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A Kona legend endured years of frustration before winning his first of six titles.
The first time Mark Allen raced the Ironman was in October 1982. He came out of the water with the 1980 champion, Dave Scott. Just after the bike turnaround at Hawi, when Allen went to shift into another gear to stay with Scott, his derailleur malfunctioned and he was forced to drop out.
That was the first of many physiological and mechanical malfunctions that dogged Allen throughout the 1980s on the Big Island of Hawaii.
In 1983 he took third. The following year he built a 12-minute lead over Scott off the bike, but by mile 13 of the marathon, Allen was walking and Scott was on his way to his fourth title. In 1986, Allen decided to return to Kona only two weeks after his fifth straight win at the Nice Triathlon, the second biggest long-course triathlon in the world at the time.
He ran into Dave Scott one evening during race week and there was very little tension. “Dave congratulated me on Nice,” remembers Allen. “It was a nice exchange.”
Scott had peaked for Kona while Allen was hoping for a good day, but he certainly didn’t expect to win.
1987 was different. Allen decided to skip Nice to focus on Ironman, and Scott’s attitude toward him abruptly changed.
At the pro meeting, Allen remembers sitting on the floor looking directly at Scott. “Dave was sitting sideways, looking away from me,” recalls Allen. “He knew I was there, but he never once looked at me.”
On race day, Allen got a hint that something was wrong during the ride when his nose started to bleed. Later, he suddenly felt sick to his stomach and threw up.
Coming off the bike with Scott, Allen built a five-minute lead on the run. “I wasn’t pushing it to any crazy limit,” Allen insists.
From the marathon turnaround, it was 10 miles to the finish. “About one mile past the turnaround, I knew something wasn’t right,” Allen remembers.
With a few miles to go, Scott passed Allen and went into the lead. “I stopped and went to the bathroom and realized I was bleeding inside,” Allen says. “I crossed the line and gave thanks that I was alive and still in second.”
After the disappointment of the 1987 race, Allen came back in 1988 and thought he was once again ready to win the Ironman World Championship, especially after Scott pulled out of the race the night before with knee issues. Allen had two flat tires and finished fifth. But his first title wouldn’t have been as poetic without beating his nemesis in the process, anyway.
Before the 1989 Ironman, Allen’s stepmother told him she had a premonition about the race. “She said, ‘I have a good feeling about this year,’” Allen remembers. What he didn’t know was that years earlier, she had taken a piece of lava rock home as a souvenir.
There is a legend on the Big Island of Hawaii known as the curse of Madame Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind and volcanoes. If you remove lava from the island, you and your family will be penalized with bad luck. Before the 1989 race, fearing that she might have angered Madame Pele, Allen’s stepmother brought the rock back to the Big Island and returned it to the lava fields.
Sometimes, things are meant to be. That year, Allen ended the curse by finally defeating Scott during the defending champ’s best ever Kona performance in a race for the ages, now simply referred to as Iron War.