The duel between triathlon legends Dave Scott and Mark Allen at the 1989 Ironman World Championship is remembered as one of the greatest races in the history of endurance sports. In that race the longtime rivals swam, biked, and ran neck and neck for eight full hours until, with 1.7 miles left in the 140.6-mile competition, Allen broke away from Scott on the last hill to claim his first Ironman victory after six failures and five losses to Scott.
The battle caused so much excitement as it unfolded that a caravan of trucks, cars, motorcycles, mopeds, and bikes that was almost a quarter-mile in length formed behind Scott and Allen as the rivals scorched the marathon side by side. Among those in the caravan was Bob Babbitt, the 38-year-old publisher of Competitor magazine, who dubbed the epic battle “Iron War” in the next issue of his publication. The name stuck.
What Dave Scott and Mark Allen achieved on that magical day would have been considered impossible by most people. They broke Dave Scott’s 1986 course record by nearly 20 minutes. Third-place finisher Greg Welch was three miles from the finish line when Allen crossed it. And Allen and Scott’s marathon times of 2:40:04 and 2:41:02 still stand as the two fastest run splits in the history of the race. (What’s more, run splits included bike-run transition times in those days before chip timing. Allen and Scott’s actual marathon times not including their transitions were closer to 2:38:49 and 2:39:47, respectively.)
I’ve had a personal fascination with Iron War ever since it happened. Last year I decided to indulge that fascination by writing a book about it. Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run has just been released by VeloPress. My goal was not just to write the definitive account of the race in its broader context of Scott and Allen’s amazing rivalry and incredible careers, but to explore how they were able to achieve the impossible together on October 14, 1989.
Some of the answers I uncovered in this journey may serve as valuable lessons to other triathletes seeking their own breakthroughs. One of these lessons centers on what might be called the competition effect. When I interviewed Dave Scott for the book I asked him how much slower he thought he would have gone in the race if Mark Allen had not been there to push him. He said maybe 10 seconds. I love the spirit behind that answer, but I don’t believe it!
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