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Enjoy this excerpt from Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen and the Greatest Race Ever Run by Matt Fitzgerald, republished with permission of VeloPress. Iron War is now available in bookstores, tri shops, and online. Learn more at Velopress.com/ironwar.
Chapter 1: The Moment
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Two men run shoulder to shoulder down the middle of the Queen Kaahumanu highway on Hawaii’s Big Island, pressing southward toward the coastal town of Kailua-Kona. The road they travel cuts a narrow artery through a vast black lava field that supports no life save for a few scattered tufts of hardy fountain grass. Hazy clouds above trap muggy hotness below like the lid of a steaming kettle. A slick coat of rank sweat—a microcosm of the smothering atmosphere—bastes the skin of the hard-breathing runners, sealing in the heat churned out by the fiery furnaces of their muscles.
Both men are tall and lean, with the characteristic legs of elite triathletes—lither than those of cyclists, more muscular than those of runners—extending sinuously beneath skimpy 1980s running shorts. Each man hides a thousand-yard stare behind sport sunglasses, but their slack cheeks betray a deathly weariness.
They are not alone. A caravan of mopeds, bicycles, cars, Jeeps, and trucks has formed behind the athletes, the spectators aboard these conveyances having been drawn into the convoy by the spreading news of the spectacle they now behold. A few of the motorized vehicles and most of the bikes should not be where they are, as the highway is closed to normal transit, but the race marshals have lost control and no longer care. Caught up in the same hypnosis as everyone else, they simply follow and watch.
It is a strange apparition, this silent caravan, a sort of motley roving amphitheater, made stranger still by its silence. Those watching dare not speak a word for fear of breaking the spell in which all are complicit. Aside from the occasional shout of encouragement from a volunteer at a roadside drink station, the only sound to be heard is the rhythmic huffing of the athletes’ exhalations and the soft slapping of their feet against the pavement.
“Right on!” screams one young man as the runners approach the drink station he’s staffing. “Right! On!” he repeats, cheering not for one runner or the other but for the performance itself, losing his mind in excitement as he witnesses the consummation of every fan’s notion of the best thing that could possibly be happening in this, the most anticipated showdown in the history of triathlon—the sport’s two towering heroes running each other into the ground, obliterating records and annihilating all other competitors, eight hours into a duel in which they have never been more than a few feet apart.
The man on the right, dressed in green, black, and white Brooks apparel, is Dave Scott, six-time winner of this race, the Ironman® World Championship. The runner in yellow, black, and white Nike apparel is Mark Allen, six-time loser of Ironman, winner of everything else.
They continue. Each man runs not as fast as he can but as fast as the other can, having already swum 2.4 miles, bicycled 112 miles, and run 24 miles, with the balance of a marathon left to run, all in tar-melting heat. That is why the pair remains as if tethered wrist to wrist after racing nearly a full-day shift, well ahead of 1,284 of the best triathletes in the world. Each is trying with all his might to break the body, mind, or spirit of the other, but although all of these elements in both have been stretched to the breaking point, none has yet broken.
Within their minds a pitched battle is being waged between unimaginable suffering and an equally intense desire to resist that suffering and win. The pain in their thighs, especially, is so severe that in any other context they would find it impossible to walk a single step. Yet each continues to run sub-six-minute miles because each still believes the pain is worth the hope of winning.
An expectant crowd waits at the finish line in downtown Kailua-Kona. All they know of the great struggle taking place on the Queen K highway is what little information the race announcer provides in sporadic updates based on garbled two-way radio reports from the field. yet these crumbs are more than enough to captivate them.
While the multitude waits, the competitor who is currently in twenty-seventh place in the race encounters Dave Scott and Mark Allen and their silent caravan head-on (it’s an out-and-back course) and stops cold to watch them. He has devoted months of hard training to preparing for this day. For several seconds he claps and shouts like any other spectator, momentarily indifferent to his own performance.
A photographer leaps off the back of his chauffeured motorcycle and attempts to capture close-up images of the combatants while sprinting alongside them. Immediately he recognizes his mistake. Although young and fit himself, he quits in exhaustion after fifty yards. Before leaping back on his motorcycle, he watches the runners speed away down the road, the camera slung from his neck briefly forgotten.
Seated on the trunk of a convertible some fifty feet behind Dave and Mark, his shoes resting on the back seat, is Bob Babbitt, the 38-year-old publisher of San Diego–based Competitor magazine. His face is frozen in a faint grin. He believes he is watching the greatest race ever run. The cover line for the next issue of his publication has already come to him: Iron War.
Ironman in 1989 means more to the young sport of triathlon than any other major championship means to any other sport. It is virtually the sport itself—the only race that really matters. Fans and sponsors don’t care how many other triathlons you win if you don’t win Ironman. That’s why short-course specialist Mike Pigg, feared in two-hour races, is competing in this race even though it’s way too long for him. It’s why Scott Molina, winner of numerous events in cooler places, kept doing Ironman, despite being no good in the heat, until he cherry-picked a victory last year, taking advantage of Dave’s absence and Mark’s bad luck. Hell, even duathlon star Kenny Souza, dominant in run-bike-run events, feels compelled to try, and he can’t really swim.
Mark Allen is virtually unbeatable in other triathlons and has amassed nine wins in nine races this year ahead of Hawaii, two of those wins over Dave Scott. But those victories count for little in his reckoning.
“When you come to Ironman, you have to put everything you’ve done before it in the garbage can,” Mark told ABC Sports before the 1987 Ironman. “It all means zero.”
It is this race Mark wants, and he is snakebit here. Dave and the island have his number.
Dave Scott dominates Ironman as few athletes have ever dominated a major championship in any sport. Before today he has raced it seven times, won it six times, and finished second once. And then there’s how he wins—crushingly, wielding a force field of invincibility like a weapon. At the start of the marathon leg of the 1983 Ironman, trailing Scott Tinley by twenty seconds, Dave looked into an ABC television camera trained on him and snarled, “I’m going to bury this guy,” then promptly fulfilled the promise.
They call him the Man.
Mark Allen is his only equal, almost untouchable in triathlons held everyplace except Hawaii. His nickname is Grip. As in “death grip.”
Seldom do the two greatest champions of a generation in sport, each with a career prime that will ultimately span more than a decade, achieve their finest moments on the very same day, but Dave Scott and Mark Allen appear to be doing just that. On this day, they are not merely the best in the sport; they are literally the best by miles. Here in the final stretch of the marathon leg of the race, Dave and Mark are three miles ahead of their nearest challenger. With every stride they are redefining the possible, on pace to run a sub-2:40 marathon in almost 90-degree heat following a four-and-a-half-hour cycling time trial and a fifty-minute all-out swim effort in open water—a feat that nobody would previously have believed to fall within the scope of human potential.
Earlier in the year, in anticipation of this collision, Bob Babbitt set out to fan the hype by creating a cover for his publication that depicted the two men standing back to back, fisted arms crossed against their chests, in the style of a classic boxing poster.
“Sure, I’ll do it—if Dave comes here,” said Mark, who was training in Boulder, Colorado, when Bob called.
“Yeah, I’ll do it—if Mark comes here,” countered Dave, born and raised and still living in Davis, California.
In the end a photographer traveled to both places to shoot each man with the same backdrop behind him, then spliced the two halves together. The rivals appeared to be as close as they are now. The cover line read, “SHOWDOWN ON THE KONA COAST.”
It’s not that Dave and Mark really hate each other. They just can’t like each other. Only one race matters, and only one man can win it. They’re like two ravenous tigers fighting over a kill. Dave was an Ironman legend before Mark even owned a bike. But the younger man was quickly dubbed his elder’s heir apparent. Dave resented it, and Mark knew it.
“It was like coming home after a hard day at work and expecting the family to cater to him,” Mark wrote of Dave in his 1988 book, The Total Triathlete. “When he got home, when he arrived in Hawaii, someone else was in his house getting all his attention. And that someone else was me.”
Dave has beaten Mark five times in this event, but the overall rivalry is hardly lopsided. Mark defeats Dave routinely in most other triathlons. Each loss here deepens Mark’s desire to turn the tables, and both men know—or at least one fears and the other has faith—that Mark is capable. Twice he has finished second to Dave, and twice he has amassed huge leads over his rival before falling apart. There is broad agreement that Dave keeps beating Mark in Hawaii not because Dave is simply better but because Dave has mastered the race and Mark has not.
“It’s not so much Dave Scott has defeated me, or Scott Tinley, or whoever’s come in ahead of me,” Mark said dismissively in an interview for ABC television before the race they are now near completing. “It’s always been the course—the elements, the wind, the heat, the humidity, and the distance under that sun for eight and a half hours.”
In support of Mark’s point, when Dave pulled out of the ’88 Ironman two days before the race with an injury, Mark became the prohibitive favorite. But he suffered two flat tires on the bike and finished fifth. It seemed as if Fate was not content for Mark to become the Ironman champion except by beating his nemesis. If ever.
A year later Dave is healthy, and Mark’s rotten luck appears to be behind him. Both men have transformed the agony of their disappointments at the ’88 race into hunger for redemption. Both performed at the highest level of their careers in their summer buildup to this race. Mark went undefeated. Dave set an Ironman world record of 8:01:32 in Japan. Theirs were the only names mentioned in the obsessive “Who do you like this year?” conversations that ritually devour all other topics during race week in Kailua-Kona. Last year’s winner, Scott Molina, has not returned to defend his crown, writing himself off as a one-time opportunist. Two-time winner Tinley, it is agreed, has been surpassed. Sure enough, with two miles left in the race, Dave and Mark are three miles ahead, inches apart.
The conflict between the two men goes deeper than mere professional self-interest. Under the surface of their Ironman battles is a clash of opposing ways of being. Mark is a New Age spiritual type. He meditates and pays attention to auras. He trains smart and isn’t afraid to take a day off when his body needs it. Dave’s a good old-fashioned jock of the no-painno-gain school. He believes you win by outworking your competition in training and outsuffering it in races. Meditation? No, thanks.
Like many great athletes, Dave competes best when he competes angry. He feels that being pals with any of his rivals would weaken him as a competitor, so, in stark contrast to his peers, he trains utterly alone in his out-of-the-way hometown, the chief virtue of whose isolated desert environment, in his mind, is that it is not a place that is attractive to anyone else in the sport. It is Dave against the world, and he likes it that way.
Meanwhile, Mark trains with Tinley, Molina, Pigg, Souza—everyone, it seems, in triathlon’s hypersocial birthplace and epicenter: sunny, beachy San Diego.
Generally mild-tempered, Dave goes to great lengths to gather so-called bulletin-board material—insults, perceived slights, and signs of disrespect—to feed the anger that he depends on to race as hard as he does. In 1987 Kellogg created a breakfast cereal called Pro-Grain. Mark Allen’s face appeared on one version of the box along with the tagline “Ironman Food.”
“What a joke,” Dave scoffed at the time. “Mark has never won Ironman. And that cereal’s not even good for you!”
Proving his point at Ironman that year, Dave again chased down Mark on the run, erasing a four-minute deficit and blowing by him to win by eleven minutes. Mark spent the night in a hospital.
As in any great sports rivalry, enmity is mixed with intimacy. In training, Dave and Mark think about each other like targets. Their blood warms whenever their paths cross off the racecourse, as they did at a press conference just two days ago, where they never greeted one another, never even made eye contact, despite being seated in adjacent chairs. As they run together now, each senses clearly how the other feels—whether he is strong or weak in any moment.
Who is ultimately stronger? The answer is undetermined. Dave does not know, nor does Mark, nor do the spectators who trail them in a reverent hush. One of these two men must soon break the other—in body, mind, or spirit. Who will it be? Not necessarily the faster man. The battle being waged now is about will as much as skill. Already both men have pushed deeper than ever before into the inferno of suffering that stands between every racer and his final performance limit. The winner of this fight is likely to be the man who dares to push deepest. Eight hours of racing are culminating in a game of chicken.
Endurance racing is steeped in the art of pacing. Each man has to hold back something. But how little does he gamble holding back? As they blaze southward toward the finish line in Kailua-Kona, Dave Scott and Mark Allen are risking everything, running in a shared state of unmasked desperation, to win—or not lose—right now.
It is one minute before three o’clock on the afternoon of October 14, 1989, and something is about to happen.