Iron War: A Reminiscence
IRONMAN columnist Lee Gruenfeld sits down with Dave Scott and Mark Allen to re-live one of the most remarkable episodes in all of sports.
October 7th 2014
First published in the 2014 IRONMAN World Championship race week guide, on the 25th anniversary of the Iron War.
(Photo by Nils Nilsen)
Ali vs. Frazier.
Bird vs. Johnson.
Evert vs. Navritalova.
Great champions aren't defined by being the best, but by beating the best. Winning puts them in the books. Rivalries put them on the map.
And so it came to pass that, on October 14, 1989, in the petrified seas of Kona, the irresistible force known as Mark Allen met the immovable champion called Dave Scott.
Coming into this race, these were the two best long-distance triathletes in the world, but it was impossible to say which was the best, and there was only one way to settle the question: By winning the one that matters
The IRONMAN World Championship.
Dave had raced it seven times. Six of those times, he won.
Five of those times, the second place finisher was Mark Allen.
Mark was the Phil Mickelson of IRONMAN, the best in the sport never to have won a major. He could beat Dave anywhere on Earth, and he had, except in Kona.
Fate conspired against a showdown the year prior. Dave was out with an injury; Mark flatted twice and finished fifth. But even had he won, the question would linger, just like it had for Evander Holyfield when he became the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and heard, over and over: You ain't the real champ until you beat Mike Tyson. Had Mark won in '88, he would have heard something similar, if not from the fans, then inside his own head. So maybe those two flats were a sign: You don't get to win the Big One unless you beat Dave.
The road to the '89 race was a scene-setting fantasy even the sappiest of Hollywood screenwriters wouldn't have had the nerve to concoct. One antagonist a serene contemplator of the meaning of life, thoughtful about his place in the universe, training "smart" and training with friends, the other a hard-core, work-til-you-puke pain junkie who trains alone because he isn't about to let himself go all palsy-walsy with people he might end up competing against.
Yoda vs. Darth Vader at even money.
Pretty good theater right there, but as the '89 season unfolds it gets even better: Mark is undefeated in nine worldwide races, Dave finishing second to him in two of those. The tide is turning, time to crown the new king, you've had a good run, but now it's over, yada yada.
Then Dave goes to Japan and shatters the IRONMAN world best with a jaw-dropping 8:01:32.
Which brings us to Kona. Both men are healthy. There will be no mechanical problems. And everybody in the sport knows that, barring an alien abduction of one of them, there are only two men in this race. Even if somebody else jumps out to a huge lead on the bike – and somebody will – it doesn't matter. It's just noise and everybody knows it.
What they didn't know was how the race would unfold.
The biggest gap during the swim was the inches between Mark's fingertip and Dave's big toe. During the bike it wasn't a millimeter more than the legal drafting zone, and for the first 24.6 miles of the run it was the length of a Buick. One of the smaller models.
But what made it truly awe-inspiring is how fast they were moving. By the time they came back into town for the last stretch of the marathon, their nearest competitors were over three miles behind, the length of a 5K race.
And those competitors were having good races.
Dave would end up shredding the course record to pieces, by an amount nobody would have thought possible.
Unfortunately for him, Mark shredded it better.
It's an oft-told tale, the details familiar to nearly everyone even remotely acquainted with the IRONMAN world. There were cameras by the dozens, spotters all over the course, race announcers doing the blow-by-blow for a rapt crowd in Kailua-Kona.
But nobody was recording what was going on inside Dave's and Mark's heads. Without that insight, we can't know the whole story.
I sat down with both of them to see if I could ferret some of it out. During the course of those conversations one thing became clear: You could devote a long chapter to each minute of that race and still be no closer to really understanding it. The best you could hope for was a highlight reel.
Here are Mark and Dave describing what came to be known as the Iron War. In order to keep their answers to my question as free of "cross talk" as possible, I had these conversations with them separately and merged them later.
Lee: Coming into this race, did you have a pretty good notion that this was going to be really, really different from the previous five times you'd met?
Dave: I had a pretty good idea it would be. Mark and I both raced Gold Coast earlier that year. I had a good lead off the bike and was running very well when Mark flew by me at around mile five and never looked back. Now, I'm not usually in great shape early in the season, but he shouldn't have beaten me that handily, so that little prelude to Kona was the first inkling I had that something different was going on.
Lee: Bit of a wake-up call, then?
Dave: You would have thought so, but in early August I did IRONMAN Japan and then rushed home so I could be there when my son Ryan was born. I made it in time, but it was a distracting couple of weeks and I did no working out of any kind. When a friend of mine reminded me that I had the world championship coming up I went out for a run and only then realized how badly I'd trashed my body. I mean, my quads cramped, and that's only happened to me once before, in the '82 IRONMAN, so that was the real wake-up call that I had a lot of work to do.
Lee: Even so, you'd beaten Mark five times already, so what was going to make this different?
Dave: I had a premonition, and it was a strong one. I didn't know why Mark wasn't able to win in our previous encounters. In the early years I didn't think he had a strong enough run, but that wasn't true anymore; he'd become a brilliant runner. At the Olympic distance he was amazing, at the half IRONMAN he was phenomenal, so at least on paper, he should have been a powerhouse in Kona. Was it a nutritional thing that had tripped him up before, or something mechanical? I don't know, but what I did know was that, if he could put it all together, I'd need the race of my life to beat him, and I had a strong feeling that the stars were going to align for him in '89.
Lee: Even after you'd both raced poorly in '88?
Dave: Especially because of '88. I had a knee injury, Mark had bike trouble…there was going to be no more of that. It was going to be a battle.
Lee: Meanwhile, you were running around on trashed legs. So what did you do to get ready?
Dave: I'd started well before that. My pattern has always been to let myself go to seed after Kona. I'd get listless, gain weight, not work out very hard…winter in Davis [California] is pretty dismal and bleak and it wasn't good for me mentally. I had trouble getting myself motivated, and if I wasn't working out at my best, I just kind of switched off. That year, though, I pushed myself to stay consistent all through the winter, working harder and doing earlier-season races.
Lee: As training races?
David: Anybody who knows me would tell you, I don't do training races. If I'm in it, I'm racing.
Lee: So that experience at Gold Coast couldn't have done much for your confidence.
David: Actually, it didn't affect my confidence. I'd just gotten back from St. Croix, where I'd crashed in a training ride, so I wasn't at my best.
Lee: Thought you said you'd been rattled by how well Mark ran.
Dave: Yes, but that wasn't relative to me. It was just that I'd never seen him move like that, period. Even if I'd beaten him I still would have noticed.
Lee: Mark, what about you? Any idea that this one was going to be different?
Mark: I knew it would definitely be different. People were starting to say to me, look: On any given day you can beat anyone in the world in any race, but you're just not cut out for this this one, there's just something about it that's not you. Maybe it's the heat, over that length, because I'd gotten IVs in the past and even landed in the hospital.
Lee: Dave wasn't even in the race in '88.
Mark: He pulled out the day before. I looked at the roster and realized that I'd beaten everyone before, so I figured that was going to be my year.
Mark: I got three flats and only had two spares. Took forever for the support vehicle to find me, and I started to wonder if maybe all those people were right. Maybe I wasn't cut out for it, maybe I was cursed. But I didn't really believe that. I just had to figure out a way to do something different to put all three legs of the race together.
Lee: What did you do?
Mark: One of the things I did, kind of by accident, was go to New Zealand that winter and train with Scott Molina and Erin Baker. And it was eye opening. This was before cell phones and before I had a computer, and life was simple down there. All I had to do was swim, bike and run, and we put together these incredible weeks of training that were like nothing I'd ever experienced before. It was getting me stronger without burning me out, and I realized that I'd not been able to get my body ready the way I needed to in the past.
Lee: What was your first event after that?
Mark: Australia, and I’d never felt better, especially on the run. It was a very definitive and gratifying win. Going into Kona, I wasn't really focused on Dave, but just on trying to put together the race I knew I had in me. I didn't know if it'd be enough to beat him, but it was going to be the best that I could do.
Lee: Hang on a second. How does a guy who's already done five world championships and a boatload of other long-distance triathlons figure out that late in his career that training harder makes you stronger?
Mark: Yeah, well, you always think that you’re training as hard as you can and doing as much as you can, and prior to '89 I thought I was, too, but it was always in the context of how I lived my life. I was always busy with "stuff," a million things to do, and it was only when I went down to New Zealand that I realized that all of that stuff was getting in the way of doing the training I would be capable of if I simplified things. So that was the physical side of it.
Lee: What was the other side?
Mark: I felt that I needed to go to the Big Island with a different attitude towards how I related to the island itself.
Mark: As much as I loved Hawaii, and I did, the Big Island was just intimidating to me. The wind, the heat, all of that stark black lava… When I went to Nice, everything there just seemed so easy for me, and Hawai'i was so completely opposite. But I had no way to confront it, no mechanism for turning it around. So when I got to Kona, I went to a quiet spot down by the water on the run course, and I had a little conversation with the island. I said, “Hey, just let me be at peace and feel that same ease and grace that I feel everywhere else, but have never felt here before, and let me have a great race.”
Lee: And that's all it took? A conversation with the island?
Mark: Thing is, I'd never thought of actually doing that before. I'd watched Dave, you know, and as soon as he landed on the island he just blossomed, he flourished. He filled up with the strength of just being there and I wanted to feel that, too, to tap into that strength. But I knew that I couldn't be Dave, I had to be me, and that's why I had that conversation. And as soon as I did, I could feel this cloud lift, like now I could concentrate on bettering my competitors instead of fighting the island.
Lee: So now that you'd dealt head on with both the physical and mental sides of preparing, did you have a specific plan for what you needed to do during the race to win it?
Mark: For one thing, I took the word "win" out of my mental vocabulary. It can be inspiring, but it can also be oppressive. Of course I wanted to win, but instead of thinking about that, what I concentrated on was how to get the most out of myself on the day that counted the most, and what strategy was I going to use to go after Dave.
Lee: So you had a specific plan?
Mark: I did. I’d tried any number of things before to try to beat Dave. I tried taking a flyer on the bike, doing the same at the beginning of the run, I tried it in the middle of the run, all to try to pull away from Dave. And I could pull away, but I could never hold it
Lee: So what was going to be different this time?
Mark: This time, I was going to shadow him.
Mark. Throughout the entire race.
Lee: Did you think you could do that because your run had gotten so much stronger?
Mark: No, it was for an entirely different reason, and a very simple one: Dave had won in Kona six times and I'd lost five.
Lee: And this told you what?
Mark: That he knew how to race it and I didn't.
Lee: That's it?
Mark: What else was left? I didn't think he was fitter than I was, or trained any harder. He knew how to race it, how to pace it, and I didn't. I'd blown up every single time. All I could think of was that he obviously knew something I didn't about how to run this race, so I figured, just do what he does, and then hope I had enough left to outkick him towards the very end.
Lee: But aren't race planning and strategy highly personalized things? Everybody does what works for him?
Mark: Of course, but I'd already tried everything else. I tried out-biking him, out-running him…nothing worked. So what did I have to lose by just trying it his way for once?
Lee: Makes sense. So did you have some idea where towards the end you were going to try to pull ahead and win?
Mark: That's a really interesting question. After we landed in Kona and were driving into town, we drove up Palani Hill to that point where you make a right turn and drop down towards the finish line. And this random thought popped into my head, for no particular reason, and I said out loud, “This is the spot. This is where I need to make my move.”
Lee: Kind of prescient, as it turned out.
Mark: Except it wasn't a real strategy. It was more just kind of an observation. Hmm, this would be a logical place to break him.
Lee: Or die trying?
Mark: I'd pretty much had it with second place.
Lee: Dave, did you have any clue that he might have had a plan for how to race you that year?
Dave: I'd kind of heard somewhere that he was planning to shadow me, and normally I'd discount rumors, but this one kind of made sense to me. If his run was as strong as I thought it had become, there was no reason for him to jump out to a big lead on the bike and then hope to hang on to most of it during the run.
Lee: When in the race did it dawn on you that Mark really did have this plan?
Dave : My first clue came in the swim. My only strategy for the swim is to do it flat out and be the guy in the lead. Mark started next to me, and there's such chaos in the water – back then the pros didn't have a separate start – I figured that if I jumped out quickly he'd get knocked around and pushed to the side. But right after the start I felt fingertips brushing my toes, and I didn't have to look back. I knew it was Mark.
Lee: Did you try to drop him?
Dave: I try to drop everybody. I like to lead – I'm not one of those guys who gets lonely when he's by himself out on the course – so I set a torrid pace, or what I thought was torrid, and I kept feeling those fingers.
Lee: But you weren't in the lead this time.
Dave: No. I was in the "B" group, and even though that bothered me a little I wasn't worried. It wasn't uncommon for some guys to burn themselves up so they could win the swim and I didn't let that pull me out of my race.
Lee: Except this time the guy ahead of you was Wolfgang Dittrich, and he doesn't play those games.
Dave: And I didn't like it at all that he jumped out a minute forty ahead on the bike. And I wasn't reeling him in, either, because at one point he was three minutes ahead. So here I am with Mark on my tail, and that's where most of my focus is going, but somewhere well into it I start thinking, Uh, hold on a second: There's this other guy way out there ahead of both of us and maybe that's where my real problem is.
Lee: What did you do about it?
Dave: I decided not to worry about it. As far as I was concerned, there was just Mark and I, and that was the race.
Lee [to Mark]: Did you sense any surprise in Dave when he realized what you were doing? Did you think you were having any effect on him mentally?
Mark [laughs]: Absolutely not! All I could sense was that he was as solid as any human being could possibly be, and of all the things that I could possibly do, one of them was not going to be intimidating him in any way. This was his turf, his territory, and he was unshakable. I hunted for weaknesses, hoping to take advantage of even the slightest crack, but there was no way I was going to rattle him.
Lee [to Dave]: What did you try to do to get Mark off your back?
Dave: A couple of times when I was feeling really, really great, like at mile 80 and mile 92 of the bike, I thought, I'm going to try to slam it here for about three miles and see if I can shake him. I couldn't. A couple of times when I wasn't feeling so great and slowed down a little, I figured Mark was going to come up on me. I wanted him to, so I could get a look at him, read his body language, see how hard he was breathing, see if he was coming up off the saddle. I've got this teaching side and I pay attention to signals that tell me how a coaching client or competitor is feeling. Is he rocking, listing to one side, flexing his foot…? I wanted to read Mark and see how he was doing, is he getting fatigued, is he feeling solid.
Lee: You'd seen him race plenty of times, so you had kind of a baseline of observations as a starting point.
Dave: Right. Mark has this kind of classic, "Your pace doesn't bother me a bit" expression, and I wanted to see if it was there. But he never came up on me.
Lee: So no matter what you did—
Dave: He did the same.
Lee: You guys passed Wolfgang about three miles into the run. Soon after that there wasn't another competitor who was even in the same ZIP code as you two, and Mark was still shadowing you. Did there come a time when you thought, "As long as he's not going to pass me, I might as well slow down and take it easy for a few minutes?"
Dave: Never. Not even once. Understand that, because of his strategy of sticking with me, even when we were running side by side, I was still the one dictating the pace, and I wanted to be relentless and press it constantly. If I took a break, he'd get one, too, and I wasn't about to let him have one. So I tried to be a metronome, a fast one, and never drop the tempo.
Lee: A little risky, though, if he managed to stick with you.
Dave: As we neared the turnaround out past the airport I decided to change tactics a little. I had a lot of energy left and wanted to up the ante right then and there. I didn't want to wait until the last few meters of the race because, with his leg speed, Mark could outkick me. So I thought, I'm just gonna grind away and grind away starting right now and wear him down.
Lee: Did it work?
Dave: Initially, I opened a gap.
Lee: How much of a gap?
Dave: Maybe six feet.
Lee: That's some marathon, when six feet is a "gap."
Dave: It wasn't much, but except for the aid stations, we'd never been that far apart, and I'd never been behind. Well, except once, when I saw my son Ryan back in town and dropped back for a second.
Mark: You know, there was no Energy Lab portion in those days. You ran past the airport, and the airport was like the end of the earth, and then you ran past the end of the earth into this no man's land. It was a very different mental challenge than now. Somewhere just before the turnaround, I felt like my energy was starting to dribble out. Then that whole cynical mindset began creeping up on me. Up until that point I'd been fairly calm and steady, and I thought a great race was possible here and that I was having one. So Dave starts pushing the pace just as I feel my energy starting to wane, and I find myself thinking, Oh, no, not again. I just can't do it, my legs are killing me…
Lee [to Dave]: Pretty coincidental that you decided to up the ante just as Mark was having a dark moment. Did you sense something?
Dave: Nothing. I had no idea.
Mark: It got worse. I'd had some blood blisters on my feet and they'd popped, so I look down and there's red on my shoes and I'm thinking, I just can't do it. I can't keep going, I can't hold this pace. All that stuff, the old uncertainty, it all comes flooding back.
Lee: Just what you didn't need when you were already balancing on a knife-edge.
Mark: That's what it was, walking this tenuous line of trying to go as hard as you can without blowing up, and I knew that if I gave Dave the slightest opening, if I faltered even a little bit, he would pounce on it immediately and that balance would be gone. And now this negative mindset is threatening to overwhelm me. The word "win" rose up in my mind, and like I said, it could be inspiring or oppressive and now the thought of "not winning" was very oppressive.
Lee: What got you through it?
Mark: You train yourself to go through those moments when you have doubt, when you have fear, when you have to face yourself and the possibility that you're not going to do what you set out to do. I felt like my body was on autopilot, waiting for the outcome of this conversation I was having with myself, and it got so hard to match Dave's pace that my mind suddenly went quiet, and in that instant an image came into my head.
Lee: An image…
Mark: Of this 110-yeard-old Huichol Indian shaman I'd seen in a magazine two days before the race, a gentleman named Don José Matsuwa. He had this look on his face that was of utter peace and tremendous power at the same time, like he was just so happy to be alive. And somehow, from that image, I started to feel some of that joy coming into me. I looked around and I thought, Wow: I'm actually happy to be here. We’re out here on this…we're running on lava, and we're holding this race, the two of us. Not Dave, not me, but the two of us, together, and look what we're doing. I'm right here with the best in the world, and no one else is, so that's pretty cool. And as the possibility came back, from that point on I could feel myself getting stronger and stronger.
Lee [to Dave]: So how was that surge working out for you?
Dave: Didn't work. It was kind of a last ditch effort, too, because I was getting too close to my limit to try any super surges. Had I sensed that Mark was falling back, that opening this little gap was getting to him, I might have applied more pressure. But he worked his way back to me and there we were again, so it would have been stupid of me to try something.
Lee: Did you have any idea at all how far ahead of everyone else you were?
Dave: None. And I wouldn't have cared. As far as I was concerned, once we'd passed Wolfgang, there were only the two of us in this race.
Mark: I had no idea, either. It was just Dave and me. I remember that there was almost no sound at all except for that squish-squish of our sweaty feet slapping the ground, so it was like the two of us were in this bubble with nothing else but this sound. Somewhere behind us was a faint, distant drone from all the vehicles following us, but the only thought I remember having about them was that they were blocking any kind of breeze from hitting us, making the heat even more intense, like I was a radiator about to blow up. And that was the whole universe, right there.
Lee: And neither of you was saying a word to the other?
Mark: The only words I ever remember passing between us was when we running through town. There were thousand of people yelling and cheering, and all of a sudden, out of the crowd, Dave's wife popped out carrying their newborn son. And she's running alongside us, holding this baby up and yelling "Go, Dave! Go, Dave!" and my first thought was, How the hell is this woman running with a baby at a six-minute pace, sideways, down Ali'i drive with us? My second thought was that Dave was getting totally fired up seeing his son, and I turned to him and said, "Hey, now that is unfair!" And those were the first and only words the entire day.
Lee: I just can't imagine what it must be like to be that close to someone for all of that time and not say anything.
Mark: Oh, there was a lot of communication going on. It just wasn't verbal. It's like you're in a different reality, where you're sensing what the other guy is feeling. And that was the toughest aspect of the whole race for me, sensing how solid Dave was. Everybody else I'd raced with, I could feel when cracks started to appear, and I knew that that was the moment to go. But with Dave, there were no cracks, and I knew there were never going to be, so I was simply going to have to outrace him. That was a pretty intense dynamic to have to deal with.
Lee: Did you realize what kind of pace you were on?
Mark: Not precisely. I'd kind of penned out in my mind around a 2:35 marathon, and I figured we were pretty close to that. I knew we were doing around six minute miles through town, and that was kind of insane. But it simply didn't matter. I had this plan, and I was going to stick to it, and if we blew up, at least I’d be doing it with the best in the world.
Lee: At what point in the race did it occur to you that you might actually have to hold this pace right to the very end?
Mark: That reality started to hit me around that point near the turnaround when I thought, I don't know if I can really do this. I realized that this race was not going to be won by who slowed down the least, but by who raced the fastest. Dave was setting the pace and he was just going to push it and push it and push it.
Lee: Did you have any notion while this was going on, you two running neck and neck at an absurd pace, that there was something unusual happening, that this was turning into an epic battle?
Mark: None. Part of it was that, even though we'd been running together forever, I was still dealing with all of the same stuff you always deal with out there. After that vision of Don Jose, I realized, Oh my God, I can win this thing. However, my legs…the muscle breakdown was already beginning. Every time my foot hit the ground this jolt of electricity would shoot up into my quads, and the pain was so bad I didn't know if I could take another step, and I mean that literally. So while I'm having this battle with Dave I’m also having one with myself: I know I can win, alternating with, I'm not sure I can put my foot down again, and whether or not this is going to go down as an epic race is hardly something I was thinking about.
Lee: You had more local issues to deal with.
Mark: Exactly, and they were all-consuming. I always tell people, you'll never know it's a great race in the moment. It's only when you reflect back on it that you can really assess it.
Lee: You said before that you didn't even know how far ahead you guys were when you were coming back into town.
Mark: How far ahead of third place were we?
Lee: About three miles.
Mark: Really? Jeez. Shows you how isolated that bubble was, that it didn't even occur to me to find out.
Lee: So were you aware of anything going on around you, or were you so focused that you were oblivious to everything? You mentioned hearing the drone of vehicles…
Mark: Oh, no, not oblivious at all. I'm aware of a lot that's going on. It just doesn't affect me much, and I don't react to it. It's kind of like you're not attached to it.
Dave: I'm almost hyperaware of everything out on the racecourse. It just looks like I'm not, because I don't react to anything. But I hear people cheering and I draw energy from it and I can hear things that people are shouting. I remember this one fat guy on Ali'i, lying on a plastic lounge chair with beer cans all around him and, just as we get close, he jumps up, kind of tottering around with his great big belly shaking and he starts pumping his arms up and down, yelling "Hey, you guys! Step it up!"
Mark: I remember that guy. The police were moving in on him as we passed by.
Dave: It was hysterical.
Mark: But the main attraction was always this guy running next to me. Out on the Queen K, this big wide road, we kept bumping into each other because neither of us was willing to give even an inch.
Lee [to Dave]: So you're deep into the marathon now and nothing you were doing was fazing Mark. What was the plan at this point? Or was there a plan?
Dave: There was a definite plan, and I'd shared it with some close friends in the days before the race. I said, if Mark is still with me with at the top of Palani Hill—
Lee: About a mile and a quarter before the finish—
Dave: Right, and downhill for that first quarter mile. Steep downhills are tough for most runners, but I was built for it. With my lordotic back and high chest and the specific weight training I do, I don't really feel that eccentric load that kills other people's quads. So if we were neck and neck at the top, my plan was to tear down that hill at a sub-five-minute pace and then hang on for the last couple of turns.
Lee [to Mark]: You said before that you were hunting for weaknesses in Dave or cracks in his armor, and you couldn't find any.
Lee: So what made you think you could make a move toward the end?
Mark: I knew that it would have to be a different kind of opportunity for each of us, and I saw that, as the miles wore on, he was starting to get just a little bit slower on the uphills, but on the downhills he was running stronger than I was. So I felt that each of us had a place where we could make our move, but they were going to be in opposite kinds of places. If I was going to make a move it would have to be on an upgrade and for him it would have to be on a downgrade. And that thought I'd had when I was driving into town, going up Palani Hill? That came back to me, and I thought, Aha: I know where this move needs to be made.
Lee: So if you were neck and neck at the top of Palani—
Mark: He would have a huge advantage when we started the downhill. I had to get up there ahead of him or it would be his race.
Lee: So both of you came independently to the exact same conclusion and were heading to a do-or-die showdown without knowing it.
Dave: I think each of us knew it—
Mark: And we pretty much knew that the other guy knew it, too. We each had to make a move, it wasn't going to happen on flat ground, so that was the spot where something was going to happen.
Lee: So you both had a plan for the last stretch--
Dave: Well…you know, we’re kind of making it sound like this was a carefully choreographed dance or something. It wasn’t. There was pandemonium and chaos everywhere, and I don’t know about Mark, but I wasn’t thinking anywhere as precisely as I’m making it sound.
Mark: I couldn’t agree more.
Lee: Got it. Meanwhile, we're still in the middle of the run somewhere. What was going on?
Dave: I was a little disturbed by something that had been happening. Even though I was setting the pace everywhere else, I wasn't getting pole position at the aid stations. You only had a couple of shots at getting fluids and then you were out of there. If you were right behind another runner, that could be a problem. All the aid stations were on one side of the road, which was on my side as we were running out, and I assumed that I'd be first in so I wasn't worried about it. But just as we were getting close, he'd pull ahead of me on the right, then cross over in front of me to the left. I had no choice but to drop back, because if I didn't, I might miss getting what I needed.
Lee: How far back?
Dave: Maybe six to eight meters.
Lee: That's a lot.
Dave: I know, but I had to make sure there was enough time to make eye contact with whoever was holding out the cups or I could get missed,
Lee: That's what was disturbing?
Dave: No. I thought, okay, let him have his moments in the aid stations.
Lee [to Mark]: Were you playing some kind of mind game?
Mark: No. I'd already figured out that there was no mind game that was going to work on Dave, and most pros know that moves at an aid station are meaningless.
Lee: What do you mean?
Mark: Things can get confusing in there, especially when two guys close together are moving at full speed and don't want to slow down. If you find yourself grabbing at the same stuff, and there's only one volunteer when you both reach for something, one of you might get missed and it's usually the guy just behind. So pulling ahead like that was definitely purposeful, but it wasn't a mental tactic, just a practical one.
Lee [to Dave]: I still don't know what was disturbing you.
Dave: It started happening after the turnaround, when we were nearing town. Mark was still able to grab pole position in the aid stations, one right after the other. Like I said, that, in itself, didn't trouble me. But up until the last few miles, I'd been able to catch up with him pretty quickly. I didn't mind falling back to make sure I grabbed enough fluid, but I wanted to get back quickly so he wouldn't even for a second get any positive energy thinking that he'd gained some kind of an advantage. That was very important. And over the last five miles, it was taking me longer and longer to close that gap.
Lee: To the point where you thought you were in danger of losing?
Dave: No. Not at all. I was aware of it, and knew I had to deal with it, but it didn't shake my confidence. But after the aid station at mile 23, it took me a really long time to close the gap, almost to the next station. I was able to see the stop light at the top of Palani Hill, just before the right turn and the drop down what we used to call Pay 'n' Save Hill. That's where I planned to make my move, and what I needed to do now was glide up to the top, try to conserve energy, but still set the pace, knowing that Mark was surely feeling the rigors of the race, and then kick it into high gear going down.
Lee: Still the same plan. So what happened?
Dave: For the first time in a long time, I get into the aid station just ahead of Mark, and reach across to grab some water. As soon as I exit I kind of drop my hands for a second, take a deep breath – and I remember this like it was yesterday – all of a sudden, Mark accelerates.
Mark: Dave was ahead of me in the aid station this time. Conventional wisdom dictates that you grab that last bit of water as fast as you can and just take off. But I was coming in right behind him and -- it was the weirdest thing -- I came into the aid station, started to move to the right to get a cup of something, and just like that, this voice shouts in my head, "Go!" Just one word, right out of nowhere. "Go!" And it was like I was shot out of a cannon. I didn't grab a glass of anything.
Lee: You didn't get any fluids at all at that station?
Mark: Nope. I heard that voice, yanked my hand back and just went for it.
Lee: Were you thinking that, hell or high water, you had no choice at this point, or was it a calculated execution of your plan?
Mark: Neither. It wasn't a planned move, it just happened. I didn't even know if it was going to work. I just did it.
Lee: So in the few seconds it took Dave to get water…
Mark: I was around him, heading up that hill. He was moving at aid station speed and I was sprinting, or at least as much as you could sprint at the end of a marathon after eight hours of racing.
Dave: It wasn't a short-term surge, like the one I'd had after I saw my baby at mile five. This was a deliberate, definitive acceleration. There was nothing “crafty” about it. We were both racing at capacity and he was able to do it, so he did it. And, before it barely registered, he's got ten feet on me, which is the farthest he's been ahead of me the entire race. So my immediate reaction is, I have to go, too, because I need to be right there with him when I make my move at the top of the hill.
Lee: Were you worried?
Dave: No. I wasn't at all ready to concede that he'd broken me. I just figured out what I needed to do and fully intended to execute.
Mark: So I'd made the move and obviously Dave knew it. It had to have thrown him a little, because this was his turf. He was the best racer in the world after the six-hour mark, and here was someone pulling away from him, which isn't something he'd seen very often and didn't think he'd have to deal with on that day, and now he had to.
Dave: We're about ten feet apart, and I kept the gap there for maybe ten or fifteen seconds, but then it was twenty feet, and just at that point I hear Mark's fiancée, Julie Moss, yelling from a media truck, "Go, Mark! You got it! You got it!" And that's when I realized that I was struggling. I just couldn't close the gap.
Mark: I was somewhat confident that the rubber band had broken, that he wasn't going to be able to come back from it. But we were on an uphill, which was my strong suit, and we were headed for a downhill, which was Dave's. I thought, even if I've got ten or fifteen seconds on him, that wouldn't be enough to keep that lead on the downhill. So I put the pedal to the metal and went as fast as I could up that hill, and after I made the turn, I went as fast as I could down the other side.
Dave: When I got to the top of the hill, there were two young women sitting on the grass, and one of them looked up at me and said, "Mark has thirty-three seconds on you."
Lee: An eternity, if she was accurate.
Dave: People along the route are well-meaning and tremendously supportive, but sometimes they'll call out some misinformation, without meaning to, so you have to be careful. But, when she told me that, I just knew for a certainty that it was dead accurate. I said to myself, Mark got me. Mark has won this race. And as I rounded the right turn I couldn't even see him, he was that far ahead. He had to have known he'd broken me and he must have flown down that hill. I was thinking, even if I run downhill at a sub-five-minute mile pace like I'd planned, he was probably doing a four-thirty, and it was just plain over.
Mark: When I got to the bottom, where you make that left turn?
Lee: Onto Kuakini.
Mark: I looked back up the hill, and I couldn't see Dave. And then I knew. Then I knew, one thousand percent, I wasn't going to cramp, I wasn't going to walk, and he wasn't going to catch me.
Lee: I'm getting shivers here. People reported that you did a little fist pump or something like that, that suggested you were thinking, I got this now. True?
Mark: True. When I looked back couldn't see him, I stopped right in the middle of the road and went, Y-e-sss!
Lee: What exactly were you thinking at that point? That you'd won the IRONMAN World Championship, that you'd finally beaten Dave…?
Mark: It wasn't that I'd beaten Dave, but that I was going to win this race.
Lee: Did you get a little adrenaline boost from that?
Mark: Oh, yeah. I felt like it was the first time all day that I had a little bit of luxury. I mean, there's still some running to be done, nearly a mile, but knowing with every cell of my body that I couldn't be caught anymore made me feel like a bit of celebrating was in order.
Lee [to Dave]: When you realized it was lost, did you slow down and phone in the finish?
Dave: Absolutely not. I did what I tell my athletes to do: Finish with gusto. I wasn't going to walk, or slow down, or bow my head and display a defeatist attitude. None of that.
Lee [to Mark]: What was it like making the final turn onto Ali'i and heading towards the finish line?
Mark: I had the biggest smile I'd ever had, even while tears were running down my face, because of how many years it took and how hard it was putting that race together.
Lee: Were you aware that you were going to demolish the course record?
Mark: I wasn't. That's kind of odd, isn't it? You'd think that the record would have been part of the equation.
Lee: You didn't look at the clock coming across?
Mark: I don't think I did, because I don't remember it. You know, for me the finish time in Kona is much more secondary than in any other sporting event that's gauged by time because the conditions are such a big part of the dynamic dictating what the times are going to be. I mean, sure, it was cool to break the record, and my time that day was thirty minutes better than I'd ever done in Kona.
Lee: Thirty minutes? I didn't know that.
Mark: Yeah. Dave was the record holder and he went eighteen minutes faster than his record. But the richness of that moment was about having been able to put together the race I knew I had in me, but had eluded me for so many years.
Lee [to Dave]: Did you know that you were about to shatter your own record?
Dave: Had no idea. I don't wear a watch, I don't even look at the race clock. I couldn't have told you what my swim and bike splits were and they didn't matter. All I was thinking at that point was – and don't get me wrong; I was upset that I'd lost – I wanted to cross the finish line knowing I'd given it my all, win or lose. I kind of lost a little focus on Kuakini, that part when you're actually running away from the finish line, and I let my form degrade somewhat. But, by the time I made the turn onto Ali'I, I'd gotten it back together and I ran that last quarter as hard as I could. Mark ended up winning by fifty-eight seconds, but I don't think he ran Ali'i faster than I did.
Lee: Did the aftermath of this race surprise you? Countless articles, a full-length book, and here we are about to celebrate the twenty-five-year anniversary of what everyone in the sport knows as the "Iron War."
Dave: Unequivocally, yes, it surprised me. Prior to this race I always set goals for each of the legs, and they were ambitious goals. I never thought that I needed an "escort" to bring out the best in me, because on any given day I was always doing the best that I could. Obviously, I was wrong. It wasn't until '89 that I truly pushed myself to the outer limits, and so did Mark, and I'm not sure that, prior to that race, anyone was clearly convinced that those limits had been reached in this race. Now, they were.
Mark: I was surprised by all the hype. For me, the race was just moment by moment by moment, five million little moments. Every stroke of the swim, every mile of the bike, every step of the marathon. That's what it was like during the race, and only in the years afterward did the greater impact of it begin to dawn on me. You know, before 1989, Dave was the only guy who was really racing IRONMAN. The rest of us were merely surviving it. And this race put the signal out that, from here on in, you really gotta race this thing.
Lee: But that alone wouldn't have made it the iconic battle that it became known as.
Mark: That's true, and here's one of the other reasons: That kind of race, two guys together from the cannon to the wire? It had never happened before, and everyone knew that at the time. But it took a few years before we knew that it wasn't going to happen again, at least over the next 25 years. Only after that passage of time without a repeat did people come to understand how rare and special it was.
Dave Scott held the IRONMAN world record for all but one year of the 1980s. In 1994, at the age of 40, he returned to Kona and placed second by a three-minute margin, and took fifth two years later while turning in a 2:45 marathon. In 1993 he became the first inductee into the IRONMAN Hall of Fame.
Mark Allen would go on to become the second man to win six IRONMAN World Championships. During a stretch from 1988 to 1990 he was undefeated in twenty straight races of varying duration. He was inducted into the IRONMAN Hall of Fame in 1997.
Both are active coaches today.