Rivalries in sport generate interest. It doesn’t matter if you even have a favorite. It’s just the epic clashing of two titans that have drawn a line in the sand and said it’s going to be me or as close to death as I can go to make your job impossible.
One of the greatest rivalry battles in sport happened at the IRONMAN World Championship in 1989. It was the matchup of 6-Time Champion Dave Scott trying to defend against Zero-Time Champion Mark Allen. The race would become known as Iron War.
We had met five times before on the hallowed grounds in Hawaii. Dave was the clear and undisputed king. I was the guy trying to dethrone the person who had been setting the standard of possibility since his first victory in 1980.
I’d been close more than once. In 1984 I had a lead off the bike of over 12-minutes. That was not enough. Dave won. I had a lead of over 5-minutes with less than 10-miles to go in the marathon in 1987. That was not enough. Dave won then, again, as he had done like a precision surgeon cutting away with a scalpel all that was in his way. No, it seemed like no matter what I did, Dave Scott had a stronghold answer that put him atop the podium. That was until Iron War in 1989!
No one wins every race. What’s most important is coming up with your best. In 1989 that was my quest. And if Dave once again reigned supreme, then so be it!
I was there to race my best by learning from the best. He had a strategy that was willing to go with that plan. Dave Scott described that mindset this way:
“The morning of the race my plan was go out out as hard as I could. No different than any of the other years, but I knew that he [Mark] was going to be ready this year.
I like to dictate the race. I liked to feel like mentally I was in charge of the race, and if Mark wanted to sit behind me so be it.”
I was happy he wanted to lead. I had no idea what the best race pace was to come up with a victory. But tagging along behind Dave Scott was not going to be a plan that would lead me to victory. It became clear by the end of the bike that this was going to be a painfully difficult situation to break out of.
Dave started first with varying his running pace:
“I thought I’ll do these little surges and it’ll be fine.”
My experience was a bit more than just “surges”.
“He was setting a pace that was absolutely blistering. But it became clear that neither of us was going to be able to do something to break the other. So it was going to just be a foot race. I didn’t know how long that race was going to last.”
As the miles went on, no one made a sound even though we were being followed by a huge entourage including the television crew filming for the day. They too were mesmerized. It was eerie to be in a World Championship and to hear almost nothing. There was this silence. The only sound was our feet hitting the ground.
At some point though one of us was going to have to make a move. Dave had his plan. But it was a moment too late.
“We were both feeling the wear and tear. And I looked at the 24-mile mark on the side. I looked up at the top of Palani Hill and said it’s coming up. I’m going to make my move. And right at that moment Mark made his move.”
Iron War is epic because Dave Scott and I had been battling it out since 1982. This was 1989 and no one had laid claim to victory when we were both there. Seven years in the making is a very long time to build to a moment where both of us were on our game. We were miles ahead of the next competitor. One of us was going to win. We would both end up shattering the previous World Record held by Dave.
This is a Top-40 Greatest Moment at IRONMAN because of a rivalry that was planted seven years earlier and because it was going to take until the final ten-minutes of the race that took over eight-hours to complete before anyone would know who was going to come out on top.
The last long uphill before dropping down Palani Hill into town and making the final loop to the finish was the moment of truth. Dave Scott knew it was coming. I too knew it was the last chance. There was an aid station right at the bottom of that last long hill. Dave worked his way over and grabbed a glass of fuel. I was coming in just behind him to get my last glass of gas when something inside said GO!
I pulled my hand back. I didn’t get that last bit of energy drink. But I sprinted. This was it. There would be no other chance.
In the few steps it took for Dave to get ahold of his final fueling I had opened up a gap. And you have to understand how significant this was. Dave Scott was THE best in the final 2-hours of the IRONMAN. But here I was pulling away from him in his territory. It blew his mind.
The rest is history. I won and Dave Scott was second. But that is not the real story. What happened that day was the two of us pushing the limits that had never been explored before. Dave Scott broke his previous World Record by over 18-minutes. I bettered my previous best by almost 30-minutes. And the marathon split I posted that day stood for 27-years.
Yes, it was Iron War. It was a great race that fermented and built over a seven year period.
But what made it epic is that Dave Scott and I were racing out of respect. Each of us honored the other’s accomplishments in the sport. Certainly we were going to fight with all we had. But the motivation was not to beat the other guy out of spite. The inspiration was to elevate each other’s performance out of respect for what we were both bringing into the race.
Here is how each of us described that epic battle that has become know as Iron War:
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I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.