Allen Gardner

More info: http://allengardner.blogspot.com/

Boulder triathlete Allen Gardner, a self-described Southern boy from a farm in Georgia, has never been afraid of his blue-collar roots, or of doing whatever it takes to succeed.

When he moved to Boulder four years ago with everything he owned stuffed into his car, he didn't have enough money for a hotel, so he slept in his car. He ate three meals a day at IHOP because they let him sit in a back booth for hours to use their WiFi while he searched for jobs and a place to live.

One of his first jobs in town was as night janitor at Rally Sport Health and Fitness Club -- the same gym and pool he now trains at as a professional triathlete. He started scrubbing bathrooms at 11 p.m., and got home around 3 a.m. He'd fall into bed and wake up early the next morning to train.

He worked his way up from janitor to swim lesson instructor to personal trainer. Gardner struck up a conversation with Rally Sport aquatics director Grant Holicky one day on the pool deck about wanting to pursue triathlons.

Just like that, Gardner had found his way into the professional triathlon world. Holicky, who works with Gardner's current coach Neal Henderson at Apex Coaching, made the connection.

"A lot of things have happened at the right time, at the right moment, when things have almost been the worst," Gardner said. "I've always just tried to put myself out there. Unless you ask for something, you're never going to get it. Unless your pursue it. And I've pursued everything. I've asked everybody everything."

He's not cleaning bathrooms anymore, but third-year pro Gardner works just as hard at his new job as a long-course triathlete. This weekend, he'll head to the Lake Stevens, Wash., to race a half-Ironman, a stepping stone toward his goal of eventually racing full Ironmans as a pro.

Growing roots

Gardner, who speaks with a slight Southern accent, grew up on a farm in Douglasville, Ga., an Atlanta suburb of roughly 30,000 people. Rather than shake his Southern roots, Gardner embraces them. He wears cowboy boots during the cooler months in Boulder, and when he goes back to the South, Gardner spends time with his family's horses.

After a brief stint at the University of West Georgia, Gardner received a scholarship to swim at Vincennes University, a junior college about two hours from Indianapolis. After two years in Indiana, Gardner swam at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where he picked up surfing and spent hours swimming deep down in the ocean to sit on corral reefs until he ran out of breath.

When he finished school, he sold his surfboard and all of his belongings. On the plane ride back home to Georgia, Gardner cried. He knew he couldn't stay in Georgia, so he loaded up his car and moved to Boulder, sight unseen and without knowing a soul.

For most of high school, Gardner battled an eating disorder that started when a doctor told him he was overweight during a middle school basketball team physical. He swam in high school and recovered from the eating disorder after he realized that his body couldn't function properly in the water if he didn't eat.

Now, Gardner eats more than 6,000 calories a day while training and has a burgeoning modeling career--his self-esteem is fine and he understands that food is fuel. Looking back on his teenage years, 27-year-old Gardner says he never really felt comfortable in high school. The eating disorder was his way to exercise control over his body and his appearance.

That control is now his nemesis during triathlons. He's found that when he gives up control while racing and lets his body do what he's trained it to do, he sees better results.

After an early morning training session on the track at Fairview High, Gardner talked about how it feels to give up all control. He's only been in that place, "the zone," a few times during his life, but it's when his mind goes blank and his body takes over entirely, he said.

At Ironman 70.3 Texas earlier this year, Gardner finished 10th overall, but came out of the water first by nearly a minute. He finished second at the Boulder Sprint, a race he treated like a training session. He's still working on running, his weak spot, but once he adds in that final piece, Gardner's confident he can win races in the next few years.

'Lethal' in triathlons, in time

His former swim coach and friend Vic Moore, who coaches at Pelican Athletic Club and Fontainebleau High School outside of New Orleans, said though Gardner is confident, he's always been humble.

Maybe it's his Southern roots, but Moore said he's never seen or heard Gardner be impolite to anyone.

Gardner talks to anyone and everyone he meets, Moore said. While living out of his car when he first moved to Boulder, Gardner struck up a conversation with a total stranger at a bike shop. The man immediately insisted that Gardner come stay with him rather than sleep in his car. To this day, they're still friends.

"I've been around pro athletes and individual athletes that had an ego that just goes beyond what I want to deal with," Moore said. "(Gardner) is always willing to put things aside to work with people. He's always speaking to someone, always friendly, cordial, respectful. That shines."

What his training partner and good friend Omar Nour notices most about Gardner is his focus. When Gardner hones in, it's almost scary, Nour said.

During one swim practice, Gardner trained so hard he got out of the pool to puke. Then Nour watched, astounded, as Gardner got back in the water to finish the workout.

"If he can translate that into racing, which he's in the process of doing right now, he's going to be lethal," Nour said.

Gardner plans to race at the full Ironman distance either at the end of this season or early next year. To prepare, a few weeks ago Gardner completed a solo mock-Ironman in and around Boulder.

Gardner acknowledges that he has plenty of work to do in the sport -- he had to walk the final four miles of the 26.2-mile run. But he finished the mock race, and to him, that says he's got what it takes mentally to someday succeed.

"I learned that I can push myself way farther than I think I can," he said. "You try not to put your limits on yourself, but in the back of your mind you still have something saying 'You probably shouldn't do this, you probably shouldn't go faster.' And during that (training session), I realized I could shut that off and I can go farther and I can do bigger things."

--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.