Mark Allen, 6x Ironman World Champion, and learning Chinese

If you have not heard the incredible story of Mark Allen, the former six times Ironman World Champion and later a triathlete coach, it is time to know about him. His transformation and his lifelong reflection offer us remarkable insights and inspirations. 

The journey he took from failing the first attempt to attaining lofty spiritual understanding of life made me think about all the similarities between taking on the Ironman race and learning Chinese.

We know that, Ironman race is the most gruelling race of all. It includes 2.4 mile (3.86 km) swim, followed by 112 mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride, and followed by a full 26.22 mile (42.20 km) marathon run.

We know that, Chinese is the most difficult language to learn. It includes thousands of unique Chinese characters, with limited sounds but multi-layered meanings, and very different grammatical structures. 

A sustainable plan matters

In a 2019 interview, Mark Allen Interview – 6x Ironman World Champion, when he was asked about a few things that all athletes should know, upon reflecting on his life long experiences, Allen answered this question with some truly amazing insights. 

His final point really defines the guiding principle for success. He said,

“Then the final piece is to really take a good look at your life and other commitments that are important to you outside of sports and then from there put a training plan in place that enables you to not only achieve your athletic dreams but also keep the rest of your life intact!”

That wisdom can be transplanted into learning Chinese immediately and should be the guiding North Star for all students, that they must acknowledge their commitments, then find a place in their life where they can fit in learning Chinese. 

Learning Chinese is not an excuse for ignoring other commitments, nor are other commitments for learning Chinese. Everything is part of the life. 

With this bigger picture of life in mind, Allen believed that, to achieve athletic success, athletes must have real and sustainable training plans, that was how real and deep changes took place gradually and over time. He said, “Anyone can give an athlete a hard workout that will have a short-term big impact.” 

It is the same as learning Chinese. 

Once you decide to include learning Chinese as part of your life, you need to devise a workable and sustainable learning plan. Anyone can take an intensive Chinese course that will have an immediate impact, but real Chinese skills can only be developed slowly and over time. 

Make sure there is a sustainable learning plan in place.

Start at where you are

During the same 2019 interview, Allen advised all athletes that they should start their training from exactly where they were. He said, “You never have to measure up to someone else’s standard, or even your past standard if it was higher than where you are at right now.”

His wisdom came from his painful personal experience. 

In February of 1982, when he was twenty-four years old, Allen was a strong swimmer. He decided to compete in the sixth Ironman World Championship in October that year. His first step was to benchmark how fast the best triathletes were running, and he would do the same to train himself. Unfortunately, this strategy did not work. After going through painful training sessions for several months, he entered but did not complete the race in 1982.

He needed a new strategy, which came when Dr Phil Maffetone became his coach. Maffetone’s coaching strategy was that Allen should work at a challenging but sustainable pace, which was measured by his maximum aerobic heart rate. 

In the interview, Mark Allen Interview on Heart Rate Training and Racing, Allen told us in great detail that he experienced an initial sharp slow down in the running pace, which was later gradually improved. More importantly, he felt stronger and began enjoying training sessions. 

After consistent and patient work, seven years later after his first failed attempt, Allen won the 1989 Ironman World Championship, and continued to win five more. 

This is a lesson that all Chinese leaners can learn from. 

Learning Chinese is not to measure yourself against someone else’s standard, or even your past standard. 

Suppose, some advanced learners said that they learned 15K words and could read Chinese novels. If you want to measure yourself up to these advanced learners, and devise an ambitious plan that you’ll learn 5K new words per month, and hope that you can read Chinese novels in three months, you’re not being realistic. 

The best starting point is to know how well you can speak, how well you can listen, the size of your vocabulary, what is the appropriate reading level right now, and how clearly you can write. Find out where you are, what your capabilities allow, and start from there.

“Have fun. It’s a great lifestyle!”

Let’s end this article with these following lines from Allen:

“Keep trying! Go for your dreams. Learn from the mistakes. See what you are gaining even if you don’t qualify. And have fun. It’s a great lifestyle!”

This is the essence of the right mindset and the best attitude to sports, and to learning Chinese. 

Learning Chinese is a great lifestyle. 

And don’t miss the fun!


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April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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