Saturday, October 22, 2011

Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Run

 The 1980's was the decade of the triathlon (at least in my mind). The modern sport of triathlon had its beginnings in San Diego, California in 1974, and eventually the first Hawaii Ironman triathlon was held in 1978 with 15 participants. In 1979 a Sports Illustrated article drew some attention to this strange endurance race which was followed by ABC starting to televise the race in 1980 with Dave Scott achieving his first of six victories. I recall watching the race while at college and wondering whether a runner (my pick) or a cyclist (my roommate's pick) would be the victor. Little did we know that a new type of athlete was being born at this race; a triathlete. It wasn't until 1982 that triathlons really captured the imaginations of athletes and people around the world as Julie Moss painfully stumbled and crawled towards the finish line just at the same time that she was passed by a fresh looking Kathleen McCarthy for the win.

I watched that race on ABC Wide World of Sport and then watched it again when it was rebroadcast (due to so many people talking about the incredible finish) in complete awe. I told myself I would have to try this new sport and I became one among thousands of others that had a new goal to pursue. Triathlons suddenly started to take off! As soon as I heard about an Ironman distance triathlon taking place on Cape Cod in September 1983 I was in, even though I had no bike or swim background. I did three triathlons on Cape Cod during the summer of 1983. My first was a local sprint triathlon held on my hometown of Falmouth on Cape Cod with less than 100 track club participants taking part, the second was the United States Triathlon Series race held at Old Silver Beach in Falmouth. Julie Moss showed up to MC a workshop on triathlons the day before the race that had over 900 participants (all in one swim wave on a stormy day). The third was the Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon where I swam and biked further than I had ever done in practice to complete an Ironman distance race. I competed in triathlons throughout New England for 5 more years ending each season with my favorite, Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon.

It was exciting to participate and to be somewhat of a pioneer in such a new sport. New athletic heroes turned up, including the "big four" of triathlons. Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Scott Molina, and Mark Allen. Both Tinley and Molina would venture to the Cape Cod Endurance Triathlon and win it in the 3rd and 4th editions. Dave Scott showed up one year to race at the Bay State Triathlon in Medford, Mass. I came out of the bike transition to find myself running directly behind the awkward stride of Dave Scott himself. I held on for about 1/4 mile before I let him go. He was a lap ahead of me anyway! Other than those appearances I had to catch the big four on televised triathlons or on the pages of new magazines like Triathlon and Triathlete. These guys were aerobic and endurance animals of a completely different nature than the runners and marathoners I was used to. They had strengths and skills that were beyond the world class runners, so that while they may have been very good at each sport individually, they became great when combining sports together.

Magazines and television shows didn't always tell you all of what made them tick. This is why it is nice to finally read a book that delves into the biggest two of these stars: Mark Allen and Dave Scott. Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Runis a book that looks at these two athletes and their physical and inner struggles as they race in the epic 1989 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, a race where Mark Allen finally defeats the 6 time winner Dave Scott in a side by side dual to the final minutes. I enjoyed the read as I recognized the names of the triathletes and races from the 1980s when I was following everything that I could about the sport. There was a familiar feel to the book as I was revisiting past events that I began to recall and in fact since many of the the author's retelling came from the pages of magazines I have read or the televised shows that I watched it should sound familiar. The retelling of the 1989 race is augmented with stories of prior events in the lives of Dave Scott and Mark Allen and because of this the book and author have come under fire from these two men themselves. They are not happy with the book at all and together wrote a letter and  have filed a lawsuit against the author and publisher.

We’re writing this because we believe that the soon­‐to-­be-published book from VeloPress, entitled  “Iron War,” inaccurately  and  inappropriately  portrays  us. As  an example, in the advance copy sent to the media for review, the author stated, “In  a sober, clinical sense of the term, Dave and Mark are both somewhat psychologically unbalanced.” We have never been diagnosed as “psychologically unbalanced” by any medical or mental health professional.
 And there’s a lot more where that came from—too much more for us to simply look the other way. Indeed, “Iron War” author Matt Fitzgerald has written an endless stream of inaccurate and defamatory assertions about our lives, our thoughts, our motivations and what drove us to such a high level of athletic excellence in what he spitefully and negatively describes as “the showdown that left one battling his inner demons to emerge victorious and one devastated on the pavement and unable to forgive his loss.”
In respect to the author, the book, and the two athletes to whom it is about, it leaves one to question whether to read the book or not. I decided to read it. My observations is the Matt Fitzgerald is a fan of the sport, the Ironman, and these two athletes. In reading the book I got a sense of the respect he had for their achievements. As the author, I guess he took some liberties, because he quotes conversations and small details, like the songs on the radio the morning of the race or actual quoted conversations, that I am sure are not accurate, but help propel the "story" that he is trying to tell. I think that is what all authors do, as long as they remain true to the story.  He also makes a case that both had some type of "psychological imbalance" (as noted above quote from the letter) that drove each man to his athletic greatness. Without coming out and actually saying it, except for one mention of the word, he hints that Dave Scott might be bipolar. He also talks about the relationship that Mark Allen had with his father. It sounds like the father was pretty much absent in Mark's life until he achieved his fame, and that Mark was on a type of "spiritual" search throughout his life that culminated with Mark looking into shamanism due to events and "visions" leading up to the race in 1989. With the recent revelations that Frank Shorter made about his abusive father, it was hard to tell from the book exactly what the extent of Mark Allen's relationship with his father was and what difficulties they shared, but it does add a bit of mystery and uncomfortableness with the remarks made in the book.

If you read the book for the excitement of the race and for the background information about triathlon's beginnings and first heroes, I think the book is a purely enjoyable read. I believe that Matt Fitzgerald was reaching for writing a book that might rival the popularity and excitement levels of Chris McDonald's "Born to Run". He, like the author in "Born to Run", even added chapters that related to the science behind the pain and the brains that make athletes achieve great things like these two men. As for the athletes being "psychologically imbalanced" I think that may apply to many if not most great endurance athletes. As for Dave Scott and Mark Allen, these are not really new definitions of their character or inner demons.  I decided to take out all my old VHS tapes of the Ironman races and other triathlons from the 1980s and 1990's after reading this book. While watching my copy of the 1987 Nice Triathlon a segment mentioned Dave's "down period" in the previous winter when he gave up on competing and training due to being in a funk. It also mentioned Mark Allen's forays into spiritualism and shamanism which marked his spiritual search and while not mentioned in the book, it would certainly denote a need and search in Mark Allen to find a mentor, guide, or fatherly figure to help him bring clarity and meaning in his life in replacement of his own father. So Matt Fitzgerald is not saying anything new or revealing. He is just organizing a book around a race and the personalities of these two men to sort out their "greatness" among lesser athletes.

I found it to be a worthwhile read and it has me revisiting my days and races in the 1980s when being a triathlete was full of excitement, physicality, coupled with a spirit of adventure and testing of my own bodies strength and resources. Fans of the sport should find as much inspiration when reading the book. I am not sure how much the book will do for those who know nothing about these two athletes (can that really be so?). Mark Allen, Dave Scott, and the early triathletes should not be forgotten. These were the days when the sport was full of a kind of wonder and bravado that is missing from the modern day triathletes, who to me seem overly scientific, clinical, and spend-happy. Who cares about getting online coaches, data from meters and computers, as well as bicycles, gear, and entry fees that cost exorbitant amounts of money? Just get out there and train all that you can, have fun,  and see where your body can take you. That was the spirit of the 1980s! A better book is waiting to be written. Maybe Mark Allen and Dave Scott can add some input, but I would like to know about what drove all the stars as well as the common athletes to suddenly pursue a sport with so much passion. It must be noted that "cross-training" wasn't even a word on the mouths of athletes until triathletes started and people decided to be more that one-sport athletes.

One further note. I stopped competing in triathlons in 1987. I got married in 1988 and no longer had the time to train plus my body had completely fallen apart due to back pains that I guess are related to the hip surgery that I finally had this summer due to a torn labrum. I trace all my pains and problems over the past 20+ years to my faulty cleat and bike positioning. Post surgery I feel better on the bike than I did in all five years of triathloning.  In 1990 my son Andrew was born. The day after his birth I watched the Ironman broadcast of this 1989 race at the hospital and held my newborn son on my lap watching his first television show. I was hoping that my interest in the sport might rub off on him at an early age. Last year he completed his first triathlon just for fun! I guess it worked.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

Please, please, please post those old VHS video's on YouTube. They would be very awesome to watch. :O)

Jim Hansen said...

Anonymous: send me an email. They don't stay up on youtube. I do know where the Iron War video can be found.

Jim Hansen said...

You can find the 1989 Iron War broadcast at

A.F. James MacArthur Ph.A.L. said...

Enjoyed reading your story. Just learning of this book, quite randomly, but perhaps serendipitously as well. You brought back all sorts of memories.

I had the pleasure of meeting these men, and rubbing elbows with them in the late 80's at a few events. Along with Frank Shorter, Paula Newby-Fraser, I feel supremely privileged having met these greats at the early stages of my attempted competitive athletic career.

Jim Hansen said...

Yes, they are all true heroes of the sport. I never met Mark Allen, but I ate his cereal!