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)
So how did an Aussie surfer from Wollongong, just south of Sydney, and a firefighter from Stoke-on-Trent end up travelling the world together as official Xterra Warriors (an honour bestowed on them for embodying the ‘Live More’ spirit of the brand)?
After they spotted his swimming and soft-sand running talents as a surf lifesaver, the Triathlon Australia identification programme headhunted Allen in 2006 with a view to fast-tracking him to the Beijing Olympics. “They gave me a bike, elite coaching and a pro licence and I was thrown in the deep end of ITU world cup racing,” he explains. “I was developing to run a fast 10km, but not quick enough for them. They wanted it to be within one or two years.”
The conflict led to Allen being considered for a support role similar to the one employed so successfully by Stuart Hayes for Great Britain in London 2012. It was not an option he favoured and the relationship soured. “I didn’t want to be a domestique swim-biker,” Allen reflects. “I love to race. I’m a competitor, and when you don’t get to show what you can do it’s heartbreaking.”
Assessing other options, he hopped on a mountain bike, found racing “fun and adventurous” and, with the support of family and sponsors, started planning for an assault on Xterra in 2009. It wasn’t an easy start. Low prize money and a global tour necessitated the need to race frequently on different continents. And, plagued by mechanical problems and without the funds to maintain a high-end mountain bike, he struggled to compete.
The nomadic existence did find some solace on the French Grand Prix circuit with an adoptive family provided by his team, Besançon. But it was a watershed moment at Xterra Brazil in 2011 that changed his outlook. “I spent all my remaining money on this race,” Allen divulges. “It cost me €700 and the organiser said that if I came, he’d help with accommodation.
“I didn’t realise I needed a visa until a couple of days before. It normally takes four to five weeks, but I went to the Brazilian Embassy in Paris, explained my story and arranged it in one day. The visa was processed, I got a taxi straight to the airport, missed my first flight and, by the time I arrived, I had missed my connection to the Amazon jungle.
“I slept in my bike bag eating Powerbars before arriving at 4am on the day of the race. I raced on adrenalin and won. That moment stuck in my mind. If I could tough it out, maybe I could put together good races in future years.”
The prize was 2,000 Brazilian Real (around £670), only just enough to cover the flight and expenses, but psychologically the experience was invaluable. Allen would finish the year with a seventh place at the world championships, two places behind a certain Lance Armstrong, with the experience of France’s Nico Lebrun proving enough for the win. The Aussie boy was on the up.
Back in Britain, Slack also came to the sport late. A back injury ended her progress as a talented teenage swimmer and she only discovered triathlon seven years ago, aged 23, through working in a sports centre. A fast learner, she qualified for the 2006 Age-Group World Championships in Lausanne, just as a career with the fire service beckoned. It was the year Tim Don powered to the elite world title and an unknown pony-tailed Chrissie Wellington burst onto the scene.
“I remember Chrissie winning the Shropshire qualifying event,” Slack recalls. “My mum pointed her out saying she’d never seen anyone work that hard, she was foaming at the mouth. From then we knew she’d be a legend.” Slack was also impressing and, by 2010, the fire service granted her a sabbatical to train full-time.
She won an ITU European Cup race in Strathclyde and finished the season as runner-up in the British Super Series, splitting Jodie Stimpson and Helen Jenkins on the podium. The flame of Olympic selection flickered briefly before illness struck on a training camp in South Africa: “I picked up some form of hepatitis, a liver infection, got post-viral fatigue and it was difficult to get back into training.”
Slack convalesced well enough to start in Sardinia in the spring of 2011. She had first dabbled in Xterra on the same course the year before with a commendable sixth place, but an even better result was to follow this time – chancing upon her future beau at the after-party. Cupid arrowed in swiftly and, by September, Allen had accepted her invitation to train in France. “Well, I tried to come over,” interjects Allen. “But my car broke down, so I was a day late…”
It was a temporary stall and the pair soon became inseparable, even meeting each other’s folks (‘adoptive’ folks in France in Allen’s case). Unfortunately, the relationship was the only thing blossoming in 2011.
“I tried to race Xterra Czech and just cried my way through it,” says Slack. “I wasn’t used to being at the back. I’d put myself in the pro race but age-groupers were overtaking me. I was thinking: ‘Why am I still doing this?’ I finished the race but it wasn’t what I’d trained for.”
Slack had to make a choice: continue pounding pavements ITU-style, return to 999 calls… or dance down waterfalls in Guam? “The main reason to opt for Xterra was Ben,” says Slack. “I certainly wouldn’t have travelled on my own to Saipan and the Philippines. I had to ask the fire service for another six months’ sabbatical and I’d already had two years. They were really supportive.”
Her racing annus horribilis behind her, Slack started 2012 with a string of podiums in Asia. Allen was already dominating and, by the time they hit New Zealand in 2012, both had made the top step. A joyous return to the happy hunting-ground of Sardinia followed.
“It was the first race where I finally felt like a mountain biker,” explains Slack. “It’s so different to racing on the road. You’ve got to grit your teeth, keep pushing on the hills and take risks on the descents.”
(Image: Xterra/Rich Cruse)
On to Maui where both fancied their chances… but here they faced an altogether different beast. The competition was ratcheted up to include not just Xterra diehards but the world’s best ITU and long-course athletes on a busman’s holiday, attracted by the chance of cherry-picking a title and a decent prize purse. There was even the threat of a race-day tsunami.
But it was to be a snapped chain when in hot pursuit of eventual winner Javier Gomez that would derail Allen’s challenge – and meant an additional nine miles of trail running, just to reach T2. Slack would finish fifth behind Scotland’s all-conquering Lesley Patterson, but both left with the belief that 2013 would be their year… and not just in Xterra.
“When we plan, we group races together then go back to the same races to raise our profile,” says Slack. That includes the non-drafting Olympic distance of 5150 and 70.3 (where Slack didn’t look out of place with a third place in Italy in 2012). Closer to home, those racing Windsor last year will recall Slack taking the national title.
The Asian-Pacific focus in the first part of 2013 also afforded Allen the chance to chase the money by racing on the Thai island of Ko Samui where, over a 4km swim, 122km bike and 30km run, he battled fierce conditions, a posse of hardened Ironman athletes and confusion on the bike leg to claim second and a welcome $17,330.
Not a fortune, perhaps, but it keeps the duo travelling to exotic climes and banking a wealth of treasured memories for when those his ’n hers Xterra Warrior tri-suits are eventually hung up for the final time.
(Image: Xterra/Rich Cruse)