With the Xterra World Championship fast approaching this weekend, Tim Heming profiles the poster couple of the cross-country triathlon circuit, Jacqui Slack and Ben Allen…
Professional triathletes can live off their sponsors. Ben Allen has proved it. Skint and ambitious in France, scraping together enough cash to scramble from race to race, the Australian was forced to stomach a diet of pure Powerbars for “breakfast, lunch and dinner”.
It’s the moment that sport’s spirit of adventure dices with aimless purgatory, the self-examination usually reserved for 30k into an Ironman marathon, present every morning when waking up on the back seat of a patched-up, €500, 1987 Renault sedan.
Yet, having cut the umbilical cord with his governing body, Triathlon Australia, over its frustrating Olympic selection policy and perceived refusal to acknowledge his talents, Allen had no qualms about making his own, uncomfortable bed. “The pressure and politics drew me away from ITU racing,” admits Allen, then 23, headstrong and fully prepared to pass up the funding and blaze his own trails.
However, going it alone predicated a rough start and it took unwavering self-belief in his ability not to quit. Then he met a firefighter from Stoke-on-Trent and became acquainted with the niche sport of cross-country triathlon – and fell in love with both.
Having won the Xterra England Championship titles in Surrey last month (after a five-year UK hiatus for the event), boyfriend and girlfriend Ben Allen and Jacqui Slack look in fine form ahead of the world championship on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Allen, in particular, is a powerhouse of the sport. The 28-year-old started 2013 with victories in the Asia-Pacific Xterra events of Philippines, Guam, Saipan, New Zealand and Malaysia, and by autumn hopes to have chalked up a few more on his way to topping Xterra legend Conrad Stoltz’s half-century of wins. He was in similar crushing form last year.
Slack, 19 months older, joined him atop the podium in Guam and Saipan and – while life on the road means fretting over Malaysian visas, fast-expiring passports and broken derailleurs in long haul – she consistently presents a formidable challenge at the front of the elite field.
It sounds impressive, but while talent and dedication keep pay cheques rolling in, the reality is this niche realm of triathlon funds little more than a lifestyle – even for the world’s best. “It doesn’t pay a wage,” admits Allen. “But we do it for the pure passion of the sport, being able to travel the world and meet the most amazing people in some of the most beautiful locations.”
Exotic adventures aside, it’s their bond as a couple that provides the real strength to keep globetrotting. Both are coached remotely; Slack totting up hours on the phone to the experienced Ken Matheson from full-cycle.org in Stoke, Allen turning to Guy Hemmerlin in Aix-en-Province in the south of France.
“We live and breathe in each other’s space,” says Allen. “So the key factor in our relationship is communication. If either of us is feeling down or upset, we try and sort it out ASAP and move on.”
“Ben is really positive,” Slack adds. “To me, there are barriers, like money, or it’s too difficult to get there. Those problems don’t even occur to him.” Allen nods. “If I have my mind set on something, nothing will get in the way of us achieving it.”
(Image: Xterra/Rich Cruse)