The epic battle between Dave Scott and Mark Allen at the 1989 Ironman World Championship is considered one of the greatest races of all time—but both athletes had less than ideal preparations going into that event. In last week’s excerpt, Mark Allen revealed how he almost quit the sport due to burnout, just weeks before the race. This week we share the third part of their story, including insights into the workouts both men were doing—and just how much those workouts were fueled by a fervent desire to beat one another.
“In the week that followed my passed-out, head-on collision with a rock-hard porcelain urinal my life no longer felt like mine. The dreams of seven years in the sport and the effort and focus I put into them were gone. I no longer wanted to race, train, or do anything that pushed me. I wanted to sink into absolute nothingness. It was like I had just been hit by a speeding car and I was lying in the middle of the road screaming: ‘Don’t touch me! Just let me lay here.’
“The impact had been minor on my body. I had a knot on my forehead for a few days. But the devastation to my mental state was nearly fatal. I couldn’t anchor myself in any purpose, identity, or reason to even get out of bed. It wasn’t like being depressed, but more not knowing how to put my life into gear and slowly step on the gas.
“I had pulled the plug on racing in Kona for the second time in 1989. The first time had been when I started back to training in January after my devastating three-flat, fifth place finish the previous year in Hawaii. Now, with less than two months left to the race, I pulled the plug again. I even stopped thinking about Dave Scott. He could have the race and another victory. I wasn’t willing to pay the price I seemed to be exacting on my body to try to be his worthy opponent and a viable threat to the crown jewel in the sport of triathlon.
“I tried going for a few easy runs on the trails near my house in Boulder, Colorado, to try to ground myself in something familiar—something that for years had brought me so much joy. The runs helped some, and I did feel more engaged with life while I was running. But the second I cleaned up afterward, I floated back into life without purpose and no idea how to find it.”
“There are workouts stamped into my long-term memory bank as the key sessions that measured and solidified my fitness. I can recall these specifically for each training year in my annual ramp up to Kona. These “marker” or “test” sets were vital for my assessment of my physical state. Equally important was the short-term stamp of satisfaction derived from these sessions. I relished the opportunity to establish or break my individual time trials as a testament to my readiness for Kona.
“Nearing the end of August and into the first week of September, my short-term goals were to rewrite a few of my marker sets for each discipline as well as in my strength program. All of the standards were done by myself, with the exception of my swim and shared with my three close mates—Pat, Mike, and John. I devised the marker sets, but the three of them knew the value of the physical and psychological gains from these test sets. In late August, my incentive was to set new standards for myself. They knew from my success in previous years that achieving my preparatory goals for Kona was paramount for a very fast race. All three buddies would be traveling to Kona in October to support me.
“In fact, throughout all of my Ironman races, the loyal threesome had come to Kona offering their support and insight. John, Mike, and Pat had an internal dial to my brain chemistry, whether it was in regard to maintaining my daily life rhythms or diving deeply into my psyche about racing. If there was time to bring up Mark in a positive but motivational comment, they knew how to plant the emotional seed to heighten my quest to win. In numerous conversations with them throughout 1989, they anticipated a potential close battle with Mark. The premise of their insight was Mark’s subpar performance in the 1988 Ironman World Championship and my decision to drop out of that race. They recognized both of us needed the ultimate race to win in 1989.
“John had traveled with me to the Gold Coast earlier in the year and had witnessed Mark’s victory. He recognized Mark’s brilliance in that race and also how close he came in our 1987 Ironman race. I had passed Mark at mile 22 on the marathon. Having fallen behind by five minutes during the marathon run, John knew I had to dig deep to beat him.
Mike was also brutally honest, and he recognized my training had to reach new levels not just to break my record, but also physically and psychologically beat Mark. The Ironman is not just about the physical tools each athlete brings to the event. The professionals are keenly aware of their competitors’ race results throughout the year, but for the World Championships the mindset to extract your highest probability of success is engrained in the buildup to the race. I always felt Mark was vulnerable in Kona. He spoke freely about having difficulty with the island of Hawaii and battling the elements. He seemed to have a worry that engulfed him when racing me in Kona. I could feel this weakness and it heightened my belief that I could beat him in this upcoming race.
“Despite the inner confidence based on my previous six victories, there was always a subtle cloud that reminded me—Mark will be ready to race.”
“I had already committed to doing the crazy, epic-sounding, 150-mile ride to Wiggins with my close friend Ken Souza. It was scheduled for exactly one week after my pool incident. I knew I had to do that ride to support his training. He was counting on me being there, and for me to not just show up but to be ready to pull my share of the load during the ride.
“And so Ken and I met for the Wiggins ride. Even though in my mind I was already a retired triathlete who a week earlier had felt completely burned out and done with the sport, surprisingly, I was really excited for the ride. Maybe a week of a few easy runs was what I had needed more than anything. Could it be that I shouldn’t have been in such a rush to move on from racing? Souza and I headed out, our jersey pockets jammed with food and extra water bottles.
“I’d never ridden over about 115 miles in my life. And I’d never ridden east through the farmlands outside of Boulder. We were going on a road where neither of us knew exactly what it would bring.
“Our course turned out to be almost a carbon copy of the undulations in Kona. There were extended rolling hills that seemed flat but weren’t. It was hot and exposed. It was lonely with little changing in the landscape from one hour to the next. Yes, Ken had been right—it was the perfect Kona prep ride.
“Wait a minute—I was comparing the Wiggins ride to the Kona course. I found myself plotting, planning, and executing the endless miles on that Wiggins ride with the same droning attention it took to stay with it mentally in the Ironman.”
“In an effort to refine my psychological status over the final month of preparation, I included key workouts or what I call “marker sets.” These are simply test sets that hopefully indicated I was ready. They were measurable and designed by me. During the sets, which were punishing, I would see and feel myself racing in Kona.
“The driving motivation during my triathlon years had been embedded during my college swim career. I had timed a 3,000-yard session every Tuesday during my entire four years of swimming. I had hated the psychological torment of this grueling session, but after college I recognized the elevated level of perseverance and tenacity I gained from annihilating myself on those swims. I had raced the clock as determined by my swim coach, and this solo application had now been implemented into my final approach for the 1989 race.
“Kona was longer than my college sessions, with a 2.4-mile (3,800-meter) swim. The marker set needed to exceed my collegiate effort, so I decided to swim a one-hour time trial. Fortunately, on this marker swim set, I had Wendy to race. She was and is a close friend and former collegiate-distance swimmer. She had a punishing mentality and was the perfect training partner for this swim. We set the date and had our times recorded. At 5,000 yards (4500m) I was able to slightly break Wendy and continued to put on a small margin over the final ten minutes. Maintaining a pace that was considerably faster than any previous Kona swim, I felt capable of going under 50 minutes for the upcoming Ironman. In previous years, my time had been 50-minutes plus. My goal in 1989 was to eclipse the 50-minute barrier. Equally important, when I pulled away from Wendy, I visualized myself gapping Mark in the race.
“After completing the swim, I felt fatigued but refreshed by my performance. I suggested to Wendy that we do it again exactly one week later. She agreed. The next week, our pace per 100 yards was slightly faster. Similar to the previous week, around the 5000-yard mark I was able to gap Wendy—simultaneously, the visual of Mark falling off the pace was deeply cast into my stream of confidence.
“These training games always came back to the two simple questions” ‘What is Mark doing for his test sets?’ ‘Is he lagging behind my new standards or is he superseding them?’ The unknown answers to these questions provided me with motivation and a determination to be relentless with my training.
“However, even if I was capable of breaking the 50-minute barrier, the swim was less than 10 percent of the Ironman race. Mike reminded me that the marathon would ultimately decide the race—and I was the fastest runner. At the same time, he cautioned me: ‘Mark will be ready, and you must ratchet up your level.’ Mike was first and foremost a runner. He ended up competing in four Ironman races, but the run was always his best discipline. He recognized my improvement in my overall running ability and knew I had an internal “barometer of discomfort” that was relentless. However, he also knew Mark was a gifted runner. During our training runs he would goad or bait me to push harder knowing Mark may have the race of his life in October.
“We decided my 18-mile (approximately 30km) run training loop in Davis, California, would be my running marker test. The course was flat with the temperature around 90 degrees F, which would be hotter or equal to Kona. I decided to run at what I felt should be my race pace. My goal was to run comfortably at a 6-minute mile pace.
“After a short warm-up, I was locked into my pace. As I have mentioned, wearing a wristwatch was a new tool for me, but it allowed me to break down those farm roads into exact one-mile increments checking my splits along the way. I held my pace until the last three miles. Running the final three miles back into town, I envisioned myself next to Mark—and I knew it was the moment to accelerate the tempo.
“My final three miles were timed at 5:40, 5:25, and 5:12. By running standards, nothing earth shaking, but I knew from this run the times were doable coming off the 112-mile bike leg in Kona. The goal was accomplished. The session had allowed me to regain my confidence, but there was still a lingering question: ‘Could Mark hold this pace?’
“That my brain so naturally compared the Wiggins ride to the Kona course shocked me. How could I have been completely done with everything about triathlons including Ironman, and then in a matter of miles passing underneath me with my training buddy next to me so easily turn the faucet back on? Was it that I’m hardwired to feel comfortable when I’m focused on an athletic challenge? Was I falling back into something because it was the most familiar way of being for me?
“At the time, I didn’t have the answer. But now looking back I can tell you without question that it was the undeniable force of the Island that was involved in the events of that week. The Island knew I had to be there in full force, but it also knew it would never happen if I didn’t take a break—and I wasn’t going to give myself that luxury. So my break got arranged with the “accident” of passing out. In fact, the last thought I had before I passed out was about Kona and the realization that I needed a break for a few days. Well, that got put in play.
“It was also the Island that didn’t let me escape thinking about it for too long. It only took about three hours of riding the endless farmland roads eastward before Kona crept back into my awareness.
“Without trying, I realized there was finally no question—I would go back to Hawaii in six weeks. I wasn’t even trying to convince myself to go back. The feeling just enveloped me. I also knew before we were halfway to the turnaround at 75 miles that Ken had come up with a ride that was easily a match for the mind-numbing roads and heat Dave Scott was training on at that exact moment in Davis, California.
“This is how it happens in those magic moments during training when something just locks me into a new level without any effort on my part to make it happen. You can’t plan for those big leaps. You can’t say: ‘I want Monday to be the day I become a new me’. No, it’s more a jump that is likely the sum of hundreds of other workouts that seemed to be nothing special, but that added to the foundation that eventually became big enough to support another level. This was one of those days.”
This is an edited version of the story—for the full story, head to 1989thestory.com.
Be sure to also check out part one and part two of our Iron War series, and tune in on Thursday, Oct. 10 for our TriathleteLive during Kona race week where Mark Allen and Dave Scott will be answering your questions.