They call him the Man.
Mark Allen is his only equal, almost untouchable in triathlons held everyplace except Hawaii. His nickname is Grip. As in “death grip.”
Seldom do the two greatest champions of a generation in sport, each with a career prime that will ultimately span more than a decade, achieve their finest moments on the very same day, but Dave Scott and Mark Allen appear to be doing just that. On this day, they are not merely the best in the sport; they are literally the best by miles. Here in the final stretch of the marathon leg of the race, Dave and Mark are three miles ahead of their nearest challenger. With every stride they are redefining the possible, on pace to run a sub-2:40 marathon in almost 90-degree heat following a four-and-a-half-hour cycling time trial and a fifty-minute all-out swim effort in open water—a feat that nobody would previously have believed to fall within the scope of human potential.
Earlier in the year, in anticipation of this collision, Bob Babbitt set out to fan the hype by creating a cover for his publication that depicted the two men standing back to back, fisted arms crossed against their chests, in the style of a classic boxing poster.
“Sure, I’ll do it—if Dave comes here,” said Mark, who was training in Boulder, Colorado, when Bob called.
“Yeah, I’ll do it—if Mark comes here,” countered Dave, born and raised and still living in Davis, California.
In the end a photographer traveled to both places to shoot each man with the same backdrop behind him, then spliced the two halves together. The rivals appeared to be as close as they are now. The cover line read, “SHOWDOWN ON THE KONA COAST.”
It’s not that Dave and Mark really hate each other. They just can’t like each other. Only one race matters, and only one man can win it. They’re like two ravenous tigers fighting over a kill. Dave was an Ironman legend before Mark even owned a bike. But the younger man was quickly dubbed his elder’s heir apparent. Dave resented it, and Mark knew it.
“It was like coming home after a hard day at work and expecting the family to cater to him,” Mark wrote of Dave in his 1988 book, The Total Triathlete. “When he got home, when he arrived in Hawaii, someone else was in his house getting all his attention. And that someone else was me.”
Dave has beaten Mark five times in this event, but the overall rivalry is hardly lopsided. Mark defeats Dave routinely in most other triathlons. Each loss here deepens Mark’s desire to turn the tables, and both men know—or at least one fears and the other has faith—that Mark is capable. Twice he has finished second to Dave, and twice he has amassed huge leads over his rival before falling apart. There is broad agreement that Dave keeps beating Mark in Hawaii not because Dave is simply better but because Dave has mastered the race and Mark has not.
“It’s not so much Dave Scott has defeated me, or Scott Tinley, or whoever’s come in ahead of me,” Mark said dismissively in an interview for ABC television before the race they are now near completing. “It’s always been the course—the elements, the wind, the heat, the humidity, and the distance under that sun for eight and a half hours.”
In support of Mark’s point, when Dave pulled out of the ’88 Ironman two days before the race with an injury, Mark became the prohibitive favorite. But he suffered two flat tires on the bike and finished fifth. It seemed as if Fate was not content for Mark to become the Ironman champion except by beating his nemesis. If ever.