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Secunda and six-time Ironman champ Mark Allen team up for a Sport and Spirit workshop

November 25, 2000

Santa Cruz County Sentinel


“What is shamanism?”

The question hung in the air in the crowded conference center. The fire crackled quietly as 50 people held their breath, waiting for the answer.

I felt anxious.

“Shamanism is not a religion,” explained our host, Brant Secunda. “It is more a way of life, of trying to live in balance and harmony with the environment.”

What a relief.

That cleared up a few of my misconceptions right away: I was in no danger of being lured into a cult or put under any “spells.”

Not that I was really worried — I had consulted my dictionary earlier and found that a shaman is a “medicine man; a person who works with the supernatural as both priest and doctor.”

I had never given much thought to shamanism until last weekend, when I attended the “Sport and Spirit: Connect the Power” workshop, hosted by internationally known Santa Cruz County residents Brant Secunda and Mark Allen.

Secunda, a shaman, healer and ceremonial leader, conducts workshops worldwide to teach the traditions of the Huichol Indians of Mexico.

He completed a 12-year apprenticeship with Huichol shaman, Don Jose Matsuwa. Secunda coordinates his workshops, pilgrimages to Mexico and vision quests through the Soquel-based Dance of the Deer Foundation, Center for Shamanic Studies in California, which he founded and has directed since 1979.

“He’s the Michael Jordan of shamanism,” explained legendary athlete Mark Allen, who raced to fame with six hard-won victories at one of the world’s most grueling, one-day endurance races, the Ironman World Championship Triathlon in Hawaii — a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.-2-mile marathon run.

Allen met Secunda nearly a decade ago. For the past five years, they have teamed up to teach “Sport and Spirit” twice a year on the Pacific coast, over the weekend in November and for five days in May. Allen recently moved with wife Julie Moss and son Mats from San Diego to Santa Cruz, in part to be closer to Brant Secunda.

Allen believes it was the power of the Huichol Indian tradition that helped propel him to victory in the sun-baked lava fields at the Hawaii Ironman.

I figured if Mark Allen was empowered to win the Hawaii Ironman, perhaps I would be empowered to get off my couch!

For the duration of the Sport and Spirit workshop, I was committed to learning techniques from Allen and Secunda that would enable me to integrate the elements of athleticism and spirituality in my life.

Although I was new to shamanism, I just completed my fourth season of Olympic-distance triathlon training, and thought I could pick up a tip or 200 from Mark Allen.

On Friday evening, our group assembled in a lodge south of Watsonville to meet our hosts for three hours.

Using videotaped clips of the Hawaii Ironman to give us a sense of the race, Allen reassured us that no matter what our levels of fitness, “I will teach you how to empower the physical body to make you healthy, whether you want to lose a few pounds or to win the Ironman.”

Secunda’s goal was to guide us in developing the spirit of nature, sharing with us someof the ancient tools of shamanism.

He told us how the Huichol Indians are a small tribe of approximately 15,000 people living in the Sierra Madre Mountains of central Mexico near Ixtlan. They are said to be the last tribe in North America to have maintained their pre-Columbian traditions.

Huichol shamans and healers practice today as they have for generations. In part, their survival is due to the focus of their traditions.

For the next two days, our group learned sacred (and secret) ceremonies of the Indians, and we learned revered traditions, songs and dances.

I got a particularly strong sense of the language and found the rhythmic percussion instruments put me more in touch with my repressed musical instincts.

One of the highlights for me was our group workouts on the beach, all of us using heart rate monitors supplied by Allen.

Running by the ocean, periodically checking my heart rate monitor to insure I was in the “fat burning zone” as opposed to the “carbohydrate burning zone,” I was able to concentrate on the connection between sport and spirit.

Allen’s focus included strength training with weights and exercises, nutrition information and how to use a heart rate monitor. Perhaps most importantly, he told stories, of his own struggles and triumphs, and how he personally integrates sport and spirit.

Given the emphasis on the importance of community, I was surprised and disappointed that there was no opportunity for the group to formally introduce themselves to each other and to the session leaders during the 17-hour program.

Fortunately, I found time to meet and mingle with fellow participants because the program was conducted with a comfortable amount of morning and afternoon breaks as well as lunch.

I discovered people who had traveled from San Diego, Los Angeles, Marin and Tiburon. The largest contingent was from the Bay Area, but people had flown in from Washington, Wisconsin and Atlanta.

Among us, there were Ironman athletes, a man who had completed back-to-back Ironman races and was about to climb Mt. Aconcagua, a top-10 Hawaii Ironman professional woman, a sports psychologist, and those looking for a tune-up, a 60-ish couple trying to get back in shape and a woman training for her first adventure race.

Despite our differences, we had all come together to try and find more balance in our lives. I left the workshop Sunday evening tired, but inspired.

Was I ready to sign up for my first Ironman distance race? Not quite.

But I did feel ready to resume my fitness training.

For more information, call Dance of the Deer Foundation at 475-9560, or visit their Web site: www.shamanism.com

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