SNOWBASIN — Low on money but rich with ambition, Ben Allen curled up on top of his bike bag at an airport far from home and felt grateful to be one of the lucky ones.
After all, it isn't everyone who has the ability — or the courage — to chase a dream.
So the 27-year-old XTERRA pro will hold onto his with both hands — even when common sense might scream otherwise.
Growing up on the coasts of Australia, Allen followed his father into surfing. But in addition to riding waves, he was drawn to the sport of surf life saving, which involves ocean swimming, ski and board paddling, surf ironman and team events.
"I surfed before school, and I surfed after school," he said laughing. The sport also gave him the chance to figure out how to choose the safest places to swim on the beach and how to navigate rough waters.
He did that until he was 20 when Triathlon Australia asked him to train with them in hopes of turning him into an Olympian. He loved the program, which included racing on the ITU circuit, and competed there until 2010. But ultimately, he knew he wouldn't be ready for Olympic competition until 2016.
He needed more experience, more challenges.
That's when he saw an XTERRA event on television.
"I saw the likes of Conrad Stoltz and I was intrigued by it," he said of the South African who won an unprecedented 10th U.S. XTERRA Championship on Saturday at Snowbasin with a fourth-place finish. "I have always really enjoyed riding mountain bikes and being out in nature. So I gave it a go."
It was like coming home.
"XTERRA offered everything I was looking for," he said. "Being able to race in nature, tough terrain, the whole atmosphere and the culture of the sport is something that inspires me to keep racing."
The rugged nature of combining open-water swims with mountain biking and trail running offer an adventure-seeker like Allen the chance to compete in a way that reflects how he feels about life.
"Everyone is so passionate and really trying to live life to the fullest," he said.
Much of XTERRA is about facing fear and letting go of anything that might hold you back.
That fear isn't always misplaced.
So much in sports, and in life, can go wrong.
Allen rattles off the list — missed flights, car trouble, bike trouble, too little money, no place to sleep and no end in sight. He talks about racing, winning a little money, which becomes the reason he's able to compete in the next race on the schedule. He's lived on as little as $14 a week just so he can pursue a professional career in XTERRA.
Sometimes it was tough just to eat, let alone keep up the nutritional requirements of an endurance athlete. But his hunger to reach his goals was always greater than any hunger he felt during the dark days.
"Many times I thought about packing my bags and heading home to Australia," Allen said. "But this sport drives me to keep going. First of all, I haven't achieved all of the goals I have in this sport."
He wants to win an XTERRA World Championship, qualify for the Olympics in 2016 and win an Ironman World Championship.
"I know it seems a big-dream sort of thing, but you have to think big to win big," he said. "Maybe one day I'll get there. I'm only 27. I still have a lot of growing up and improving to do. I will just keep doing that."
Allen moved closer to his dream of an XTERRA World Championship on Saturday when he finished second in the U.S. championships. He'll continue to train in Utah for a week and then head to Boulder, Colo., to train with friends there before the XTERRA World Championships in Maui on Oct. 28.
He said as rough as the path has been and as discouraged as he's felt in any single moment, he chooses to focus on that which goes well.
"XTERRA is where I thrive," he said. "Your competitors are your best friends. It's awesome; it's unreal. The lifestyle, the people you meet, the places you get to see. Some of the XTERRA races are in the most amazing places."
He recalls a race in the Philippines, in which athletes rode their bikes through back yards, down streets lined with cheering people and through the smells of the spectators cooking dinner.
"What a phenomenal race," he said. "If I could keep doing this the rest of my life, I would definitely die a happy man. It's taught me a lot of lessons in life. The lessons I've learned are very valuable. Just to appreciate being in the places because you might not get the opportunity again. It's such a roller-coaster ride."
That ride, he admits, is made easier because he has the support of his family back home. His parents insisted he get a college degree "so I had something to fall back on," he said. Allen enjoys teaching in the offseason and said it's the people he's met on his wild ride that have helped him navigate the rough stretches.
"The best advice I could give anyone is to never give up," he said simply. "Always try and turn a negative situation into a positive. If something gets you down, always try and get the positives out of it so you can move forward on your path of trying to reach and achieve your goals. If you do that, you'll always come out a winner in my book."
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