From the Record Breakers: What It’s Like to Set the Iron-Distance World Record
Dave Scott and Yvonne van Vlerken share what the moment meant, how the lead-up went, and the impact it had on them and on the sport.
On June 5 or 6, four athletes will chase a standard never seen before in the history of triathlon: A sub-seven-hour Iron-distance race for men, and a sub-eight-hour finish for women. Whether or not these pros hit those marks remains to be seen, but if they do (or go faster than 7:21:12 or 8:18:13, respectively), the fastest competitors in each gender may be in strong contention for a new world record. And while winning a race is almost always the ultimate goal of any elite athlete, the added bonus of setting a world record can alter the course of one’s career—and life—forever.
To get some insight on just how meaningful finishing a race faster than anyone on the planet has ever gone, we caught up with two former world record holders at the Iron-distance: American Dave Scott (whose 1989 record from Ironman Japan stood for seven years) and Dutchwoman Yvonne van Vlerken (who held the women’s world record from 2008 to 2009). Both spoke with us to reflect on their race and how it affected their career—and the sport of triathlon, too.
The Year: 1989
The Race: Ironman Japan
The Build Up
In late July of 1989, Dave Scott almost didn’t make it to Hikone, a small Japanese town located on the shores of Lake Biwa some 50 miles from Kyoto. His wife, Anna, was at the “any day now” point of her pregnancy, and he was afraid of missing the birth of his child. But, it was a risk he was ultimately willing to take, as his career (and income) depended on him racing—and winning.
So Scott, then 35, flew to Japan, where he set out for what should have been an easy pre-race ride a couple of days before the event. Except he accidentally wound up riding the entire 112 miles of the bike course in high heat and humidity, later arriving at the start line with a lot more miles in his legs than he should have had. “I was pretty tired after that,” he remembered. “But I felt better once the race got going.”
The set-up was not ideal, but Scott was in fantastic shape and knew he could dominate the race if everything clicked. Whether he would do it in world record time was not even at the forefront of his mind. He didn’t have much of a way to know how fast he was going, either. Without GPS tracking, a bike computer, or even a watch, he simply raced by feel. In fact, it wasn’t until the late stages of the run when Scott got a time check and heard he was close to breaking eight hours.
“I just went as hard as I could in the last few miles of the run to see if I could get it,” he said of his 2:45:36 marathon split. “I gave it all I got. That’s how I always raced: Hard from start to finish. Looking back, I don’t think there was anywhere I could have shaved time off, so I didn’t have any regrets.” Scott wound up crossing the line in 8:01:32, beating runner-up Scott Tinley by more than 30 minutes.
While Scott came up just short of cracking eight hours, he did lower his own world record by 27 minutes, which he had previously set on the notoriously tough world championship course in Kona, Hawaii. He doesn’t remember the media or the race officials making a big deal of the record at the time, and he really didn’t think much of it, either. “My focus was on the world championships, and winning, and race times didn’t matter that much,” he said. (And, it’s worth nothing that Scott made it back to the States just in time to welcome his first son, Ryan, the day after arriving home from Japan.)
Scott’s record time in Japan certainly underscored his dominance in Iron-distance racing, especially because it would take seven years to break—which Germany’s Lothar Leder eventually did at Ironman Europe then in Roth, Germany. But while Scott’s record-setting time would remain his fastest-ever Ironman finish, the feat was nowhere as impactful as his six Ironman World Championships or the epic “Iron War” battle he waged in the Kona heat with his longtime rival Mark Allen later that year.
“I guess you could say setting a world record that stood for seven years is pretty cool, but no, it’s not a huge highlight of my career,” he said recently. “It was a fast day and a good race for me, but there are other moments that really stand out for me.”
Yvonne van Vlerken
The Year: 2008
The Race: Challenge Roth
The Build Up
For an entire year leading up to her world record moment, Yvonne van Vlerken, then 30, was laser-focused on beating Paula Newby Fraser’s mark of 8:50:53, which had stood for 14 years. After all, she came this close to breaking it in one of her first Iron-distance attempts, also at Roth, the year before, finishing in 8:51:55. So she amped up her training, particularly in the pool, and planned her schedule to point to one very big race: Challenge Roth, on July 13, 2008.
“I skipped a lot of races I would normally do because I wanted to be in the best shape for Roth,” said van Vlerken, who retired in 2019 and now runs a thriving women-only coaching business. “Coming from a duathlon background, my swim was my weakest leg, so I did a five-week training camp in Austria with [2004 Olympic gold medalist] Kate Allen and her coach and we swam every morning. I was also about 11 pounds leaner than I was in 2007, and I was more experienced, so I was confident I could be faster than I was before in Roth.”
There was just one glitch in her plan: The weather. Van Vlerken remembers feeling despondent when she read the forecast of heavy rain on race day. “People were coming up to me beforehand saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’ about the rain because they knew it would be harder for me to get the record,” she said.
The weather may have been working against her plans, but van Vlerken had the advantage of being pushed by Hungary’s Erika Cosmor, who was just as hungry for the win. Van Vlerken had to pour every ounce of energy she had onto the course to stave off Cosmor, who finished just over one minute behind—and also under the previous world record time. In the end, von Vlerken’s dedication to swimming paid off: Her 53:47 split was four minutes faster than she posted the year before. And even though her bike time was slower than her 2007 split due to the rain, she cranked out an impressive 2:54:22 marathon, which would be the fastest-ever marathon split she posted throughout her 14-year pro career.
Setting a world record is one thing. But when you break one that’s stood for 14 years (and was held by the greatest female triathlete in history at the time)? That’s a move that will make people take notice. Van Vlerken, who had only been on the pro scene for about two years at the time, said she had “all kinds of doors open” after her race in Roth, including new sponsorship deals and free entry in races. “I felt like I was a real pro triathlete after that,” she recalled.
The impact of van Vlerken’s record went far deeper than comped entries and monetary gain, however. When she did what no other female long-distance triathlete could do in 14 years, she raised the bar that much higher for her competitors—and all women in the sport.
“Paula is a legend, and by breaking her record…well, Erika and I showed other women what was possible,” she said. “That they can do great things, too.”
One of those women? Great Britain’s Chrissie Wellington, who roared out of the gates in her debut at Challenge Roth just one year later with a 8:31:59 finishing time—14 minutes faster than van Vlerken’s former record. Wellington would ultimately lower her time on the course in Roth to 8:18:13, a mark that still stands today.
“I was only the world record holder for a year before Chrissie came along, so sometimes I do think people forget,” said van Vlerken of her accomplishment. “But I can always say I was the first to get it after Paula. And I do think seeing me go for it and get the record—even on a day with bad conditions—had a lasting impression on all of the women who came after me.”