“There is a special mystique about the marathon, for example, because of its length—but that’s just the bit you do at the end of an Ironman” – Chrissie Wellington
This is a story about two runners and the power of competition. We’ve all felt it. Whether it’s in an official race, or when you’re out for your regular nightly jog, a little voice speaks to you “That guy just passed me. There is no way that dude is faster than me.” Sometimes it’s a runner who looks like they are of comparable ability, sometimes it’s a grandma on a bicycle, no matter who it is, the bait is irresistible, we turn it on.
Dave Scott and Mark Allen know a little bit about competition. They both have won the Kona Ironman Championship six times. Through the 80’s and into the 90’s their rivalry helped elevate triathlon to the thriving sport it is today. They are legends, and the 1989 Ironman was a setting of their epic battle where they moved the goal posts in the sport (very well documented in the book Iron War). Their finishing time was more than 20 minutes better than the previous record, and, their run times were out of this world. Allen’s time of 2:40:04 and Scott’s 2:41:03 are still the first and second fastest marathons ever run in Ironman Hawaii.
It is worth repeating that this was 1989, the dawn of triathlons. And, with as fast as the evolution in sports nutrition and training practices have gone, it might as well have been the time of dinosaurs. However, despite outdated training techniques, bicycles that were just starting to take the shape of today’s aerodynamic rockets, and the lack of fancy glucose gels, they set a running pace unmatched to this day.
Lets also recap exactly what that event entailed so that we can get a better appreciation of a 2:40 marathon (a great time for stand-alone marathon in one of the hottest places on earth). The race began with a 3.8 km open water swim (that means ocean in Kona, Hawaii). The water looked something like this:
Next, came a 180 km bike ride on a road that cut through lava fields. That was a reminder of the heat on this close to a 5 hour ride. And again, there were no fancy tri-bikes in 1989. This was Dave promoting one of the triathlon bikes of the late 80’s:
Finally, it was time for the run. Sprinters see their opponent next to them for less than 10 seconds. Marathon runners see their closest competition for just over 2 hours. At this point in the 1989 Kona Ironman, Mark and Dave had been next to each other in the water and on the bike for over 5 and a half hours. Whatever adrenaline boost they might have had from seeing their adversary next to them had been exhausted. It was time to dig deep. The iconic picture at the top of the post, accurately captures how close the race was.
Some athletes describe the ironman in terms of burning matchsticks. Essentially you try to keep a pace that is comfortable for the duration of the race, but every once in a while you are forced to exert a little extra energy to either try to extend your lead over the competition or to not get left behind. With every exertion you are lighting a single matchstick, the one with one more matchstick left at the end of the race … wins. On this day in 1989, Mark Allen had one more matchstick left in his box. He pulled away from Dave with less than 2 miles to go and won the race by about a minute. Dave, after six championships, handed the reigns over to Mark who went on to win 5 more top spots of his own. The Kona championship of 1989 remains the most legendary day in the sport to date. The competition showcased on that day helped blossom the sport of today.
So the motto of this story is: Get out there and race! Feel a little bit of that competition. You can’t lose if you give it your best try.