to run a marathon. Have you run a marathon recently? It’s a very long way! And the muscle breakdown that happens from doing it is immense, even at slower paces, and puts you at risk of getting an injury that would actually prevent you from getting to the start line of your Ironman goal. Fortunately, a guy named Matt Brick came along and coined a workout with his last name that put together perhaps the very first multisport-specific workout, the Brick workout. It is a combination of cycling and running immediately after the bike. The most effective use of a Brick for an Ironman is to do a long bike (especially an over-distance ride that is longer than 112 miles) then run anywhere from 20-60 minutes right afterwards as part of the same workout. The session trains your body to anticipate running once the bike is done - rather than getting ready for a big meal and a nap!

I never did a Brick workout before 1989, the first year that I won the Ironman. I certainly did long workouts that I thought were getting me ready for Kona. I would ride 5-6 hours on Saturdays, and then run 2-3 hours on Sundays, trying to cover close to a full marathon in the longest of those sessions. The result of that two-day combo? A bunch of Ironmans where I would go from racing on the bike to running the first 10k of the marathon to struggling through the second 10k to surviving with a walk/jog for the final half marathon, and of course no victories. Bricks done as standard course for most of my long rides in 1989 became a key that finally brought me solid runs for the entire race. This is just one example of triathlon training that evolved and has become a mainstay for most triathletes in their schedule.

Race nutrition is another area that has dramatically changed over the years. In the early 1980’s it was at an all-time low. Dave Scott ate dried figs for calories and the first year I did the race the on-course sport drink was a concoction called Gookinaid. I doubt there is one person on the planet who would willingly choose a drink with that name if something better was available, but it wasn’t in 1982. Gatorade existed but was more well-known as something used by tight ends in the NFL than it was by triathletes in Kona. Eventually Power Bar came out with what many say was the first sports energy bar, and along with it came a mindset in nutrition that endurance athletes are a crew who has some serious unmet nutritional needs. And from there the rest is history. Gels, blocks, bars, race drinks, recovery drinks, meal replacement drinks, electrolyte replacement drinks, hydration systems, refueling strategies - the list goes on. And in my opinion, we will continue to see significant improvements in all of these products in the next ten years as all aspects of physiology are addressed through performance nutrition.

High-tech equipment? Nonexistent! There was nothing aero or composite and certainly no heartrate monitors or power meters in sight for another decade or two to come. My first Kona setup was a 22-pound used steel frame Medici ten speed (that’s ten speeds total, not ten on the back) that a local rider name Ralph had used to set some kind of TT record on. I figured if it was fast enough for him, it was fast enough for me. From top to bottom everything about that bike is now a relic fit for a museum, and certainly nothing you will see today in an Ironman transition area. I had regular drop handle bars, a pair of Duegi cycling shoes with a rock-solid sole made of wood and laces that needed to be tied in transition, pedals with toe clips (any of you still know what those are!), a Skid Lid helmet that looked more like an upside-down plastic salad bowl with ventilation than something you wanted on your head for the bike, leather cycling gloves, a regular pair of wool blend bike shorts and a wool cycling jersey (great stuff for the heat of Kona).

Fortunately all things tech came along and aero evolved. Any kind of free time gained on the bike was a welcome addition to triathlons. Aero bars, aero frames, aero wheels, aero helmets, tri-suits that don’t flap in the wind, cycling shoes with Velcro that take a few seconds to secure rather than a few minutes, clipless pedals that ended up saving huge amounts of time by enabling the athlete to roll out onto the bike course as you put on your shoes, aero grupos, internal cable routings, and of course materials light as a feather. If we had seen a P5 in the early years of Ironman we would have probably started a riot trying to be the one who got to ride it first!

The most significant change that has happened to the race overall is that it is now part of a worldwide network of Ironman events. Initially Ironman Hawaii was it. Period. And to get in you simply called up the Ironman office, had them send you an application, you filled it out and sent it back with a check and a passport photo and then started training for October. Now, as you know, it’s a much bigger deal to arrive at the start line. There are over sixty Ironman and 70.3 events around the world, and untold numbers of triathletes who try to qualify for Kona but don’t make it, which in the end makes the big show on the Big Island the finest conglomeration of triathlon talent on the planet. From age group to elite, it’s the best of the best. Most have coaches. They are all decked out in the highest of the high in the tech department. By the time the gun goes off they have probably done enough testing and reading about nutritional products to have a PhD. And while some may be first timers to Kona, the vast majority have a long list of Ironman events they have done in the pursuit of a coveted Ironman World Championship qualifying slot.

But what was the same then as it is now is that everyone has to cover the exact distance that has been the benchmark for the sport since its inception in 1978. The journey is defined by a 2.4 mile swim in the open ocean followed by a 112-mile ride through winds that can literally blow a rider off their bike, and then to cap it all off, a marathon, 26.2 miles of leg-pounding torture under the heat of the tropical sun. Just like in the early years you start with the blast of a cannon at 7:00 am and you must cross the finish line by midnight, 17 hours later, if you are going to be able to call yourself ‘An Ironman’. You can’t buy your way to the finish, and the race doesn’t care if you are in the mood to do it or not on that one day each year when the race takes place. Like any great endeavor, the event is just there, waiting and ready. It’s up to each athlete to decide on that day if they are up to the challenge, and if they are, to find the magic formula that will enable them to propel their bodies through 140.6 miles of heat, wind and humidity in what is perhaps the greatest one day sporting event in the world.

Comments (3)
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  • Jeff

    I am to old to try to get to the start line, but I do remember the early days. Watching this event on ABC Wide World of Sports. I may attend one day as a spectator . Great Article

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  • Toni

    Great! Mark I imagine if you had this high tech stuff. For me you are the greatest triathlete of all times. Congratulations for everything you have done as an athlete and still doing as a coach. Best Regards, Antonio Ferreira da Silva Neto - Toni.

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  • Tom Fowler

    Wow, those were the days for sure. Great article, Mark. I remember seeing you training around the Boulder reservoir in '89 in mid-afternoon heat with Souza, getting ready for The War that October. Inspiring still, just thinking about the work ethic. Was a pleasure to get out for training with you from time to time. Learned a lot from the Master in those sessions. Thanks for all.

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