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Lessons Of Iron War: The Mind Can Change The Body

At a press conference held two days before the 1989 Ironman, a reporter asked the several top male contenders seated together behind a long table in a conference room at the Kona Surf Hotel what it would take to win the race.

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At a press conference held two days before the 1989  Ironman, a reporter asked the several top male contenders seated together behind a long table in a conference room at the Kona Surf Hotel what it would take to win the race. Everyone ducked the question—everyone except Dave Scott, six-time winner of the event.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

“Eight ten,” he said.

Scott’s answered drew whistles and raised eyebrows among the journalists seated in folding chairs facing the athletes’ table. After all, Scott’s three-year-old course record was 8:28.

Two days later, Dave Scott went out and completed Ironman in 8:10—and lost to Mark Allen, who clocked an 8:09 after having gone no faster than 8:34 in six previous unsuccessful attempts to win the race.

The record-shattering duel that took place between Dave Scott and Mark Allen in the lava fields of the Kona Coast on October 14, 1989 is remembered as Iron War—the single greatest race ever run. While Allen himself and a couple of other athletes went on to slightly improve upon the rivals’ times of that day, no one has ever again come close to surpassing existing beliefs about what is possible as Scott and Allen did together in their legendary showdown.

How did those two heroes of sport finish well over 20 minutes ahead of third-place finisher Greg Welch, who himself roughly matched the best that Scott and Allen had ever done previously? I spent a year searching for explanations for Scott and Allen’s achievement while working on my newly published book, Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress, 2011). Among the answers I discovered on this journey is that Scott and Allen’s “impossible” achievement was partly a case of something like—but not exactly—mind over matter.

At one point, my quest to explain Iron War brought me to Ypsilanti, Mich., where Stephen McGregor runs the exercise science laboratory at Eastern Michigan University. McGregor’s research focus is the running stride. He uses accelerometers and abstruse mathematical tools to shed light on how the strides of superior runners differ from those of lesser runners, and how the stride changes as running performance improves.

Two of McGregor’s most important insights have to do with a variable called control entropy. Control entropy is a measure of the amount of variation in a runner’s stride. Like snowflakes, no two strides taken by any single runner are identical. There’s a tiny bit of stride-to-stride flux that the naked eye can’t see but that McGregor’s instruments and mathematical tools can identify. It turns out that superior runners have more entropy, or more variation, in their strides than lesser runners. This indicates that superior runners don’t have to think about and mentally force their strides as much as lesser runners do.

When a runner becomes fatigued, regardless of his ability level, control entropy drops—the stride becomes “tied up” and robotic. That’s because every runner, no matter how gifted and well trained, has to really concentrate on and mentally force his stride when he nears exhaustion. But the best runners are actually able to get their lowest control entropy readings lower than other runners can. This indicates that the best runners are willing and able to force themselves to continue pushing through extreme fatigue more than other runners. In other words, an extremely low control entropy reading near the point of exhaustion in a running bout indicates a high degree of mental toughness.

Could these two observations concerning control entropy in the running stride be connected? Is it possible that superior runners have more control entropy, more freedom, in their strides when fresh because they are willing and able to push hardest and achieve the lowest control entropy readings when fatigued? Stephen McGregor thinks so, and if he’s right, it means that the mind is able to change the body—that the purely physical characteristic of running efficiency improves through the influence of the purely psychological characteristic of mental toughness.

There is no such thing as mind over matter. You can’t jump off a building and fly simply by willing it. But mind and matter can influence each other, because they’re really just two sides of the same coin. Evidence from Stephen McGregor’s research on the running stride and elsewhere suggests that athletes can use the capacity of the mind to change the body to sometimes achieve performance breakthroughs that are seemingly impossible.

This is what Dave Scott and Mark Allen did in their preparations for the 1989 Ironman. In the six Ironmans he’d done prior to that race, Allen had always run poorly, withering in the heat and finding himself unable to remain mentally focused for the full eight-plus hours it took to reach the finish line. So, at the start of the 1989 season, Allen set out to overcome this weakness by increasing his longest training days from six to seven-and-a-half hours, by seeking out harsh, Kona-like environments to train in, and by going out of his way to ride his bike against the wind and run in the hottest part of the day. A deeply spiritual person, Allen mixed these measures with mental preparations such as facing his fear of Dave Scott and performing rituals to make piece with the Island of Hawaii. But these mental preparations were also physical, just as his physical preparations were also mental—all part of using his mind to strengthen his body.

Dave Scott and Mark Allen faced each other at a major triathlon held in Australia in April of 1989. Allen beat Scott handily, averaging an astonishing 5:26 per mile in the 30 km (18.6-mile) run leg. Now it was Scott’s turn to be frightened of Allen. Dave Scott knew he had to find a way to match Allen’s new level of performance before they squared off again in Kona or he would lack the confidence he needed to again beat his longtime arch-nemesis.

Scott’s last chance to gain that confidence came at Ironman Japan at the end of July. He attacked that race more aggressively than he ever would have dared to do if he had not been trying to match Mark Allen’s new level of performance. When it was all said and done, Scott had obliterated the Ironman-distance world record, setting a new standard of 8:01:32.

Dave Scott and Mark Allen did not use their minds to do what their bodies could not in their preparations for what was destined to be the greatest race ever run. They used their minds to take the capacities of their bodies to new heights. And then they did it again in that unforgettable race.

There is a subtle but important difference between the false notion of mind over matter and the real possibility of strengthening matter (that is, the body) through mind. Think about this as you begin to prepare for your own next breakthrough as a triathlete.

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at

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