Despite deeper pro fields and constant advancements in bike and run technology, the best Ironman athletes in the world are still chasing after the elusive run record on the Big Island—a record that has stood for 23 years (and counting).
This article was originally published in the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine. Download the PDF version of this article here.
Winning an Ironman World Championship isn’t easy, but the basic ingredients are fairly simple: Arrive on the Big Island in early October ready to swim fast enough to stay with the front pack over the first 2.4 miles. Have the leg strength and endurance necessary to bike 112 miles with the very best riders in the sport against fierce winds that blow from every direction. And most importantly, come physically and mentally prepared to run a fast marathon in the searing heat of the lava fields, where the race is typically won or lost.
No one in the race’s history better met those criteria than Mark Allen and Dave Scott. Their pursuit of Ironman perfection came to a head in the famous 1989 Iron War (pictured above). You know the story: They raced side-by-side until Allen dropped Scott less than two miles from the finish to win his first of six Ironman world titles. When the clock stopped Allen had split 2:40:04 and Scott 2:41:03—still, 23 years later, the first and second fastest marathons ever run in Ironman Hawaii.
As history predicted, a fast run was the key to winning this brutal race in 2012. Australian Pete Jacobs won the men’s race by more than five minutes in a time of 8:18 with the third fastest run of the day, while Great Britain’s Leanda Cave won the women’s race by more than a minute with the third fastest marathon split among women.
They came into the race with widely different expectations for how they would perform in the marathon. Jacobs, the runner-up in 2011 (who has run 2:42 and 2:41 in Hawaii, the third fastest ever), arrived in Kona the week before the race intent on breaking Allen’s record. “This has been the best running build-up I’ve ever had for any race,” he confided to me days before the race. “If I run really well, it won’t be a surprise.” When he crossed the finish line the year before, Jacobs revealed his goal to the man he revered: “I said to Mark, ‘I want your run record.’”
But strong winds on the bike and extreme heat thwarted that plan and took their toll on the entire field of fast runners, which included Andreas Raelert, his brother Michael, Chris McCormack and Craig Alexander. The battle on the run course never materialized. McCormack pulled out of the race before the turnaround on the bike, and defending champion Alexander was never a factor, finishing 12th. Jacobs had the ride of his life and came out of T2 ahead of every serious challenger, except Marino Vanhoenacker, who had earned an eight-minute advantage over the field with an all-or-nothing solo breakaway. Jacobs quickly chipped away at his advantage off the bike, and the Australian took the lead for good at mile 15 in the run.
Realizing he had a big lead once past Vanhoenacker, Jacobs dialed back his pace to avoid cramping and risking the win. “I walked through the ice stations of most aid stations and slowed down to drink,” he said. “I knew I had a four- to five-minute lead out of the Energy Lab over Andreas, whom I outran last year when I felt worse, so that gave me confidence to relax and focus on making it home in one piece. I couldn’t have gone much faster. I had worked very hard on the bike, and I was a little flat on the run.”
The Perfect Storm
Why no one has been able to run faster than Allen or Scott did in Kona in 1989 is one of triathlon’s enduring mysteries, especially considering all of the improvements that have been made over the past two decades to footwear, nutrition and training, not to mention the increasing quality and depth of the men’s field that arrives on the Big Island each year. Even more puzzling is that the record was set on a hillier course than today’s. Many of the top competitors in 1989 remember it back then as more difficult than today’s because they had to run south from T2, which was located at the old Kona Surf Hotel, now the Sheraton Keauhou, up the hill at the end of Ali’i Drive, then down a steep windy road and back up from an area known as “the Pit.”
“It was a much tougher course back then,” said 1994 Ironman World Champion Greg Welch, who finished third that year. What’s more, the official 1989 run times included the bike-to-run transition times, so the actual marathon times were even faster than the records show. How much faster? Dave Scott said Pat Feeney, a physicist friend from his hometown of Davis, Calif., calculated that Allen spent 1:13 in transition and Scott 1:15, so the actual marathon times would have been 2:38 for Allen and 2:39 for Scott. In many respects, the 1989 Kona marathon record remains triathlon’s “Beamonesque” moment—a singular athletic achievement that took place on a perfect day, like Bob Beamon’s 1968 Olympic long jump, which broke the world record at the time by 2 feet and remained untouched for the next 22 years.
Paul Huddle, one of the top pro finishers in 1989, remembers the weather that day as unusually cool and windless, which set up all of the athletes for fast runs. “Maybe a slightly easier ride allowed for a faster run split that day,” he speculated. “’89 was a spectacularly easy ride. I recall light rain, but barely any wind to speak of in Hawi and a tail wind on the return trip and cooler than normal temperatures.”
But perhaps the most important factor responsible for the fast times that day, many experts agree, was the rare alignment of two extremely talented athletes pushing themselves to the limit to win in a shoulder-to-shoulder battle over the entire marathon course. “I think it was the athletes, quite frankly,” said Welch. “Mark and Dave were two of the greatest athletes who ever set foot on the planet in triathlon or in any sport.”
“I don’t think everyone appreciates how good Mark and Dave were,” added Huddle. “Both of these guys were incredible all-arounders—swim, bike and run. In my opinion, Dave always ran way above his basic running ability in Kona, and Mark was one of the only really great runners in our sport at the time who came close to his [open marathon] potential in Kona.”
Asked why no one has run faster than he and Allen did back in 1989, Scott said he doesn’t have a good answer. What’s especially puzzling to him is that many of the athletes who show up in Kona year after year are faster runners than he and Allen ever were, at least over shorter distances. Some have run 1:09 or better off the bike in half-Ironman races, and if you double their half-marathon times from those races and add 15 minutes (which Scott figures should give a good approximation of what they should run in an Ironman), they have the potential to run a 2:33 marathon, he said. “But none of these guys has gone under 2:40 at Kona,” says Scott.
“For the men, I think it’s a combination of things,” Scott added. “When I’ve watched the bike leg, a lot of the men I think are seemingly sitting in. I never get the idea they sense they can actually win this race but they’re there to play the game on the bike. And the irony is that when they get off the bike, within the first two miles there are some guys who can’t even run a 6:30 mile, which is slow, and they’re already off the back. And there’s a disparity. You may see six or seven guys come in together on the bike, yet two miles on the run there may be a gap of 50 seconds or even more. And I always ask the question, ‘Why aren’t they able to hang on at the outset of the run? Have they just mentally given up? Or is it that they just don’t have the tools?’ I wonder if the top pros are doing enough supplemental strength training so they can get off the bike and not feel like their legs are completely beaten up.”
Besides a lack of strength, Scott thinks the way the pro men’s field now rides to avoid drafting penalties, in an accordion-like procession that requires them to slow down and accelerate constantly over 112 miles, also negatively affects their run. “It’s really fatiguing and also burns glycogen at a much higher rate,” he said. “We didn’t have as much of this back when I raced. In fact, going back to 1989, we were allowed to fan out on the road, so if you got to a hill and you were stronger than someone else, you’d just slide to the left and climb that hill. … But when I watch those guys accordion back and forth I just think it’s debilitating and that may be one of the reasons they’re not able to run well.”
Others think the speeds at which the top men now have to ride are contributing factors. “I wonder how fast Greg Bennett or Macca or Jacobs would run if they weren’t pushed to ride 4:25 to 4:30?” asks Huddle. “It’s always a question of giving up five minutes on the bike to gain 10 minutes on the run. But what is the right ratio of energy expenditure on each side that gives you the best outcome?” That may be one reason why the men’s marathon record has not been touched for 23 years, while the women have been able to steadily chip away at their run records.
“Often the run consists of just doing what it takes to win,” said triathlon running expert Bobby McGee about the men’s times. “Great riders from the recent past know that a solid run that keeps them just far enough ahead to demoralize the competition is all that is required after a mythical ride, and this is often only a low 2:50. The girls are not strong enough to ruin themselves on the bike and conversely have relatively more left for the run.”
McGee and Welch also think that the aggressive aerodynamic positions of today’s tri bikes restrict and negatively impact the running muscles. “Just recently, I worked with a pro whose running was steadily declining until we changed her fit to a far less aggressive position,” McGee said. “Her running dramatically returned and she podiumed soon after that. … From footage, it is clear that neither Mark nor Dave were very aero on that ride that day, both being quite upright and without those crazy hip angles the guys get into today. Their riding posture clearly impacted their running far less.”
PHOTOS: 2012 Ironman World Championship