When Dave Scott and Mark Allen waded into Kailua Bay to the start line of the 13th Ironman World Championship on October 14, 1989, the existing race record was 8:28:37, a time that Scott had established in 1986. The record for the marathon run portion of the race was 2:49:11, a mark set by the same man in the same race.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Based on these standards, anyone would have considered what Dave Scott and Mark Allen achieved in the 1989 Ironman World Championship, forever remembered as Iron War, to be impossible. Allen won the race in 8:09:15, demolishing Scott’s record by nearly 20 minutes. Scott finished second, just 58 seconds back, after having raced at his rival’s side for the first 138.9 miles of the 140.6-mile contest. Allen’s and Scott’s marathon splits were 2:40:04 and 2:41:02, respectively. Third-place finisher Greg Welch did not cross the line until 23 minutes after Allen had.
Impossible is impossible. When athletes do the seemingly impossible, they are actually redefining the possible. Put another way, they are exposing existing limits as illusions. But the question remains: How were Dave Scott and Mark Allen able to push so far beyond the illusory limit of Dave Scott’s 8:28:37 event record in their unforgettable Iron War?
I spent a year trying to answer this question in writing my newly published book, Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run. Part of the answer I arrived at is that fatigue—the ultimate performance limiter in endurance sports—is voluntary. Fatigue is not itself an illusion, but it is essentially a choice. Every athlete must make the choice to submit to fatigue at some point, but the most motivated and mentally strong athletes are sometimes able to resist making that choice better than they ever have before, and that’s when records are broken.
Fatigue in an event such as Ironman never feels like a choice, but scientists have proven it is. Among the more powerful proofs is a study conducted by an exercise physiologist named Samuele Marcora. In this study, Marcora asked athletes to hop on stationary bikes and perform a pair of all-out five-second sprints. The first sprint was performed in a fresh and rested state. But the second sprint was performed immediately after the athletes had ridden to complete exhaustion at a high but sub-maximal intensity. Basically, these athletes were required to pedal at a high, fixed wattage until they were totally wrecked and could not sustain the required output a second longer. They were then immediately required—without forewarning—to perform the second all-out sprint.