I love to read. When I read, I rarely read a book from beginning to end — I usually will read a portion of a book and something else will catch my attention so I will start reading another and eventually return to the first book. I bought a Kindle a couple of years ago because when I travel, I was tired of carrying around four or five books in my bags. Call it a challenge with the inability to focus on something or to remain seated for long periods of time. Both of these statements will apply to me at any given time.
I went through all the cycling books I could find during the summer of 2011 to try and find out how pro cyclists got their edge. I was racing LOTOJA (read the LOTOJA race report) for the first time and wanted to be mentally and physically strong. I will detail all the books I read later, but the best of the bunch was In Search of Robert Millar by Richard Moore. The book was well written and tried to get into the psyche of Robert, but that was almost an impossible task because he is such a private person. After getting through my reading list of more than 18 books related to cycling, I decided I really wasn’t any closer to my goal of finding that mental edge. While there were several books that were well written and informative, they didn’t really reveal that one spark that will keep your legs churning in the late stages of a race when all you want to do is coast.
In my continued search for this singular element, I bought a book that I have been meaning to read for a while now — Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Greatest Race Ever Run by Matt Fitzgerald. Before I begin, you need to know I come into this review with a little bias. I love Matt Fitzgerald as a writer. He has a unique ability to tell a story that I would say only 20% of published authors possess. I am also a huge fan of Mark Allen and have always seen him as the good guy in Ironman. But this is a book review and I won’t go on about Mark Allen or Dave Scott and how awesome each really is.
If you are a recreational or competitive runner, race or just complete triathlons, or are a Cat 5 or Cat 2 cyclist, you need to read this book. There are few books that I can claim have spoken to me like Iron War did. Fitzgerald does an amazing job at examining the upbringing of each athlete and in the process, reveals the idiosyncrasies of their personalities. You get to know Dave Scott and Mark Allen on a level that would make you comfortable approaching them at a training camp or in an airport and talking with them like you were old friends. Through interviews with Allen and Scott, Fitzgerald is able to weave an understanding of how the relationship that each has with their father shaped so much of their drive and personalities.
Of course Fitzgerald details the triathlon careers of Allen and Scott. Dave Scott was an amazing athlete that dominated at Ironman Kona, which at the time was the understood world championships for the Ironman circuit. Mark Allen dominated everywhere else in the world, including Ironman and shorter distance races. The rivalry that built up between these two men as they started their careers and the resulting animosity was real. This was one of the best rivalries on the planet at the time if you ask me. And I am a Dallas Cowboys fan who could not bring himself to cheer for Eli Manning and the Giants during the Super Bowl this year.
I think the strength of this book is in the revelation of the weaknesses of both competitors. Neither of them had a physical weakness. Both had swimming backgrounds and translated their fitness into cycling and running domination during triathlon. Both trained super hard throughout their careers and set amazing time records in triathlon during their careers. But both had mental and emotional baggage that would limit their performance — if you can say that — during their careers. Dave Scott was so high performance that he tended to drive people away from him because of his singular focus. Mark Allen had a deep almost primal desire to please and gain the approval of his father according to Fitzgerald. It was these weaknesses that held each man back.
One of my favorite passages from the book is about Mark’s relationship with his father. Fitzgerald writes, “Mark internalized the judgments that his father passed on him. The self-trusting part of Mark knew he was a good kid: smart, friendly, funny, and blessed with many talents. But he struggled to fully believe his own worth, to love himself as he deserved. There was an emptiness inside of him of which he was constantly, dully aware.” Without going into too much detail, I have to admit that I understand completely this place. I think as a result I now really feel like I identify with Mark Allen and his drive.
But then there are parts of me that identify with Dave Scott too. Dave Scott was so successful because he put everything he had into triathlon and going faster than the next racer. He said that he may not be as naturally talented as the next guy, but he could always outwork him and win. He put in some amazing miles in training and always had one speed — fast. There was no focusing on Z1 or Z3 for a workout. He rode like the chupa cabra was chasing him and wanted to spill his guts across the road. His focus was so complete that he would forget to spend time with those around him. I get that too. When I get focused on something, little else matters. You ever heard of tunnel vision? Yeah, I have that.
The book does a fantastic job at detailing everything about the 1989 Kona Ironman from about two weeks out until a week after. You get the details of race prep the week before the cannon actually sounds. You read about nutrition strategies and how each athlete tries to either get into each others heads or to stay within themselves. It is almost as if you attend the pre-race press conference and can feel the tension in the room as Dave and Mark refuse to make eye contact. You begin to understand how their personalities really played into the rivalry and eventually what has been called the greatest finish in an Ironman race.
Once the cannon sounds, Fitzgerald does an excellent job of detailing every move that Mark and Dave make. He relied on interviews with the athletes, people who were there, and of course the records from the race. I kid you not when I say you feel as if you are in one of the cars that was trailing Mark and Dave throughout the race. I have been to Kona and spectated the race and it is an amazing experience. I could picture the places that Fitzgerald described because I had walked there. But even if you haven’t you can feel the oppressive heat and some of the wind that was on the course in 1989. Even though you know what the outcome of the race will be, reading the book you get insight into what each man was thinking as they destroyed their bodies. There is a reason they call the 1989 Kona Ironman the greatest race ever run — after you finish the book you will understand the deep meaning behind Ironman because of races like this one. You will understand why grown men and women cry as they cross the finish line under 17 hours.
To close the book, the author takes you into the life of Dave and Mark after the 1989 race. Dave Scott continued to race on and off, but never really repeated his success of the 1980’s. Mark Allen continued to dominate the sport of triathlon and even won Kona five more times for a total of six wins at this race alone. In the book Fitzgerald tries to help the reader understand how each man found peace in their lives, or at least their own version of peace. I think he pays the proper respect to the decisions that each man has made in their lives and really helped me to understand that the answer to some of the questions that I have may be rooted in forgiveness and letting go of ways that I have been wronged.
Iron War is a must read if you are a runner, cyclist, or triathlete. It doesn’t matter the distances you cover in training or races, this book can benefit you. You can order it on Amazon used or even on the Kindle like I did. I guarantee with the way that I read, when I need a little pick me up I will crack open Iron War.
On Monday I will post some of my favorite quotes from the book. But in the mean time, here is a great video from YouTube about the 1989 race. While good, it isn’t anything close to the book.