The toughest competitors for me were those who had the same strengths as I had. It was nearly impossible to out-perform them when they had the upper hand on those strengths. Cristian Bustos of Chile was that kind of athlete. He was at the top of that list of those I never, ever took lightly.
Bustos was an incredible runner, especially in the marathon. He had a sub-2:20 flat out personal best, and could run like a freight train off the bike. He also had a rock solid mind to match his physically solid body. There was never a gap that looked too impossible for him to close, and if the effort was off the charts painful in the process, well, that just seemed to make his resolve even more steely.
Those were my strengths as well. In all my victories it was usually the run where I was able to make them happen. I was pretty solid up top as well on the whole. Deep inside I knew the situations that could push me to the limit mentally, but I didn’t exactly broadcast what those were to my competition! With Cristian it was a tossup who would be able to tip the scales with those two weapons we shared in common.
In 1992 I started my season in January at the Pucon Triathlon in Chile. Today it’s an IRONMAN 70.3 triathlon, but back then it was a 1.6km swim, a 38-mile bike and a 10-mile run. The course is not easy with tons of rollers on the bike and some demanding hills on the run. Cristian was racing that day and by all measure he was the guy to beat.
He and I ended up coming off the bike together, which I had pretty much expected would be the case. Cristian is extremely powerful and explosive, something that made the bike ideal for him. I liked bike courses that were either fairly flat or that had long arduous climbs. Both enabled me to just lock into a rhythm and go. There is no rhythm on a rolling undulating almost never flat course.
Cristian put his stamp on the race from the first step of the run. It wasn’t a short sprint out of the transition area. It was a steady strong pace that I knew he would just continue to build on and get faster as the run unfolded. I tried to match where he was going with it, but I was already at redline before we reached the first kilometer. The pace was well outside my capabilities on that day. Cristian won the race, eventually putting over five-minutes on me in ten miles. That’s a solid and unwavering difference of thirty-seconds per mile! His performance? Nothing I would forget any time soon!
Fast forward to the IRONMAN World Championships in October. Before every race in Kona I take time to go through different scenarios in my mind of things that could come up that I’d have to deal with that were less than the ideal. It spanned the gamut from what I’d do if my goggles got kicked off to changing a flat to dealing with nutritional problems on the run. I came up with all my strategies for managing each potential challenge.
But there was one scenario that I just couldn’t come up with a solution for. What if I was running next to someone who was a better runner than I was? I had no idea how I’d deal with it. I came up with no space inside of me that would keep me in the game. This one really bothered me. But I went through the list of all the guys I knew were racing and none were a real threat to me if it came down to a footrace with any of them. So I stopped worrying about it!
Two days before the race was the press conference where all the race favorites are assembled in one room. It was always my first chance to really size up the competition. I walked into the room, and there already sitting at the athletes table on stage was Cristian Bustos! I didn’t know he was racing Kona that year. He was clearly someone who was as good if not better on the marathon that I was.
My biggest fear was staring me in the face! My mind completely freaked out! He had beaten me by five-minutes in a ten mile run in January in Pucon. That could translate to a whopping thirteen-minutes here if the race played out the same. Finally I reminded myself that Pucon is not Kona and that he had never outrun me on the IRONMAN World Championship course. I had always come out of the water ahead of him and had always put time on him on the bike. On top of that my marathon the previous three years had been the fastest of the day! Okay, no worries.
Well, my ideal scenario wasn’t going to play out. Cristian came out of the swim right on my feet. During the bike ride he was not losing time but spent most of the ride trying to open up a gap on me and drop me before we started the marathon. We finished the ride together. No gaps either direction!
Bustos had a lightening fast transition and was out on the run course ahead of me. Right away he put a gap of over 20-second on me. I was doing my best to keep my mind from going in the wrong direction with a negative spin on the whole thing. Unfortunately the reality was not looking good. I had to maintain contact. I went well into an effort to catch him that could put me at risk of exploding much later in the marathon, but I had to do it. Finally, around mile three I closed the gap and pulled up even with Cristian.
You have to understand that pretty much everyone else in the field feared my run. If I caught up to someone from behind like that I could always feel the wheels start turning in their heads that said something like, “Oh, Mark caught me so he’s going to win and i’m not!” When I caught Cristian, nothing like that happened. This was just the type of thing that gave him even more resolve. His mental wheels started turning and they went something like this. “Oh, Mark caught me so I must be going too slow!” And he sped up!!!
Now my mind was the one that cracked. “Ah, Cristian’s too strong. I can’t hold this pace. If he puts 30-seconds a mile on me here I could lose by over ten-minutes. I just can’t do it!” It was painful to hold his pace and I was struggling.
At that point in my career I’d been studying Huichol Indian shamanism with Brant Secunda for a few years. Brant is a shaman and healer in the Huichol tradition (shamanism.com). He emphasized in every one of the retreats that I went on with him how the Huichol Indians strive to develop the ability to keep their minds quiet. The spend time in nature as a way to stop the internal chatter. They say it distracts us from living life fully. He explained how negative thoughts weaken our physical bodies. In each retreat Brant taught us was get rid of those negative thoughts so that we can live powerfully.
I needed that quite space during those critical steps with Cristian. My effort was far from powerful in that moment with all the negative stuff flying around in my head. Finally I stopped focusing on Bustos and the race and was able to get the chatter to stop. And in the instant my internal dialogue quieted the whole dynamic of the race shifted.
It felt like it because just slightly easier to stay with Bustos. I could feel my struggle melt away and a sense of ease start to take over. It was still painful! But even within the pain there was a hope and a greater and greater engagement with my efforts. I was no longer being distracted and weakened with the negative chatter.
About a mile later it suddenly hit me. I could win! I also knew I had to be patient. The only way to have that happen was to let Cristian dictate the pace and let the miles just go by as we ran side by side, stride for stride. I had a feeling that later in the marathon he might tire. And that did happen!
At about mile fifteen of the marathon the moment came. I could feel Cristian’s pace drop ever so slightly. This was it! I upped mine in the next step. I knew I had to build my speed but leave enough room to go even faster if he was able to match it. Whatever pace I accelerated to I could not slow even for one step between then and the finish. Cristian was not someone you could put a cushion on and then just float. The pressure must be relentless until my feet cross the finish line.
I was working close to my limits. It was more than he could match on that day. Bustos fell back little by little, and eventually did lose contact with me. I crossed the line in first that day. Even though our strengths were still the same, the scales tipped ever so slightly in my direction in the final miles of the marathon. Cristian Bustos came in second. I waited for him at the finish line to greet him with the highest level of respect I have for the great athletes in our sport.
I had the fastest marathon split once again on that day. And in amazing Ironman Hawaii foreshadowing Bustos had the second fastest run split. He ran just 7-seconds faster than the third fastest runner that day, a guy named Pauli Kiuru who would haunt my quest for victory a year later in Kona!