Culture

Why Mark Allen Almost Quit the Sport Right Before Iron War

Enjoy part two of our series on how the Iron War almost never happened.

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 racers had less than ideal preparations going into that event. Last week, for the first time ever, they revealed why the Iron War almost never happened—and this week we share the second part of their story, which concludes with Allen deciding he is going to pull out of the race and end his career…

Mark Allen

“By early August, 1989, it looked on the outside like I was on track to post an impressive race in Kona. I’d logged victories in every race I’d entered since the fall of 1988. The wins were coming at every distance, and by the time my streak ended it would add up to 21 straight victories at every distance and discipline. The only thing missing from my playlist was a win in Kona. Yes, on the outside, I was flying high.

“On the inside, I was struggling. What I really needed was a break to reset everything. All the training in New Zealand earlier that winter had been amazing, but it also took a lot of energy. All the training for the ITU World Championship had been intense, and I felt that I was resisting what would come in the next 10 weeks getting ready for Kona. But no break would come. There wasn’t time.”

Dave Scott

“One week into my “comeback” post-Ryan’s birth and six weeks to go before the race, my close friend Mike and I were back playing our game of cat and mouse. Mike had told me to sign up for my first Ironman World Championships in 1980—he had recognized my insatiable appetite and skill in all three disciplines—and since then we had developed an uncanny training pattern that enriched both of us.

“Mike and I had completed over 300 workouts that always ended up in a calculated time gap between the two of us. He was a solid runner and initially pushed me on our runs, but he dramatically lagged behind on the bike and swim sessions. But allowing a time gap between us or having Mike turn home early allowed me to pursue him, and that relentless chase became our individual motivators. My quest to catch Mike released a hidden energy that allowed me to quietly race anyone—even Mark Allen. My secret motivator that drove these competitions had nothing to do with Mike. Inside, I envisioned myself either pulling away from Mark—or catching Mark and then screaming by him.”

Mark Allen

“Fatigue and willpower rarely find themselves in the same place. I needed something to anchor my resolve to keep going. Blocking that resolve was the unknown of Dave Scott. I had been building him up in my mind to be this invincible bigger-than-life presence that I actually knew little about.

“I didn’t know how he trained other than vague stories I had heard about how he would punish himself with insanely hard workouts. Without knowing what those sessions were, it was easy for me to let them take on mythical proportions in my mind’s eye. I imagined him out there sweating up a storm, pushing beyond the limits of human tolerance, with a steely will that never wavered.

“Of course, that was probably not the case. But the more I struggled to find a hook to bring me back up to the surface and get me back to training, the myth of the unknown Dave Scott grew into an overwhelming, unstoppable presence.”

Dave Scott

“I knew Mark was mentally a master in all of his races. Defeating Mark would require not only a supreme race day, but also reaching a mental and physical breaking point where he finally would concede. My training days required me to develop and confirm my own internal drive to reach that breaking point.”

Mark Allen

“Fortunately, my training partners helped pull me out of the never-ending spiral of questioning whether Kona was worth going for one more time. One of these training partners in particular was Ken Souza. He was the top duathlete in the world at the time. Ken looked like Jon Bon Jovi in Lycra, with hair down past his shoulders.

“He was about as non-analytical as you could get when it came to finding motivation. He would say: ‘You just go out there and kick ass. You do it in training; you do it in the races. Don’t even think about it for one second because that shit will destroy you.’

“That was Ken’s way of getting things done. Those weren’t his exact words, but for sure it’s how he approached everything we did together in training. And his attitude was infectious. He didn’t even open up a space for backing off to take hold. It was full throttle, don’t look back, and hope you got to the finish before you crashed.

“Ken also knew what peak athletic performance took—which was training designed to push every gene in your body to the limits. And he knew the only thing on my mind was Kona. So, he came up with something we would do together that he thought was going to be one of those epic sessions to completely reset the bar on a key piece of Ironman racing: a fast bike that didn’t actually exhaust you.”

Dave Scott

“I knew Mark had his own valued training partners and he was relishing the same type of success. But could he punish himself enough without someone like me right next to him? I had my doubts, but there was also never a moment to feel overly confident. Mark had won every major race under all types of conditions and against all types of athletes, but I had to disregard these victories and recognize the one elusive goal of his—Kona.

“Confidence is a strange concept and, as I’ve mentioned, I was always able to peel back the layers of doubt and bring up my mental game prior to the World Championship. There seemed to be an illusion I could just push a button and ignite the most ferocious flame and be ready to have a magical race. The press always built up my aura as this mystical, self-driven, highly motivated guy who didn’t need extrinsic motivation to excel.

“I knew this wasn’t true. I was not a hermit. I had numerous friends from my home town and always thought I was a well balanced guy. The media painted me as a man of solitude and somewhat of an outcast. But rather than fight that stigma, I worked it in my favor. My competitors had developed a fear of this fabricated “Dave Scott” myth. I would use this same false identity heading to Kona in October. Without the intimate knowledge of why Mark faltered in his previous five Ironman races, I wanted to sow every seed I could to create doubt in his mind.

“The truth of how I felt was quite the opposite of everything the media portrayed. I struggled.

Despite driving myself relentlessly and having my ongoing training battles with Mike, I feared the fact that the World Championships were less than six weeks away. My fear was perfection. And in that fear of perfection, my fears of success and failure were intertwined. The problem with walking a fine precipice of either being successful or failing was that the margin of error was very narrow. If I strove for success at the level I chose, failure inevitably loomed, and that caused me to fear both.

“I wrestled with both those fears throughout my life—if the standard of perfection I set for myself was not achieved then I failed. As a result, I seemed to emotionally flutter after my successes and slip back into a pattern of failure. My success was never good enough.

“I was haunted by these fears. Did I need Mark to push me or could I mentally rally and go into the race with a supreme confidence that radiated from my preparation? Again, my anxiety swelled with the idea of accepting the results and nurturing the positive. To be perfect always created a level of angst and uneasiness that continually needed squelching. But I knew my remaining training sessions had to be completed with fulfillment and gratification. These feelings would only heighten my potential for the race.

“Mike and I continued to train together, primarily on the weekends. I tried to adjust to a new level of sleep deprivation with my son waking several times each night, but whether I adjusted or not there would be no more breaks until race day.

“The training clock was moving fast.”

Mark Allen

“A week after returning from France, I went to the Masters swim workout I always attended. Ironically, it was coached by Dave Scott’s sister, Jane. It was the one place Dave and I had crossed paths in the past. Jane explained the workout and the main set we would be doing that day. Right before the set started, I hopped out of the pool to go to the bathroom. The men’s bathroom was a typical men’s locker room with toilets and urinals. I stood there untying my suit when the whole world went dark. My focus changed from normal to a pinpoint in a second. The whole concept of vision was gone. Awareness of where I was completely shut off. I disappeared into zero consciousness.

“At the instant I came back to seeing and became aware of where I was, I found myself falling at an uncontrollable speed toward the porcelain of the urinal. My head slammed into the top of it just above my eyebrow with a force I thought would surely split the skin on my forehead. I’d blacked out and then come to just as I was collapsing to the ground. I couldn’t hold my body weight and crumpled to the floor of the bathroom.

“There on the floor, the questions spun through my head. What had just happened? Was I okay? Why was I even there at the pool? My world expanded and shrunk at the same time. What was really important? Was trashing my body to the point I collapsed in the locker room worth it? Why would I ever even want to find a reason to keep pushing my body to the limit day after day if this was the result? Even the thought of that as I lay there on the floor felt like some kind of sick obsession.

“And the answer I came up with?

“There was nothing about a victory that was worth risking my physical health. Life just slapped me in the face with a blow to my head on a cold, hard urinal. Something was telling to wake up and see the dramatic cost the training was demanding from my body.

“I sat there on the floor for quite a while. How much time I don’t know for sure. Enough that when I eventually went back out to the pool deck everyone started harassing me for missing most of the main set. ‘Now you come back out? The set is almost over!’ They had no idea what had just happened to me. I had a small cut and a big lump on my forehead, but I was able to hide it by pulling my swim cap forward and over the wound.

“I got back in the pool to finish the workout I had started. But I was not going to go back to my schedule Ironman training. My motivation to even do another day in the sport had been knocked out of me when my head had come into contact with a surface that had zero give.

“I was done. Not only was the Ironman in October done. My career was done.

As I lay in bed that night, there was not a single reason in the world I could come up with good enough to change my mind. There would be no way to explain to the sports world how whacking my head on a urinal with nothing other than a lump to show for it was the reason I was going to retire from the sport. But to me it made total sense.”

This is an edited version of the story—for the full story, head to 1989thestory.com.