Enjoy this excerpt from Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen and the Greatest Race Ever Run by Matt Fitzgerald, republished with permission of VeloPress. Iron War is now available in bookstores, tri shops, and online. Learn more at Velopress.com/ironwar.
Chapter 1: The Moment
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Two men run shoulder to shoulder down the middle of the Queen Kaahumanu highway on Hawaii’s Big Island, pressing southward toward the coastal town of Kailua-Kona. The road they travel cuts a narrow artery through a vast black lava field that supports no life save for a few scattered tufts of hardy fountain grass. Hazy clouds above trap muggy hotness below like the lid of a steaming kettle. A slick coat of rank sweat—a microcosm of the smothering atmosphere—bastes the skin of the hard-breathing runners, sealing in the heat churned out by the fiery furnaces of their muscles.
Both men are tall and lean, with the characteristic legs of elite triathletes—lither than those of cyclists, more muscular than those of runners—extending sinuously beneath skimpy 1980s running shorts. Each man hides a thousand-yard stare behind sport sunglasses, but their slack cheeks betray a deathly weariness.
They are not alone. A caravan of mopeds, bicycles, cars, Jeeps, and trucks has formed behind the athletes, the spectators aboard these conveyances having been drawn into the convoy by the spreading news of the spectacle they now behold. A few of the motorized vehicles and most of the bikes should not be where they are, as the highway is closed to normal transit, but the race marshals have lost control and no longer care. Caught up in the same hypnosis as everyone else, they simply follow and watch.
It is a strange apparition, this silent caravan, a sort of motley roving amphitheater, made stranger still by its silence. Those watching dare not speak a word for fear of breaking the spell in which all are complicit. Aside from the occasional shout of encouragement from a volunteer at a roadside drink station, the only sound to be heard is the rhythmic huffing of the athletes’ exhalations and the soft slapping of their feet against the pavement.
“Right on!” screams one young man as the runners approach the drink station he’s staffing. “Right! On!” he repeats, cheering not for one runner or the other but for the performance itself, losing his mind in excitement as he witnesses the consummation of every fan’s notion of the best thing that could possibly be happening in this, the most anticipated showdown in the history of triathlon—the sport’s two towering heroes running each other into the ground, obliterating records and annihilating all other competitors, eight hours into a duel in which they have never been more than a few feet apart.
The man on the right, dressed in green, black, and white Brooks apparel, is Dave Scott, six-time winner of this race, the Ironman® World Championship. The runner in yellow, black, and white Nike apparel is Mark Allen, six-time loser of Ironman, winner of everything else.
They continue. Each man runs not as fast as he can but as fast as the other can, having already swum 2.4 miles, bicycled 112 miles, and run 24 miles, with the balance of a marathon left to run, all in tar-melting heat. That is why the pair remains as if tethered wrist to wrist after racing nearly a full-day shift, well ahead of 1,284 of the best triathletes in the world. Each is trying with all his might to break the body, mind, or spirit of the other, but although all of these elements in both have been stretched to the breaking point, none has yet broken.
Within their minds a pitched battle is being waged between unimaginable suffering and an equally intense desire to resist that suffering and win. The pain in their thighs, especially, is so severe that in any other context they would find it impossible to walk a single step. Yet each continues to run sub-six-minute miles because each still believes the pain is worth the hope of winning.