Before Mark Allen was a world champion athlete, he was a loser. His goal? To win the Ironman Triathlon, considered the most difficult one-day sporting event in the world. It starts on the Big Island of Hawaii with a treacherous 2.4 mile open-ocean swim, followed by 112 miles of hard-core cycling, finishing with a full marathon — 26.2 miles on an extremely challenging course in brutal hot weather.
“My first six years racing at the Ironman varied from moderately disappointing to outright disastrous,” Allen writes in his new book. Flat tires, dead legs and internal bleeding were just a few of the obstacles that sapped his energy and blew his cool.
“After so many failed attempts, my patience and confidence were failing,” writes Allen. “I certainly had the desire to win. But desire has a shelf life of about three hours under the intense sun and wind of Hawaii. I began to realize that it wasn’t a failure of my body that was keeping me from winning, it was a failure of my mind.”
Enter Brant Secunda, a shaman-healer who’d spent 12 years living with the Huichol people of Mexico, an exceptionally healthy and happy tribe with secret knowledge about many transformative practices, including the strength and serenity that comes from connecting with nature and uniting body and soul.
Hold on a minute. What does your soul have to do with your ability to run faster, bike better, overcome weakness and develop a more positive outlook on life? Everything, according to Secunda, who started working with Mark in 1989, teaching him the Huichol system of health and healing.
The result? Mark started winning. Between 1989 and 1995, Mark Allen won the Ironman Triathlon six times. Now he and Brant Secunda have collaborated on a fascinating book filled with insights and exercises that can help all of us deal with our own versions of Ironman challenges.
“He (Secunda) helped me change pain into joy, inner struggle into gratitude, impatience and fear into calm and courage,” writes Allen, who came to a whole new understanding of fitness once he started training the Huichol way.
“The reason we fall short of our goals so often is that exercise is part, but not all of the answer. True health and happiness is about developing a sustainable lifestyle where you not only achieve long-term physical health, but also long-term emotional and spiritual health. This is what we call having a fit soul and a fit body.”
No surprise, that’s what shaman-healer Secunda and world champion Ironman Allen named their book — “Fit Soul, Fit Body” (published by BenBella). It’s a helpful how-to for people who want to train their mind as well as their body — who want to be, as the co-authors say, “fit from the inside out.”
A lot of the advice in the book will be familiar — set goals, check your heart rate, eat modest portions of real food. But the most interesting advice is the least familiar, the Huichol-inspired exercises that use nature to boost your mood, lower your stress and develop your soul. Here are two from the book to get you started:
— To connect with Mother Earth’s love, the strongest power of all, start by taking a walk. In the city, the country or the wilderness. Feel at peace. Stop all thoughts and internal dialogue. Walk slowly, quiet your mind. With each step, visualize Mother Earth’s love coming into your body through your feet and traveling to your heart. Do this for 15-20 minutes. Feel her love flowing into your body, and empower yourself with it.
— To bring balance and energy into your life, to become centered between Earth and Sky, sit or lie down on the ground. Feel your connection to the sun and earth. Visualize the light of the sun throughout your body and in your heart. Imagine that light going down into Mother Earth. Draw the love of Mother Earth up into your heart and throughout your body. Send that love to Father Sun. Feel your connection to all life.
Sound crazy? Even impossible? So does winning the Ironman six times.